Interviewed by Nikita Biswal
AANCHAL MALHOTRA writes in the quiet, reading every word aloud to herself. It’s a battle living on a busy junction in New Delhi, surrounded by the sound of the streets. We talk with the faint trickle of traffic floating up, the occasional barking dogs. It’s just before the city enters spring and the light is gentle as it fills the living room, where we sit down to talk with two cups of coffee. Her writing desk is a sheesham table pressed against the glass doors that lead to the balcony before us. A square of light falls over it throughout the day and it seems as if the space has been put on snooze until the writing resumes. It’s a perfectly solitary nook in an apartment that Malhotra shares with her sister. But the writer’s world spills over, with eclectic objects arranged around the house, including a tray of small perfume bottles acquired as part of research. She is about to move her desk to her room when I see her next. “Things will change,” she says, nodding.
Aanchal Malhotra’s first book, Remnants of a Separation revisits the 1947 Partition of India through objects carried by people across the newly formed borders. Noted by writers and readers alike for its perspicacious study of personal and national accounts, the book has been acclaimed as “one of the most intriguing alternative histories of the Partition” (Gayatri Manu). Malhotra trained as a printmaker in Canada, a background that lends a distinct awareness of the material, the sensory and the oblique to her writing. Her prose is rich with images that detail the everyday textures of colossal, and otherwise inaccessible, historical events. Malhotra’s work with material memory is many-fronted: she also co-runs the Museum of Material Memory, a crowd-sourced digital repository of material culture from the Indian subcontinent.
She was in the final stage of writing her second book, In the Language of Remembering when this interview took place. We spoke on two occasions, the second in a salon-style bakery on a Saturday morning, with French pop playing in the background. In the conversation that follows, she discusses her all-consuming relationship with her discipline, making art that responds to the specificity of the twenty-first century, particularly in India, and the challenges that came with her first foray into fiction. She talks with an emphasis that lingers long after she has finished speaking, which immediately makes the weight of her work feel palpable.
This transcript is an abridged version of the original interview.
Politically, we live in times of great restraint. What is the place of a writer in this climate?
I think that books do need to be a mirror to society. I find it quite incredible that even though I am writing about events from seventy years ago they still find resonance in society today. However, to be a writer, an honest writer, in this day and age, is a difficult thing. I guess the question is what do you do when you find your craft in danger, when you find your language encumbered by politics. It is not just about what will be perceived, it’s about how much self-surveillance you have to do for your craft to get recognition in this political scenario. I don’t know if the answer is that we should stop writing. I don’t think that’s it. But I think that we need to find ways so our writing reflects society, it does need to hold up a mirror to something.
What do you do then when you find that your language is in danger? Do you make changes to how you write?
Not yet. I’ve tried not to. I make the distinction between journalism and literature. When you are writing something for a newspaper, it is so directly what is happening in the world. But when something is in a book — and there are some really searing, politically inspired books that come out, both fiction and nonfiction — I feel like there is a degree of removal from reality in some way, even though it is still paralleling it. I hope we don’t have to curb ourselves in the future but I cannot say that it will not happen because it has started to happen.
As a historian, one occupies the past through the present. Do you feel this tension, of occupying two times at once?
Not consciously. It may come out in the writing sometimes, but I don’t think about it. I think historians of every generation react to not only the world they live in, but also to the way they perceive the world, which means that different generations of historians will have different reasons and perspectives to look at the past. I think every generation of historians can look at the same event or time period differently, which is important because you are speaking specifically to your generation.
You talk about picking the form of conversation for Remnants as a way of placing yourself within the narrative. How does that change the story?
Your vulnerabilities enter the scene quite seamlessly. Oral history is not journalism, it’s not reportage. Oral history is a penetration of memory. However, it’s interesting because the oral history interview is never a conversation between equals, because someone always has the questions and the other person has the answers and that’s not the same thing. There’s a status quo already established in the interview. What is essential for me is to put my interviewee at ease, which means if they are answering the questions that I am asking them, I should be able to answer the questions that they may ask me. It will never be equal, but it should be as at par as I can make it.
Do you locate yourself within the story right from the start?
Actually, I am very good at following my transcript really well. The thing is while the recorder is recording, I am often taking notes. My notes can be what I was feeling at the time, or my interviewees’ movements, gestures, language, hesitances, silences. My notebook has things like ‘silence from 1:25 to 1:30’. I also draw a lot when I take notes.
