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’.
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.