Childhood and youth are idealised as times for carefree pleasures – with few responsibilities and little impact from the troubled adult world. But as oral historians, we are often asking people to recall memories from their childhood or youth. So we need to consider how the age and perspectives of youth shaped the ways young people observed their world or how they remember it, as well as wondering about what they chose to say about it now. But it is just as important that we consider that memory is shaped in social interactions. We must therefore also consider families and how the conventions and emotions of family relationships shape memory.
This is a reflection on two different types of projects which both drew on the memories of children or young people and each case study shows us aspects of family impacts on memory. One is focussed on an Indian subject and the other on events in Australia. Both projects have asked me to think about what children see around them, what they learn in their families and how they understand it all in their later lives.
My first reflections are on the life history of Smt Kapila Khandvala, (1906-1982), a woman of Bombay, the daughter of a reforming Gujerati eye surgeon who encouraged her in her career as an eminent educator and as an outspoken activist. My next reflections are on research into British testing of nuclear weapons in Central Australia in the mid twentieth century.
I came across Kapilaben as part of a wider project of shared research with Professor Devleena Ghosh at the University of Technology Sydney. We have been tracing connections between Indian and Australian left-wing women activists from the 1930s through to the 1980s. Kapilaben along with Smt Mithan Lam, came to Australia in 1946 as representatives of the AIWC to speak at conferences about women’s rights and about Education for Cultural Understanding in the hostile atmosphere of the Cold War. Kapilaben had already taken the courageous step in 1939 of dissenting from her fellow committee members in the Report on Woman’s Role in a Planned Economy. In this planning process set in train by Jawaharlal Nehru on behalf of Congress, Kapilaben was the only dissenting voice, challenging the failure of the women’s planning committee to propose practical changes. Kapilaben rejected traditional constraints on women and, while valuing national and regional cultures and languages, she sustained the calls for civil equality that she made in this Dissenting Note throughout her life.
In 1962 she became President of the National Federation of Indian Women, serving in that role for five years, then devoting herself to the college in Bombay which was later to bear her name, where Gujarati language and community awareness were taught as well as an academic preparation for further study, including that at the closely associated women’s university at SNDT. These accomplishments might have made her a revered icon of the women’s movements in India, Australia and elsewhere, but there were obstacles to her recognition which are suggested in the ways she is remembered.
Some of the people we were able to interview, like Sarla Sharma, (interviewed on a number of occasions by Devleena Ghosh), were about the same age as Kapila when they knew her as a fellow activist in the campaign to achieve better recognition and pay for professional working women who were nurses or teachers. Sarla’s recorded oral history stressed Kapila’s energy and commitment to the long process of surveying these women and then campaigning within the AIWC for support for them. Both were frustrated by what they saw as a lack of enthusiasm within the AIWC for professional and working women’s rights and both were active in their respective cities in Delhi and Bombay in the development of the National Federation of Indian Women, which they hoped would be more supportive of professional and working women.
For those who were younger than Sarla, however, Kapila was remembered as more distant. Indira Bharadwaj was the granddaughter of a close friend of Kapilaben, Smt Bellatangadi Mainabai Bhujanga Rao. Indira spoke to me about her memories of Kapila and her grandmother early in 2014. Indira remembered her grandmother to be in many ways a conservative woman, who was nevertheless a strong advocate of education for girls. Smt Mainabai was an active philanthropist, fully involved in the Seva Sadan, caring for and educating orphaned girls (https://sevasadan.org/) and had become president of the suburban branch of the Bombay Presidency Women’s Council. Indira was around 10 or 11 when she met Kapila and her partner CM Trivedi, and, although as a youngster she took little detailed notice, she remembers them well. Kapila was more reserved than CM Trivedi, whom Indira remembers as ‘very warm’, but Indira appreciated that Kapilaben always acknowledged each of her friend’s grandchildren. Smt Mainabai and Kapila were relaxed in each other’s company, sharing many jokes between them as well as their mutual interest in girls’ education. It was clear to Indira that Kapila and CM Trivedi were more left-wing politically than her grandmother, but this difference in politics was another source of warm humour between the older women. Kapilaben and CM travelled in a shiny black car, reflecting perhaps CM Trivedi’s position as Chief Magistrate when Indira first met them, which had a red flag flying on the front with a hammer and sickle on it. Indira’s grandmother would laugh at Kapila’s trips to the USSR, telling her that she was being invited because they were ‘indoctrinating her’, although Indira felt that ‘they were not communists, which is why I think the Russia thing’s stuck in our heads.’ Indira remembers that her grandmother and Kapilaben saw each other often, speaking frequently on the phone, with Kapilaben valuing Smt Mainabai’s knowledge about setting up philanthropic organisations as she and CM were the establishing what was initially called the Sadhana Education Society, eventually renamed as the College of Education which bore Kapila’s name. In a sign of their sustained and affectionate friendship, Kapila continued to visit Indira’s grandmother even after the older woman became frail and housebound.
