Seventy years ago today the British left the Subcontinent, and India and Pakistan became separate sovereign states. The Partition is often represented in terms of numbers—one million people were killed and twelve million became refugees. Visual artist Aanchal Malhotra has been making the migrants visible by recording the stories behind the objects the migrants brought to their new homes. One of the intangibles they carried were their languages. Asymptote Social Media Manager Sohini Basak sat down for a long chat with Malhotra to discuss her latest book that records these remnants. A very happy independence day to our Indian and Pakistani readers!
2017 marks not only seventy years of Independence of India and Pakistan, but also of the 1947 Partition, which saw one of the greatest migrations in human history. Close to fifteen million people were uprooted and had to migrate to or from India and the newly created nation, Pakistan.
In her book, Remnants of a Separation, artist and oral historian Aanchal Malhotra looks at the Partition narrative through the lens of the objects that the refugees brought with them as they made the journey. These objects were either the first things they could grab when they found themselves suddenly engulfed by communal riots, or things they considered essential or valuable as they prepared to settle in an unfamiliar land. Aanchal has also founded the Museum of Material Memory, “a digital repository of material culture of the Indian subcontinent, tracing family history and social ethnography through heirlooms, collectibles and objects of antiquity.”
I meet Aanchal in a café on a rainy afternoon in Delhi to talk about the languages she encountered while undertaking this curatorial project. After moving back to India from her studies abroad in 2013, Aanchal realized that in its race to be modern and in tune with the times, her generation—young, urban Indians in their twenties and thirties—often forgot to care about the items of the past. She started visiting historical sites every weekend and, from those visits and discoveries, extended the Partition project, which she started documenting on her blog. “I wanted to share the things I learned from people,” Aanchal says, when I ask her about the impulse that started it all.
In our penultimate iteration of this special feature on Indian poetry, we bring you the beautifully spare yet charged verse of Gurpreet, from the northern-most region of India, translated from the Punjabi by Monika Kumar.
The sold out house and that sparrow
In our sold out house
we are here for the last quarter of our stay
Why was this house sold
how come it was sold
it has to be explained to everyone
My wife, sister and younger brother
were packing things
and that’s how my mother is rather packing us all including herself
in a fist of courage
Father is getting the things loaded
arranging things in a row
stretching his wisdom
to rise up to the need of the moment
that’s how he saves our heart
that’s how he saves his own heart
from the heartbreak
I give up on the clichéd reasoning
and mother’s wet eyes
father’s rambling heart
wife’s false smile
the flabbergasted face of my son
I try to console everyone including myself
no idea where I muster courage from
Bidding farewell to the sold out house
the places, walls, doors and windows breathe too
I was reminded of the sparrow
the sparrow I wove many stories around
to narrate to my son Sukhan
It is the first time
we are living in a rented house
trying to befriend the strange
waiting for time to pass
to get ourselves to come to terms with it
Parents think of taking a dip in holy waters
to pray for clemency
I bow my head before the doorstep of Muse
And there is chirping
The same sparrow
Listen to the poem in Punjabi: The_sold_out_house_and_that_sparrow
Only two weeks left to submit to Asymptote’s first-ever Special Feature on Contemporary Indian Language Literature in English Translation!
Since we first announced the Feature in August, we have received some very exciting work from all across the Indian map. And we can’t wait to find more voices, because in a country so large, we know there are more out there.
Take advantage of these last two weeks to revise your best translations and send them in!
The Asymptote world tour this time begins in Pakistan, with an update on the Punjabi literary scene from Janani Ganesan, Assistant Managing Editor. Then, we fly north, where Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-Large in Slovakia, shares the latest publications and literary events in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Our last stop takes us southwest to Argentina, where Assistant Editor Alexis Almeida talks poetry festivals, feminism, and politics. Welcome aboard, and enjoy the ride.
Janani Ganesan, Assistant Managing Editor, with news from Pakistan:
It’s been 250 years since one of the most famous renderings of the Punjabi tragic romance came into being—Heer by Waris Shah, which remains an influence on Punjabi literature and folk traditions. But Punjabi has suffered as a consequence of marginalization during the colonial rule (when Urdu was patronized) as well as the 1947 Partition between India and Pakistan, when (Punjabi-speaking) Sikhs were forced to leave their homeland in Pakistani Punjab (while Urdu and Muslims were expunged from India).
Amidst a growing Punjabi literary movement to correct this historical wrong, Asymptote encountered a reading club in Lahore dedicated to and named after this legendary text—the Heer Study Circle.
Ghulam Ali Sher, co-founder of the group, shares its purpose with Asymptote: “to inculcate an interest for Punjabi reading among university youth; to do away with the religiously-oriented sufistic reading of such Punjabi folktales for a more pluralistic and people-oriented interpretation; and to trace the socio-economic patterns of pre-colonial Punjab through popular historical sources, like this folktale, against the biases of mainstream historiography.”