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Anatomy of a project abandoned: How I failed to navigate personal relationships for oral history research: Piyusha Chatterjee

Durgapur Thermal Power Plant from the highway

This is the story of a research project that was abandoned. It’s also the story of my love-hate relationship with my first research project and, for lack of a better word, the failure to execute it. After living with this project for the first two years of my doctoral program, when I realised that I couldn’t continue working on this project anymore I wrote a conference paper to bury its memories. Then it took me three more years to revisit this project and to write this blogpost. The problematics I discuss here are not the reasons why I abandoned the project for dealing with these challenges would have only enriched my research. The reasons for abandoning the project were personal but I cannot deny that some of the anxieties that I bring up here were tangled with the reasons for not working on the project.

This now-in-box project aimed to trace the history of an industrial “new town” of India, Durgapur, though the personal life stories of its residents. These industrial new towns were purposely built from scratch after India’s independence to propel the country into “modernity” after centuries of British colonial rule. Durgapur was envisioned as one such place. I was working on a project to record the growth of this new town that was powered by hydroelectricity and steel and its transition into a city with global links through intergenerational interviews.

My ethics application at the university read something like this:

“In newly independent India, people from surrounding regions moved to the city for jobs… Along came educational initiatives and facilities of technical and vocational training of the youth for their employment in the factories. Over the past sixty years of its existence, the city has grown manifold and its population has doubled. Several of the industries have undergone the cycle of growth, closure and revival.

Since the 1990s, with the liberalisation of Indian economy and the sudden growth in the information and communication technology industry in India, the city has undergone a transformation. Many of the second or third generation of the families that had once moved to the city in search of jobs have now moved out of there and settled in the IT and finance capitals of the world….”

When I think back at why I chose to work on this project, it was because I thought I understood this city in a personal way. I knew people who lived there as family and friends. The city was nothing like where I had grown up and it made me curious. I thought it would be easy to reach out to people for interviews and that I will be able to hold an insider’s view of the place. Well, I was soon to find out that belongingness is always negotiated and lines between insiders and outsiders are fuzzy if not indeterminable.

Before I get into my anxieties about the project, I need to provide a little background to how I came to think of myself as an insider there. I am not from Durgapur. My former partner grew up and went to school there. The family has a connection with the city that dates back to its early years. I have heard dida, the grandmother, talk about the visit of Queen Elizabeth-II to the town in 1961. I grew up in Assam and in Uttar Pradesh, but my mother tongue is Bengali. My connection with Durgapur developed through my former partner. It was a place where we had friends and family; a place to escape to during holidays. I felt at home there in a way that I hadn’t felt in any city before that. You see, I have always lived a linguistically fractured life. Bengali was the language at home but when I stepped out, it was either Assamese, Hindi and English; later it was Kannada and now it’s French. I never formally learnt to read or write Bengali. I’ve always had to connect with the world in a different language than the one I connected with at home and with family. My friendships and work were always in Hindi and English and negotiating with the world was always a mosaic of languages.

Durgapur felt different. I did not have to slip in and out of languages. Just speaking Bengali would do. Steel towns, such as Durgapur, were assembled by bringing in technological know-how and expertise from across India. Engineering professionals, doctors, educators and administrators, who moved to the town in the early years, had diverse linguistic background but settled in, often picking up the local language, and always shared the language of science and technology. That, and with Hindi and English for official correspondences and archival work, I thought I was well-equipped. And with family connections, I very quickly assumed I had an insider status.  Familiarity with the city had made me curious about its past and its future. I often wondered about people’s connection to the place. It seemed Durgapur’s residents, wherever they went, had a shared sense of identity that came from many different things— going to the same school, working at the same place, or living in the same neighbourhood, and memories of festivals, celebrations, shops and people. And they also shared a present through their connections with other places. If one of two generations of a family had lived and worked in the steel and power plants of Durgapur, and its ancillary industries, the young generation that was leaving the city was coalescing elsewhere, in the IT hubs and financial capitals of the world. A significant number of families that had a member or two working in the industrial plants in Durgapur, also had a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister in Bengaluru, Boston or some such place. While the past of the city was shaped around India’s temples of modernity, as the iron and steel industries and dams and power plants were once described by the country’s first Prime Minister, the future was clearly linked to the Silicon Valley. In the fifty years or so of its existence, fortunes of this city had waxed and waned. Memories of industry closures, labour unrest and unemployment were as much a living history as the early years of growth, development and prosperity. My interest was to engage with some of these apparently opposing dynamics through oral history interviews with long-term residents of the city and the young generation that had moved elsewhere but still had a connection with the place.