This memory of Kapila as a steadfast friend but as more reserved that her partner, is confirmed by the Australian Lee Rhiannon, who was a very young woman when she stayed with Kapila and CM Trivedi at Santa Cruz in 1970. She was the daughter of Kapila’s Australian friend, Freda Brown, a fellow left-wing activist in the international women’s movement. Just out of High School, Lee was travelling with confidence because she could stay with her mother’s close friend. She too recalled that although Kapila was unfailingly generous and helpful, she was a reserved person who did not openly display her emotions. Yet Lee felt the same quality of sustained friendship in Kapila’s long and affectionate correspondence with Freda and then with Lee herself, continuing until just a few years before Kapila’s death in 1982.
For some young family members, however, there was a complete absence of memories about Kapilaben and her achievements. This obstacle lay in social conventions and as well, without doubt, in personal distress. CM Trivedi had been married at some time before he entered a relationship with Kapilaben, and he had left his wife and young family. As a consequence of the irregular situation, CM Trivedi and Kapilaben did not marry. There are few details surviving of how or why this happened but the outcome was an estrangement between Trivedi and the other members of his family. So there was little contact for CM Trivedi himself and none at all for Kapila with the younger nephews and nieces of the Trivedi family. There is instead an absence of memories among younger members of the family, who might otherwise have been interested in the work that Kapilaben had done.
Not only was there an estrangement between the Trivedi family and C.M. Trivedi and his new partner, but there was also an impact on relations within Kapilaben’s own family. Kapila’s father, T.C. Khandvala, an ophthalmic surgeon, was an active member of the reforming organisation, the Brahmo Samaj. He held strongly liberal views and insisted that his four daughters completed tertiary education before they considered marriage. Yet it became clear that, despite his liberalism, the fact that Kapila lived unmarried with her partner was a challenge for his beliefs. In his 1941 autobiography, My Life Story, he simply said two of his daughters had remained unmarried by their own choice, despite receiving many offers of marriage. He felt the need to explain that her ‘choice was to devote [her] life to the educational and social career [she] had chosen’ without making any reference at all to her choice of a life partner. [p56] Kapila had completed a BA at Bombay University and then taking a scholarship at Ann Arbor College of Michegan University to take an MA in Education then a further degree in Sociology in New York. As the youngest of the five sisters, Kapila was close – in age and in experiences – to Jyoti Master, the daughter of her oldest sister, Tara, who had married M.A. Master. Jyotiben Master (1922-2015), who would grow up to become a medical doctor, marry H. Trivedi (the brother of CM Trivedi) before becoming well-known as Vice-Chancellor of SNDT University.
In speaking with Jyotiben in January 2015, just months before her death, I found that she was delighted to talk about her aunt Kapila, describing how she had travelled as a young woman with her in 1937 to attend an education conference in Tokyo and then, immediately after, had accompanied her to China to speak in support of that country as it faced Japanese military invasion. Yet Jyotiben reflected as she spoke on how little she had talked about Kapila in the years that followed, despite having such warm and admiring memories of her from her travels as a young person. She explained, that unlike Taraben, her committed Gandhian mother, her aunt Kapilaben had been the most outspoken of the sisters, with ‘socialist leanings.’ Jyotiben believed that Kapila ‘was not a card holder but had all the communist things in her house.’ Yet this political difference seemed less important to Jyotiben than the fact that CM Trivedi was her partner. When I raised his name, Jyotiben became uncomfortable, quickly dismissing my inquiry by insisting that C.M. Trivedi was ‘her FRIEND!’ – with her emphasis indicating that this was all he was. She then turned quickly to lengthy discussions of other topics including her own projects at SNDT and the importance in her view of the increasing confidence the University imparted to its women students.
It seems that the absence of memory about the remarkable achievements of Kapilaben has a number of contributing factors. The memories of young people suggest that Kapila’s own reserved personality must have maintained some distance between her and others. Family estrangement meant that although some young relations may have grown up to be interested in Kapilaben’s work, they were simply not in touch with her and may have been deterred by family discomfort from pursuing her work. Finally, even young people like Jyotiben who had closer relationships with Kapilaben when young, may have been separated from her in later years by social conventions about marriage or the lack of it.
Such gaps and distortions in memory are not limited to any one society, although they may take different forms in each. In my Australian family, for example, one of my mother’s siblings divorced when I was a child and, although no criticisms were ever voiced in my hearing, the subtle innuendos of all my family’s references were that the family member was blameless in this separation and the faults rested solely with the other party. I later came to realise that this was very far from the truth, but my changed understanding was accidental. Without such accidents, my misapprehension might have continued forever.
