A yardstick, a rusty pair of scissors, a few pearls, a crumpled old photograph — what relevence would these things have in someone’s daily life? While others tend to overlook these objects, they are what interest oral historian Aanchal Malhotra. With her four-year-long ongoing project on the partition, she is trying to establish a bond between India’s past and present by collecting objects that have crossed the border. But what made them come to India? This question was the foundation of this 27-year-old’s research when she started photographing these objects and exploring the story behind them. What began as a college project is now a popular Instagram account with over 12,000 followers. Interestingly, her ancestors too came to India from Pakistan during the partition. Between photography and writing, we managed to catch up with Aanchal for a chat. Excerpts:
How did the whole Partition object collection begin?
I studied Arts. For our project, we could pick any topic as long as it could be displayed in a gallery. So, I began photographing objects that people left behind or took with them during the partition. When I began my dissertation in 2013 (MA), I happened to come across two objects belonging to my nana’s family ‑— a yardstick used by a tailor and a water carrier. I saw how my nana’s elder brother went to a different world when he talked about these objects. That’s when I realised that objects have the power to transport you to a different place. But surprisingly, there are no archives about these objects anywhere.
Did you know your history?
My family would talk about the good part of their childhood. I don’t think crossing was something they wanted to talk about.
So you went to Pakistan as a part of the project. What was that like?
It was no different from India. Maybe, because I went to Lahore, which is very similar to Delhi. Inherently, we’re the same. I was forwarned of the dangers and difficulties I would face to go there. But my grandparents and parents assured me that it would be great. In Lahore, I saw my grandfather’s house and grandmother’s school.
You did have a preconceived notion about Pakistan though?
I did. But I went to Pakistan only after I interviewed a few people in India. That really helped me because all the people I spoke to in India never said that Pakistan was bad.
What was the one really big thing you learnt?
Human emotion is uniform all over the world. Take empathy, love, kindness — if Indians and Pakistanis were to realise that others feel the same, maybe they can bridge the divide.
Reach Out: aanchalmalhotra.com