The survivor stories fascinate her, drawing author Aanchal Malhotra towards tales of one of the largest and most rapid migrations in human history — the Partition. But they also cause unbearable pain, the kind that does not let go even after the last line has been heard.
“Yes, it is contradictory. You want to record those conversations, but there is a part of you that does not. I would take out my phone and record any story that would come my way as I was so scared it would be lost and no one would write it down. And when you start to talk to people there’s this responsibility of doing justice to that story, it is a privilege, but the stories can also become a burden.”
The author of ‘Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory’, and more recently ‘In the Language of Remembering: The Inheritance of Partition’, and ‘The Book of Everlasting Things’ (novel) , says that she now needs a break from writing on the Partition.
“I have done a lot of work on this subject, some distance will surely do me good. I will get the mindspace to decide what I want to explore more — non-fiction or fiction… ” says Malhotra, co-founder of the Museum of Material Memory.
Talking about her transition from non-fiction to fiction, the author says considering she is not a very imaginative person, it was important to write history in order to pen fiction.
“Fiction can often be quite unpredictable. Some characters may demand a larger footprint, more than you imagined giving them. The transition has been hard as the training of a historian does get in the way. Novels are more popular. When you insert history into fiction, it stays with people more and the characters last longer. For me, it is important to be authentic, for example, if I am writing about a riot — the date etc has to be exact. My methodology has not changed drastically. Fiction can surely do things to you that you never expect. It is enjoyable but can also be frustrating.”
She feels in the recent past, oral history has been getting the place it deserves in the sub-continent and a lot of emphasis is being laid on the same now, not just in India, but even Pakistan and Bangladesh.
“Its strength lies in the diversity, the voice comes through that. And must be heard with dignity and respect. I am also realising the importance of listening and other people are too,” she says.
Malhotra, who first recorded her family’s stories, says the same forced her to mature in a way. Adding that when one starts listening to other people’s stories, she/he realises that everyone has navigated diverse shades of humanity and violence.
“However, empathy is something that one must always retain. You cannot enter a story with a preconceived notion. While listening, biases that you may carry are dispelled, and unlearning takes place. Empathy began with my family but it continued with all others.”
(Sukant Deepak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)