An Interview I never did: Jyotirmoy Choudhury (1919-1995)

I was not an oral historian when my father was around. He remains among those I have never interviewed. But after I became a practitioner of oral history, I have been delighted by the number of times he has turned up in the context of my interviews with others – predictably in interviews with family members but surprisingly also in interviews with people who I discovered came from the town my father was raised in. What would it have been like interviewing my father, I sometimes wonder – would I have brought my professional patience and listened to his endless stories about the many types of fish that were available in that town which now lay on the other side of the border – in Bangladesh? Would I have the wisdom to quell my irritation and try to understand why he would repeat so many times details of the grand feast that the Nawab of Dhaka had treated his victorious school hockey team to? Would I really be attentive and find meaning in stories that were so familiar already?

My father, Jyotirmoy Choudhury (known to his family and friends as Benu) was the first born of my grandmother, Ashalata and my grandfather, Harendra Mohan Choudhury. My grandmother was still in her teens when he was born and had left him to the care of her parents, Prakash Chandra and Suruchibala Dasgupta in Comilla while she travelled with her husband to the Gua Mines where he worked as a doctor. During an oral history interview I conducted some years ago with my father’s youngest aunt, Madhabi Roy Choudhury, I learnt that he was much indulged by his grandparents. He was allowed to have as many pets as he pleased – dogs, cats, ducks, chickens and other birds and even a monkey. I had heard about the monkey and it had impressed me the most. I also knew that the monkey was called Madhu and that he had died strangulated on the rope he was tied to. My heart-broken father had given his pet a grand farewell with a proper sraddha to which friends, neighbours and relatives were invited. This story was repeated often to stress how much his grandfather, Prakash Chandra spoilt him. I learnt more about this incident from Madhabi Roy Choudhury, almost 20 years after my father was gone. The funeral of his pet monkey had also initiated the shutting down of Baba’s menagerie. As his aunt put it, “You, know, our father treated your father like a son, not as a grandson. But after the monkey died, our father said, “Stop keeping these animals – it is very painful when they die this way. And so, he had to stop.”

My father studied at Comilla Ishwar Pathshala. He matriculated around the time World War II began and decided that he wanted to join the army. My uncle, Mrinmoy, who grew up with his parents in Gua Mines, Chiria Mines and Burnpur, tells me this about this episode during the oral history interview I did with him in 2009. “One of our mother’s uncle was an army recruiting officer and I think that’s how your father got this idea of joining the army right after his matriculation exam. But our grandfather opposed this. Your father had a first division – he was a good student. Our grandfather got him admitted into Intermediate Science [ at Comilla Victoria College]. But your father took a deliberate decision not to take the last examination and therefore did not clear his Intermediate Science.” In exasperation, his grandfather sent him to his parents, who by then had settled down in the Steel town of Burnpur. If I had interviewed my father, this conflict is certainly something I would have asked about.

My father came to live with his parents in 1940. He was 21 and headstrong. Thwarted by his grandfather from joining the army, he now attempted to find a way of earning a living. From my uncle’s recollection, “Our father had asked at the factory if he could work there and he was told that they would be recruiting apprentices six months later. But your father did not want to wait, he went and stood in the queue for khalasis – unskilled labourers – that the factory was recruiting at that point. And he joined as a khalasi on a daily wage – earning 15 annas – at the Melting Shop of the factory. He had to carry cylinders on his back, shovel coal into the furnaces.” How did our grandfather feel about his eldest son joining the factory as a labourer, I asked my uncle, after all, he was a respected doctor in the same town? My uncle answered with a laugh, “The recruiter was Ashok Chatterjee and he knew our father well. Mr Chatterjee had first tried reasoning with your father – he had told him that this is a tough job – you have to carry a lot of heavy stuff. But he was stubborn, your father. In the end, Ashok Chatterjee called our father at the hospital, to ask what he should do, and our father said, if he is unwilling to listen to advice, let him work.” Now, when I think about this, I wonder if his parents who had hardly spent time with their first born had felt helpless before his obdurate determination.

My uncle goes on to tell me the story of my father’s progress at the factory. Some months after he had started work, he was taunted by Jabbar, a Pathan worker for being a “puny Bengali” while trying to lift a heavy load. I am amused by this characterisation because the evolution of this particular colonial stereotype that contrasted frail Bengalis with sturdy Panjabis and Pathans was an intrinsic part of my PhD thesis. Until this interview which took place in 2009, I had no idea that this nineteenth century stereotype about the weak Bengali that originated in the Martial races theory propagated by the British had proliferated well into the 1940s. My uncle also alerted me to the deeper sense of resentment that my father faced when he joined the factory as a daily wage worker. One day, he got into an altercation with Jabbar who at this point teased him because he was often asked to stand-in for the foreman. “Ha! do din ke badshah – kal to fin ake hamare sath ita mein baithoge!” [“Ha! You are only a king for two days – tomorrow you will again sit with us on the bricks!”] Mr Berrow, an Englishman, who was the Assistant Manager witnessed this fight and decided to intervene. He was fond of this brash young man and had occasionally given him other responsibilities which he had discharged well. Besides, this young worker was educated, spoke English fluently, and was therefore, useful. He gave him a small promotion and then another until he finally became permanent and then became an officer. By then he had matured.

My father, Jyotirmoy Choudhury at IISCO Steel factory, Burnpur, c. 1942.

“Your father was full of energy. He would cycle to Asansol 6 kilometres away to buy huge baskets of mangoes for the family.” My uncle told me. I recall that my father had told me how he would ride more than 200 kilometres to Calcutta on his motorcycle to watch English movies. My aunt, Barnana adds her memory to my uncle’s recollections: “He always looked out for us – the women. He would peep into the kitchen find out what we were doing, find out what we needed. That was unusual in those days.” Not only my aunts, my cousins who called my father, Jethu baba, enjoyed playing and talking to him. One of my younger cousins would seek my father’s permission to attend school socials when her father refused to let her go.

Jyotirmoy Choudhury, in one of his favourite roles as “Jethu Baba”.
Clockwise: Soumitra Choudhury (Bappa), Jyotirmoy Choudhury, Moushumi Choudhury (Piali),
Subrata Ranjan Choudhury (Ranju), Debapriya Choudhury (Sonali), at our house in Rambandh, Nabaghanti Road, Burnpur, c. 1980.

My father’s indomitable vitality and his sense of adventure remained with him even as he grew older. Throughout my school life, every holiday, we travelled all over India – literally, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Puri to Bombay and to various places in central India. In July 1961, he took me and my mother to visit his grandparents in Comilla, then in East Pakistan. After the Partition of India, my father’s grandfather had opted to stay on in East Pakistan and the family visited whenever possible.

Jyotirmoy Choudhury’s India-Pakistan passport, 1961 used for his visit to Comilla that year.

Travels with my father were most often by train (though we also travelled by bus, by taxi to Badrinath and by air when we visited Comilla). Our train journeys were often interrupted with what were called “break journeies” as my father enjoyed meeting his countless relatives en route his holiday destination. These holidays were memorable not only because of the places we saw and the people we met but also because of a few misadventures. I recall that Baba had taken my mother and me to see the temple at Rameshwaram in December 1964 and we were on the last train that made it across the Pamban bridge before the Dhanuskodi Cyclone struck, washing away the bridge and the next train. We had a lucky escape. It was during that same trip that he made friends with Mr Mishra who was also travelling with his family on the train to Calcutta. Mr Mishra was short of cash and my father helped him with no hesitation although they had never met before. After that, the Mishras became family friends and we would often visit them in Bhowanipur whenever we were in Calcutta. My father made friends easily, and he helped and cared for people. I guess that is what made him unforgettable to many.

Jyotirmoy Choudhury at 10 A Tee Road, Burnpur, c. 1968.

In 2017, I met Mr. Jatish Chakrabarti as part of a project on Dr. Triguna Sen, the first Vice Chancellor of Jadavpur University. During the interview I found out that Mr Chakrabarti was from Comilla and knew my father as a young boy. He was eight years younger than my father but obviously admired him for his dynamism and open-hearted approach to life. A couple of years ago, my friend, Nina’s mother, Manisha Purakayastha, recounted her close interactions with my father when we met to talk about the book she has written commemorating her father,  Dhirendranath Dutta. Dhirendranath was a Member of the Pakistan Parliament and former Minister who had been martyred in 1971 before the Liberation of Bangladesh. Manisha mashi was from Comilla too though much younger than my father. She called him “dada” and Baba treated her like a younger sister. Manisha mashi and her family lived in Burnpur. Her husband, Kalyan worked at the Indian Iron and Steel factory like my father. But we felt very close to the Purakayasthas because of the Comilla connection. I still remember, how in March 1971, my father came home from the factory, looking agitated, anxious, and quite lost – “They have killed her father!” And we all rushed to console and spend time with the stunned Purakayastha family. When I meet Manisha mashi, so many decades after her father’s gruesome, and tragic death, she surprises me by telling me that her father, Dhirendranath knew my father from his Comilla days and was very fond of him. He was an early elected member of the Bengal Legislative Council in 1937 from Mymensingh. My father’s grandfather, Prakash Chandra Dasgupta knew him from Comilla and he too belonged to the Indian National Congress.

I have met many people who knew Baba and would share their reminiscences of him, bringing him alive through their retelling of some incident or other. Most of these were funny, heart-warming anecdotes and spoken with genuine affection and admiration. But Baba’s temper was legendary too. And he was also often foolishly generous with the little money he had. But most people were ready to overlook these flaws. As time passed, I remember noticing that he became less agitated and more at peace with himself. In the last six years of his life, as he battled cancer and emphysema, his earlier vigour and vitality metamorphosed into a quiet strength. There was in him, a calm, grounded energy that enabled him to face his pain with great forbearance. In the last year of his life, I remember him sitting up almost every night, struggling to breath – the iron ore dust from the factory had left his lungs in a permanent state of inflammation – and yet he was so quick to shine his flashlight to make it easy for me to locate the bathroom switch in the dark whenever I got up. He did not have to do this, I recall thinking. It was also bothersome to take assistance from someone who was so unwell. Today, twenty-five years after his death, I can recognise in that gesture, his characteristic kindness, his deeply caring nature. I remember too that he was very aware of what lay ahead and while still in Santiniketan, where he and my mother had settled after his retirement, he thanked my mother and me and told us he had had a good life. Rooted as he was in his larger family, he asked that I arrange to take him “home” to Burnpur. As I planned the journey, Rampukar dada, a cycle rickshaw driver who was very fond of him and called him Baba too, spontaneously volunteered to accompany us. By then my father ‘s cancer had spread and he resembled the starving Buddha. The journey from Santiniketan was painful and difficult, yet it was one that he bore with amazing fortitude. On 30th April 1995, within a week of returning to the Burnpur house, he was gone.

