Skip to content

Does identity relate to nation? New books from Aanchal Malhotra and Jeet Thayil examine the idea

In the Language of Remembering: The Inheritance of PartitionAanchal Malhotra

I love Partition Literature – it tells me about my ancestors and their way of life, which I didn’t bother asking about when they were alive. Partition Literature is more than just novels or oral history. It goes beyond grief, loss, and belonging. I love Partition Literature because I was always so safe knowing who I was, not fearing about displacement, not knowing any better, till I did.

My grandparents – both maternal and paternal – migrated to India in July 1947, right towards the end, from Pakistan. I was all of eight years old when my paternal grandmother died and I wasn’t born when my paternal grandfather died. My parents don’t remember much about the Partition either. My mother never asked her parents about it. Neither did my aunts and uncles on both sides. That says a lot about trauma and grief, about what we remember and what we forget, and what we do not want to know about.

In the last couple of years, I have read Aanchal Malhotra’s Remnants of a Separation at least three times to make sense of where I come from – at least some of it. I believe art saves you, and it does, and it has, whenever I have turned to it. It is painful to read about the Partition but in a way it is also very cathartic. As a third-generation resident of independent India – who has only heard about the Partition in snatches of stray conversations – trying to make sense of pain and loss, reading about the events can be a means of providing closure, even if in the smallest of ways.

Aanchal Malhotra’s In the Language of Remembering is a book for me, for people who belong to my generation or after, for anyone who wants to understand the Partition from where we are now. It is a book about remembering – of conversations Malhotra had over the years with generations of Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis. She speaks to them about identity, about the relevance of the Partition today, whether we wish to talk about the Partition, and the need to preserve the painful past.

While growing up I used to think of the Partition as an event in my grandparents’ lives. It was cut off from my existence. I didn’t realize till much later that I too am a product of the painful past in one sense or the other – of two people whose parents had memories, who could never forget what they endured, about how they crossed the border, and how long it took them to build a new life.

In the Language of Remembering has been published at a time when the country is in the grips of a destructive chaos – when relationships have taken a back seat and religion is at the fore, when Muslims are being othered, and people are being categorized as “minority” and “majority ”. The book has been published at a time when we need it the most – to understand where we have come from and how far we have come, and what it will take to be truly secular.

I never understood what the Partition meant to me, and how it perhaps even impacted me till I read about it. It all began with Kamleshwar’s partitions in the year 2000, and after twenty-two years and having read about some forty-and-odd books on the subject, I feel we still don’t have enough Partition Literature. We constantly need to look and relook at it, to understand ourselves better, and perhaps generate some more empathy within us – to be kinder to each other and ourselves. I admit, it isn’t as simple as that. Sadly, we have a long way to go since maps and borders continue to be an integral part of our existence, whether we like it or not.

In the Language of Remembering makes us aware of what we carry within ourselves. Malhotra’s book is about regrets, losses, hopes, about what we gained, and what we were separated from. It is about the choices one made, about family, about generations, and how some incidents are not passed over, not told as stories, not revisited because of how painful they are and the need to talk about them – both in order to look ahead and constantly keep looking back so as not to lose a part of ourselves.

The Penguin Book of Indian Poetsedited by Jeet Thayil

The Penguin Book of Indian Poets, edited by Jeet Thayil, is a work in progress for a reader. You definitely cannot read it all in any number of sittings, and you shouldn’t aspire to either. Poetry should be, I think, savored quite slowly, in order to ruminate on each word (whether it makes sense to you or not is secondary), to soak into some of it, to try and memorise it, to then recite it one hot summer evening to your friends, and finally to go back to it after a couple of days. This anthology does these things for the reader.

At 883 pages and 94 poets, this collection introduced me to poets I hadn’t heard of before – and shouldn’t that be the job of a well-put-together anthology? There are poems that you may not even have patience for – you may even wonder what they are doing here – but persevere.

Read a short poem. Read a longer one. Read a medium-sized one. Turn to any page. Doesn’t matter if you know the poet or not. You just have to read. You might even find yourself forgetting the poems as soon as you have read them. It happens to all of us. Don’t let poetry intimidate you. They are most friendly and sometimes moody, but that’s just how poems are.

Poems make for quick reading is what I have heard from a lot of people. I beg to differ. There is so much to assimilate, internalize, and then contemplate about. There is nothing swift about reading a poem. Every reader finds a way to make a poem of their own.

Read Arun Kolatkar. Read Eunice De Souza, not because she’s on the cover of the book, but because her poems by her are exquisitely real and heartbreaking. Read Akhil Katyal because love is love, and queer love is more so. Read poets across the length and breadth of the country and outside of the country as well (who are of course Indians). Read poets that you hadn’t heard of before. This anthology has a poem for every kind of reader.

The poems aren’t categorized alphabetically on the contents page. There is no arrangement by date or genre either. At the same time, one can see and understand the juxtaposition of poems – by modernity, by the poetic values ​​some poets were stuck on, how Indian poetry in English was once gate-kept by old authoritarian cis-het men and how that has changed over the decades. The oldest poet in this anthology was born in 1924 and the youngest, in 2001. This book then gives readers an idea of ​​what makes an Indian poet – to ask, who is an Indian poet really?

The foreword and the afterword by Thayil explain this in the most succinct manner, tracing the arcs of Indian poets writing in English not only in India but also outside of India and how they fit into this mélange. He also explains how poets might find their creativity and imagination.

To me, the anthology was a revelation like no other. There are out-of-print poems as well in this edition by major poets, there are lost poems, poems in the form of essays, and all of this is accompanied by classic black and white portraits of poets by Madhu Kapparath.

Thayil has worked on this anthology for almost two decades and it shows in each poem and every poet who appears in it. This collection is monumental in the sense of what it covers, and I am sure this is just the tip of the iceberg because there is so much more ground to cover. This is almost a map of Indian poetry in English. It traverses all states and every emotion. You have to read poems over and over again, immerse yourself in them, engage with them, have a conversation with them, and see how you as a reader emerge on the other side of it.

.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.