Where do I stand?

As a wife, daughter-in-law and friend, I had access to my potential research participants’ private lives. Stacey Zembrzycki (2009), in her work in Sudbury’s Ukranian community, writes about negotiating her grandmother’s friendships and relationships while doing oral history interviews. For Zembrzycki, her grandmother became an ally in her research. My situation was somewhat similar. Dida seemed to know everyone in the city, and she would introduce me to her friends and acquaintances, both as a member of the family and as a researcher. Conversations about my research topic unfolded in very personal ways, between personal stories and while building and maintaining personal relationships.

In Durgapur, when I spoke Bengali, people were amused. As I worked my way through the Bengali newspaper in the morning, dida couldn’t help but smile. I realized I had very compartmentalized uses of languages. In linguistics, it’s called “code-switching”. In her study of an all-male card playing club, Anna de Fina (2007) illustrates how language can determine and is used to negotiate insider/outsider identities. I switched languages— Bengali helped me to show a connect with the place and its people; English pronounced my researcher identity.

One of the long-standing concerns of oral history theory has been about devolving the power of the researcher in the field through collaborative practices and a shared language that would allow research participants to speak for themselves in the research project (Miller, Little & High, 2017). In Durgapur, though I literally spoke the region’s language, my origin and my status as a foreign university-based researcher made me an outsider. And my Bengali had its limits. Personal relationships to the place and people further complicated things. The researcher in me had to constantly negotiate these relationships, which could both open and close doors. As a woman from a particular household, I inherited the family’s social relationships, which if it worked to my advantage in establishing contacts, also wrapped me in social expectations that I couldn’t just shake off. I remember the day I realized it was going to be a difficult to do research in Durgapur. Dida took me to visit an old friend, someone who had moved to Durgapur when the town was still coming into being.

I was introduced as the daughter-in-law of the family and dida’s friend noted my clothes – I was not wearing a sari – and the absence of jewellery on my body. Though unintentional, I was breaking a social norm there and it bordered on disrespect towards others— the family and their friends. Meanwhile, the comment angered me. I have no particular fondness for jewellery. And let’s just be frank here— a sari is not as comfortable as a salwar kurta on a hot summer afternoon. And I was too preoccupied with the prospect of meeting a potential research participant to pay attention to my other identity as the bau-ma or the daughter-in-law and the woman of the household.

The comment had set me back more than I realised at that moment. Throughout the afternoon, I barely asked any questions though the two old friends spent a couple of hours reminiscing the old days. And it wasn’t out of shyness towards fieldwork for I had done a fair amount of oral history work in India before that. I almost felt paralysed by the social norms that I was being asked to navigate. Could I have put on my researcher’s hat or would that have been considered a transgression? I wish I had pushed through. But as a researcher, I had felt powerless as my other social identity, as woman, a daughter-in-law, and a family-friend took up all the space. I hadn’t imagined that my research could be challenged by my personal relationships to this extent. I am sure if I had returned to the conversation another day and all by myself, I would have had regained some control of the situation. But that never happened, and I will always wonder what stories would have come from such an interaction.

Family and the field

By the time this incident took place, my research question had crystallized around gender and class divide that seemed to be at the core of the organisational logic of Durgapur. The Grand Trunk Road runs through its heart with the industrial area is to one side of the highway and the residential areas and markets concentrated on the other side. Durgapur’s development was predicated on hydroelectricity production, steel plants, heavy machineries and chemical fertilizer factories. N. Vijay Jagannathan (1987), in a study of Durgapur’s growth and sprawl over the years, notes how urban planning of the township was overwritten as the town developed into an important urban center for trade and commerce. The wide roads and spacious houses of the planned township, organised in blocks around sectoral markets, are now interspersed with dense clusters of buildings that developed around market areas.

