After loving Remnants of a Separation and disliking The Book of Everlasting Things, I was wary of how this book would be. I was excited to read it but also worried whether it would disappoint me. The size of the book was daunting too.

But when I finally started reading In The Language of Remembering, I forgot about all of my apprehensions.

about In The Language of Remembering

in the language of remembering book cover

Oral historian Aanchal Malhotra's first book, Remnants of a Separation, was published in 2017 to mark the seventieth anniversary of India's Partition. It told a human history of the monumental event by exhuming the stories lying latent in ordinary objects that survivors had carried with them across the newly made border. It was acclaimed for the freshness of its approach to a decades-old, much-written-about subject. But more significantly, it inspired conversations within families: between the generation that had witnessed Partition and those who had only inherited its memories.

In the Language of Remembering, as a natural progression, explores that very notion as it reveals how Partition is not yet an event of the past and its legacy is threaded into the daily lives of subsequent generations. Bringing together conversations recorded over many years with generations of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and their respective diaspora, it looks at how Partition memory is preserved and bequeathed, its consequences disseminated and manifested within family, community and nation. With the oldest interviewees in their nineties and the youngest just teenagers, the voices in this living archive intimately and sincerely answer questions such as: Is Partition relevant? Should we still talk about it? Does it define our relationships? Does it build our characteristics or augment our fears, without us even realizing?

As the subcontinent marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of Partition, In the Language of Remembering will most importantly serve as a reminder of the price this land once paid for not guarding against communal strife - and what could happen once again should we ever choose division over inclusion.

Content warnings: violence, murder, death, rape, PTSD, grief, displacement.

my review

The book starts with Malhotra's acknowledgement that the book was hard to write and will most likely be hard to read. The stories and complicated feelings contained in the novel are not light-hearted or meant for a passing read. They demand attention and consideration. They demand that you become an active participant by challenging your knowledge and biases.

For most South Asians, Partition fundamentally anchors our collective experiences and how we perceive and understand the world — it populates our histories and defines our relationships with our neighbouring nations; it may build our characteristics or augment our fears.

While many consider this to be a sequel to Remnants of a Separation, it's not. Remnants of a Separation was about recording stories of the people who went through Partition on the ground and highlighting the common experiences.

In The Language of Remembering explores how the Partition has been passed down over the years and how it affects subsequent generations. It delves into how the third generation views Partition, especially since they're able to view it with the distance of time.

While there are a few interviews of people who experienced the event, most interviews are of the descendants of Partition. It's interesting to see the differences and similarities in how the subsequent generations view the event no matter which nation they currently reside in.

The book also documents how the history is remembered. In many instances, it is remembered through silence and random facts. In some instances, it is remembered through a detailed account of ancestors' migrations. In very few instances is it remembered without the regret of not knowing enough.

Usually, historians focus on the events itself and not the effects of it decades later. This book is a minority in its aim and, hence, is more unique and valuable.

The memory is passed on, shaping, and reshaping the ways in which Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis continue to understand their past and give meaning to their present. [..] Partition remains ongoing.

What's really interesting about In The Language of Remembering is that the chapters are arranged according to prominent emotions or actions in the conversations mentioned. The author has consciously avoided grouping them by geography, nationality, or something divisive.

The chapters are titled "Belonging", "Hope", "Identity", "Loss", and more. By bringing the underlying emotions to the surface, we are able to shed regular biases and see similarities in very different stories. Two seemingly unrelated conversations are put together due to the prevalent emotions.

The only drawback in this kind of sectioning was that, sometimes, a single conversation or story would be split into multiple chapters because parts of it would have different prominent emotions. Because there are so many conversations and people mentioned, it's hard to keep track of who is seen again as well. The author mentions links but I didn't flip back to make connections because it would break the current thread.

I understand why it was done. Some stories have a lot to share and are relevant to multiple topics. However, considering the amount of content available to the author, the splitting could have been avoided.

Is the inherent nature of memory to be cavernous? It is never chronological, often sporadic, a latticework of images, requiring gentle nudges and cues for remembrance, but always offers more.

Speaking of amount of content, this is a big book. It contains 650+ pages of actual content and 50 pages of footnotes. I will not even attempt to count the number of interviews shared—it's a lot.

In Remnants of a Separation, we only read the interviews that had enough to become an entire chapter. That's not a limitation here. Malhotra has included interviews or quotes even if they're only a couple paragraphs long.

This book also contains interviews and conversations that happened over calls, texts, and emails. While they may not allow for unspoken observations like mannerisms and expressions, they allow for more variety of stories. We are not limited to hearing only from the people that the author can physically access.

Hence, we hear from interviewees across the world. We hear from people living in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. We also hear from people whose families have migrated across the world.

It was interesting to note what different people felt like they lost and what they wish for based on where they're from and where they are. People who can return to their homeland have different views compared to those who can't access their ancestral lands. People away from these three countries find a camarederie with others from here but their bonds are severed when they return.

Quite a few of the interviewees are descendants of influencial people of that time. These conversations were so intriguing to read because it gave behind-the-scenes glimpses into well-known people. Living through Partition is one thing, having to live with the memory and consequences—especially if your actions were a part of it—is another thing.

