Books that hook you while reading and stay with you for a long time are hard to find. It's even rarer for such a book to make you rethink your life and history.

Remnants of a Separation was a book that did all 3 for me. It's a good thing that I didn't know much about it before I picked it up because it's not the type of book that I generally go for. I read it slowly over several days and loved it. However, I appreciated it much more in the weeks after I finished reading it because it refused to leave my mind.

about Remnants of a Separation

remnants of a separation book cover

Remnants of a Separation is a unique attempt to revisit the Partition through objects that refugees carried with them across the border. These belongings absorbed the memory of a time and place, remaining latent and undisturbed for generations. They now speak of their owner's pasts as they emerge as testaments to the struggle, sacrifice, pain and belonging at an unparalleled moment in history. A string of pearls gifted by a maharaja, carried from Dalhousie to Lahore, reveals the grandeur of a life that once was. A notebook of poems, brought from Lahore to Kalyan, shows one woman's determination to pursue the written word despite the turmoil around her. A refugee certificate created in Calcutta evokes in a daughter the feelings of displacement her father had experienced upon leaving Mymensingh zila, now in Bangladesh. Written as a crossover between history and anthropology, Remnants of a Separation is the product of years of passionate research. It is an alternative history of the Partition -- the first and only one told through material memory that makes the event tangible even seven decades later.

Content warnings: descriptions of massacres, murder, rape, violence, death, corpses, PTSD.

my review

I've only ever read about the Partition in academic books. As it is a big part of our history and recent enough to affect our current lives, it was a prominent part of our history textbooks. However, as it is with academia, we didn't learn everything about it. India's history is vast and the content of the Partition focused on the overall picture, politics, and well-known people. It was summarized as if it happened over 200 years ago, not less than a century ago.

My grandparents lived through the Partition and my parents grew up during the after-effects of it. Life today is very different from how it was back then but it's not a "distant" history, it's recent. Acamedic books don't mention that and don't encourage us to link the events mentioned to our family history.

Remnants of a Separation is the first novel about the Partition that I've read so far. Although I'm interested in history, I wasn't a fan of reading non-fiction until recently. Once I started reading non-fiction, I delved into other books instead of historical ones. But now, I'm starting, and what a book to start with.

The book is a collection of interviews with people who have material items that have survived the Partition and mean much more than what they were made for. Most of the interviews are with people who carried those items through that period of mass exodus and share their memories as well.

Despite the sheer volume of information on the Partition available to us today, we are still only learning how to speak both thoroughly and sensitively about the event, how to encompass its many facets and countless individual accounts. Traditional means of narration have failed to do justice to the depth of historical trauma.

Although I have not read individual accounts of the Partition before, reading through this lens of material history was really interesting. The author asks the questions, "What did you bring? How much did you bring? How did you bring it? What did you leave behind? Why these things?" and while talking about the objects, the memories associated with those objects are revealed.

The author did mention that she felt uncomfortable asking about things instead of the people but remembering life through these items led to conversations that might have not taken place otherwise. There is so much culture and tradition shared through these objects. Because of them, the conversation is not just about the Partition but also life in the decades before and after it.

The book is split into several short chapters, similar to short stories, and each story is based on one object and the person who owns it. We read about jewellery, utensils, scarves, photos, suitcases, and more.

In each chapter, we are told about the objects, what they're used for if they're not common things, the culture and tradition associated with them, and finally, why those objects survived through the decades.

I absolutely loved learning about culture through these objects. It was so interesting to learn about khaas daan, the Samanishahi language, the significance of a Bagh scarf, and more. These details added context and colour to history. They showed how life was back then, what people treasured, and what has stood through the challenges of time.

The memory buried within 'things' sometimes is greater than what we are able to recollect as the years pass. Memory dilutes, but the object remains unaltered.

I generally don't like short stories but these were not structured as short stories. The author has interviewed all of these people and instead of only sharing the stories and descriptions of objects, she has shared the conversation itself. Each chapter describes the entire interview and includes details like how the person carries themselves, what expression they showed, and what language and words they used.

We don't only learn about the past but also the present. We see how the people currently live, how their homes have (or don't have) pieces from their past, and whether their stories have been passed onto their children and grandchildren.

Something that stood out across the chapters was how the Partition was not just a physical division, it was also a division in time and life. Many talk about "the time before" and "the time after". When the border was announced, it was not just creating two nations, it was dividing the way life worked.

Because the book is centred on a hard topic, each chapter is also hard to read. They include descriptions of hard times and the violence that was seen then. Each chapter broke something in my heart because, as Amir Ahmed mentions in his interview, "Partition had brought out the ugliest, most vehement side of humanity, showed us what insanity truly meant."

That begs the question, why the Partition and how did the regular people view it? Was it seen as something necessary by everyone? What did they think it would be before it occurred and how did it compare to their expectations?