Jyotirmoy Choudhury, Pune, 1987.

My father, Jyotirmoy ‘Benu’ Choudhury would have completed a hundred years today – 23 September 2020. It took me a long time to figure out the correct date of his birth. The passport I have with me, with which we had travelled to Comilla in 1961, declares him to be a Citizen of India and states his date of birth to be 10 September 1921. But he always told us that he was born in 1919. My cousin, Soumitra, unearths my grandfather, Harendra Mohan’s diary which has a page that states the dates and times of birth of my father and his nine siblings. That diary records Jyotirmoy’s date of birth as 6th Ashwin 1327 according to the Bengali calendar. Our calculations show this to be 23rd September 1919 which was a Tuesday. Something seems wrong with that as our grandmother always said that he was born on a Monday. Soumitra solves this by looking at the time of birth, since he was born at 4.55 am, before sunrise on the Tuesday, the day of his birth was considered to be on the previous day, that is on the Monday.

I have tried here to reconstruct a fragment of Baba’s life through the memories of others who knew him and while listening to them speak, I learnt to listen to my own memories of my father and what they told me. As I began to put together these memories, I noticed how the focus of what I was listening to began to change. What was earlier an exasperation with interrupted travels to touch base with relatives, I began to understand as his way or reconstituting a sense of an extended family. In his childhood and youth, he had witnessed the coming together of relatives and those with whom the family shared distant bonds of kinship for family festivals. But after Partition, such meetings happened on a much smaller scale. For him, meeting with relatives who were now scattered all over India was a way of making his life whole again. When he met his relatives, he would change into a dhoti and chat away, slipping into the dialect that was spoken in the district to which none of them could belong again.

I realise now that what was earlier just a nostalgic anecdote from my father’s past was perhaps an effort on his part to communicate a sense of place that was important to him. It was something he wanted to pass on to me. I remember being puzzled by his unalloyed joy when he heard that I had bought some frozen Pangas fish from a small Bangladeshi shop on Gray’s Inn Road in London in 1992. The Pangas catfish was not available in India and he used to tell us how easily it was available in his village in Merkuta and also in Comilla town. My tasting the Pangas was for him like the sudden sharing of a memory of taste. And this memory of taste brought with it other memories –  of water bodies and markets that he had so freely roamed as a child. It was as if all that was familiar in his childhood had suddenly come alive because I had tasted something that belonged to his past. As if the divisions that had come up with the Partition had been momentarily transcended and he could, for once enjoy a moment of unbroken sense of continuity between his own life and mine.

I have long forgotten the taste of Pangas but that sense of continuity between my father and myself has grown stronger over the years. I am grateful every day for all that he taught me by example. Those lessons remain alive even today.

Thank you, Baba. And Happy Birthday!

A photograph with my parents.
L-R (sitting: Jyotirmoy Choudhury, Pranati Choudhury; Standing: Indira Chowdhury, 1
10 A Tee Road, Burnpur, 1972.

Indira Chowdhury

Acknowledgements:

I thank my cousin Soumitra Kumar Choudhury, my uncle Parthasarathi Dasgupta for photographs and captions.

Memories, Memorabilia and Memorable interviews: Talking to Mithoo Coorlawala

Mithoo Coorlawala looking at photographs of Homi Bhabha’s set design for Ideomeno, performed at Cambridge in 1939. TIFR Mumbai, 2009.

I hear Mithoo Coorlawala’s voice before I actually see her. It was 26 March 2009 and I had just finished giving a talk hosted by the Mohile Parikh Centre  at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai. My talk titled, “Collective Memory, Institutional Archives and the Writing of Contemporary History” was based on the experience of setting up the Archives of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research founded by the physicist, Homi Bhabha in 1945. “I was in Cambridge during Homi Bhabha’s time and I witnessed the world premiere of Mozart’s Idomeneo for which he had designed the sets.” Mithoo’s clear voice rang out of the front rows of the darkened auditorium. It takes me a while to focus on the petite woman, dressed in elegant trousers and a white top, who had made this statement during the discussion that followed my talk.

My first encounter with Mithoo was delightful. I had met very few people who knew Homi Bhabha in Cambridge. This was hardly surprising because we were nearing Bhabha’s centenary in October 2009 and there were very few of his contemporaries still around. Mithoo Coorlawal, born in 1917, was younger by eight years to Homi Bhabha. At Cambridge, the hierarchies of academic life had stood in the way of their interaction. “I was a first year student – and he was an exalted Fellow” – she tells me when I interview her a few days later. 

The first evening we meet is magical and remains firmly etched in my memory.  Mithoo holds out before me a world I had, until then, only had a glimpse of from letters, documents and photographs. She insists on dropping me to the TIFR Guesthouse where I was staying. We are both so deeply engrossed in Mithoo’s recollections of her times that the short ride appears even shorter. We also discover a different connection. I was at that time helping the pharmaceutical firm Dr. Reddy’s set up their archives in Hyderabad. It so turned out that Mithoo had grown up in Hyderabad. But she mentions another link – Dr. K. Anji Reddy had acquired the piano in Mithoo’s Hyderabad home for his daughter. Mithoo recounts that he had come with his “little girl” to look at the piano. This appears like an interesting factoid that ties two people from two different projects together. It is only later, on reflection, I realize that this chance conversation and interrelationship contributes towards laying the groundwork for the space within which we would co-create the past in the course of our interview.

A few days later, I formally interview Mithoo at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) for the book Ananya Dasgupta and I were doing on Homi Bhabha. Mithoo’s interview gives us insights into several aspects of Bhabha’s life. We learn the Cambridge Society performed a Shakespeare play annually to raise money for their Scholarship Fund and he was very involved with fund raising. “Actually, Homi belonged to many worlds”, she elucidates. Then, vividly describes the Christian Dior Fashion Show organized by Bombay’s Time and Talents Club and held at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in 1962. The show saw Parisian models walking the ramp at the West Lawn of TIFR. A show on this scale obviously needed the support of  Homi Bhabha, Director of TIFR, but the person without whom the show would not have happened at all was Bhabha’s friend and companion, Mrs. Phiroza ‘Pipsy’ Wadia who was Vice President of the Time and Talents Club.  Mithoo was the secretary. But she was also a close friend of Pipsy’s. In my interview with her she mentions how she and Rodabeh (JRD Tata’s sister, affectionately called “Dabeh”) had corresponded with Dior and set up the whole show. She relives the excitement as she recalls: “It [the show] was held in the lawns of TIFR – the ramp was set up from behind the West canteen and it ran into the lawn. Pipsy had set up the venue. The models and Marc Bohan’s Autumn Collection of that year came from France. The show raised money for charity. Dr Bhabha was there of course and he hosted the dinner afterwards. A very elegant affair!”

As we talked, I tried imagining what the place looked like during the Dior Fashion show in 1962. Later, when I mention this informally to a few members of the staff at TIFR most are not amused. Indeed, one of them asks me not to write about it – an institution reputed for its scientific research having a fashion show on its premises sounded grotesquely improper. Mixing the two worlds, according to some, seemed incongruous and somehow disrespectful to science. But Mithoo’s interview evoked a time when it was possible for these two dissimilar and incongruent cultures to co-exist in the same space, however fleetingly.

Mithoo’s recollections, alerted us to multiple dimensions of Bhabha’s personality. She also spoke about the dinner she organized as part of the Cambridge Society to honour Bhabha after he was admitted to the Royal Society. Incidentally, Bhabha had been elected to the Royal Society in 1941 but because of the War, was admitted into the Royal Institute along with Sir Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar in a special ceremony conducted by Sir A.V. Hill in Delhi in 1944. On the day of the dinner, Bhabha had called Mithoo to announce that even though they had not invited her, he would be bringing along Pipsy to the Cambridge Society dinner. But Bishop Lash, the Chairman of the Society felt that the “learned doctor had put them in a predicament” as theirs was an inappropriate relationship – “they are not married”. But Mithoo had responded with some indignation that “it did not matter to anybody in Bombay – as they were well accepted and well respected.” Bhabha and Mrs Pipsy Wadia did attend the dinner in the end, mainly because of Mithoo’s refusal to yield.

While setting up the Archives at TIFR, I had come across Phiroza ‘Pipsy’ Wadia on several occasions: she was part of the committee along with Karl Khandalavala and TIFR scientists such as MGK Menon and K Chandrasekharan that selected the mural by M.F. Husain that now adorns the lobby. Pipsy was also involved in several art purchases that Bhabha made for his institution. M.F. Husain who we briefly interviewed for our book, mentioned Pipsy as the person who conveyed to him the news that he had won the contest for the mural. Mithoo recounted her relationship with Pipsy with great affection – “She looked amazing. She was tall and she had platinum blond hair. She wore a sari very elegantly and moved very elegantly. She didn’t bother about her appearance. She was just beautiful. We liked each other – so we did things together. We went to plays and we used to read poetry together. TS Eliot at that time was a favourite.” Mithoo’s narrative also reveals several dimensions about Pipsy and Bhabha’s relationship – we learn of Bhabha’s integrity in relationships and how public approbation did not matter to him or to Pipsy. More importantly, Mithoo conveyed to me through her stories the liberal free-spirited culture of Bombay of the 1960s.

There was another reason why Mithoo’s story was interesting for me as an oral historian. Oral history, as we know, is always a dialogue between interviewee and interviewer, it is a conversation in which the historian too becomes a protagonist and where speaker and listener are related through what Michael Frisch has called “shared authority”. Together, the oral historian and interviewer, co-create new historical knowledge. Mithoo’s lively recollections about the past made me see subtle aspects of Bhabha’s life, his relationships and the milieu to which he, Pipsy and Mithoo belonged. Mithoo also recounted other facets of Bhabha’s life – how she had listened to him play First Violin in a Cambridge concert, how despite being the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Establishment, he had helped restore her Gulmohar trees which had been knocked down by a monsoon storm and how he had teased her about her involvement with the Swatantra Party founded by Chakravarty Rajagopalachari in 1959. My co-author, Ananya Dasgupta and I felt, her interview was a unique resource with which to understand cultural and political context of Bhabha’s past. “Great lives” exist too often in the official domain and Mithoo’s interview illuminated significant, unofficial dimensions of one such “great life”. Her narrative, in many ways, countered deferential and official narratives about Bhabha the scientist. Our task as oral historians is perhaps to learn how different dimensions of the past intersect and create new networks of meaning.

