There is a map on the wall of my room, a projection by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator. Toward the East, recognizable by its elegantly sharp peninsular shape, lies the Indian subcontinent. The map is brightly colored—blue, green, yellow, orange—except within the subcontinent. My fingers run over this portion often. I trace the land where a border has now been established, where India ends and Pakistan begins. This boundary did not always exist. In fact, before 1947, it was one land: India. August of that year marked the departure of the British Raj, and Pakistan was born as an independent nation.

In the wake of World War II, Britain was financially weakened, no longer able to hold onto India, “the brightest jewel in the crown.” The Indian Independence Act declared that India would be free from British rule. It partitioned British India into Pakistan, a homeland for Indian Muslims, and India, a secular nation despite its Hindu majority.

Muslim majority regions of North India were to become a part of Pakistan. However, the provinces of Punjab and Bengal did not have an overpowering religious majority, so both provinces were subdivided. The western part of Bengal became a part of India and the eastern part became East Pakistan (which later became the independent nation of Bangladesh in 1971). Similarly, Punjab was divided into East and West. But the population of Punjab was religiously scattered. It was virtually impossible to draw a border that would satisfy Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs equally.

The British crown commissioned Sir Cyril Radcliffe, an English judge, to divide India. He was given five weeks to work to complete his work, aided by representatives from the Congress and the Muslim League.

Radcliffe had never set foot in India before. But the Crown believed that a lack of knowledge of the subcontinent would prove an asset in ensuring a neutral division. So, a man who knew nothing of the terrain, the geography, the socio-political history, or the religious differences was chosen to divide the country. The representatives disagreed amongst themselves, essentially leaving Radcliffe to make decisions on his own. With the assistance of maps and outdated official statistics, he created the border, which followed the course of rivers as much as lines of religious majority. It split villages in two, leaving one half in India and the other in Pakistan.

This border, the Radcliffe Line, is the physical manifestation of a divided national identity. Scholars regard the Partition as the most catastrophic event in the subcontinent’s recent history. (When I say this word, I enunciate every syllable. I utter it with care, considering its burden, considering what it means to be Indian, to be Pakistani, to be Bangladeshi. It is a cultural identity enveloped within a single word: Partition.)

The Partition triggered the largest migration of people in the world, forcing approximately 12 million to flee across the newly created border, leaving as many as 1 million dead. The boundary line was bound to lead to religious violence, chaos, and bloodshed. A single inscription changed the fates of millions. Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs suddenly became enemies; they fought over land, wealth, respect, community and national identity. Refugees escaped on trains, bullock carts, and trucks, sometimes by air or ship, but most often on foot.

The Partition is part of my personal history: All four of my grandparents were born in (what is now) Pakistan. So I became fascinated with refugee journeys. Most people were forced to vacate at a moment’s notice in the middle of the night—civil war, fires, and riots broke out.

The things they were able to take with them carry the history of a place and time, serve as reminders of a distant home. A piece of jewelry is no longer just a piece of jewelry; it’s a portal into history—telling the story of when it was acquired, to whom it belong, and how it managed to exist today. We can look at the history of the Partition through its material artifacts, telling the stories of the objects that people took with them. I traveled to Delhi in India and Lahore in Pakistan, interviewing people and gathering stories.

I cannot help but wonder, though, about the things people left behind. I look around my own home and wonder what I would take if I had to flee. What objects make up the essence of my life?

The Radcliffe Line bears the name of the man who, repulsed by the horrifying consequences of his work, left for England the same day India became independent. He destroyed all his maps and papers and made sure, in his long illustrious career as a judge, never to speak of what had happened in India ever again. And yet the line bears his name; that is the paradox of his legacy.

This is not an invisible line, but one that is firmly present, fortified by the corpses that lay beneath it. It is littered with the possessions of the people that crossed it—a piece of cloth here, an utensil there, jewels and coins strewn across the sand. This is its anatomy.


