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

Published by Indira Chowdhury

I am a writer, researcher, teacher and oral historian. I have a PhD in History from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. My first book "The Frail Hero and Virile History: Gender and the Politics of Culture in Colonial Bengal" (OUP: 1998) was awarded the Tagore Prize in 2000. I translated Ashapurna Devi's path-breaking novel, "The First Promise" (Orient Longman: 2003). My latest book "Growing the Tree of Science: Homi Bhabha and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research" (OUP: 2016) was supported by a New India Fellowship. I have set up archives and oral history archives for several institutions in India, including the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, Economic and Political Weekly, Naandi Foundation, Sasha, Dr Reddy's and Cipla. I work at the Centre for Public History, Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology.

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27 Comments

    1. Thank you. You would know some of these stories. Its great to have one’s family read this.

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  1. Dear Indira,
    You write in a simple and restful style. It is interesting how through the story of one person in one family one gets a feel of the times – a telescopic view – folding within itself the distant , the intermediary and the immediate.

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    1. Thanks Meena. I have always believed that oral histories are important because the individual story offers a taste of the times.

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  2. I also grew up with stories of my parents and grand parents, some of them told and retold 100 times. In this age of rat race, I didn’t do as much for my kids, when they were young. That’s one regret, among many others, I have. Hopefully I will get a second chance with my grandkids.

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    1. Thanks Soma. I am wondering if our generation prioritised activities over stories when it came to our children. That was a very different way of relating and as important. Thanks for reading and sharing.

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  3. Indira, a good beginning is half the work done. Simplicity is what makes the narration attractive. Keep going.

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    1. Thanks Chobi. I am enjoying the process – even though keeping the narrative simple is the most difficult of tasks.

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  4. Indira , my children love to hear stories of British India from me.
    I was born post partition but my grandparents lived inDelhi which witnessed the influx .
    My grandmothers narrative and her perceptions brought things alive for me for my children and will continue to do so for their future generations.
    You are doing a great job.
    Keep going .
    If not for people like you we cannot make history!

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    1. Thank you, Rama. I think family stories live on through the spoken word. Thank you for reading and for sharing.

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    1. I think some memories, especially family memories, live on even when they are not recorded. But they do disappear over time and with them disappears the person who talked about it. You have given me an interesting idea to talk about. Thanks, Sarita.

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  5. I love stories, especially personalised family ones – like you, I grew up on a healthy dose of those and find myself indulging in the same now! Looking forward to regularly reading your blog, Indira di 🙂

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  6. Dear Indira
    Loved the style of writing, the sentence structures seem to follow the memory lane. I wonder how you will address the fact of an interaction between an incident and it’s narration. Two members, even of a family, leave alone a a larger community. present starkly different version- like cherecters from the film ‘Roshomon’. I experience this between the versions of my sisters and me.
    Warm.wishes for an interesting journey.
    Teji

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    1. Thanks Teji. The Roshomon effect is much explored by oral historians. I am thinking of Alessandro Portelli’s famous essay, “The Death of Luigi Trastulli”. There are always so many narrations of an event. I hope to explore this some time in the future. warmest, Indira

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  7. Wonderfully written. .brings back happy innocent memories. .very proud of you Indira.
    All the very best and god bless.

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  8. Wonderfully written. .brings back happy innocent memories. .very proud of you Indira.
    All the very best and god bless.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you Indira for creating this archive of oral history which will preserve our heritage in ways history books can’t. I only hope that some students carry on with this tradition. Thank you once again.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. My maternal grandparents were immigrants from Poland to the United States – I regret to this day not asking them about their lives.

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  11. Hi Indira, found it very interesting as I too grew up in a joint family. Shaluk keeps asking for stories and often I get frustrated when I have to look for some stories. Now I know what to tell her.

    Sending you a link of a Tanvir’s film ‘Seemantarekha’, which you may find interesting.

    Thanks and looking forward to your blog.

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  12. Indira, you write so well. Thoroughly enjoyed reading the post. It brought to mind all the wonderful stories I have grown up with.

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