The events around 1947 and 1971 have far-reaching consequences. They determine whom someone from these three countries is allowed to love or befriend, what opportunities are available, and where they can go. Those events shape a person's identity even if the person was born decades later.

The further we move from an undivided India, from the landscapes where we originally belonged, the more diluted our languages, scripts and customed may become. Untethered to our soul, we acclimatize to our adoptive homes, learn new languages and begin to establish and practice new customs.

Stories where people regret the loss of language, culture, and traditions made me emotional. Partition was never meant to lead to such a loss in our culture. However, it led to several migrations and uprooted lives. In the midst of rebuilding lives, people didn't have the luxury to cherish and pass down their traditions and language.

The stories of the Sindhis and others whose homeland is completely severed from them hit the hardest for me. The second and third generation's pain of not having a "native village" to go back to in the holidays and being unable to trace their history more than a generation or two is palpable through the pages.

One of the most common things said in the conversations is how the people who lived through Partition did not think it important to be spoken about. Children or grandchildren often found out only when they asked our of curiosity or through other means.

The main reasoning, that most descendants think of, is that there was no time or luxury to be dwelling on the past or the loss. It made more sense for the future generations to adapt to where they were born and fit into current society.

However, because of that choice to make life easier by learning other languages and adopting other traditions. comes the loss of what once was. This is something that the third generation feels a keen loss of.

It was incredibly sad to see how so many different people regret that they don't know the ways of their ancestors.

In the west, it was a single split, and then it was done. It was devastatingly violent, but it ultimately settled and the border was fortified and accepted. In the east, the divisions and subsequent migrations happened incrementally, little by little, year after year, for a long time. Everybody has suffered and everybody is still suffering, but they don't know why they're suffering.

I appreciated that the author did not just stick to the Partition of 1947. She spoke about events leading to it, during it, after it. And with just as much brevity, she delved into the history of the east. This is was missing in Remnants of a Separation so I'm glad that it was given importance here.

As an Indian, when I hear about Partition, I only think of the events of 1947. When Malhotra, during an interview, is challenged on the terms that she uses, I was challenged as well.

Indians view what happened in 1971 as the third Indo-Pakistan war. Pakistan views it through the lens of loss and Partition. For Bangladeshis, it marks their triumph and liberation. "Perhaps this is why all we end up collecting are fragments—often conflicting and contradictory—of the same story."

Once, we were one land without strict borders or inaccessible places. Now, the countries are so different and it is hard to even imagine a time when we were the same. How have we grown so far apart that we remember the same history very differently?

It was religion that made people believe that they couldn't live together. All over the world, where there is religion, there is difference. If only we fought for humanity the same way we fight for religion.

In The Language of Remembering taught me a lot. There's only so much that one can learn in textbooks where history is condensed to a few chapters.

While I read the book, I often Googled for more information to make sure that I knew the right context. And I mean it in a good way. What we were taught in schools is nowhere close to the experiences that our people faced. We read about politics, not about the common man, woman, or child.

I looked up the maps to understand exactly where the city or town mentioned is situations. I read Wikipedia pages about people mentioned. I did a deep dive into the enclave system after 1971 and how it was resolved. I was forced to recollect what I learnt in school only to realize that I wasn't taught enough and I wasn't taught the right things.

We want to make sense of what happened, but eventually we realize that it is difficult to make sense of something so belatedly, particularly when the event itself seems devoid of all sense.

Through the interviews, we also learn about a lot of events that have been forgotten in history. That period of time saw so much across the countries that it is hard to document each event. Some happenings that should have been prominent were barely spoken about because of another thing that happened a little away.

Malhotra makes sure to make these stories heard. Many of these stories were only shared orally within family and were not documented. While it is close to impossible to document everything because the people who originally lived through the events are no more, she tries to reduce the gap by documenting what is available. Often, it comes to light through grandchildren who asked questions.

In The Language of Remembering isn't only filled with interviews, though. Each chapter is essentially an essay. Alongside interviews, there are many sections from the author about the chapter's topic connecting threads across stories and time, delving into the unspoken and making astute observations.

Malhotra's extensive research is easily visible through the number of references in this book. There were so many books, articles, documentaries, movies, and more mentioned in this book. The impact of media at the time and after the time is also spoken about.


I highly recommend this book. Whether are from South Asia or not, whether your family was affected by the events of 1947/1971 or not, whether you have any idea about the history of this land or not—this book will tell you many things that you do not know.

I also recommend it because it's an important documentation of and view into history. We shouldn't look at decisions only by their immediate consequences, we should also consider what it would mean for people decades later. Learning history is a way to make sure that we don't repeat mistakes. Partition was a messy, bloody, thing and we should remember it and acknowledge its affects so that we can do better in the future.

Our generation needs to look at history with the knowledge that we were once one, because there has to be some solution for this, there has to be the hope that things will get better.

photo of Sumedha

Sumedha spends her days reading books, bingeing Kdramas, drawing illustrations, and blogging while listening to Lo-Fi music. Read more ➔

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  • Books Teacup and Reviews says:

    This is very distressing part of the history to read and there is so many things happened that every time I read about it in books, there is something new to learn. This sounds touching and well written. Amazing review!

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