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.