Mithoo edited her final transcription with care without diluting the significance of her anecdotes or glossing over the details. We retained most of her interview in our book.  Her edited version, however, included an “Afterword” which for constraints of space, we could not include in our book. I have reproduced it here after a decade:

After our wonderful morning Indira, at the TIFR, I was filled with recollections and memories of Homi and Pipsy which have stayed with me. It doesn’t seem possible that what we recalled was over fifty years ago. Now, at age 91 I am anguished to think that Homi was only 57 years old when his life ended so tragically; but with so much accomplished and perhaps most of his visions translated into reality.

How prophetic that he wrote, ‘If I cannot increase the duration of my life, I will increase it by its intensity.’

My interview with Mithoo was done in the context of collecting material for a book on one of India’s leading nuclear physicists. This context did not let me focus on Mithoo’s own life story. Yet, her way of narrating the past was so compelling that it led me meet her several times after the interview. Now when I revisit the interview, a decade later, I find that her anecdotes tell me as much about Bhabha as it does about her – a self-assured, confident young woman, quick witted and with courage to stand up to a figure of authority. I have always regretted not interviewing Mithoo about her life. That morning when she visited the TIFR, she had brought her Cambridge albums and we had poured over the photographs of student protests in Cambridge in the years preceding World War II. Although I missed the opportunity of interviewing Mithoo about her life, her stories and the lively emotions she infused them with have remained with me. She became a person with whom I continued to communicate as well as meet over the years.

Mithoo’s interview taught me to look with fresh eyes at the relationship between memory, memorabilia and the interview itself. Mithoo was thrilled to see archival memorabilia – photographs of the sets of Mozart’s Idomeneo designed by Bhabha. She recalled with her characteristic spark, “There were curtain calls – I remember that.” I shared this blogpost with Mithoo before publishing it online, wondering if she would agree with my interpretation of her memories. At 103, she is still remarkably sharp and responds through her daughter, Uttara Asha Coorlawala that she found the blogpost ‘quite fine’. ‘She is,’ as Uttara puts it, ‘amazed by the clarity of your representations of her memories.’

Mithoo taught me a very important aspect of the oral historian’s craft – the co-creation of historical knowledge in the course of an interview depends not on the evidence presented, nor on the information made accessible but by the interviewee’s ability to transport the interviewer to the past. Mithoo’s rare ability to communicate remembered emotions enabled me as a listener to relate to anecdotes that had happened a long time ago. That perhaps is the reason why Mithoo’s interview stands out as a very memorable one.

Indira Chowdhury

Acknowledgements:

I thank Sherena Khan and Uttara Asha Coorlawala, Mithoo’s daughters for being active participants in all my email communications with Mithoo. I am very grateful that Malavika Bhatia interviewed Mithoo Coorlawala for the Citizen’s Archive of India (CAI). This 5-hour long interview when made accessible, will ensure that Mithoo’s experience is available to historians to interpret and make sense of the past. The CAI in its Instagram handle has a photograph of Mrs. Mithoo Coorlawala on the day of her convocation ceremony in 1998 – 60 years after she had studied at Newnham College, Cambridge. [https://www.instagram.com/p/Bc_3TfFlW3f/?utm_source=ig_embed]

The British premiere of Mozart’s Idomeneo took place in Glasgow in 1934 followed by the performance in Cambridge in 1939.

The book I was working on at the time was an archival book on Homi Bhabha co-authored with Ananya Dasgupta. See Indira Chowdhury and Ananya Dasgupta, A Masterful Spirit: Homi Bhabha 1909-1966, New Delhi: Penguin, 2010.

For an institutional history of TIFR see my book, Growing the Tree of Science: Homi Bhabha and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016.

For the concept of shared authority see:

Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History, New York: SUNY Press, 1990.

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Traversing Geographies of Memory: Interviewing family members

Standing [L-R]: Mrinmoy Choudhury, Reba Pal (nee Dasgupta), Suprabha Roy (nee Choudhury), Satya Ranjan Dash, Leela Dasgupta, Lavanya Choudhury, Pritiranjan Dasgupta, Surendranath Dasgupta, Ashalata Choudhury (nee Dasgupta), Prakash Chandra Dasgupta, Biswaranjan Dasgupta, Suruchibala Dasgupta, Sarojini Debi.
Comilla, c. October 1955.

Interviewing family members is messy. The interview does not stay confined to the questions one asks. Indeed, it spills into stories that the person wants to share, inviting you to look through surfaces you thought were opaque, provoking you to stare hard until your surprised eye comes to rest on shapes whose unrecognisable contours change suddenly and appear familiar. My interviews with my uncle, Mrinmoy Choudhury (b. 14 February 1930 – d. 26 August 2010) were like that.

When I first interview my uncle in 2008, we hardly talk about his life. Instead, he begins by describing the journey to the village that our family came from. The village, Merkuta, was in the Nurnagar Pargana, the subdivisional town was Brahmanbaria and the District town was Comilla in the Tipperah district in East Bengal, now Bangladesh. Mrinmoy goes into the little details – “You could take the train to Akhaura or to Brahmanbaria. If you got off at Akhaura – you could just climb down the stairs from the platform and get into the boat – as the station was just by the river Titas. But the journey from Akhaura entailed travelling four extra kilometres, so it was better to travel to Brahmanbaria, and from there take a horse coach to the riverbank. The small boat that belonged to our family, was usually used for transporting paddy. It would be waiting for us there.” He pauses to ask if I had heard of the river Titas. Like others of my generation who had grown up in independent India, I associated the river with Ritwik Ghatak’s 1973 film Titas ekti nadir naam (‘A river called Titas’). I had even read the novel of the same name by Adwaita Mallabarman but until this point, I had never thought of that river as in any way being associated with my family.

I had heard snatches of stories about the village. My father and his siblings would talk about their ‘village home’ whenever they sat down for their meals together or when relatives visited (which was fairly frequently). But these stories remained fragments – some more flamboyant than others. My grandfather’s stories about his grandfather, Abhayacharan Choudhury who was a wrestler, for instance, were entertaining narrations about how easily he intimidated the court wrestler who had come to challenge him to a bout. When the court wrestler turned up one day asking for Abhayacharan, he was feeding his goat tender leaves of the topmost branch of a mid-sized tree that he easily held down. He asked the wrestler to hold the branch for him while he arranged for their meal before the contest. The court wrestler had not anticipated the strength he would need to hold down that branch and was soon hoisted off the ground much to his own embarrassment. My grandfather would laugh heartily as he told me this story. It was part of his childhood memory of his grandfather. Now it lives on as part of my childhood memory of him. Perhaps this is how family stories are catapulted into the future. And perhaps, over time they get intertwined with narratives that others in the family share. Thus, family stories get entangled, crisscrossing and connecting across space and time.

My uncle’s story about his great grandfather is not as dramatic. He tells me that Abhayacharan, the wrestler had been gifted a lot of tax-free land by the Nawab and the family practised agriculture. They cultivated two types of paddy and jute. However, agriculture was not the only occupation of Abhayacharan’s sons. His eldest, Bhagawancharan looked after the land, the second son, Chandicharan was a peshkar or a court official and the youngest, Govindacharan, my grandfather’s father, was a trader who ran a small shop in the Hatiya islands. My uncle had memories of Bhagawancharan whom they called, Bat-thakurta (literally, ‘eldest grandfather’) taking a walk around their fields at age 90. But his narrative slips away from his own memory to a memory his mother had shared:

“Bhagawancharan’s wife and two sons had gone to her village – Birgarh or some such name, I don’t quite recall now, which had had an outbreak of cholera. They all died. My mother remembers how soon after her marriage to my father, she had seen Bhagawancharan tearing to shreds his horoscope. My mother had asked the older women in the family – why was he tearing up the horoscope scrolls? They said, his horoscope had predicted that he would live till the age of 75 and die leaving behind his wife and sons. But that was not going to happen now, so he was tearing up the horoscope in a frenzy, raging, cursing loudly as he tore the paper.”

My grandmother’s story about Bhagawancharan’s anger remains sharply etched in my uncle’s memory, like an intertwined story. Bhagawancharan never married again. Instead he devoted all his energies to Jatra or popular folk theatre, founding a Jatra party or a drama troupe and spent a lot of time travelling around and performing. “He had trunks loaded with costumes and he even had a shamiana – a large tent,” my uncle recalls. His youngest brother, Govindacharan (my great grandfather), my uncle tells me would return from Hatiya in the festive season in October, his boat filled with gifts for everybody – clothes, coconuts, fruits and vegetables. He had two sons – Mukundamohan and Harendramohan (our grandfather). Another family story surges in my memory. Govindacharan had lost his wife some years after his younger son, Harendramohan was born. After some time, he married a girl he saw on the bank of the Titas while travelling on his boat to Hatiya. This girl was Bidhumukhi, my great grandmother, about whom I have written in my very first blog. She never had children of her own and brought up Govindacharan’s two sons from his first marriage as her own. After Govindacharan died she lived with Harendramohan, our grandfather.

My uncle’s narrative focuses on his father, Harendramohan and his father’s elder brother Mukandamohan. Mukandamohan was eleven years older than his brother and taught at Aesop’s school in Comilla. Since the small village school at Merkuta did not extend beyond middle school, he brought our grandfather to Comilla and admitted him to Aesop’s school. It was while Harendramohan was studying for his Intermediate that his brother arranged for him to marry Ashalata, the oldest daughter of Prakash Chandra Dasgupta, a pleader at Comilla court. Prakash Chandra who was relatively wealthy, financially supported his son-in-law’s medical education at Mitford Medical College, Dhaka. It was in the house of Prakash Chandra in Comilla that my father, my uncle and most of their siblings (ten in all) were born.

