I don’t think of myself as a materialist. Not especially, at any rate.
I am a Taurus, so I do love beautiful things. But I don’t have to have a lot of beautiful things. Just some beautiful things that do, in fact, make me happy.
I wrote about the power of things in a blog post several months ago. I found that writing about my special treasures uncovered vast archives of associated memories. It was a wonderful (and unexpected) discovery!
I’m not the only writer who has discovered the power of things.
Several months ago, I heard a young Indian writer, Aanchal Malhotra, interviewed by CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel (one of my favourite radio hosts) on Writers and Company (one of my favourite shows). I’ve just finished Malhotra’s remarkable book, Remnants of Partition: 21 Objects from a Continent Divided. The 21 objects are things people brought with them when they were forced to cross borders and abandon homelands after the 1947 Partition that separated India from the newly created country of Pakistan.
Why focus on things? Malhotra explains that physical objects can be “a trigger for remembering and a portal into the past” (p. 15).
For the people she interviewed for her book, the special things they carried with them from their old lives served as a gateway to memories they had locked away. These special things—a piece of jewellery, a scrap of embroidery, a pair of scissors, a book, a photograph, a cooking pot—evoked memories of a person, a time, a relationship, a name, a voice, a song, a story, an experience, an emotion. The objects themselves allowed their owners to remember—and after decades of silence—to speak about the horrific and historic events they had witnessed and endured.
Malhotra’s approach is fascinating on many levels. Before reading her book, I had only a vague notion of the Partition, and that was gleaned from novels, not from history books.
By using objects as her starting point, Malhotra has recreated history through people’s real-life stories. She has stamped history with an unforgettable human face.
Remnants of Partition is a book I will read again—not just for the stories, but for the elegance of Malhotra’s writing. But it is the stories that are important.
The stories were sparked by ordinary objects. They would not have been told if not for the objects themselves and the memories they awakened.
The realization that objects have the power to retain memory has led Malhotra to cofound the digital Museum of Material Memory. The museum uses heirlooms and collectibles to trace the history of the objects and tell the stories of the people they belong to. As gateways to memory, the objects are the starting point for documenting the “tradition, culture, customs, conventions, habits, language, society, geography and history” of their time and place.
There’s no question about it.
Things really are important.