Class was scripted into the plan of the place as senior officer residences were separated from workers quarters. Having the family at the center of my research worked both ways. I am not sure I would have had access to a lot of the knowledge about the place without them, but they also shaped my research practices in ways that I couldn’t control. There were pockets of abandoned school buildings, factories and residential areas where wild vegetation had taken over the space. If there were busy markets packed with shops, cars and people, there were also sleepy areas where not even a bird flapped its wings on a summer afternoon. Old quarters that were built as per the plans of architects Joseph Allen Stein and Benjamin Polk had been modified to suit the residents’ needs. I met families that had lived and worked in Durgapur for more than a generation. Then there were families that had moved to the city for work and never left. There were others who lived in the industrial townships and rural towns around Durgapur, for whom the city was a lifeline— for education, healthcare, consumer goods and a connect with the rest of the world.    

Given these industries employed a predominantly male workforce, the city also seemed spatially gendered. There were spaces of production and then there were spaces of social reproduction. Most of my interactions with people were limited to the side of the highway where life unfolded outside the factories. On a rare drive to the part of Durgapur where the industries are located, I was accompanied by the whole family. It was like a small celebration of the past. When I stepped out of the car to take photos, someone always stepped out with me and I often felt everyone’s eyes on me— for being a woman, for being an outsider, for being the person who was taking pictures of a place that by no means was a tourist spot. In the old days, dida said, there were buses that brought workers to the plants. Women occasionally used bicycles and it was rare enough to be noted in memories of “those days”. Now, Durgapur runs on cars, two-wheelers, and rickshaws. If it were not for the family, I would perhaps not have access to many parts of the city. And it just so happened that whenever I wanted to step out, someone always accompanied me. It did make me feel more secure though it shaped my interactions with the place too. People I had never met before welcomed me into their life for my connection to the family.

My previous experience of interviewing for oral history projects at the Centre for Public History in Bengaluru had taught me that gender, class and caste can influence conversations— they could create opportunities or prove to be impediments. Alessandro Portelli (2018) writes that the interviewer and the interviewee both play the role of the observer and the observed in the interview interchangeably. At interviews, I was always observed – through questions about my family, education, etc. – before I was allowed to ask my questions. In the end, the success of my interviews depended a lot on being able to successfully negotiate the gender, caste and class norms, which shaped our interactions. In Durgapur, a new layer of complexity was added to the situation because of my personal connection to the place. It also meant that this piece of personal connection to my research coloured my perspective. The family’s stories were shaping my research questions, just as the relationships were defining my research practice.

Lisa Ndejuru (in Miller, Little & High, 2017), talks about her collaborative work with the Rwandan community in Montreal, relates an incident when she was trying to encourage people in the community to talk as part of a playback theatre initiative. She realised that she had to “talk” in order for people to understand why they should talk and then decide if they wanted to talk. It meant making herself vulnerable first if she was asking that from her participants. While her research unfolds in the very particular context of people affected by mass violence, the lesson learnt is at the core of oral history practice. For me, doing an oral history project in a place where I had family and friends meant I had to let go of my carefully constructed self of a university-based researcher and open myself to people’s gaze that fell on my personal life as much as my research. This needed work because no amount of readings on research methodologies could prepare me for this.

Was I ready to listen?

Portelli (2018) writes that seeing and listening to the other person in the interview space is key. The oral history interview is a conversation that unfolds between two people through a reciprocation of interests as both parties bring their agendas to the interview space. What did this mean for me in a research context where my identity was shaped by my personal relationships above else? I did not have control over how I would be received by people and whether I would ever be able to establish myself as a researcher over my other social identity. But on my part, was I bringing too much to the table?

My introduction to Durgapur was through the family. I already had in mind some of the stories that I wanted to hear more about. What would that have precluded? Dida had told me stories about her childhood and her early days in Durgapur. In a way, her stories were my stories. Her history has shaped me as a woman. I had been brought up on similar stories from my grandmother and mother. They spoke of aspirations and experiences that never found expression in public life. These stories were told in the kitchen, in between domestic chores, always meant to remain just that— stories. Some stories angered me but, as family, I also couldn’t ignore the serenity and forbearance with which she and the women in my family had talked about these events and experiences. They brought up matters very close to my heart, things that I could link back to my own growing up as a girl and to how my life was shaped by these gendered social norms ­and expectations. I had an insider’s agenda in looking for the stories that I was looking for. What would I have done with those stories? Was I ready to listen or was I too angry to see the other person’s interests in telling me those stories? The search for distance, here, was not about an objective point-of-view but about giving space to the other person’s subjective self to unfold and shape the narrative.