My uncle’s reminiscences moved easily between the village of Merkuta and the town of Comilla. It also alerts me to journeys of transformations; how Harendramohan, who came from an agricultural and small trader family acquired a respectable profession as a doctor. Despite the fact I knew some of these family stories, my uncle’s interview had a few surprises in store. I did not know, for instance, that the very first job my grandfather had got was that of a doctor employed by the Calcutta Corporation. This, however, was not something his father-in-law approved of. Prakash Chandra’s reasons were nationalistic – he was active in the Indian National Congress and could not bear the thought of his son-in-law working for the Government of British India. With support from Akhil Chandra Dutta, a community leader from Comilla, he appealed to the pioneering industrialist Sir Rajendra Nath Mookerjee and had my grandfather placed in the hospital at the iron ore mines in Gua, then in Bihar. Later, my grandfather was transferred to the Chiria mines and finally settled down in the steel town of Burnpur. Most of the extended family from Merkuta had followed my grandfather to Gua and had finally moved to Burnpur. The family finally set down roots in Burnpur in 1940 well before the Partition. To my generation, Burnpur was home but to my father’s generation, the idea of home or desher bari invoked Merkuta and Comilla, places that from 1947 onwards existed on the other side of the border.

I learnt much in the course of this interview. Since my uncle wanted to introduce me to the vast expansive landscape within which the history of the family unfolded, he had taken care to give me so many details about places that my generation was unfamiliar with. The interview had created a pleasant mood of reminiscence with my aunt, Barnana (Bubu) joining in. It turned out that my aunt, who had married into the Choudhury family and had never visited her husband’s village, knew many of these stories. I did not pause to ask how she knew them. Had she heard them from her husband? Or from my grandmother? Or had she picked them up while serving food at family gatherings? Or when after a large meal the visitors and the family rested together telling stories and dozing off. But her easy recall of most of these stories alerts me to the fact that these stories were part of the family’s collective memory.

I had suggested in a talk some years ago that displaced populations rely on a ‘memory community’ to make their past experiences meaningful. But as I listen to my uncle and become aware of my aunt’s participation, I realise that the ‘memory community’ does not remain confined to those who had shared in those experiences. In fact, ‘memory communities’ draw in people who listen and pay attention, quite often other family members who then make these narratives their own.

As our interview progresses, I ask a question as my uncle pauses for breath. It is a seemingly innocuous question – how did my uncle, my father and their siblings learn to speak in English? The bookshelves at home bore witness to their interest in reading books in English and Bengali.  But, I reason, that they had all studied in Bengali medium schools and spoke Bengali at home. So how did they learn to speak English so fluently? This question, I realise almost as soon as I ask it, puts my uncle and my aunt on the defensive.

“Why would we not know English? Englishmen worked at the hospital where our father worked.  And I could speak well because at the Mines [where our father worked] we played with the Sahib-kids – the white kids. That wouldn’t have worked without English. In Burnpur, my friends were Anglo-Indians, so I could speak colloquial English.”

He then recounts an anecdote that illustrated his relationship not only to the English language but also to colonial culture. He was a frequent visitor to the home of a white couple from Goa – probably of Portuguese extraction and had gone for a local celebration of the coronation of George VI on 12 May 1937:

“I remember the coronation of George VI. I must have been five and a half. I have forgotten a lot, but I remember this incident. At that time, our father was in Gua. There was a Mrs D’Souza, we used to call her ‘aunty’. She used to love me a lot. They had cows and she would always give me a glass of milk when I went to her house. They had two dogs and we used to play with them. During the coronation celebrations, our father did not plan to take me. So Mrs D’Souza asked, ‘Doctor, where is sonny?’ My father replied, ‘I thought it was too hot to take him there.’ She insisted, ‘No! [He must come]. It is going to be a big event.’

She sent a car with a trusted driver for me and I joined them. The celebrations were taking place in Chaibasa – 70 miles away from Gua. It was the district headquarters of Singbhum district. It was a huge field where there were sporting events and an excellent sit-down lunch. Aunty took me to the table and put a napkin around my neck. I already knew how to use a knife and fork – I had learnt at the D’Souza home. But I had put my fork facing down and the bearer just took away my plate. Then aunty explained to me – how to place the fork on the plate. She said, ‘If you want more put your fork facing up and wide, if you don’t want more then place your knife and fork close together and if you place your fork facing down it means you are done and they will take your plate away.’ So I learnt ‘table manners’ from her that day.”

In hindsight, I realise that my question about linguistic ability was historically naïve. My uncle, like my father and all his other siblings had grown up in colonial India, and of course, they all had to learn English. Besides, the family’s social identity as a doctor’s family also ensured their exposure to English families who worked in India at that time. I was slow to historically contextualise my uncle’s experience of growing up. My question about speaking English had been prompted not so much by historical understanding as by my own experience of growing up in this large, joint family. Even though they sent us to convent school, our parents discouraged us from speaking in English at home. We had to speak in Bengali. Apart from that, we were also exposed to the dialect that the family spoke in Merkuta and Comilla whenever the extended family gathered. My question assumed for my family a strange kind of linguistic nationalism much before its time.

In the second interview with my uncle which I conducted the following year, he insisted on recounting stories about my father. Once again, he tells me very little about himself, practically skimming over the details of his working life at the steel factory where four of his brothers and several cousins also worked. At the end of his second interview, he spoke once again about the village and the railway station at Akhaura. The village house no longer belonged to the family. The Partition of 1947 was followed by a long drawn out process of calculating compensation for the village homes in erstwhile East Bengal that had come to be designated ‘Enemy Property’. But even after 1947, for some years, my uncle and his siblings continued to visit their mother’s parents in Comilla. Their grandfather, Prakash Chandra Dasgupta had decided not to come to India and continued living in Comilla which had become a part of East Pakistan. The photograph I use in this post was taken during my uncle’s visit to Comilla in 1955. This photograph was taken by a studio photographer who was usually invited to the Comilla house whenever Prakash Chandra’s family visited from India. In the years to come, my uncle would become an accomplished photographer and all family photographs at our home in Burnpur would be taken by him.

As I listen again to the audio recordings of my uncle’s interviews, I wonder why he felt so compelled to share stories about the larger, extended family rather than talk about his own life. There was nostalgia, of course. But there was also a sense of sharing his understanding of the past and an attempt to make it a shared past. In both interviews, he always referred to our relationship as he recounted stories about my father or grandfather, referring to my father as ‘your father’ and only sometimes ‘my dada‘- elder brother, or mentioning his father as ‘your dadu – your grandfather’ rather than ‘my father’. Were his stories a way of weaving the fabric of our family legacy? Perhaps, it was. But it was also an attempt to draw me and my cousin, Soumitra (who was present through both interviews) into the ‘memory community’ that he belonged to. The landscapes he visited in memory were thus implanted in our minds. So when I read in 2017 that the Rohingya refugees would be rehabilitated by the Government of Bangladesh in the Hatiya Islands, I think of my great grandfather starting out from Hatiya Islands, his boat laden with gifts, rowing slowly towards his village on the banks of the Titas. And as I sit and write this during the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I begin to gain a glimmer of understanding of his brother, Bhagawancharan’s raging at fate as he grieved the loss of his wife and two sons to a different epidemic more than a century ago. I guess, my uncle had managed successfully to recruit me into his ‘memory community’.

Indira Chowdhury

Acknowledgements:

I thank my cousin Soumitra Kumar Choudhury, my uncles Biswaranjan Dasgupta, Parthasarathi Dasgupta, my aunts Reba Pal and Sushmita Basu for discussing details of our family history with me. As always, I thank Vivek Dhareshwar for insightful conversations.

The talk I refer to here is my keynote address titled, “Possessing the past: Oral History and Memories of Displacement” delivered at the Australian Biennal National Oral History Conference titled “Moving Memories: Oral History in a Global World” at Sydney, 13-16 September 2017.

Some of my ideas on oral history, family history, the challenges of interviewing family members and intersubjectivity in oral history interviewing were inspired by the following writers.

Finnegan, Ruth. “Family Myths, Memories and Interviewing” in Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson eds., The Oral History Reader, London: Routledge, 2006, pp. 177-183.

Norkunas, Martha. “The vulnerable listener” in Anna Sheftel and Stacey Zembryzycki eds.,  Oral History Off the Record: Toward an Ethnography of Practice,  New York: Palgraves Macmillan, 2013, p. 81-96.

Yow, Valerie, “’Do I like them too much?’ : Effects of the Oral History Interview on the Interviewer and Vice-Versa”, in Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson eds., The Oral History Reader, London: Routledge, 2006, pp. 54-72.

Oral History and the Mirror of Time: My encounter with PVK

P.V.Krishnamoorthy photographed at his grand daughter, Priya Sundar’s home at Ulsoor, 11 January 2012.

“I was born on a birthday that nobody will forget – April 1.st” He chuckled. “And at a time which nobody will forget,” he continued, laughter bubbling. “Char sou bis – you know the Indian Penal Code!” He was referring to Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code that specifically deals with cheating. Originally drafted by Thomas Babbington Macaulay in 1835, the IPC had come into force in 1862. Section 420 is especially familiar to Indians and is a synonym for a cheat in several Indian languages. The joke does not escape me, and I join in his merry laughter. This was my first interview with P.V. Krishnamoorthy, fondly called “PVK” by all those who knew him. My friend, Lata Mani, feminist historian and contemplative writer had introduced me to him. Perhaps because she knew well my deep fondness for stories about the past and knew too her “PVK” mama’s remarkable way of recounting them.

PVK began his career in broadcasting in All India Radio and served as Station Director in several cities. He went on to become the first Director General of Doordarshan. These two institutions – the first begun in British India and the second in independent India were interesting in themselves; interviewing someone who had first-hand experience of both was a rare privilege.

Our first meeting began predictably – I asked his full name and biographical details that could provide me with the context of his growing up years and his interesting career path. He began with self-deprecating humour: “My name is almost like a postal address – Padi Venkataraman Krishnamoorthy Shastri.” Padi – it turned out was the name of his “native” village, which although located just outside Madras (now Chennai) was quite inaccessible in the early twentieth century. But the area, he tells me, has since become a manufacturing hub with several companies establishing their factories there including TVS – one of largest motorcycle manufacturers in India. The village that lends its name to his family, however, is hardly the remembered village, as PVK’s father had migrated to Rangoon (now Yangon). The V in PVK’s name is for Venkataraman – his father and Krishnamoorthy is his own name. He goes on to elucidate: “Shastri, is the unfortunate caste we belong to. But my father dropped the caste name because it is totally irrelevant. So, I don’t call myself Shastri. I know nothing about the shastras in any case.”

PVK’s father, Venkataraman, was the eldest among his siblings. He worked at the Saidapur municipality in Madras. When his father died, he had to find ways of looking after his whole family. With help from his mother’s brother, who was in Burma, he found a job in the prison department in Rangoon and moved there with his family. “And so,” PVK continued, “A saintly man like my father served in the prison department all his life.”

