Interviewing people across India for almost two decades now, I have been struck by the many ways in which people choose to tell their stories. Some have greeted me with eagerness: “I often wondered if anyone would ever ask me what we did?” one of the scientists I interviewed had burst out. Others have modestly demurred, “There is nothing much to say about my life.” But even those who hesitated at first would invariably bring out gems that they had held close to their hearts and in the course of the interview felt generous enough to share. As they talked I often wondered what made them choose the events they spoke about. And what episodes had they omitted to mention? What did they remember and what did they forget? And why did they fall silent sometimes?

My life as an oral historian has made me re-think the act of listening. My academic training encouraged me to listen critically to arguments in papers presented at conferences, but as an oral historian I soon realised that I brought a different set of expectations to the interview. Ten minutes into the interview, I would find myself sinking into a deep silence as I listened. And yet, this was no ordinary act of listening, it was a kind of listening that united me (the interviewer) with the speaker (the interviewee). It was the act of listening that connected us and contributed to the meaning-making process. More interestingly, listening during the oral history interview evokes a rare synaesthesia allowing us to see what we are listening to.

And what of the speaker? What does the voice of memory convey? Memory speaks of the past of course. But as many oral historians have reminded the voice of the past is also situated in and shaped by the present. The voice of memory is stereophonic – echoing the past as well as the present. As the oral historian listens to this stereophonic voice of memory, she traverses a complex pathway moving between the the poles of past and present. The act of listening has a dual quality embedded within it and perhaps this is what enables the process of transmission from speaker to listener which also transforms the listener’s understanding of her own lived experience. This process of transmission and transformation is very much a part of the cultures of orality which exist in India and in parts of South Asia. In this blog I explore the narration of life stories the acts of speaking, listening and interpreting and what shapes them. Hope you enjoy my reflections.

Indira Chowdhury