What kinds of things would you draw?
Just how they are sitting or other things, like I remember once someone was talking about a line of bottles of aachar (pickle) and I thought that was nice so I drew it. It really doesn’t mean anything. But these help you immediately recall what the story was about.
Can you walk us through your research process? Where do you begin?
It almost always begins with the interview. Before I go to the interview, I usually like to know where the person is from so I can do a bit of research about what happened in 1947 at that place, which means my questions can be a little more nuanced than general. I almost never have a questionnaire. I don’t like it. I think it reduces people to the same set of questions and the human experience to yes or no, did you, did you not. Usually my questions are just born from whatever people say, which means they can deviate quite a bit as well. After the interview is done, I transcribe it, translate it, then I do secondary research about the specific things people talk about. People often ask me about the veracity of memory, can you prove it? My answer to that always is if someone remembers the way something happened, then we should acknowledge their perspective of how it happened. However, if I can find an archival source for what they are saying, which may or may not prove how it happened, that’s also very interesting. I will put it in as an endnote or in the text. I try and do as much secondary research as I can and then, it’s just about writing.
How do you structure your reading?
I do it as I go along. For very specific things, you may find something in gazettes, or archives or even self-published texts. I reference a lot of fiction as well. I normally don’t also read the full book unless it demands it. I read a lot, but almost never start to finish. I will read big sections, I will read chapters, I will reference the index a lot, which is why god bless people who write indexes. It’s very hard to read a full book that you may use only a passage from.
Does it get saturating?
Yeah, of course. Although on the other hand, if you have a writing block, reading is a really good way to get over it. I know a lot of people who write don’t read when they write, but I find that that is what keeps my interest. I don’t think I can write without reading, I just can’t. It’s also great if you’re stuck, if you don’t have any words, it’s a great way to reenergise your mind.
As a writer, do you read differently?
For sure. I’ll read according to what I am writing, which could be as predictable as the history of Partition, to as nuanced as how to do cross-stitch. When I was writing the novel, I did a lot of eclectic reading because a lot of it was about crafts like perfumery and calligraphy that I didn’t know anything about and needed to learn at least on a basic level. If my character is an Urdu calligrapher then I certainly need to know how to hold a qalam (a quill) to be able to write about it. So there was a lot of eclectic reading and learning for that.
Are there books you go back to?
Yes, definitely. All the Light We Cannot See. Everything is Illuminated. There is a section in the book which I return to again and again. It’s marked. I know the page. I know when I have to go back to it. It just centres me a little bit. Story of a Brief Marriage. IQ84. Oh, Anne Carson. Anything by Anne Carson. I also return to the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali often.
A lot has been written about the Partition already. Does reading extensively make it equally hard to find an original way to say something or does it illuminate a gap?
I haven’t found that with non-fiction ever. But when I did write fiction, I was really particular not to read similar fiction because I felt I might write in the same style, or unknowingly borrow.
Who do you write for?
Well, in Remnants I was writing for all the people that I had interviewed and also for the generations that would inherit it. I would like to say I always write for myself. So that’s an overarching thing. If you don’t enjoy what you write, then why are you doing it?
What kind of pressures does it create to think of your work as a historical corrective?
I think all the pressure is internal pressure. I put all the pressure on myself, no one else needs to, because my own expectation of myself is so high. The pressure is this: that someone has opened up to you in a way they have never before, to write something that they hope will do justice to the intensity of their experience. The pressure is whether you can do that or not. And if you can do that, whether you can do it respectfully, regardless of whether or not you agree with what they are saying. The pressure it to make whatever you write authentic, so that someone can learn something from it. Honestly, there are ordinary stories about Partition, every story can be an ordinary story. But it’s the way it is told or the way it is felt that make it extraordinary.
How important do you think it is for young writers to be conscious of their role in a larger history as they are writing?
I think that if you start thinking about that then you may never focus on your work. If you keep thinking about what you’re contributing to contemporary Indian literature, which in itself is so vast, you may never actually focus on what you’re writing because you’re constantly thinking about whether you’re contributing enough. I don’t like to think about that. For me, the biggest concern is the authenticity of what I am writing.
What kind of discipline does it take to build a life where writing is a full-time career?