It was not unusual for Indians to travel and work in Burma which belonged administratively to the Bengal Presidency in the British Indian Empire. The family lived in Thompson Street (possibly Thompson Road, renamed Botataung Pagoda Road after Burma became independent in 1948) on the upper story of the Burma Educational Trust Girl’s School. PVK’s father was of one of the trustees of The Burma Educational Trust, and the school, he tells me, was “essentially a theosophical school. Although it did not preach theosophy as such, it had the ideals of theosophy behind it – Annie Besant’s idea of education etc.” His father’s commitment to theosophy is one of the threads in the interview. Indeed, he wonders aloud if he was named Krishnamoorthy after the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti who visited Rangoon a year or two before PVK was born. Another possible, albeit mundane, reason he was given this name was that it rhymed with the name of his elder brother, Ramamoorthy.

Most oral history interviews swing between past and present. But that movement is not a linear back and forth between the two timeframes. Mediated through memory, that oscillation traces the process of making sense of the past in the present. As PVK speaks about his childhood in Burma he is keenly aware that those spaces no longer exist physically. He had visited the city of his childhood on a UN assignment and witnessed changes that had erased the landscape that was once so familiar to him. However, there is no nostalgia as he announces that Indians should never harbour a grudge on account of that past not being honoured. After all, he reflects, while the British exploited the Burmese, Indians too, generally took advantage of them. It is at this point he asked me if he could talk a little about his father.

Detours in oral history interviews are not surprising but this diversion has, as I discover, a deeper relationship to PVK’s own story. As a young man, his father would go to the Irrawady wharf in the evenings after work with his cousin. As he and his cousin whiled away their time singing, they would observe coolies – labourers from Andhra Pradesh, load rice bags into the holds of anchored ships. These illiterate labourers could not count the number of bags they had carried and would for most part be paid whatever the supervisor said they had carried. Instead of confronting the supervisor, the two cousins decided to teach them to count in their own language – Telugu.

“And they taught them. My father spoke fluent Telugu. So musically he used to teach them – okati, rendu, mooru, naalugu, aidu [one, two three, four, five] – and they didn’t teach them more than twenty-five, because it was not necessary. [This was] what is called functional literacy today! These youngsters didn’t know it was functional literacy and yet they did functional literacy – [they did] not burden those fellows with useless information. And that exploitation stopped. Every time they used to go up [the plank, carrying a bag of rice] they would shout [counting aloud] – “One, two, three, four.” After some time, those boys [labourers] said, “We get letters from our family. We can’t read them”. And this is how the night school started.”

PVK describes the scene as if he was there. So I ask to clarify if his father’s involvement with the night school had happened before he was born. He replied with a laugh, “No! I was not even thought of!” Now when I listen again to the recording, I am struck by his use of the present tense to describe the scene before him – as if he had been an eyewitness to this incident. He had moved from the time and space we were in at that moment to a time and space far back in the past – from his granddaughter, Priya’s home in Bangalore to Rangoon at the turn of the century, at a time before his birth. His deviation from the interview to reflect on his father alerts us to the ways in which intergenerational memory surfaces and flows into the collective memory of another generation. For PVK this particular incident had an added significance that I soon found out.

The night school PVK’s father started in Rangoon expanded to include unskilled, low-ranking workers from government offices. PVK links this incident to something he did throughout his career in broadcasting in radio and television – using the concept of functional literacy to make learning accessible to a large mass of underprivileged population in India. Personally too, he always taught the children of those who worked at his home as domestic help. But it was important for him to return to that moment of inspiration from the distant past in his very first interview with me. “Memory”, as Luisa Passerini had discovered in the course of her pioneering work in oral history, “can lead beyond events to the processes that go on around, underneath and within them. It is the contact with memory that has led historians – or some of us – to accept the idea that a history of subjectivity can exist and that we can explore the many ways of constructing it.”

When I listen to the recording of PVK’s first interview with me, I am struck by the fact that of all the things he did in his illustrious career as a broadcaster and a musician, it was radio for literacy and educational programmes in Indian television that he chose as glowing examples of his achievements. The history of All India Radio and Doordarshan had to wait for later sessions. This incident, which he recounted in his first interview held the key to understanding what he valued deeply. It was also important for another reason. It was PVK’s way of forging a powerful bond that linked him to the fading and nearly forgotten legacy of his father. As I listen again, I am reminded of a Haiku by Murakami Kijo (1865-1938):

First autumn morning:

the mirror I stare into

shows my father’s face.

PVK passed away on 16th October 2019 just six months short of his 99th birthday. What I and many others missed this year on 1st April was a birthday email from PVK which usually began: “It is customary to be greeted on one’s birthday. As, arguably, the senior most I take the initiative to greet and bless you on my 98th birthday on Fools day April 1st.” Last year’s email still makes me smile.

I conducted three longish interviews with PVK – each one of them richly textured with many layers of the past. I have published an excerpt from his last interview in Varta – the newsletter of the Oral History Association of India. I shall revisit my interviews with PVK later in this blog. This post is for PVK’s 99th birthday – with gratitude and tenderness.

Indira Chowdhury

Acknowledgements:

I am grateful to Lata Mani for introducing me to P.V. Krishnamoorthy eight years ago. I am also grateful to Chetan Subramanian, Priya Sundar and Indu Balachandran for being gracious hosts whenever I went to interview or meet with PVK. I thank Piyusha Chatterjee for patiently transcribing the interviews.

Passerini, Luisa. A Passion for Memory”, History Workshop Journal, No. 72 (Autumn 2011), pp. 241-250.

Of lost dreams and wandering artefacts: A life story interview with an artisan

Interviewing Gangaramji at his home in Diyari, Uttarakhand, May 2012.

I see the dreams of Gangaramji many days before I actually meet him. Though I don’t yet know that these are his dreams when I look at the intricate wood carvings on the doors and windows of my friend’s house on top of a hill in Satoli, Uttarakhand. I don’t yet know his name, but the elaborately carved doors and window frames fascinate me. When I visit Aarohi, the NGO founded by my friend, Sushil Sharma, I notice the same kind of wood-carved pillars in the building. I soon learn that these are done by Gangaramji, one of the last Likhai artists in the region. I also hear he is frail and old and has had no students; with him, people tell me grimly, this art of woodcarving would die.

As a kid I had travelled with my parents in Garhwal region on the lap of the Himalayas. I recall seeing intricately carved doors and windows on the houses we passed but I did not know what this craft was called. It turned out that Oona, Sushil’s late wife and co-founder of Aarohi had documented the practice of Likhai in the area soon after their NGO began functioning in 1992. The documentation is impressive, it includes photographs and research on the wood used, details about the Forest Laws that had placed restrictions on procurement of raw material, the motifs used and case studies of artisans. Gangaramji is one of the artisans who Oona had spoken to. In her documentation, the two artisans she had spoken to both felt the art of Likhai was slowly dying and the only way it might survive them would be to have a training school that taught this craft and popularised it among the youth of the region. Oona’s report correctly pointed to the link between the complexities of transit laws that related to the cutting down of trees inside forests and outside. The colonial economic policies were framed to make the British the sole benefactors of India’s timber resources. The complex transit permits were introduced by the Indian Forest Act of 1878 and retained in the Forest Act of 1927. The Forest Conservation Act which was formulated more than three decades after Indian Independence swerved towards conservation, did not make it easier for Likhai artists to procure the right kind of wood for their craft. The lack of the right raw material was one of the obvious reasons for the craft to perish.

Windows carved by Gangaramji at Sushil Sharma’s house in Satoli.

But was that the only reason for this craft to be faced with imminent extinction? Why were there no craftsmen learning this art?  And if the traditional arts in societies like India which had come late into industrialisation, were family-based, why had this craft not been passed on to the children of the artisan? Oona had talked extensively to the Likhai craftsmen, and yet the documentation did not include any oral history resources. Encouraged by Sushil and Sheeba Sen (who was then part of  Aarohi), I decide to undertake a journey to Gangaramji’s village to interview him. Like most oral historians, I rarely travel without my audio recorder. For haven’t we all experienced the serendipity of stumbling across somebody whose compelling life story was waiting to be recorded?

Diyari, Gangaramji’s village was not close and communication was erratic. It took a couple of days for the NGO to reach out to the aged and frail Gangaramji to ask if he is willing to indulge me. Once we heard from him, I started out for his village with Nikhila Nanduri, one of my undergraduate students from Bangalore, who happened to be interning with Aarohi. The car dropped us off at the foot of a hill; the driver explained that though this would be a longer walk it was less arduous. But even this climb that involved walking up a steep gradient and crossing a hill was not easy for someone unused to mountainous terrains. As we reach the top of the first hill we encounter Gangaramji. He looks as ancient as the hills and as gentle; his smile reflecting the warmth of the sunny day. He clasps his cane in his gnarled, arthritic hands as he raises them in greeting. “Namaste”. He was waiting to walk us downhill to a tea stall on the main road. He is hesitant to take us home, as he thinks we townsfolk would appreciate the tea at the shop better. “But we would like to see your tools,” I say. That is all it takes to convince him to change his mind.

Our first sighting of Gangaramji at the top of the hill.

We follow him up another hill to his home. After he has made us sit inside, he hauls his sack of tools into the room and begins laying them out with great care. The interview does not begin in the usual manner, he begins by talking about the aches and pains he has – in his knees, his back and his hands. But soon he smiles with pride and says, “You know, the “English” tools that are available are not of much use to me, so I had my own tools made. Some of these tools are very old – my father would do the same work, no? Some tools are new – sometimes tools get lost then we have to get them made again.” So, we begin in media res, with Gangaramji speaking animatedly about his tools. Indeed, these tools seem an extension of his hands as he demonstrates how he uses the cardboard stencils to carve patterns on the wood.

“When did you begin learning this work?” I ask. I realise soon that it is not a question that he finds easy to answer. Not because he has forgotten, nor because the early years have receded from memory for this eighty-five-year-old, but because the craft tradition, which had once been part of his everyday life was fast disappearing. That fact looms large before him. For him there is no specific point of beginning. “This was a pratha – a tradition, earlier.” He grew up with it. 