Still other factors obstructed recognition of Kapilaben’s work, like the inaccessibility of the Mumbai Education Department archives. Even the three factors sketched above, suggested by the memories of young people, might have limited knowledge about her. There may, however, have been another process involved, related to the political affiliations of activists in events of intense significance in community life. For Indians, this can be seen in the struggle for Independence, which had continued for so many decades before the final departure of the British in 1947 – and which continues to live with such vivid power in the imaginations of Indians to this day. During the Quit India campaign, led by Mahatma Gandhi, for example, many people sacrificed liberty and faced imprisonment to demand an end to colonialism. Yet there were many Indians, affiliated to the Communist Party, who were not active in the Gandhian Quit India movement but instead advocated a United Front with the British for the duration of the second World War in order to defeat Fascism. While these positions were eventually to be reconciled because all groups fought for Independence, just with different strategies, the rifts and bitterness of that difficult struggle continues to live on into the present.
This question – about memories of deeply-felt events – is relevant in an example from my work in oral history in Australia. The British government tested nuclear weapons with fission explosions in two desert sites in South Australia in the 1950s. The initial test was two detonations in 1953 at Emu Junction, in the north east of the state, then a series of 6 explosions in 1956 and 1957 at Maralinga, in the south of the state.
Over many decades, Aboriginal people voiced their concerns about the effects of the testing on their health and on the environment. Finally, as a result of these sustained Aboriginal demands for investigation as well as the concerns of Australian military veterans, an Australian Royal Commission to inquire into the testing effects was established in 1984. I was living in the north of South Australia at that time, after completing my doctoral studies in oral history with Aboriginal people in the eastern state of New South Wales, so I was employed by the Pitjantjatjara Council to assist its legal team, acting on behalf of Aboriginal populations across the region, as they prepared evidence from the Aboriginal testimony to put before the Royal Commission. My work was mainly concerned with memories about the Emu tests in 1953.
The Pitjantjatjara Council mobilised a team of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal linguists, anthropologists and historians, including myself, to make a careful analysis of the testimonies from a number of communities. It became clear that the narrative from one particular community, to the north of the Emu site, where there had been many tragic deaths, was different in detail to that from other communities further to the east. Internal evidence from the testimonies of this one community showed that their memories were associated with events which could only have occurred in 1948, which was some years before the nuclear testing had begun. What had occurred in 1948, however, had been a severe viral epidemic, caused by measles, to which the members of this remote community had had no immunity. The narratives from the other communities to the east, where Aboriginal people also recalled illnesses, included as well sightings of a series of visual phenomena consistent with the airborne radiation cloud, as well as having internal details which were more clearly associated with events around 1953.
The 1948 viral measles epidemic had been poorly described to this westerly community by attending non-Aboriginal staff, and because it was unprecedented and could not be explained by traditional understandings of illness and death, community members worried about it over many years. When later they were told – again in poorly expressed and confusing descriptions – about the nuclear testing, it was not surprisingly that this testing had become associated with the stories of unexplained deaths.
It appeared then that the events at the more westerly community were most likely associated with the measles epidemic, rather than with the atomic testing which had affected the more easterly communities. The legal team needed advice from the westerly community about whether their evidence should be led at the Royal Commission. This was a very hard decision – the community had to decide whether to forsake the opportunity to tell the story of the tragedy of 1948 which had left such a terrible burden of grief and anger.
A large community gathering was held, in which the majority of participants were elderly people who had lived through the awful period of death. As well, however, there were a number of younger people who were the sons and daughters of survivors of the sickness who had since died. These younger people had been told the story by their deceased elders over the years when the episode of deaths had been thought to have been caused by the nuclear testing. The legal team and advisers like myself, some Aboriginal and some non-Aboriginal, spent time at this meeting explaining the grounds for the legal team’s concerns about this community’s evidence. After many hours of discussion, questioning and then more discussion, those present who had themselves experienced and survived the period of illness and deaths, came to individual and collective conclusions that their memories were associated with the 1948 measles viral epidemic. The many dimensions of this complex discussion and its conclusion have been recorded in the Report of the Royal Commission and in various publications about the inquiry.
But there was one group of people who were not happy with this view. They were the people whose deceased relatives had been survivors of the illness and had told their children and young relations about it when they had believed it was associated with the atomic testing. The people who had themselves gone through the terrible illness and witnessed the scenes of death and grief had been able to consider the various interpretations that had been made and revise their views. Those who had not themselves witnessed the events but had instead been told about them by their loved but deceased relations did not feel comfortable departing from the narrative they had been given. To have questioned the explanation of their elder relations seemed to be a betrayal of the trust placed in them. These people deferred to the views reached at the meeting by the elderly, living survivors, whose authority could not be questioned on this matter, but it clearly left deep disquiet and unease to have acceded to the decision to leave this narrative out of the presentation to the Royal Commission.
