The Small h history of Life by Aanchal Malhotra

By Wasafiri Editor on May 1, 2023 in Essay

In this exclusive piece, Aanchal Malhotra, Life Writing judge for the 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize, looks to her own work on archiving and making alive again the memories and histories of Partition, dwells on her recent foray into fiction following years of writing non-fiction, and puts the life back into life writing.

The 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 30 June 2023. Submit here.

I began writing out of necessity. 

My only formal training is as a traditional printmaker, but it was in my early twenties, in the midst of a MFA degree in studio art, that I considered writing anything for the first time. Inspired by my grandparents’ histories, I’d spent a few years working on a thesis project exploring objects that refugees chose to carry on their journeys of migration during the Partition of British India in 1947. Amidst unprecedented violence, as Hindus and Sikhs migrated to independent India, and Muslims to Pakistan, they carried, among other things, jewellery, clothing, utensils, weapons, heirlooms, ledgers, family photographs, diaries, letters, refugee certificates, locks, keys, and containers of soil. Traveling across the subcontinent and its diaspora, I took hundreds of photographs of these objects – portals to an unpartitioned past – alongside hours of interview recordings detailing the intangibles of that separation.  

These voices, as I quickly realised, had been largely absent in the writing and remembering of Partition history. Belonging to a culture of oral storytelling, they had not been recorded for posterity, or archived, and were rarely considered reliable sources in reconstructing the past. They had receded to silence often due to the lack of vocabulary of trauma, or unwillingness to revisit, and were complicated, even contradictory, layered testimonies. But most importantly, they constructed a human history of Partition – not of numbers, statistics or politics – but of sacrifice and endurance, adaptability and humanity, friendship, patriotism, loyalty, loss, separation, violence, regret, confusion, longing. 

The small h history of life. 

I spent several years transcribing these stories, and learning how to write with seriousness about a subject that not only defined my ancestors’ pasts, but continued to hold emotional influence over my present. This oral history project, then – written for mine and future generations – became my first book, Remnants of Partition (Hurst, 2019), falling into the broader category of life writing. In many interviews, survivors focused on a landscape directly pertaining to Partition – of migration, violence, refugee camps, rehabilitation. But every now and then, inspired by the object from the past, they revealed tributaries of this central story, deviations from tragedy to the anecdotes of daily life – the walk to school in their childhood, the taste of mangoes or smell of monsoon in their village now across the border, the things they wished they would have carried, the neighbour, lover, friend they left behind. Remnants became not only an archive of Partition, but also of a life before it that now existed only in memory.


The term ‘life writing’ is often traced to Virginia Woolf, who first used it in A Sketch of the Past (1939) to express the difficulty and inadequacy of the traditional biography (She was working on the English artist, scholar, and critic, Roger Fry’s biography at the time, experimenting with structure and style, while ruminating the origins of her own memoir). More formally, Zachary Leader, editor of the anthology, On Life Writing (Oxford University Press, 2015), defines life writing as ‘a generic term used to describe a range of writing about lives or parts of lives. These writings include not only memoir, autobiography, biography, dairies, autobiographical fiction and biographical fiction, but also letters, writs, wills, written anecdotes, depositions, court proceedings, marginalia, nonce writing, lyric poems, scientific and historical writing, and digital forms (including blogs, tweets, Facebook entries).’ 

Despite this expansive definition, I’ve always found the term a bit daunting because I didn’t grow up with it, nor was I formally trained as a writer, so I never encountered it in creative education. Through my work, I’ve come to understand it as a portrait of a particular time and its people. But life writing is not merely the reproduction of life onto the page, it’s also the interpretation and introspection of that life. One of the reason why the genre has come to hold so much weight is primarily because it is an evolving, encompassing and eclectic literary form, accepting of the dynamic boundaries between the self and the other, the individual and collective.  Over the past few months, I’ve read The Diary of Asha San, written in 1943 by a seventeen-year old girl in Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, the autobiography of Leonard Woolf, Samrat Choudhury’s The Braided River, a travelogue about the mighty Brahmaputra, ceramicist Edmund de Waal’s collection of imaginary letters to Moise de Camondo, and a book on the prisoners of war after World War 1 drawn from interviews, letters and sound archives. Despite the divergent and wide-ranging themes of these books, they all belong to the genre of ‘life writing’. 

In an essay for the Oxford University Press blog, Patrick Hayes writes how the ‘popular dissemination of life-writing has been central to the reimagining of gender roles and the rethinking of sexuality; it has played a part in the claiming and redefining of ethnic or racial identities, and in revising our understanding of what it means to have a disability or an illness.’ The rise in social media platforms has also further diversified forms of self-expression and the notion of modern identity. However, in my work, it is oral history, often realized as one of the central tenets of ‘life writing’, that is used as a tool to reveal a certain truth. 


My paternal grandmother, whom I have interviewed extensively over the last ten years, once said that she did not want to discuss her experience of Partition with her children, because she ‘never wanted to burden them with [her] memories . . . wanted the sadness to end with [her], to remain in [her] generation, to never be passed down’. Surprisingly, it was also not a topic she discussed with my grandfather, even though they first met as teenagers in a refugee camp in 1948. When I first asked her about it, she was surprised but eventually offered parts of the past, as if shedding an older layer of skin. Together, over years, we descended the layers of her memory, and now, without my even asking, she returns to the subject from time to time. 