Gangaramji was thirteen when he began learning the craft of Likhai. The process of learning a craft is complicated as Richard Sennett reminds us: “The apprentice is often expected to absorb the master’s lesson by osmosis; the master’s demonstration shows an act successfully performed, and the apprentice has to figure out what turned the key in the lock.” Despite belonging to a family of craftsmen, Gangaramji did not learn from his father. His teacher, Nariram used to come to his house from his village in Behruli and master and student would work together all day, sitting in close proximity and working on different parts of a piece of wood. One cannot learn without a “Master – a guru – just as you have a master who teaches you to read and write in school.” He explains. Gangaramji learnt from his teacher the use of right tools – tools must be appropriate for the design you wish to carve. After five years of apprenticeship, in 1946, Gangaramji began working on his own. He tells me that his guru, Nariram had later looked at his work and said that though he had taught him, Gangaram could now become his guru! A compliment that still makes him chuckle with pleasure. “I learnt with five tools but created a hundred and fifty tools – perhaps, that is why he said this to me.” The creation of a range of new tools was perhaps Gangaramji’s way of responding to the challenge of working with inadequate tools, as Sennett points out, lessons are ingrained in “the very incompleteness of the tool”.

Curious about the making of these beautiful patterns I wondered if Likhai has set conventions of design? Gangaramji smiles and says he imagines the designs in his mind – in fact, the designs appeared in his dreams whenever he was making a door or a pillar. I can recognise a pinecone here and a lotus there. “These are things I think up,” He tells me. He first draws out some of the intricate patterns on paper and translates them on to wood – enlarging them if the design calls for it. Doors and pillars carved by him have travelled far and wide. He has made pillars, doors and windows for “the doctor’s house” in Satoli  – as he refers to my friend, Sushil; some of the doors and pillars he has carved have travelled to Ranikhet nearby and far away Delhi. At eighty-five, he no longer works on Likhai. “This work has stopped now.” And adds, “I am too worn out to continue.” Houses in the region no longer have these exquisitely carved doors – “plain” doors and windows is what everyone wants now. He worries that nobody will inherit his tools as nobody has really learnt from him. “I never became a guru” – he says this in a matter-of-fact way. “The young people now all want to be ‘heroes’ – they do not want to learn this craft.” His sons earn their living driving taxis in the hills – earning in the tourist season and struggling when the season ends. Later, Nikhila surprises me with her perceptive comment about Gangaramji’s lack of students – “Just as each pattern needs the right tool, every master needs the right student” – an insight that came to her as she watched him demonstrate his tools and one that stays with me. Perhaps Gangaramji never found the right students within his family or in the region. Though he tells us of one local student who has been coming to him to learn, he is uncertain about the depth and intensity of his interest, or its extent. But he recounts all this with no bitterness. He laughs as he tells me that one needs shaukh or passion to continue doing this work.

Gangaramji passed away quietly in 2018 – six years after I had interviewed him. His sole student never really learnt from him despite being encouraged by local NGOs, as Sheeba Sen (who has since founded Alaap) tells me. Gangaramji’s tools probably lie forgotten in some corner of his home or perhaps they have been put to other uses. I wonder what caused the death of Likhai as a craft in the region? Was it because the forest laws made the wood needed for Likhai so difficult to procure? Or because there were no governmental interventions that created craft schools and made the craft viable as a livelihood option? Or had Gangaramji’s Likhai doors travelled too far away – to cities where nobody knew or cared about their making? The death of a craft also alerts us to the fact that the dreams of the artisan die with him.  The artefact that travels too far away, is no longer available to inspire local artists. When a craft form disappears, it ceases to be part of the everyday life of the community that once created it. Over time the memory of the artefact and the knowledge of how it was made fades too, with it wanes the ability of the hands to use the tools involved in their making, the capacity of the mind to grasp the challenges presented by old tools and the imagination and technical familiarity to invent new ones. The fragile artisanal community bereft of confidence struggles with new ways of putting together their lives, a task that leaves them too exhausted to dream up designs or create tools to translate their dreams on wood. I cannot help hoping though that one day, the doors, windows and cupboards Gangaramji has carved for his own home will re-ignite in the next generation a curiosity that inspires and awakens new dreams. Perhaps, many generations later, a young person will discover his sack of tools, begin tinkering with them and passionately embrace and re-invent this craft that the region was once known for. I can hear the old man’s chuckle as I write this down.

Indira Chowdhury

Gangaramji and his wife Sitadevi in the courtyard of their home.

Acknowledgements:

I am grateful to Nikhila Nanduri for insightful discussions as well as her translation and interpretation of the interview into a thoughtful graphic form as also her reflections on the process. As always, I thank Vivek Dhareshwar for insightful conversations.

Sennett, Richard. The craftsman. Yale University Press, 2008.

Nikhila Nanduri, “Hills and Stones” in Orijit Sen and Vidyun Sabhaney (eds.), First Hand: Graphic Non-Fiction from India, Volume 1, Yoda Press, 2016.

Nikhila Nanduri, “Graphic narratives from the hills: a wood-carving tradition in Uttarakhand, India”, Oral History, Autumn 2018, 46, No.2 (2018), 97–108.

“Don’t ask about that”: Memory and Difficult Emotions in Oral History

L-R: R. Sowdhamini, Veronica Rodrigues, Indira Chowdhury, Jayant Udgaonkar, K. Vijayraghavan with P.K. Maitra, NCBS 2003. Photograph: Avinash Chinchure

I first met Professor Pabitra Kumar Maitra on 2 April 2003. I had just started my interviews with Obaid Siddiqi, the scientist who founded the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS). But his institution had a longer history as Siddiqi started the Molecular Biology Group at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Bombay in 1962. Maitra was the second scientist to be recruited to that Group in 1963. He had worked on glycolysis using yeast as his model organism and had been very successful in discovering the enzymes and their functions. He had retired, of course and for many years was living with his sister in Kolkata. I had decided that I would try and meet him when I visited the city next. Before meeting Maitra, I met several scientists who knew and admired him. I was curious about him – did he retire and leave Bombay, the city where he worked and made his path-breaking discoveries? No, many of told me, he had stayed on in Bombay after he retired and had even worked in Pune for a while. What made him move, I wondered. Well, this is not something you should talk to him about, but his wife, Zita died, and he left Bombay and he has been something of an exile since then. It has been hard for him, they told me. We are telling you, they said, so you are aware of what not to ask about.

Interviewing scientists was an intimidating task for me, but six months of regular conversations with scientists at NCBS and a few interview sessions with Obaid Siddiqi had put me at ease. Being told in no uncertain terms that there were personal areas that I should not wander into, made me uncomfortable. Not because I wanted to probe anything private but because ‘PKM’ as he was affectionately called, had done most of his scientific work with Zita Lobo, his research assistant, friend, and later, his wife. Was that the reason, I wondered, he stayed away from science.

My first meeting with PKM was at his sister’s home in Kolkata. I picked my way into the living room through the front veranda which had flooded because of a washing machine disaster. As I greeted him and settled down, PKM said by way of introduction, “You know, I was never the type to pay attention to gadgets that could help my sister. But Zita was the opposite – she bought this washing machine for my sister.” So even before I could begin my interview, Zita had entered our conversation. He continued telling me about Zita’s caring nature and how she always considered the needs of others before her own. The first interview which focussed on his early life and the science he was taught in school went smoothly. When we were done, he told me how he felt about being far away from science – “It is a bit like being in a desert – absolutely dry with no water in sight.” I am too cautious to probe further but the metaphor stays with me. After one more session at his sister’s house, I cautiously asked if he would like of visit the Institute his colleague, Obaid Siddiqi had founded in Bangalore. The idea seems to appeal to him.

I was at the time, a self-taught oral historian who had read books based on oral history and an extraordinary number of oral history transcriptions online. I had also read several books on oral history methodology but had very little by way of practical advice. It struck me that though PKM seemed willing to mention his wife to me, I still had no idea how I could ask him about her. The little experience I had told me that the fruits of patience were worth waiting for. So, I waited until my fourth interview to raise the question that I was told not to ask. By now he trusted me and since we were working with the Life Story approach, we had arrived at the point where he had joined work at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in 1963. Before we began recording that day, I asked if he would like to talk about the work he did with Zita. His response was immediate – “It is difficult to talk about my work without talking about her.” And I suddenly knew my approach to the question had to change and I asked:

“Prof. Maitra I was wondering, since we were talking about ’60s and ’70s is this the right place to remember Zita Lobo and the science she did with you. She joined you in ’65 as an Assistant. Can you tell us a little about that?”

In his answer he wanted to address several issues – Zita’s modest beginnings as an assistant, her progress into higher education and institutional constraints:

“Yes. The bulk of what she did was as a kind of student. She was not given special place by the institute. Some of it I had to exact out almost. I said if you do not take care of such a person, then whom are the rules for? Don’t be miserly with this. When she joined, she was just a matriculate ­- she was an assistant. She had to be told everything, she didn’t know anything. But she used to cook very well. And I don’t know whether it is related to this, but surely, given the right protocol she could bring out the best.”

Zita had started working early to support her family. She was an enumerator for the corporation of Bombay before she joined Maitra’s Lab as an assistant. She went on to work on his project on glycolytic pathways and published her first paper with Maitra even before she had a B.Sc. PKM spoke of her first publication and how he thought about it: “[I said] Zita surely should [be] given authorship. She had done the work almost equally, if not more.” And then added, “We had a lot of fun!” Later that afternoon, as we walk back from the canteen post-lunch, he asks, “You know that song – ‘I could have danced all night?’ – working with Zita felt a bit like that.”

By then we were completely at ease with each other, but we had not had the most difficult conversation of all – Zita’s unfortunate death from lung cancer. I was hesitant to ask the question but in hindsight it strikes me that when conversation flows during an oral history interview, what you want to know presents itself naturally – growing organically out of the conversation. While we dwelled on Zita’s academic success – she completed her B.Sc., her M.Sc. (both by research) and her Ph.D. while working at Maitra’s lab – I asked if she became faculty finally. She never did. She became a reader and then, PKM added, speaking quickly – “I think that’s the highest point she reached. And then she died.” He elaborated that she died within a month of being diagnosed with lung cancer. We pause. That’s when I find myself saying, “So you were married for a very short time.” He admits that it was very short and how she had been his student and he had become emotionally involved much later. Yet, when he had asked her to marry him, she had declined at first saying things between them were going well and she did not see marriage as a necessary end. Even after all these years, he is surprised and even shocked by the boldness of her thinking. Most of all he admired her for her straightforward honesty. “She was a person with no knots…I was lucky. Not so lucky in the end because she left.”

