Aanchal Malhotra spent nearly a decade investigating how the lives of millions – including those of her own family – were overturned by the 1947 Partition of India. The oral historian’s research, which she started during her master’s degree at Concordia University, led to two critically-acclaimed non-fiction books: Remnants of a Separation (2017) and In the Language of Remembering (2022). Now, the fruit of her labour offers two ways of reading one truth.
Malhotra’s debut novel, The Book of Everlasting Things, is a fictional multi-generation love story about a Hindu-Muslim couple who find themselves separated by the chaos that created the modern borders of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Published Dec. 27, it is the author’s return to a historical moment that has long fascinated her – only now, she is having to balance an academic inclination toward accuracy with the imaginative freedom of fiction.
“Maybe if I wrote a different kind of history, I would feel different,” she said on a call, speaking about her novel-writing process from her home in Delhi. “But in this case, because you work with real people whose testimonies have, for a long time, not been recorded, are so sacred … you know that you cannot alter them.
“But in fiction, everything is changeable. Everything is malleable. And this kind of freedom was very new to me.”
Malhotra admits that her research methodology for writing the two books published this year was similar. Even when writing fiction, she would go as far as to ensure newspaper headlines the characters read were real ones from the time.
“So there had to be a real crowd, a real riot, a real assembly, a real fire – everything had to be real. And then I would insert a fictional character into it and hope that the reality of the environment absorbed that character into it.”
“Who was I to bend history? I’m not interested in making up a world – I’m not so good at it either. I’m interested in the memory that people have of that past.”
Throughout the process, Malhotra would ask herself how much detail was too much: whether she had conveyed enough of the historical context to immerse her readers in the story without bogging them down in specifics.
Yet she still found writing fiction to be deeply liberating – unpredictable in a way that historical research isn’t: “In fiction, you don’t know what you’ve written on the first page on the first day will even make it in the final manuscript.”
What didn’t interest her much was the question of whether fiction removed objectivity from a reimagining of the present. For Malhotra, the written historical records of the Partition are already biased, often presented from British viewpoints and stored in archives outside the Indian subcontinent. Her work – the gathering of other stories – both fills in those gaps and is distorted by the fallible memories of interviewees, usually many decades old.
“Remembering is not a linear exercise,” she said. “It’s a kind of undulating terrain.”
Malhotra’s interest in the Partition started with her own family. While working on a masters in printmaking at Concordia University, she returned home to India and encountered some objects that her mother’s family had brought with them on their voyage from Lahore to Delhi. Listening to her grandfather and great-uncle talk about the heirlooms instilled a fascination with “the power of objects to discover memory and act as a kind of intergenerational conversation starter” for family trauma.
Later, she co-founded the Museum of Material Memory, a digital archive of objects from across the Indian subcontinent that everyday people carried with them during the expulsions of the Partition.
In The Book of Everlasting Things, the central conflict between two teenagers torn apart by religion and nationality is one she has seen reflected in countless recollections.
“I can give you 10 examples of 85-year-olds talking about the girlfriends they left behind,” she said. “There is real pain in … how you hold on to the memory of a beloved that you will never be with, because of the way history has meted out your fate to you.”
But speaking to strangers was often easier than speaking to those close to her. Being steeped in the past of one’s own family “changes the way you love them,” she said.
“For a long time, your family is like wallpaper … But so much has happened before you were born that impacts your present, impacts their present.”
So what’s next for the historian-cum-novelist? Most likely a reprieve, Malhotra said. She needs time away from the trauma of Partition – time to process and to figure out what she wants to do now. Having already stepped out of her comfort zone in writing her latest work, she feels more confident about new ventures.
“With every book, I’m moving further and further away from the nucleus of Partition … And each step I take further away from the event is a step in a new direction.”
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