There was a dilemma here. I was going to tap into a network of family and friends where relationships had already been established and it had nothing to do with my identity as a researcher. As a family member or friend, I was privy to a lot more than what was likely to be allowed in public. There are differences of opinion with family and friends, intimate details about private lives, and hopes and dreams that never find expression in public. To me, who was familiar with the social norms and codes of behaviour, it seemed like a betrayal if I were to bring up some of those matters on record. According to Alexander Freund (in Sheftel and Zembrzycki eds., 2013), oral historians have a tendency to want to fill out silences with words to give the oppressed an opportunity to register their voices and yet silences, like lies, secrets and deflections, serve important purposes in communicating meaning. Would it have been fair to bring up matters that were important to me as a researcher, but my research participants did not necessarily want to address or bring up in the interviews? Was I to question what they were willing to tell me in the interview against what, I thought, needed to be told?

As a student of oral history and all the discussions around sharing authority in research and collaborative practice in the field, it seemed like the wrong thing to do— to push my agenda on them. I realized that if I were to continue working on this project, I had to have a more open mind about where this project would take me. It made me ask: When are stories worth telling in public? There is no one answer but it’s definitely worth a question engaging with in oral history research.

A version of this blogpost was presented as a paper at the 2018 Annual Conference of OHS and OHNI on “Dangerous Oral Histories: risks, responsibilities and rewards” in Belfast.

Piyusha Chatterjee is a PhD candidate in an interdisciplinary program at Concordia University in Montreal. Her doctoral research investigates the place of the busker in the political economy of Montreal using oral histories and archival research. Her research interests include oral history, labour in the postindustrial/cultural economy, informal work and the working poor in the Global North and Global South. Before returning to school for her doctoral studies, she worked with newspapers in India for eight years. She was introduced to oral history when she started working as a curator with the Centre for Public History at Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology. 

References

Abrams, L. 2010. Oral History Theory. London: Routledge.

De Fina, A. 2007. “Code-switching and the construction of ethnic identity in a community of practice,” Language in Society 36: 371–392.

Jagannathan, N. V. 1987. “Planning in New Cities: The Durgapur Experience,” Economic and Political Weekly, 22(13): 553-558.

Miller, E., E. Little and S. High. 2017. Going Public: The Art of Participatory Practice. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Portelli, A. 2018. “Living Voices: The Oral History Interview as Dialogue and Experience,” The Oral History Review 45(2): 239–248.

Sheftel, A. & S. Zembrzycki. 2013. Oral History Off the Record: An Ethnography of Practice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Zembrzycki, S. 2009. “Sharing Authority with Baba”, Journal of Canadian Studies 43(1): 219–238.

“When breath becomes air…”

Reflections on death and its messengers

You that seek what life is in death

Now find it air that once was breath.

New names unknown, old names gone:

Till time ends bodies, but souls none.

               Reader! then make time which you be,

               But steps to your eternity.

Baron Brooke Fulke Greville, “Caelica 83”.

Sirajudaulah Chitrakar’s painting of the world burdened with the Corona Virus and death, 2020

We are now inundated with news of deaths – of family, friends, colleagues, friends of friends, and acquaintances who we did not quite know when they were living and have just got to know as they passed away, not to mention the millions unnamed and unknown whose funerals we witness on television. Covid-19 has taken over our lives and reigns over the news of deaths that we encounter every day. The devastation all around leaves us numb, sometimes a helpless raging rears its head and then withdraws into a heaviness of unshed tears. We have lost many, too many. The numbers unimaginable. Perhaps because the mind struggles to comprehend something that was unconceivable before – before the virus when life was what we now call “normal”. But there are other demands that we are now subjected to. Social media demands and also offers us the opportunity to respond to announcements of death with a swiftness that is unparalleled. But then this unprecedented crisis offers us no parallels from the past. None of us have experienced so many deaths of near and dear ones in so short a time. None of us can draw on learnings from earlier experiences. On the other hand, social media demands quick reactions – so we make hasty announcements of deaths, hurriedly offer condolences and some make abrupt proclamations of “moving on” – perhaps because it is too embarrassing to pause and too agonizing to reflect on death. There have been disasters and deaths earlier too, but not on this scale and never so terrifying. And yet, is it our struggle of comprehending the scale of our present crisis that has inured us to the news of death and desensitized us to the ways in which we receive and communicate such news? Or are our feelings distorted and damaged because of the speed of communication? The swiftness with which news travels on the wings of social media enslaves us and feeds our instinct for competition – making us yearn to be first to share bad news, be the first to post our reaction, without offering ourselves a chance to think of offering time and space to those grieving the death of a dear one. Our predicament is nurtured by a strange creature within us which is intoxicated by information and speed but woefully unskilled in dealing with human tragedy. The pandemic has caught us unawares. It came abruptly, before we could train ourselves in communicating in kinder ways on social media. News of death was communicated very differently in the past and while I shall revisit a few of my oral history interviews, I shall also speak here from experience.