PK Maitra and Zita Lobo had married around the time he retired in 1997. Soon after he had taken up work at the Agarkar Institute in Pune. He commuted while Zita continued to work at TIFR in Bombay until she passed away in 2000. Maitra found it hard to continue working in Pune – without Zita he felt completely alone. What followed was a kind of self-reflection that enriched our dialogue: “But this is what makes a man, after all, I am an individual with my own past. So, I couldn’t stay anywhere without Zita, except with my own family. So, I went back to Calcutta.”

Suddenly, a space opened up for me to ask if that was the reason why he stopped doing science. And PKM’s answer still rings in my ears:

“I decided not to do any more science, because it was very painful for me. Zita and I were so closely knit in our science, it is very difficult to know who did what. So it was very difficult for me. So, I decided that enough was enough.”

Scientist friends who had advised me not to ask about Zita had not understood that Maitra’s exile from science was not rooted in the realm of the personal and the emotional. In course of my interview with Maitra, I discovered that it was unnecessary and meaningless to compartmentalise his private life and his scientific one. Zita, his wife and companion, was very much entwined with his scientific life. Therefore, when Maitra spoke about his scientific life, he felt free to talk about her and what her loss meant to him. The discomfort and unease we often feel in the presence of interviewees who had suffered deep loss comes from a self-imposed censorship. Remembrance, I found brings consolation and even a sense of relief to the narrator. In fact, it brings more – most interviewees look for ways in which to affirm what they cherished and want to talk about the loss of what had been so precious to them. Therefore, the interview demands from us patience and fearlessness. It demands that we listen, even when it makes us feel ill at ease. My interviewee, PKM was never once uncomfortable while speaking about Zita – indeed, little details of their life together flowed out, joyfully at times. He spoke willingly, almost as if he was waiting to be asked. P.K. Maitra passed away on 5 September 2007, seven years after Zita.

I am reminded of my interview with PKM soon after the untimely passing of my friend, Rinku. I am initially too stunned to really talk to her husband or son. In the past, whenever we would meet, Rinku and I would almost immediately dive into conversations as if they had been left unfinished from last time. In our chats there was that casual and fierce intimacy of our teenage years, as if we were still in college where no one else mattered. In all these conversations we rarely included the rest of the family. I had had conversations with her husband, Uday but even though these were warm and friendly, we rarely touched on the personal. With Rinku gone, I worried about the deeply private nature of my first conversation with him. And now after more than one and a half decades, the learnings from PKM’s interview resurfaced bringing with it not the obvious lessons of patience and fearlessness but a heightened awareness of the meaning of grief and consolation. I find that the only way I can start this difficult conversation is by connecting with my own sense of loss. This is what I share with him and with Utsav, their son. Our shared grief generates a language in which we can talk about our dearly loved friend. Suddenly, we are recollecting her quirks, her laughter, her kindness and, also the pain and suffering she went through. Sometimes, as we talk, it feels as if she is there with us, part of all our talk. Uday tells me that ours is an “inherited friendship” and I treasure that sense of legacy. But most of all, I cherish the insight into memory and loss that the moment brings: I realise that the lessons of oral history are not just about history and orality. Rather, they are about abiding with uncomfortable questions and the difficult emotions that arise in the course of an interview and absorbing their lessons. For unbeknownst to us, these learnings re-emerge at challenging moments in our own lives enabling us to find solace in the very act of remembering.

Indira Chowdhury

Acknowledgement: The complete interview of Professor P.K. Maitra (1932-2007) is housed at the TIFR Archives. I thank TIFR Archives and am grateful to NCBS for giving me the opportunity to interview PKM in 2003. This post is dedicated to Rinku a.k.a. Sharmila Mukherjee who we lost in January 2019.

“We are not snake charmers”: Encounters with identity and reptiles

At a village of snake charmers, 2008.

In 2008 I was helping an NGO put together an oral history archive. Armed with my minidisc recorder, I had travelled to some remote villages in India where this NGO had had an impact. I was visiting remote village in Madhya Pradesh because the children here had demanded that their elders hire for them a teacher to help them with their school homework. The elders had argued that they did not have the monetary resources, but the Sarpanch (village head) had with the help of the NGO worker and the school-going children conducted a quick survey of how much the village spent every year on smoking and drinking. The figure was a staggering Rs. 200,000 annually. Embarrassed, the adults in the village agreed that it was only fair to contribute Rs. 10 every month towards the fees of a private tutor. And that is how the children of this village, all of them first generation school-goers had found a teacher. This was an obvious success story that fitted in well with the NGO’s mission to understand its impact on the communities it had set out to nurture. But like most oral historians, I was happiest when exploring conversations that were about people – how they lived, what work they did and the ways in which they had learnt what they knew. And these simple questions revealed an interesting history about this little community.

The people I met at this village were all from the sapera community – they were traditional snake charmers. The colonial period had, as we know, made the snake charmer a symbol of India that was exotic and primitive. They played the been – a flute made from dried bottle gourd, and their snakes swayed to the music. I recall seeing these performances on the streets of my hometown as a kid. It was fascinating to watch the cobra uncoil from inside its basket and raise its head as the music started. Snake charmers would bring along several types of snakes and talk about them. Many also carried little boxes with live scorpions which they displayed to jittery children and adults. I remember one particular snake charmer who had brought with him a mongoose and demonstrated how the two arch enemies – the mongoose and the snake, fight. The crowd gathered around the performance would pay them, some would offer rice and vegetables to the snake charmers. Afterwards the sapera would wander off. They were never too far away to call into the house every time a nest of snakes was discovered in the garden. Most snake charmers also functioned as snake catchers in our little town. In 1972, the Indian Wildlife Protection Act banned snake charmers permanently. Even then they took nearly a decade to disappear. From the 1980s onwards I have not seen a sapera on the streets.

The Sarpanch (the village chief) of the village I was visiting was away so I met with the former Sarpanch who told me that most of the men worked as construction workers in the nearest town. They broke stones, carried bricks and helped move bags of cement. Did they ever learn how to catch and tame snakes? “Of course not! We are not snake charmers!” – the old man’s answer was too quick, too emphatic. So, I persisted, “ And you never learnt to play the been and make the snake dance?” “No!” he replied, “Our elders never taught us anything.” “And nobody keeps snakes here?” “No, no!” He shook his head to say there were no snakes in their homes. Then, sensing my disappointment, he added, “Well, there is a eighty year old man who has one – nobody minds that.” He continued with great seriousness, “It is now illegal to go out with snakes. We wouldn’t disobey the law.” Then, he said, almost to himself, “Except on naga panchami day when villagers worship snakes. We do go out on that day. But we don’t earn much.” The implication of his words does not escape me but I am unsure if it is the right moment to ask about the snakes that accompany them on the day of worship.

It turns out that there is a blind-man (who the villagers refer to as their own “Sur Das” – the blind medieval saint-poet) – the only one in the village who knows how to play the been. He is now summoned to join our meeting and before I know it a wicker basket is lowered at my feet and gently uncovered. A cobra sways to the strains of the blind snake charmer’s flute. What is clear is that the snake and the man are without fear; they share a language and communicate with each other; they seem to share a relationship that most of us living in cities could never grasp.

“None of the children learnt how to play the been?” I ask expecting to hear the villagers echo my outraged lament for a musical skill that would soon be extinct. But the old man is wise and knows that traditions change and are often reconfigured. “Our children don’t play the been but they are natural performers. Why don’t you go into the school building and hear them sing?” He urges. My urban sensibility anticipates a stereotypical “folk” song from the children of this community. Instead they sing two songs from Hindi films – a love song and a patriotic song. The children are seven or eight years old, their voices refreshing and naturally melodious; they sing with ease and enjoyment having made those songs their own.

As I am about to leave, a young boy, about nineteen joins us. I ask his name, he answers, and that’s when his grandfather interrupts. “But I would not like him to be known as a sapera – it is best you write that he is a saharia. Saharias are on the ‘List’.” His grandfather continues, “That way there will be some chance of “compensation”, and of course, also apply to the government schemes.” It strikes me that this old sapera was alerting me to the mechanisms by which the Constitution of India ensured the well-being of those it categorised as backward communities. Members of specific castes and tribal groups identified in this way could lay claims to the educational, economic and social empowerment schemes of the government. Since these saperas no longer belonged to a community that was identified as backward on the list, it was best to lay claim to being saharia, a different community that was named on the list. I did not at that point, fully comprehend the idea of “compensation”. I learn much later, that in the year 2000, the government had evicted people from 24 villages that were near a large Wildlife Sanctuary toil08i prepare for a wildlife conservation project. Most of the villagers belonged to the saharia community. They were moved into rocky farmlands with a small amount of money to build houses. This was probably the compensation, the old man referred to. The saperas were prevented by law from displaying their relationship with snakes in public and practising the trade which used to earn them a livelihood; the saharias were exiled from their natural environment by government order. Both communities now worked as unskilled labourers on construction sites. The work they now did was one that rendered their knowledge of the natural world useless and irrelevant. For the saperas, working with snakes was part of their world-making and it conferred on them their distinctive identity. If the law had criminalised their occupation, it had also erased their identity. Maybe, what I was hearing in the interview was their attempt to articulate a complex self-image that amalgamated their past, present and future – their earlier relationship with snakes and their knowledge of poisons, their present-day attempts to negotiate with the state mechanisms and perhaps a desire to metamorphose into performer-entertainers in the future. The world that they were a part of in the past was no longer available to them. Their struggles in the present offered them a livelihood but no occupation nor identity. Their legacy could perhaps live on in some form if they presented their children as performers. But that would be a dubious legacy, disengaged from their past, disconnected from nature and tarnished by a profound loss.

