Oral historian Aanchal Malhotra on her debut book and creative process

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Lover of Material Memory

“I’ve always been a reader, having grown up in my family’s bookshop. As a child, I read everything – fiction, politics and history, poetry – but I never planned on writing,” begins Aanchal Malhotra, author & oral historian.

At this instant, I envision Aanchal sitting by her desk surrounded by piles of papers and sticky notes with a stern face – something she claims to wear while working. She studied art and practiced traditional printmaking for several years, until she discovered a set of objects that had been carried across the border by her family, just before the Partition, from Lahore to Amritsar. Little did she know that these objects – an ordinary ghara, a metal vessel in which lassi is made, and a gaz, a yardstick would be the beginning of her journey to discover the stories that lay beneath the surface. “This was the first time I was curious enough about a historical event to want to research it myself,” she adds.

What did people carry when they were forced to flee? What things does one take, when one is not sure if they will ever return home? – were questions that lingered in the back of her head.

An Extraordinary Childhood

Aanchal’s first encounter with her family’s objects from Lahore was in the year 2013, and it is what began her literary interest and later, career. Her love for history began with historical artifacts of intimate and private nature. Heirlooms, collectibles, objects that had been bequeathed from generation to generation and carried stories within them. Having developed a deep love and affinity for material objects and a lifetime worth of stories that come intertwined with them, Aanchal went on to author Remnants of a Separation, a book navigating through the lives of refugees and objects carried by them during Partition. She’s also the co-founder of theMuseum of Material Memory, a submission-based digital repository of material culture and memory.


Photo by Aanchal Malhotra

“I had quite an ordinary middle-class childhood. But the only extraordinary thing was that my family owned a bookshop, so I grew up reading. The habit was never forced upon me, but something I naturally gravitated towards, perhaps because there were always books within my arms reach. Naturally then, through the written world I traveled the world and became someone who was curious about worlds that were different than mine. Even now, when in my career, I delve into the folds of history, it is always books that remain my companions.”

Photo by Aanchal Malhotra

When I ask Aanchal about her other interests, she tells me how recently, her sister got her hooked onto Korean dramas, and she’s just finished watching Memories of Alhambra. Aanchal being a voracious reader, is sort of a pro at juggling several books at a time, mixing research and pleasure, fiction and non-fiction. Currently, her reads include How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee, The Other Side of the Divide by Sameer Arshad Khatlani, and Letters on Cezanne by Rainer Maria Rilke.

Celebrating Moments of Success

For artists who put out their work for public scrutiny, there is constant pressure to perform better than what they already have done before. Chances are that this urgency to constantly perform better may take a toll on the art. So, when I ask Aanchal about it, she says, “To be honest, I do think I need to learn to be kinder to myself when it comes to my work.” She acknowledges that rather than the external pressure, it is always an internal expectation that drives her to do more or to do better.

Photo by Karuna Ezara Parikh

As a result, she continually pushes herself further rather than ever pausing to enjoy or luxuriate in success. In fact, she frequently downplays success so that she remains grounded, but it also often means she doesn’t celebrate her successes as much as she should. Although she admits to learning, she also realizes that it’s a slow process.

“I heard someone say somewhere that ‘early success is a terrible teacher’ and it stayed with me. At the same time though, I try to never compromise the quality of work that I am doing. I never try to skimp on research – primary or secondary – and give it the time or effort it needs, whether I am working on a book, an essay or just a short article.”

Devout Work Ethic

Interestingly, Aanchal is also a big fan of home décor and in her free time, loves browsing through design and décor accounts like @dominomag, @beautifulhomes.india, and @apartmenttherapy. Given her inexorable love for art, history, and culture, she also religiously follows accounts like @thesingingsinh and his #TheLostHeerProject, @thehyderabadhistoryproject, @auschwitzmemorial, and @rehmaco.

Photo by Aashna Malhotra

Among people who inspire her to put out her best foot forward, her family seems to have a special corner. Having grown up with a father and grandfather who worked long hours at their bookshop – Bahrisons Booksellers – Aanchal developed a similar devout work ethic. Her mother, who goes to work every day, no matter the day or season, and comes back and takes care of the house, has too had a huge influence on Aanchal.

In terms of artistic influence, she has a long list of artists whose work she finds herself going back to time and again.

“I have long been inspired by visual artists like Anselm Kiefer, Nikhil Chopra, Sol Lewitt, John Baldessari, Gerhardt Richter; musicians – Jean Sibelius, Antonín Dvořák, Franz Schubert; writers –Vladimir Nabokov, Svetlana Alexievich, Joan Didion, Anuradha Roy; poets – Agha Shahid Ali, Rainer Maria Rilke, Anne Carson. These are the names I often return to.”

Photo by Sumedha Mahajan

Process of Creation

For someone who is passionate about writing and storytelling, Aanchal sure does have an eye for the process of creation, whether it is of a writer’s or any other artist. Questions like, what drove someone so far into madness that they created something so beautiful out of it, what kind of passion seized them, are what keep her curiosity on the edge. She finds stories of the process of creation always most inspiring.

I am truly intrigued by Aanchal’s work style and process of creation. She admits to working better at night, 10:30 PM to 3 AM are the most fruitful hours for her. From carrying out extensive research for a good five years for her first book to mindfully curating her aesthetics on Instagram, her persistence and humility are surely unconquerable! This year, she looks forward to good health and administrative policies that benefit all citizens, regardless of class, religion or gender.

Superpower as a Woman

As a woman, she believes the superpowers that help her excel at work are multitasking, good time management and a mild form of OCD which does not let her let go of a thread until she has detangled it.

Photo by Aashna Malhotra

Aanchal has a message for our readers –

“Be patient and kind to yourself. Learn to breathe and pause from time to time. It is something I am learning to do now, and while it may not come naturally, it is essential for our well-being.”

At Amrutam, we celebrate resilient and strong-willed women like Aanchal who are passionate about bringing a change!

Read more on #AmrutamNari


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