My grandfather died in 1971, in the very hospital he had once worked in. I recall touching my grandfather’s body and because it was still warm, racing in the corridor to call the doctor who had just announced to us the news of his death. The doctor had indulged me, he returned to examine the body once more then shook his head and said to me sadly bowing his head, “Your grandfather has gone, my girl. There is nothing I can do.” I still remember with gratitude the doctor whose name I no longer recall for this kindness.

I was sent home to communicate the news of his death to my aunt and uncle who were visiting us that week. They were waiting anxiously. This was the first time I was given the task of communicating the news of a death. I was 13 years old. As I made my way home, I witnessed a procession of cycle rickshaws, empty of passengers, their drivers with bent heads making their way to the hospital. I saw some of them refuse people who wanted a ride. This was a group that came home to my grandfather regularly for medicine and he treated them, advised them, giving them free medicines and scolding them sharply if they ever offered to pay his princely fee of one rupee. I remember observing them as they made their way to the hospital, some acknowledged me sadly, but we did not speak. I worried about how I would convey this news. The death had left me numb.

When I reached home, I did not have to tell my aunt anything; she reached out and hugged me. We wept. Then she surprised me by saying that she knew he was gone around 4.30 pm. “Because the dog went to every corner of the house and wept.” She described it as a very human gesture: “He kept hitting his head on the wall and crying.” That’s how she knew. I need not have worried about being the bearer of bad news, our dog, Tiger, had taken that responsibility on my behalf.

As I grew older, I noticed that there was a way in which news of death was communicated in our culture – it was gentle and at the same time very practical. Since custom required fires in the kitchen be put out till the body had been cremated, news of death that arrived in the mail or by telegram would often be withheld until the family had eaten their meal. I learnt this was a common convention. My friend, who was from North India told us about how the convention in their part was to tear one corner of the postcard or Inland letter if it conveyed bad news – almost like a warning that this letter was the harbinger of bad news. According to my friend, if her grandmother received such a letter, she would tie it to the end of her dupatta and focus on serving the next meal to the entire family. Only after that, would she open the letter and weep publicly for the person who had passed away. To a young adult this seemed hypocritical. Honesty was about expressing the emotions you felt; the difficulties of delivering news with honesty that verged on the brutal not caring for children and elderly people, escaped us at that point.    

My earliest oral history interviews were done with scientists at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. The Institute was founded by Homi Bhabha in 1945. Bhabha died tragically in an air crash even as his beloved Institute turned twenty-one years old. His sudden and untimely death had left the scientists who worked with him speechless. A number of oral history interviews I did with them, went over the day that they received the news as if still trying to make sense of it all through the re-telling. Dr. Ramani, the renowned computer scientist vividly recalled that day. It was 24th January 1966. Although it was a Monday, Ramani remembers being in the East Canteen of the Institute that was following a holiday schedule. Usually on holidays, the registrar, Mr. N.R. Puthran would typically arrive at the East Canteen in his shorts. Ramani noticed he was not in shorts but formally dressed in trousers. On being asked if anything was wrong, Puthran broke the news, “Ramani, Bhabha’s flight is reported overdue, and we are afraid that it might have crashed” – possibly because Puthran who had worked closely with Dr. Bhabha could not believe the news himself, or perhaps because he wished to soften the blow, or maybe he wanted to strip this stunning news of all sensationalist effect. Ramani remembers feeling as though “the world was crashing around me! It was a great loss – a personal loss – because Dr. Bhabha was a father figure.” When I interviewed, Dr. J.J. Bhabha, Homi Bhabha’s younger brother, I found it difficult to ask about the air crash; when he did tell me, he recounted the disbelief he felt at that moment: “When the call came to break the news about the air crash – I could only say, “No! No! – I refused to believe it. My wife, Betty, rushed to the telephone and it took over from me.” As if this was not difficult enough, J.J. Bhabha had the challenging task of breaking the news to Meherbai, their mother. Too upset to speak, he accompanied his wife upstairs to their mother’s room and let his wife break the news. Despite the jolt that the news gave him, J.J. Bhabha was concerned for his mother and could not even begin to imagine the grief this news would bring her.