I think one where you not only have to tell yourself this is what it is, but also everyone around you. The fact that you work for yourself, you don’t have anyone to answer to. No one is telling you to write. It is you, from your own willpower, that has to sit down and make words out of nothing. And then you write something, and someone may or may not like it enough to publish it, they may or may not put it on a shelf, and people may or may not buy it. So, it is always a gamble. You are literally putting yourself on the page for people to read. It is emotionally taxing and really scary. But the drive has to come from within you because you are not accountable to anybody but yourself. I am a very organised and diligent person. I think maybe it’s because I was very young when I started out as a writer, and to be taken seriously one requires a certain amount of experience and age, but those are not always mutually exclusive. I think I had to overcompensate a lot for my age, and that eventually translated into a very solid work ethic.
That takes a lot.
Yeah, but you have to have the regimen. It is like any other job, more so because you don’t have a boss. You don’t have to punch your timesheet in. The other thing is when you are working from home and for yourself, particularly on creative projects, you are working all the time. There is no nine to five. There is no break. I just feel like if you want something that you have chosen, then why are you not putting in the time to do it? You can say that your ideas come from everywhere, but it’s still your responsibility to put them on the page. You have to put in the hours. When I am in the process of writing something, I am constantly thinking about it. I think about it in the shower, I think about it before I go to bed. Those are the two places I get my ideas, by the way. And there is competition out there, but you try not to think about it. What you do think about is whether you are contributing anything new to the already existing scholarship. You want your work to be remembered after you’re gone, you do want that. You want your words to live for longer than you do. You don’t want to produce something that may only stay on the shelves for two months and then be taken off. For that, you have to put in the work, you have to be dedicated to your craft. It is sacrosanct.
How do you resolve this need to constantly work and the need to switch off?
I don’t, to be honest. I can’t. I haven’t figured it out yet…just like I don’t know how to deal with the heaviness of Partition testimony yet. I am working towards it, slowly, very slowly. It is exhausting. But, I do think a lot about what I am giving back to society.
What then is the redeeming quality of a writing life?
That it is endlessly rewarding. For me, I have to admit, it was really wonderful to see something out on a shelf, in a store, someone holding it, buying it. Buying it! Someone paying money for it. I still haven’t gotten over that aspect and I hope I never do. People parting with hard-earned money for something that was created out of abstract ideas in your head. That’s incredible. But I do think with Remnants particularly, the most rewarding aspect was seeing stories of ordinary people that had never come to light being acknowledged as stories representative of the depth and magnitude of Partition, to find such a special place not just in the press or reviews, but amongst readers everywhere. The fact that the story of a gentleman from a village in Delhi is being read by a student in France, or a German woman is writing her PhD on it. It’s incredible and only goes to show the universality of the human experience.
How has your training as a printmaker affected your writing process?
I think that it allows me to see images, which means you translate them as images. Probably the most important thing a fine arts education does is allows you to emanate emotion onto other people. When you make a painting, people feel something when they look at it. When you take a photograph, people find themselves in that photograph because you’ve allowed them to enter that landscape. So why should writing a text be any different? Do you not want to invite your reader into that image? I think that’s what it did because I lived images. The shadow, the light, what is being said, not being said, the gestures.
Would you ever want to go back to working with print?
Of course, if I have the right project. It’s expensive to make a print – particularly the kind of medium I worked in, copper etching – and there has to be a reason for why you choose to do it in a digital age, where things can be reproduced on a computer so easily. It cannot be art for art’s sake. It needs to have some purpose, it needs to do something.
Is that something you work against, making art for art’s sake?
What’s the point? Is it helping anyone? Is it contributing to anything except…beauty? And even if it is contributing to beauty, to what end? So that you’re paid or so that your work is in a gallery? Is that enough? It wasn’t enough for me. I thought about this a lot while I was in art school, which eventually led me to take a year-long sabbatical during my MFA program. But particularly, this time period that we are living through in India, it requires even creative introspections to be meaningful. And art is so powerful that it has to respond to the world and if it is not, then it can end up being just vain. I don’t know. My art in whatever form needs to contribute to the betterment of society and to the politics of its time. If I am just making something beautiful and indulgent — I admit it does sound lovely to do that — I don’t think I would be satisfied. I am envious of people who can do that in the medium of fine art, and do it well – make something beautiful, meaningful and impactful which responds to the world it exists in. Language will always have the disadvantage of being language in that it will only be understood by those who have the privilege of being educated. I remember, when I was in art school and we studied that painting Black Square by Malevich, it was profoundly vast, because it could mean so many things to so many people, but it was made at such a specific historical moment. I remember just being struck.