One day she shows me her matriculation certificate from the University of Punjab, 1947 session, interrupted by Partition, and tells me to keep these old memories safe. There is an openness to her tone, so I ask a question I’ve been curious about for years –if at Partition there had been oral historians like myself, would it have been beneficial, would talking have made any difference, would it have made her lighter? I realise that my question arises from a contemporary, rather privileged place of wanting to speak to others about how one feels. But still, I am curious. As expected, she dismisses the subject by telling me that as a sixteen-year-old she did not understand loss; that the accumulation and acceptance of loss has taken years to settle into shape. And then she says what I had never before considered. ‘Maybe [the] heart would have become lighter, or maybe it would have become heavier. When someone asks about such deep pain or loss, whatever is buried comes to the surface; it is exhumed. Then it remains on the mind for long after the conversation is over. The person continues to think about it, and it can consume them’. 

I wonder out loud if that’s what happens when we speak about Partition, and she confirms it.

There is a complicated and delicate aspect to consider here. What happens to the first generation after memory is recalled? I have to admit that because so many of the interviewees I spoke with often readily agreed to their testimonies being recorded – albeit, on their terms – I assumed that memory was ready to be exhumed. But this comment from my grandmother made me reconsider the assumption. In the last decade of working as an oral historian, I’ve thought often about how difficult it truly is to reveal what has long been unsaid, what the consequences are of telling a story, and the delicacy and responsibility that accompanies this kind of writing. 

Purposefully forgetting to remember, consciously remembering to forget. 

Sometimes ‘I cannot remember’ has also meant ‘I don’t want to remember’. From the moment that memory finds utterance in concrete language, to when it is recorded and transcribed onto the page, and finally placed alongside other narratives in historical, social, or anthropological context, the essence of original testimony must be respected and retained. 

In the epilogue to Remnants, I remember writing how I felt almost ‘uncomfortable holding on to these valuable parts of other people’s lives’, but as I began working on my next project – In the Language of Remembering (HarperCollins India, 2022), an anthology of post-memory vignettes about Partition with descendant generations – I could see clearly how much the earlier work had impacted me. There was a visible transition from biography to autobiography and I found myself embroidered onto each page. While interviewing survivors, I’d been so careful to remain at a distance — they had been the silent generation, and now their voices, their experiences were paramount in piecing together the past. But by empathising and identifying with many of my descendant interviewees, by converting the formal interview into informal conversations, I’d automatically made myself participant in the process. A cover blurb referred to the book as a ‘restrained memoir’, which made me consider how much writing about others really draws from questions about the self.


My last book, The Book of Everlasting Things (HarperCollins India, Flatiron, 2022), was also my first novel. Years of writing oral history had made me an empathetic writer, but I had never before written fiction. So, when the skeleton of a historical novel – spanning World War One and Partition, seen through the eyes of perfumer protagonists – became apparent, I employed the same research methodology I was familiar with — that of life writing. There was comfort in the process, in taking care of fictional characters the same way one would real-life interviewees.  

To provide some insight, I am writing this essay from Paris, where I made many trips from 2017-2019 while researching Everlasting Things. I remembering counting the steps from my apartment to the Seine that my protagonist, Samir Vij, takes on his evening walk in 1948. The street he lives on, rue Chaptal, was the street I’d read about in Indian artist Syed Haider Raza’s letters to his brother, Mohsin, in the late 1950s, when he stayed there in a small apartment, working on paintings for the Venice Biennale. 

I have also learnt that to write across genre means to befriend the intertextuality that will inevitably thread your works, combining often, the many genres of life writing. 

When a middle-aged Samir travels from Paris to Grasse to unearth the history of his uncle, Vivek, who fought in the Indian Expeditionary Forces during WW1, he discovers the gravestone inscribed by his uncle’s hands, ‘testament to the fact that [the entombed] would never be separated from his touch, even in death.’ This particular memory of an ancestor writing the name of one who had passed into a wet block of cement was offered to me during an interview in 2014 in Lahore and can also be found in Remnants. I remember exactly which line in the novel about ‘mixing’ into another person when in love was said by which interviewee in real life, or how the sections on perfume were born out of years of shadowing real perfumers – observing how they behaved, composed, existed in a world embraced by smell – or how my own maternal grandmother’s home, which I write about in In the Language of Remembering, became the home of my protagonists in the novel, both burning down in a fire in 1947; or that the landscape of Vivek’s days in battlefields of the Western Front were constructed using the real letters Indian soldiers wrote home — heart-breaking yet often surprising testimonies about fighting a war that did not belong to them. 


My writing career, thus far, may have been short, but I’ve realised that I need to draw from life in order to fill my page. I understand that there may be limitations to this methodology — the mediation of experiences, their translation (whether in language or form), even their possible stylisation. But in both fiction or non-fiction, I need to walk the steps, breathe the air, feel the texture of walls and stones; immerse myself in the biographies, journals, travelogues, archives, lists, notes, musings, sound recordings from the past, or be in the presence of one who has lived through the time period, to finally put into language how I feel and what I want to say, regardless of whether the text I am writing is historical or contemporary. It is, for me, simultaneously, a form of excavation and portrayal, observation and reflection, enlarging the ways in which a life can be written about. 

Aanchal Malhotra is a writer and oral historian from New Delhi. She is the co-founder of the Museum of Material Memory, and the author of two critically acclaimed books, Remnants of Partition and In the Language of Remembering, that explore the human history and generational impact of the 1947 Partition. Her work has won the Council for Museum Anthropology Book Award, and been shortlisted for the British Academy Book Prize, the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, Hindu Lit for Life Non Fiction Prize, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay NIF Book Prize, and the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize. Her newest work is a debut novel titled The Book of Everlasting Things. 

Photo Credit: Aashna Malhotra

The 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 30 June 2023. Submit here