This concern for Dr. Bhabha’s mother was shared by the scientists who worked with Dr. Bhabha and to my surprise, shared too by the workshop staff of the institute some of whom went to meet his mother to convey their condolences after they heard the news on the radio. Incredulous, grieving, they gathered at the house on Little Gibbs Road but returned without meeting her that day as the house was crowded. Suresh Sawant worked at the TIFR workshop and he met Meherbai after a while to offer his condolences. Meherbai told him, “Homi told me he would return soon this time, now he will never come back.” Sawant recalled too how the dog stopped eating as he mourned for his master and slowly became weak and died. I remember our dog’s instinctive response to my grandfather’s death – almost as if he had sensed if before the news was brought home. My interviewee, Suresh Sawant, had walked that dog as a child since his father used to work in the Bhabha household. Maybe he had his own reasons for recalling the dog but what he returned to in the interview was the dog’s intuitive sense of his master’s death. It struck me that at moments of bereavement, recounting the grief expressed by animals perhaps enable mourners to cope with inconsolable sadness. 

Death and grief are two themes that come up in my 2013 interview my mother, Pranati Choudhury. I was curious about her experience of World War II as well as Indian Independence that came two years after the war ended. But the skeins of memory are always tangled and I realize that any mention of the Second World War pulls to the surface memories of the great famine of 1943. My mother recalled the Bengal Famine in great detail. She lived at that time in Calcutta (now Kolkata). “People would come begging for ‘rice water’ – Ma, ektu phyan dao [ Ma, give us some rice water]. We too did not eat on some days. Whenever rice was available, one of the elders would go and get some and only then they would cook. People would come begging and some died of starvation on the streets too. Such sights I have seen. Then it became dangerous to stay on in Calcutta and we moved to my grandfather’s house in Nagar.” Maybe it is the compelling image of starving people begging on the streets for “rice water” that skews the chronology of events as they happened. The Japanese had started bombing Calcutta on 20 December 1942. My mother, who was twelve years old at the time, had left for the village of Nagar in Faridpur District in East Bengal (now in Bangladesh) in 1942. The date is further confirmed by events I am about to describe. My mother witnessed the Bengal Famine a year later, but her memory gave events a different sequence.

Nagar was the home of my mother’s maternal grandfather Jatindramohan Roy (1876-1945) who had written Dhakar Itihas (“The History of Dhaka”) in 1912. Jatindramohan was passionate about history though never professionally trained as a historian. He had worked in Calcutta from a very young age in order to support the extended family. His father, Durgamohan Roy, had passed away while he was still in college. Jatindramohan never graduated from college and began working in Calcutta. He finally retired in 1937 at the age of sixty-one. During the war he stationed himself at the village where his daughter, my grandmother, Induprova, widowed some years back, arrived from Calcutta, with her three children. Jatindramohan’s brother, Manindramohan, worked in Burma as a geologist. He had sent his wife and his children on the Flying Fortress Bomber plane that was leaving Burma for India on 11 March 1942. He managed to send his wife and three of his children, his eldest son, Dipankar (Dipu) was tall for his age and it was hard to convince the authorities that he was only fourteen. So Dipankar stayed back with his father and accompanied by Satyesh Chandra Bhattacharya (Master-moshai) who used to tutor the children, they began the long journey to India. In the village, Jatindramohan waited eagerly for the arrival of his brother. He bought live fish and kept them in a small tank, because his brother would love that. He got snacks and all the stuff that his brother liked and stored them away. He had sets of clothes washed and ready – so his brother and the boy could change into them soon after they arrived. “Their clothes will be in quite a bad state after the long journey on foot” – he would explain. My mother describes the large trunk in which her grandfather stored all the things he collected for his brother. They all waited for him to arrive. His wife and the other children had landed in Asansol and had made their way to Calcutta by train. [Interview by Dilip Choudhury with the geologist and writer, Sankarshan Roy (Manindramohan’s second son), , “Priya lekhaker mukhomukhi” , [“Face to face with my favourite writer”] Gyan Bichitra, 2010. ]