You don’t think all art naturally participates in the politics of its time?
Yes, I suppose whatever is in the mind of the artist eventually does find its way to the form, but I don’t think all art contributes, no.
You mentioned earlier how currently all your days are writing days. What does a writing day look like for you?
Off the bat, I want to say any and all serious writing comes from the time period of 10:00 pm to 3:00 am at night. That’s it. Everything else is prep, it is waiting to get to the writing phase. It’s mostly because I just can’t think in all this noise. I am not a morning person. What the morning is really good for is reading what you’ve written the night before. And then I’ll start prepping for what I have to write which could either be going through interview transcripts, which is more than often what’s happening these days, then references to interview transcripts. So during the day, I do all my planning and at night it’s literally just about transferring it into a readable format because I do follow very much my transcript. When I write, I don’t think about editing it later. What my first draft to my editor will be, is a very polished draft. I will not move from a particular line if I haven’t written it to my satisfaction. Which means that somedays you may write five pages, somedays you may write half a page. I also don’t have any word limit that I need to reach. I find that a very restricting concept. It’s like you’re chained to the manuscript, you’re tethered to it till you get your 5000 words, which is a huge amount of words. How can you also predict your mood? Somedays you don’t want to write. Somedays you have a headache.
How does this process change when you write fiction?
Actually, it didn’t just differ in the process. It also differed in its manifestation. I almost wrote that entire book longhand. It is a novel about a family of perfumers who are affected by World War I. And I thought, let me start with the World War I bits because it’s history, it’s what I am comfortable with. I am not comfortable with perfumery. I know nothing about it. Eventually I shadowed a perfumer for three years so I became somewhat familiar with it. But when I started, I realised you have to switch your brain. Fiction and non-fiction brains are different. Fiction does things that you just don’t expect it to do, and it’s quite incredible how characters that don’t exist in real life feel so real. I don’t think I ever expected that because I am so used to working with real people. I know I am not the first person to feel this way, but you feel like you’re simultaneously living in two parallel worlds – the world that you exist in, and the world that you are constructing. Both are real, in their own ways. If the non-fiction I write feels heavy to me sometimes, then fiction had a way of making me feel buoyant. I’m sure fiction can be heavy too, though. But it definitely requires you to shift brains.
What was that experience of shadowing a perfumer like?
I think she may have found it annoying. Basically, I didn’t quite understand anything about perfumery because it’s such an elusive craft. I think you do need to know about something if you are going to write about it. It’s not just about the craft, it’s also about the lifestyle that comes with it. I actually stayed with her as well for a couple of weeks at a stretch, from time to time. It was interesting because I really got to see gesture and movement – like if they have a cup of tea, do they smell it first? How do they smell it? These things were really important to me because I like to build my landscape with gesture. It’s one way for the reader to enter the text.
What was your biggest challenge when writing fiction?
Fiction. Fiction itself was my biggest challenge. I wanted everything to be precise, according to history, so even for a character’s movement during the War, I followed the journal of a regiment. But the challenge was who cares? How much history is too much history? And how much precision is too much precision? Because I had up until now spent so many years honing my skills as a historian, but now you have to shed those skills. So switching genre was my biggest challenge. But at the same time fiction has its own advantages. It is unexpected, it is constantly refreshing, it is painfully challenging. The hardest thing I have ever had to do is write a novel. Fiction in itself, the genre, is challenging. I don’t think enough people realise that. It is so much harder than non-fiction.
Where did the idea for the novel come from?
Without giving too much away, I would say that different ideas came together to make the plot. I don’t think I have good imagination, and so I have to base things on reality, on fact, and on real people – a lot of times from my own life. For instance, one of the main characters draws inspiration from my maternal grandfather who worked as a chemist and dabbled in amateur perfumery in his youth. Then the war aspect came from the fact that I didn’t know anything about Indians in the First World War, and the more I read, the more I began to imagine what that experience would have been like. There were 1.5 million Indians that fought the War for empire. What did that do to the psychology of someone who was lesser than in their own country and then taken to a foreign land to fight at par with white soldiers?