Yet the relationship of the saperas to snakes had been nurtured and sustained through generations, I was not quite convinced that the law could really have severed such a bond permanently. As we leave the village, the NGO worker accompanying me whispers that every home had at least three snakes. “They cannot live without their snakes,” he smiled. One of the largest wildlife sanctuaries lies just beyond their village. I wondered at that time, why communities who know animals intimately, were never viewed by the state as people who could have contributed to the making of such sanctuaries? Could the sapera community with its knowledge of snakes and poisons not make a useful contribution to a wildlife sanctuary? Perhaps, I mused, they could serve as guides, enabling visitors to really observe animals in their habitat. While at first the idea seemed interesting, I soon realised with a sense of deep shame that I was thinking of thrusting together, by force, two mutually opposed worlds. The saperas and other communities that live among animals, or are familiar with them, represent a world that views animals and humans as belonging to the same circle of life; wildlife sanctuaries, on the other hand, are places where animals are “looked  at” apparently within their “natural habitat”. This act of looking at animals, represents what John Berger has called the “marginalization of animals”, a process that has been sadly followed by the “marginalization and disposal of the only class who, throughout history, has remained familiar with animals and maintained the wisdom which accompanies that familiarity: the middle and the small peasant.” (John Berger, “Why Look at Animals? 1977 in About Looking, 1980). To Berger’s peasants, I would add the tribal population of India who remain familiar with animals and have the wisdom that comes with that familiarity. Their perceptions and understanding remain unacknowledged, misunderstood and often ignored by state mechanisms. It is their wisdom that reflects in the old man’s statement, “We are not snake charmers”. They are not. In fact, they are much more than that, because they share their world with the snakes and offer people like me a tiny glimpse into their vanished world, one which I could never hope to make my own.

I have deliberately refrained from naming the villagers and their village I write about here, but I acknowledge gratefully these insights they offered me like so many gifts.

Indira Chowdhury

The eternal sadness of an oral historian

During the very first interview I did with my mother, I had an intense sense of time running out. I felt a sense of urgency about recording the stories that I had heard from her. This was not an unfamiliar sensation when I went to interview elders – there was always a sense that I had to “finish” the interview before time ran out. Looking back, this sense of time running out haunted me when I sat at different points with two friends closer to my age when they were dying of cancer, one of them couldn’t be persuaded to record her stories and the other immersed herself in her writing till the end of her days. When I lost both within a short span of time, I realised that there is never a right time to be recording oral histories, because time flitted away unpredictably, capriciously. Too soon.

My life as an oral historian officially began with interviewing Obaid Siddiqi in 2003. These interviews began at the institute he founded in Bangalore, the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS). Since Professor Siddiqi was a celebrated scientist, the burden of this task was immense. I felt paralysed with anxiety. The younger scientists who worked at NCBS or at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) where Siddiqi had started the first molecular biology unit in India, softened the edges of my anxiety with stories about Obaid. In the two years I spent at NCBS I interviewed him for fifteen hours. I spent much more time just walking around the institute grounds with him, having lunch and generally chatting in his Lab. Obaid talked at length about his family, his school days, the choices he made and about his training as a scientist, relating past and present through the lens of his insights on life itself. Long after I left NCBS, I would run into him at every meeting that I attended at NCBS or TIFR. Our conversations continued even though officially my project was over. When Obaid died unexpectedly in 2013 from injuries caused by an accident, like everyone else I was shocked. In a completely illogical way, I missed his presence at his memorial meeting. Since then, that sense of loss often echoes through my mind when I talk about my oral history interview with him, or when I write about the history of biology in India. It leads me to wonder why I had missed asking him questions that now insist on answers. In theory, I have always known that oral history interviews are always incomplete because one cannot ask all questions. Besides, interviews are subjective, and the interviewee might offer an answer with a different emphasis a week later or elaborate their response in ways that can turn your initial understanding on its head. And yet, the first thing that I think about when I speak about my interview with Obaid, are the things I had not asked. For example, my interview was so strongly focussed on his professional life that I had not delved into his other interests – photography and music (he played the sarod). How could I have missed asking him about his music, particularly because he had once entrusted me with his sarod instructing me to carry it to Kolkata for repairs to the legendary Hemen & Co. On reflection I realise it is not the lack of details that is distressing for me as an oral historian; the deep sadness arises from a sense of powerlessness that we all feel when death intervenes and life as we knew it ends. One of the obvious sources of our sorrow as oral historians is our very human inability to cope with the impermanence of life.

Perhaps, it was this apprehension of death that kept me from interviewing my mother for many years. When I began it was driven by a deep desire to hear again stories she had stopped repeating as she grew older. At age six she had lost her father. Talking about this loss at age eighty-six during the interview she tells me that her father who died in 1934 had been suffering from pleurisy and would frequently be away at a sanatorium in Madanapalle in South India. In fact, she and her two siblings saw him infrequently. Even when he was home, they were not allowed near him – they saw him from a distance standing at the doorway of the room he lay in.

After he died, she wrote him letters as she used to when he was at the sanatorium. She would take the scraps of paper on which she wrote and slip them into the red pillar box near their home. Until one day her playmates asked her with the guileless reasoning of children, why was she writing to her father who was dead and could never ever read them. The words pierced her core. Outraged, she called them liars. As she ran home, her friends shouted after her that she had probably not taken a close look at how her mother dressed in the white sari of the widow – could she not see? Or was she stupid? She raced home. Blind with tears she burst into the room where her twenty-three-year-old mother sat shielded by a pathos of mourners. “Is my father dead?” she began and stopped when she noticed her mother’s white sari for the first time. Suddenly, it was pointless to ask. In the interview my mother pauses and says with a mixture of regret and dismissiveness, “I was so stupid!” “But were you not there on the day he died?” – I ask quietly, stunned by her story. She recalls how she and her siblings were sent to a neighbour’s house and fed there. Rituals of death demanded that no fire be lit in the house till the last rites are over. She had witnessed the weeping and the gloominess that pervaded the house but had thought that her father had left for one more bout of treatment at the sanatorium. Nobody disabused her of that notion. And nearly a month after he died, she finally grieves for her father. I am appalled that nobody thought of talking to her or to her siblings about the loss that would mark them for the rest of their lives. She tells me many other stories about her childhood – about the extended family members who loved and protected her, about her mother going to work in a school – but nothing remains with me as powerfully as the story of her father’s death, told eighty years after she had lost him.

Listening – one of the skills we oral historians nurture inside us brings with it the physical sensation of watching what happened in the past in the mind’s eye. When Obaid Siddiqi speaks to me about an early experiment with wheat that had failed because of a devastating storm, I hear his crestfallen voice, “I didn’t even go to take a look.” In my mind I see the mud, the rain and the wheat stalks felled to the ground, and I also see a dejected young man. When my mother speaks, I see the child, tears streaming down her cheeks, running. The voice of memory, it strikes me has a synesthetic dimension – allowing us to see what we hear our interviewees speak about. Often the voice of memory enables us to reconstruct in our imagination what the scene might have looked like in the past. We also imagine the depth of emotions that even today draws out so much sorrow. The act of reimagining that source of sorrow reverberates inescapably inside the listener. This is a process of transmission that transforms our understanding of our own life events – past or present.

Scholars of memory studies and practitioners of oral history have long recognised that memory weaves together the past and the present. Similarly, the voice that remembers is stereophonic, drawing from two different, if dissonant sources – the past and the present. My mother’s is a voice grown old and deepened by many losses, but that voice expresses the hurt of the child she was. I feel protective towards my mother as I hear her talk about the death of my grandfather, but I know that she is not yet my mother; she is the child who will one day grow up to become my mother. Obaid Siddiqi’s is the confident voice of scientist that also houses the disappointment of an inexperienced experimenter who is not yet a distinguished scientist. The act of listening to memory draws us to both those voices – the voice of the past and that of the present. I have often wondered if the realisation that we are listening to two voices shaped differently by the passage of time points to the transience of the human voice and layers our understanding of the transitory nature of life itself. Is that why our practice demands that we recognise the preciousness and precariousness of what we are entrusted with? And is that why we must carry the weight of what we listen to?

Nearly six years after the interview with my mother, I still carry the stony weight of her childhood memory as I nurse her through advanced dementia. I notice that her condition makes her memories appear unexpectedly, in disjointed flashes. Her lucid moments never last long. Some months ago, she tells me that her father had come to visit her. She no longer repeats that story from her childhood, but I can touch its heaviness inside me. That stone remains lodged deep inside, nothing can move it. 

Indira Chowdhury

Acknowledgement: This post is dedicated to Veronica Rodrigues and Madhavi Sardesai – friends with whom I can no longer have this discussion. I am grateful for several informal discussions with Alessandro Portelli. This piece was inspired by the writings of Luisa Passerini, Urvashi Butalia, Alessandro Portelli and Valerie Yow.

Growing up with stories

A family photograph with my great grandmother, Bidhumukhi (sitting right), 1977.
Courtesy: Soumitra Choudhury

I grew up in eastern India, in a small steel town called Burnpur – echoing the name of Burn & Co – the company that played a major role in setting up the township. The furnaces burnt all day spewing orange, purple and white smoke into the skies. Growing up, I did not think of these colourful skies as polluting, but they were. My father worked in the factory and suffered from emphysema for the rest of his life.

Ours was a “joint” family and I grew up with my uncles, aunts and cousins with countless stories which invited us to imagine a past that was difficult to relate to. As a teenager I had quite accidentally conducted a very short interview with my great grandmother who lived with us. I was trying to do a test recording on the brand-new tape recorder my uncle, who was visiting from the UK, had brought back.  Our great grandmother, Bidhumukhi had recollected her childhood and how she loved to watch the travelling theatre – the Jatra performances. She even sang an amusing song about a foppish man of colonial Calcutta – the “koilkatta babu” who used “pomatom” (pomade) on his hair. More than two decades later, while doing my Ph.D. research, I would discover the words of her song in a nineteenth century Bengali song book in the India Office Library in London. I regretted not paying more attention to what she had said. I could not revisit her narrative either because we had not preserved the recording. At that point as I struggled to become a historian, in the debates between history and memory, history always emerged triumphant. I was never taught to value memory and so the significance of my great grandmother’s story escaped me.

My great grandmother was not the only storyteller in the family. My father, my aunts and uncles were all full of stories – about their village Merkuta (a village on the banks of the Titas), their grandfather’s house in Comilla and their growing up years in the mining town of Gua. They talked endlessly about the places that they could never forget, especially those they could no longer return to after India was partitioned in 1947. It took me decades of doing interviews with people from all over India to realize why these stories were important not only for my family but also for the history of contemporary India. I realised that the stories of my family had shaped the person I was and I too endlessly retold them in an attempt to grasp at a past that seemed to elude me. Perhaps that is what made my family recount stories of their lives as they too tried to make sense of the past. But this understanding came long years after my father and most of his nine siblings were gone.

This blog is about my experience of doing oral history in India – for institutions, within communities and with members of my own family. I look forward to sharing my reflections on how people talk, the stories they tell and the promise of an understanding that this process brings to all of us.

Indira Chowdhury