Jewelry from Delhi
Jewelry from Delhi

Jewelry from Delhi

A striking piece of jewelry from my home in Delhi, made of precious stones no longer found in India. Created in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, it was presented to my great-grandmother to wear on her wedding day. Concealed within her clothes, it travelled from Muriali to D.I. Khan to Delhi to Meerut. Now it lives with my grandmother, a physical reminder of the strength and determination her mother embodied.

The author's grandmother
The author's grandmother

The author's grandmother

(cont'd from previous)

Sikh Prayer Book
Sikh Prayer Book

Sikh Prayer Book

A family’s copy of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh prayer book. The family’s neighbor went to see his home in Pakistan and asked whether there was something he could bring back for them. The mother only asked for one thing: her Guru Granth Sahib. Upon reaching their house in Rawalpindi, the neighbor introduced himself to the new inhabitants, a Muslim family. The sacred book lay just as it had been pre-Partition, untouched by the religious divide.

The mother only asked for one thing: her Guru Granth Sahib
The mother only asked for one thing: her Guru Granth Sahib

The mother only asked for one thing: her Guru Granth Sahib

(con't from previous)

A Copper Vessel for Churning Milk
A Copper Vessel for Churning Milk

A Copper Vessel for Churning Milk

A copper vessel and a yardstick that crossed the border from Lahore to Amritsar to Delhi. The vessel belonged to my great-grandmother and was used to churn milk. The yardstick, on the other hand, belonged my great-uncle’s father and was used to measure fabric in their clothing store. As my great-uncle spoke about these two objects, something changed in him. His whole demeanor became that of a young boy; he found a quiet escape and was transported someplace else, someplace closer to his heart, to his parents, to Lahore.

The Yardstick
The Yardstick

The Yardstick

(cont'd from previous)

A String of Pearls
A String of Pearls

A String of Pearls

A string of pearls, prize possession of a 16-year-old girl from a wealthy family in Ludhiana, India. During the Partition, her family fled from Jalandhar to the new Muslim country of Pakistan. They left behind their grand mansion and everything it contained, carrying nothing but clothes for fear of being robbed along the way. But the girl, then a young woman, carried brought the pearls in secret.

The 16-year-old girl today
The 16-year-old girl today

The 16-year-old girl today

(cont'd from previous)

A Family's Home
A Family's Home

A Family's Home

A 16-year-old boy and his family moved from place to place in India trying to protect themselves before finally crossing the border into Pakistan. Years after the partition, his niece and her husband were in India and decided to visit Jalandhar, his hometown. They saw that their family’s house being demolished, but a plaque with her family name stood at the front. With the permission of the architect, she decided she would take the stone slab home to Pakistan for her dear uncle. The stone held the weight of her family history and legacy.

The 16-year-old boy today
The 16-year-old boy today

The 16-year-old boy today

(cont'd from previous)

A Khaas daan
A Khaas daan

A Khaas daan

Paan consists of a beetel leaf stuffed with areca nut and cured tobacco, folded skillfully so none of the stuffing falls out. Making paan is an age-old art. Unique tools exist for cutting the ingredients, as do special containers for serving it. A woman with grey-blue eyes held up one such container, called a Khaas daan, a special plate-like object on which the paan would be placed and presented to the guest. She received it as part of her dowry.

She received it as part of her dowry
She received it as part of her dowry

She received it as part of her dowry

(cont'd from previous)


Further Reading:

About The Author

Aanchal Malhotra
MFA, Concordia University; Editor and Literary Agent

Aanchal Malhotra was born and raised in India and divides her time between Montreal and Delhi. She is completing an MFA at Concordia University after graduating from OCAD University, Toronto, where she was the recipient of the University Medal in Printmaking. Her MFA thesis project, entitled Remnants of a Separation, is a study of the material remnants of the Partition of the Indian Subcontinent in 1947. She works as an editor and literary agent at Red Ink Literary Agency and can also be found at The Hiatus Project.