Do you plot?
Extensively. I am very envious of people who don’t plot. I plot and I subplot. Though the beauty is that even within the plotting and sub-plotting and minuscule, micro sub-plotting, there are surprises. Things that you just can’t imagine happen, or things tying to one another in ways that you did not expect. The unknown is really scary so even if you know the near future, if you can plan your chapter, not the book, that’s a start. That’s why I find it really helpful to work chapter by chapter. To think of a whole book is a very overwhelming, a swallowing-you-whole sort of thing. But if you think small, chapter to chapter, ten pages at a time, then it’s not that hard. And you can grasp it. This is a graspable unit.
And where do you begin?
With fiction, I wrote the full story. It was probably twenty pages. Then I went in and divided it into sections. It has three sections. Then I further divided those sections into subsections, then I divided the subsections into chapters.
As a field researcher, how much of your writing life – from week to week – takes you away from your writing space?
Well, I would never start writing until I have done all that already. So I guess, none of it takes me away. I do all my research first and then only do I sit down to write.
Your writing space is very interesting visually. What inspires it? It’s always evolving.
That’s what it is. That’s it. It needed to have the freedom to do that because when I was working in a studio my wall space also did that. And I think it’s because if I see things, then they are real things. The thing with working on traditional print is that you actually have no idea what it will look like until you print it. It’s not like pressing Print on a computer. For instance, when you are setting a page of type by hand, you set it upside down and backwards which means that you don’t know what it will look like until it’s done or until you print it. So for me, working in a studio, I needed to see each piece up. And then, because this is just how I evolved as an artist, even when it came to writing, if I could see it then it felt real. Any space that I have needs to be able to do that, to be able to change. I hate worrying about paint chipping and that’s the thing about working in what is your living room, that you have to worry about these things. I want to have the freedom to see things and for them to change because they change with every book, every chapter.
Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming title, In the Language of Remembering?
One of things that I noticed when I was working on Remnants was while we assert importance to eyewitness accounts of Partition, we may not necessarily give the same importance to subsequent generations of that family. But some of the most significant work done on Partition is by the third generation. I was interested in knowing why that was, knowing how memory is passed down. The larger question is, is Partition still relevant? How is it relevant? Why does it affect us? And I wanted to do it through stories of people. I spoke to a person who told me that when her family was living in camps, they would get ration from the camps and they would have to make do with what they had. So they would get bread, which was readily available, and on a special occasion like a birthday, they would make bread halwa because suji (semolina) was expensive. It’s a dish that evolved post-Partition in a camp, which is still made in their house today. Where are you going to find details like this in any book? In the Language has twenty-five chapters that are arranged thematically on the basis of emotion. It has conversations on belonging, conversations on beginning, conversations on borderlands, on love, on friendship, on hope.
What is it like to work with a subject as abstract as emotion?
It’s liberating in some sense because it’s a completely new format. I don’t think it’s remarkably different in the way I am writing because I am still following my transcript. It’s a conversation, as Remnants was. I like that format. What it has done, is become very autobiographical in a way I didn’t expect it to be. As a historian, you do want to be at a certain sense of distance from your subject but sometimes it becomes very difficult.
You talked about the experience of being a female historian on the field. How is that different?
Well it’s two-fold. It’s undeniably challenging because there are spaces you cannot enter as a woman or you are constantly questioned being by yourself, unescorted, unchaperoned. It’s also unsafe. You can’t go to places that men can, say at night, or in the evenings. But all the same, there are times people may open up to you more because you are a young woman. Certainly the case with older people is that they will see you as a granddaughter and they will tell you stories because you are asking. But women get asked lots of ridiculous questions about their personal life, even though it may not be connected to their work. People feel like they can ask you these questions. So I think you have to take it in your stride. There are definitely challenges, but everything has challenges.
Looking forward, what is your hope for new writing coming out of India?
I think it’s all happening already. More women historians. More young historians that have spent time with their material and understand the seriousness of the genre. And stories of ordinary people and unrepresented communities. But more women writing. More women historians. I am tired of the image of the historian being dominated by men.
Aanchal Malhotra’s most recent book is In The Language of Remembering, published by HarperCollins in August 2021. The Book of Everlasting Things will be out with HarperCollins in 2022.