Book review | In the language of memory: the legacy of the score by Aanchal Malhotra
By Srishti Narain
The idea that the score should be studied from the point of view of the people who lived through it, as opposed to the official macro accounts, is not something new; it has been commonplace since the shift to oral history in the 1990s. Therefore, reading young academics who claim to be writing a “human history” of the score, the question that inevitably comes to mind is: are they going to tell us that we already don’t know? Aanchal Malhotra tries to take up this challenge with a certain originality of approach. His first book Remnants of a Separation (2017) was, for example, an account of Partition through “material memory” or the memory that is stored and can be retrieved from the objects that people carried with them across the border.
Likewise, his latest book, In the Language of Remembering: The Inheritance of Partition, explores the “inherited” or “generational” aspect of memory. Malhotra argues that the partition is not an event frozen in the past, as its associated memories tend to filter down to later generations who learn to identify with it. The highlight of this book, then, is the wide range of interviews conducted with second, third and even fourth generation families affected by partition. Malhotra is able to do this effortlessly largely due to her own status as a third-generation member of a score family who shares a strong and somewhat inexplicable attachment to her.
The concept of the book seems new and promising. It brings to light an entirely new and unexplored archive of generations who did not experience the score but still have a sense of personal connection to it. We expect from this ambitious exercise in oral history the emergence of a whole new set of questions that would help reinvent the Score. But it doesn’t take long to realize that such expectations would go unfulfilled.
At the very beginning, as she begins to outline the limits of her research, Malhotra fails to clarify her position vis-à-vis the existing research in the field, which leaves people wondering why this project is undertaken in the first place. New research usually fills a gap in the existing literature, but in Malhotra’s case, there is barely a sense of the particular gaps in our current understanding of the score that prompt him to visit this vast archive of second-hand memorabilia. . Even when she talks about the intergenerational significance of the Partition, she does not specify the scope of her inquiry – whether to discover how different generations interact with the legacy of the Partition, or to rethink the Partition as a historic event through the eyes of different generations. Because it does not attempt to assert its questions through critical engagement with existing research, reading Malhotra’s Score comes across as a recycled version of what we already know: that it was a colossal tragedy of human manufacture that included significant elements of loss, grief, violence and trauma but also exceptional examples of love, friendship, compassion and perseverance. In this respect, Malhotra’s work does not seem different from the works that preceded it.
The absence of serious conclusions in Malhotra’s work cannot be attributed to a weakness in the archives, as his fieldwork is meticulous, but rather a problem of method. In this sense, this book is a perfect example of the limits of oral history: it is important to “preserve” the original voices of the Score, but a historian cannot stop at collecting these artefacts from memory and reproducing them as which, as Malhotra does. . The archive does not provide ready-made answers; it must be made significant by the historian. This is a task that Malhotra does not do well. She could have done a lot more to process the ideas in her stories instead of just collecting them and assuming they speak for themselves.
Perhaps most disappointing about the book is that the central thesis it advances, that of the intergenerational significance of the Score, is never sufficiently developed. In order to argue that partition is still central to the families affected by it, one must know whether there are concrete ways in which memories of partition have come to define the lives of subsequent generations; and this should be distinguished from the general “feeling” for one’s ancestor which is an altogether more common emotion which may or may not translate into something greater. Perhaps the two are just ways of identifying with the score, but have very different implications for the kind of influence it has on future generations. But for Malhotra, no such essential distinction exists; it takes for granted what it must prove based on a minimum standard of proof.
One also understands how loosely the concept of inherited memory has been applied from interviews conducted with people like Narayani Basu and Sam Dalrymple, whose only connection to Partition is their interest (both personal and scientific) in the life of an ancestor who was not a “victim” of partition, but was simply involved either in an administrative function (in the case of Basu, his great-grandfather, Vice-President Menon, as as Mountbatten’s political reform commissioner, helped draft the final partition plan), or simply as the person who inhabited the physical space of the partition (Dalrymple’s grandfather, Sir Hew Fleetwood Hamilton-Dalrymple, who served as aide-de-camp to Sir Frank Messervy, the first Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistani Army, and witnessed several important moments related to partition). How their memories, which do not refer to any experience of having suffered because of the partition, can be taken to seriously demonstrate its intergenerational impact is incomprehensible.
Malhotra’s book is one of many attempts to bring ordinary people’s accounts missing from official records to reflect on the score. It should be appreciated for telling a wide variety of stories told from different points of view, which capture the nuances of the score very well. But it is far from a serious intervention in the history of the score, as it does not add significantly to our understanding. The concept of inherited memory, which is central to this investigation, is mired in confusion and remains undeveloped, thus becoming a pretext for talking about the score in largely colloquial terms.
In the language of memory
Pp 756, Rs 799
(Srishti Narain is an MA student in Modern History at Jawaharlal Nehru University.)