This burden of guilt did not ease over time. People in the westerly community from this generation – the children of survivors who later died – continued to feel they had let down the elders they loved, who had trusted them to keep the memory of the tragedy and grief alive. It was invariably people of this generation who were occasionally heard through the 1990s and 2000s, repeating the accounts they had been told by their parents, of deaths caused by the bombs, as they tried to fulfil the responsibilities with which they felt they had been entrusted. Most from that generation have now themselves passed away. What has continued have been the narratives from the easterly communities, which could consistently attribute illness and contamination to the 1953 nuclear testing. It is telling that it is now the children of those easterly survivors who can confidently sustain the challenge to the British military and scientific establishment that they failed to protect Aboriginal people – and indeed any Australian people and environments – from the poison of their weapons tests.
How might these reflections about memories of extreme events in Australia, and their effect on the next generation, be relevant to memories in India? As an Australian historian with limited experience and even less expertise in the rich histories of India, I would be foolish to make definitive assertions. But for all of us, the struggles of the recent past – and in particular those which have demanded great sacrifice and led to so much grief, like warfare and independence struggles – remain very much alive in the present. The burdens of responsibility felt by younger generations to celebrate the sacrifices made by their old and deceased relations in heroic struggles must be very heavy, no matter how willingly they are embraced. As others have noted, the narrative of defining moments of national history become simplified in the retelling, with contending groups vying for control of the story. Recent Indonesian history, for example, is replete with accounts of leaders claiming – sometimes falsely – to have been freedom fighters in the iconic Battle of Surabaya. So I am left wondering how the bitter differences over strategies to gain Independence in India might still play out. Are there still differences, for example, between the who took part in the Quit India campaign – those who were imprisoned and injured by the British – and those who did not, notably the communists who argued that a united front with the Allies was necessary to defeat Fascism first, before turning to rid India of British colonialism. These differing strategies may all have aimed at the same result but they were deeply painful differences at the time, none the less. How do they shape the memories about those like Kapila Khandvala, who fought against colonialism all her life, but chose a strategy aligned with that of the Communist Party of India during the Independence struggle? Do the strategic differences of the 1940s continue to shape the way later generations of those courageous freedom fighters, on all sides, recount the struggle?
And what do we then learn about the memories of people who were children or very young at the times they are remembering? From these examples, I suggest children’s memories are extremely important because they are sensitive to the emotional dimensions of interactions – the warmth or the reticence in the demeanour of the people they recall, rather than the details of what they did or said. They remember styles of interactions – warmth, jokes, constancy and – as Indira’s memories about Kapila and Russia suggest – the contradictions and puzzles stand out in memory. But it is also important that the exposure that children have to others is entirely the result of family relations – so if families are estranged, children will have little contact or only the hints of criticism or demeaning innuendo or outright family hostility to shape their memories. Through their storytelling, families reinforce the enjoyable times they shared, so these loom larger in children’s imagination than less happy times. Where there are misrepresentations, they may show more clearly in the memories of adults, as they were in T.C. Khandvala’s memoirs or the insistence on terms like ‘her friend’ by Jyotiben Trivedi to cover discomfort about her aunt’s irregular relationship. Such discomfort might disappear in the memories of children, who have only absences and gaps where otherwise memories might have been. Yet it may significantly shape their orientation towards the people about whom they are asked.
And finally, the example from Australia suggests that young people do indeed carry memories from their elders – but not in any simple way. Instead, they carry responsibilities to protect and pass on intact the stories of sacrifice and grief exactly as their elders told it – leaving them inflexible and resistant to alternative explanations as they uphold the trust they feel has been placed in them. These are noble impulses – but there are costs too.
No-one talks at all any more about the tragedy of the measles in central Australia…..
Heather Goodall is an award-winning author who has published on Indigenous histories and environmental history in Australia, on twentieth century decolonisation in India and Australia and on maritime history in the eastern Indian Ocean. She has drawn on oral history methodology in all these fields, including her co-authored works with Indigenous activists Isabel Flick and Kevin Cook. Growing up near Salt Pan Creek, a tributary of the Georges River, Heather has analysed river environmental history and politics in rural and remote areas as well as in cities. Her recent books include Beyond Borders: Indians, Australians and the Indonesian Revolution, 1939-1950 (Amsterdam University Press, 2018); Teacher for Justice: Lucy Woodcock’s Transnational Life, co-authored with Helen Randerson and Devleena Ghosh (ANU Press, 2019) and most recently, Georges River Blues: swamps, mangroves and resident action, 1945-1980, (ANU Press, 2021). As Professor Emerita of History, at the University of Technology Sydney, Heather continues her work as an activist researcher.