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