Then came the day in May 1942, when they saw the village head coming towards their house, followed by a procession of weeping villagers, announcing to all those who stood outside their homes: “Dipu nihata, Monindra ahata” (“Dipu is killed. Manindra is injured.”) My mother says that the scene remains etched in her memory even after seventy years – the village head bringing a community of mourners, trying his best to shield her grandfather from this cruel blow – the loss of a young nephew and the apprehension of death of a much-loved brother. As my mother recalls, her grandfather’s brother and his son had crossed over into India when Japanese bombed that area in North East India. They had taken refuge in make-shift trenches but the bomb instantly killed Dipankar and injured his father. “There was a man we called Master-moshai – a teacher who was also with them. He told us about this later. They had to leave the dead boy behind. Master-moshai brought my grandfather’s brother to a hospital in Calcutta but he did not survive. My grandfather kept on asking us – ‘What are they saying?’ Then he froze, stone-like. The head man waited and after my grandfather woke from his trance-like state, he delivered the news of his brother’s death to him. He was weeping as he spoke and the neighbours and all the villagers who had accompanied him were crying too.”

As the writer, Sankarshan Roy recounts, his father, Manindramohan was not injured too seriously when the Japanese bombed Imphal on 10th May 1942, but the delay in seeking treatment in order to come to Calcutta proved fatal and he died of tetanus infection in the hospital in Calcutta. How had they conveyed the news to Manindramohan’s wife, I had wondered. My mother said, “We heard that she was told the same thing – that her son had died and her husband was injured. She was in Calcutta and she went rushing to the hospital to see her injured husband and found out the truth: that he had died. Grief left her stunned – she had lost a son and her husband. She was ill for a long time. They brought her to Nagar from Calcutta. We were there.” There in the village, surrounded by a caring community, she regained her strength slowly.

As I revisit my interview with my mother, I realize that the village head man had delivered the news with great compassion. He had brought a with him a throng of villagers who came not as mere witnesses but as a community who participated in the grief, mourning with the family. The news of death, as our present crisis has shown us, can make us feel powerless and involuntarily draw out the mute spectator in us. The virus has made it impossible to visit our loved ones or neighbours to offer any form of consolation when death claims a life. Separated and distanced from human contact, have we unwittingly become voyeurs of another’s grief instead of becoming compassionate participants, grieving with the family? Perhaps the speed at which news is now delivered through a quick share over social media turns the news of death into information for consumption leaving no time to gather a community of mourners, no time even to reflect on the repercussions that our casual act of sharing such news in the form of a general announcement might have on a family that is broken with sorrow, wretchedly trying to survive by pulling together what is left. As the sheer volume of bad news overwhelms social media, we see a desperate rush to masquerade a dressed-up face as a brave one. Perhaps because we have no inner resources with which to deal with the destruction of life all around us.

Sirajudaulah Chitrakar’s painting of deaths during the pandemic, 2020.

Recording oral histories with those who witnessed World War II as children, specifically the battles on the Eastern Front also known as the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), Nobel Laureate, Svetlana Alexeivich shows us how as adult survivors they found memories of the war unbearable to revisit. Anya Pavlova who was nine years old at the time, and now works as a cook, ends her recollection saying:

“Mama never once took me to the military museum. One time she saw me looking at a newspaper with photographs of people who had been shot – she took it away and scolded me.

To this day there isn’t a single book about the war in our house. And I have been living without Mama for a long time now.” [Last Witnesses: Unchildlike Stories, English translation, Penguin, 2019].

Writing this blogpost at a time when more than 3.26 lakhs have died in India because of Covid-19, I have often wondered how we will, should we be among those who survive the pandemic, recall these terrifying times? Will we too turn away from all reminders of these times that left us locked up indoors, diminished by grief even as we were unable to offer comfort to friends, relatives and neighbours who had lost their loved ones? Will we remember the kindness of doctors and healthcare workers – their capacities stretched beyond human limits, bowing their heads to deliver the news, their exhaustion and helplessness concealed by their PPEs? Will we recall with horror the dead heaped on dead with skies lit up by burning pyres? Or will we turn away from such recollections determined to ‘move on’ because ‘life must go on’ like the many platitudes expressed in social media posts? Or shall we look back on this as a time when we were so hollowed out inside that we could only hear echoes of our humanness inviting us to relearn the things that matter most in the face of destruction? Telling us that the lessons of compassion, thoughtfulness and empathy are the only learnings we need to live humanely before breath becomes air.