The author asks some of these questions through the interviews and we see a myriad of answers. The people dreamt of a free life and free nations, of autonomy. Many mentioned how they didn't worry about the Partition because they figured they would be okay. Only, when the border was announced, they suddenly found themselves on "the wrong side" of the border.

Were our land, our languages, our food, our habits, really as dissimilar as some had declared them to be?

Many people remembered the time before the Partition as harmonious. They remember communities where religions did not matter and did not see differences between themselves. So how was the Partition justified and required?

This question is not delved into directly but through the entire book, through people's memories and dreams, we are able to cobble up a vague answer. There was one account with a Muslim woman who said that Hindus and Muslims are simply too different to co-live but in the next minute said that the author, who is Hindu, doesn't count and is like a daughter to her. As individuals, it didn't matter but as communities, it mattered. The author's heartbreak and confusion in the pages resonated with me.

Whether there is a definitive answer to the question or not, the Partition is something we have to live with. No matter what else they thought, almost everyone interviewed views the Partition as "the price we paid for freedom, for independence."

I had a lot of emotions while reading the book and anger is one of them. Anger towards the British of the time, towards the Crown, and all the people who willingly destroyed the way the communities lived here. A few weeks after reading this, I visited Bhopal's State Museum which preserves the 1858 proclamation that declares that India is under the British Crown (you can see it in this vlog of mine) and it made me soo angry.

Reading this book, as an Indian, it's impossible to separate myself from the events mentioned in the book. It was also very enlightening because there was so much mentioned that I didn't know about.

How do these moments of magnanimity become reduced to sheer anecdotes with the passing of time?

Along with the hard stuff, each chapter also depicted joy. They fondly share stories of their childhoods, their neighbourhoods, and what they were obsessed with back then. Through those stories, we see their nostalgia for the old days and learn how life was in different cities. Maybe their memories were remembered through rose-coloured glasses but that also shows just how much people wanted to go back to that time.

That's what made this book connect with me emotionally—it shares the lows and the highs, It shares the life stories of people we can relate to and shows how everyone, no matter where they lived, was the same.

The beautiful depiction in each chapter was possible only because of the reverence with which the author handled the memories. Malhotra sees the beauty in every person and story and makes sure to showcase that. She admires every single person spoken about and the way they carried themselves.

I loved the language captured and mentioned in the book. Because the people interviewed are from different places, they use different languages and dialects. The author has included exact sentences they spoke in their language and the words they used to mention specific things. I loved reading the sentences in different languages. It was cool to see someone refer to Pune as Poona (because that's what even my mom calls the city!). These small touches brought the stories and people closer to me.

The writing was really good. The author has mastered storytelling in this book. I found the introduction to be a little too long but the chapters were of the right length and there was no repetition.

I found it interesting that the author's parents run Bahrisons Booksellers in Delhi. She's essentially grown up around books and I do think that's a factor in why her book became so popular. However, the book stands tall on its own as well. Except for the long introduction, there's nothing less-than-stellar in the book.

overall

Remnants of a Separation starts a conversation about our history and forces us to think. It made me stop and try to remember if I've had a conversation with my grandparents about that time (I haven't). It has made me bring up the topic with multiple people in the weeks since reading the book.

It has stuck with me so much that I'm writing a full book review for the first time in months. This book deserves more readers because it does such a beautiful job of sharing stories, dealing with a hard topic, and preserving memories.

... people looking for their birthplaces on maps, dreaming in languages they once spoke as children on 'the other side', and, with eyes closed, crossing over every single day, har roz.

Read my review of the author's debut fiction novel The Book of Everlasting Things.

discuss with me!

Have you read any book that forced you to step back and consider your own history? Have you read accounts of your history from the view of regular people, outside of academia? What's a book that stuck with you for weeks after you read it? Share with me in the comments!

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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9 comments

  • Gale says:

    This book sounds fascinating! I love learning more about how different places make sense of and preserve postcolonial histories. Reading this, I was reminded of the saying "Know history, know self; No history, no self" by Jose Rizal. As someone who is a member of the Filipino diaspora, I constantly struggle with making sense of what it even means for us to have a history and identity when colonization has eradicated our sense of the "before and after." Reading Gina Apostol's The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata and Insurrecto has taught me to step back and really question the limitations in which we continue to parse out the truth from that history. The more that we are removed from that event in space and time, the more difficult to preserve its integrity. Lots to think about, one more book to add to my TBR. Nonfiction doesn't get too much love so thanks for giving a spotlight on this book!

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    • sumedha @ the wordy habitat says:

      I completely agree with your comment, especially about the more we are removed from the event, the more difficult it is to preserve its integrity. I hope you will enjoy Remnants!

      Reply ➔
  • Yesha says:

    I haven't read a book like this before and I don't think I like nonfiction history as i prefer history within fiction books but this sounds interesting and touching. Amazing review!

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