Aanchal Malhotra is the author of Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition Through Material Memory
Did you recheck facts and dates — at least the years — after interviewing your elderly subjects before writing because people tend to get confused, particularly when they enter old age?
Yes, of course, I did. I checked the facts, years, distances and even names of towns and cities as well as major events. You’re right; memory becomes quite unreliable as age progresses. Hence, I made it a point to check the dates and facts. I went through archives, reference books, newspapers, maps and relevant documents.
Some people tend to exaggerate to make their conversations interesting. How did you vet their claims?
To a certain extent people may, knowingly or unknowingly, make claims that may not be entirely correct. That is applicable to things they left behind as they crossed the newly carved border. That applies to their experiences also. They may not have seen acts of violence, but on listening to other people’s experiences the interviewees may begin to believe that they were witness, if not victims, to horrifying events. I checked and counter-checked their claims.
Old people have mental waves — sometimes they recall things and sometimes they just can’t. How did you tackle this?
I had to invest a lot of time, sometimes days, with each person I interviewed. It is more natural to remember things from one’s childhood than the events in the recent past. In some cases, I broached subjects that excited them the most. Sometimes it helped if it was just me and the interviewee, and in other cases, it became almost necessary to have a family member in the room to help fill the gaps. Most often the objects they brought with them played a very important role in triggering their memory. The moment an object from that time appeared, conversation around it began to flow, not necessarily about Partition per se; it was also about life in undivided India.
Was your few weeks’ association with the Citizens Archive of Pakistan fruitful?
Most certainly. Their members helped me meet the old people who migrated to Pakistan. Without their help my book would have been one-sided, I mean restricted only to Indians who migrated from Pakistan. Sadly, my meetings were limited to Lahore because of visa restrictions.
Do you feel that interviewing people 70 years after their migrations has one advantage: that they have got over their rage and rancour?
In most cases, yes. But please remember this is a time-bound exercise. For a long time, not many old men and women wanted to speak about it. The second generation never asked questions, never prodded about the past. And now this third generation, to which I belong, has in many cases taken it upon itself to unearth their family history.
Can the Museum of Material Memory that you have set up be accessed through the internet?
Yes, indeed. It is a purely digital, submission-based museum. It is not limited to Partition, but considers the material history of the subcontinent in general, inviting people to write about objects of age in their houses so that young people can ask questions about things that might be pertinent to their family history. It is online because we want it to be easily accessible. — A.N