Indira Chowdhury

The Jallianwala Bagh Journals Sarmistha Dutta Gupta

With this blogpost we inaugurate the guest blog where oral historians and writers are invited to write on aspects of oral history that they wish to reflect on. Sarmistha Dutta presents an excerpt from her book in progress and reflects on her interviews and conversations with V.N. Datta and Kamla Dutta. – Indira Chowdhury

A young VN Datta and Kamla Datta with Harivansh Rai Bachchan.
Photo courtesy: Nonica Datta from the Datta family album..

December 07, 2020

It was almost 1 o’clock in the afternoon when I reached Professor Vishwa Nath Datta’s home in south Delhi on 23rd July 2019. This was part of a research visit in connection with an installation-exhibition I was curating in the 100th year of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

I had no intention of visiting Prof. V N Datta during the lunch hour. Besides, the historian was 93 years old, and had had to be rushed to a hospital a few days ago. But his younger daughter Professor Nonica Datta very warmly asked us – Utsab Chatterjee, my team-member who is an artist and cameraperson, and myself – to have lunch with them when I was working out a time to meet through whatsapp messages.

Her messages went something like this:

If you want to meet my father he is available between 12.30 and 1. Then he has his lunch and rests. So that’s why I suggested 12.30. Let me also add he is not well at the moment and I very much hope he speaks on the subject. …

This morning I’ve been listening to the conversations audio-visually recorded that day both with Prof. V.N. Datta and his daughter Nonica. I got the sad news of Professor Datta’s passing a week ago. His wife Kamla expired last night. Had been thinking about them these last few days.

The recording is rekindling memories of other conversations besides the interview that summer afternoon. The pressure cooker’s whistle and other diverse noises when we sat around their dining table for lunch have been trapped by the recorder. In a flash I can see the exquisite phulkari framed on their living room wall and recall hearing how it was made. It was a wedding gift which Kamla Datta’s aunts had embroidered for her more than 60 years ago as was customary in Punjabi families.

I remember the flowers in the study room, and V.N. Datta’s renowned work Jallianwalla Bagh along with New Light on the Punjab Disturbances in 1919 and some other books on the table. The veteran historian had to be wheeled in from the next room.

“Give us ten minutes,” said Nonica.

While I waited, Nonica’s older sisters Poonam and Anu introduced themselves, and took me to meet their mother, Kamla Datta. Cancer had attacked her frail body, but couldn’t defeat her lively soul. In a moment, she embraced me with a warm, toothless smile, and sat me down beside her. While answering her queries on work and my family, I noticed a photograph on the wall. It was of Mahatma Gandhi and another gentleman whom I didn’t recognise. They seemed to be on their way somewhere. Who could the gentleman be? Turned out, he was Kamla’s father. He was a senior police officer in the undivided Punjab. Seeing that I was curious, Kamla asked her daughters to hand me the photo. With great care, she showed me the picture of Gandhiji and her father in front of a post-Partition refugee camp. By then we had exchanged briefly our families’ mutual history of suffering the blow of Partition in Punjab and Bengal. I shuddered to learn about one of Kamla’s relations, who had jumped into a well to save herself. Scenes from Bhisham Sahni’s and Govind Nihalani’s works flashed before my eyes. But then I was summoned in the study.

“We’ll talk again later,” Kamala said.

Kamla Datta showing the author a photograph of Gandhi with her father. Photo: Utsab Chatterjee.

Professor Vishwa Nath Datta had been seated in his chair. Utsab got his camera ready while Nonica helped her father put on the hearing aid. I switched on the sound recorder, and was excited to talk to the 1926-born historian who grew up in his ancestral home, just ten minutes away from Jallianwala Bagh.

I had many questions for him. But we couldn’t get more than ten minutes due to his fragile health. Within those ten minutes, the few words he uttered, the things he left unsaid, and the wave of emotions he showed shook me to the core.

How did he hear about Jallianwala Bagh? He sobbed as he answered my very first question.

“My sister told me when I was four…when mother heard about the shooting . . . she started wailing and beating her chest … father wasn’t home … mother thought he must have gone there … he wouldn’t return … so she cried “…

His own voice kept choking with tears as he uttered these words. I couldn’t hear him clearly enough. Nonica held his hand and tried to calm him. I was spellbound by this man, who was born seven years after the massacre in Amritsar, lost his mother when he was only one, and who regularly visited that field of death throughout his childhood and adolescence. Converting the place into a garden or a park was unthinkable back then. For a few moments I felt the impact of the massacre that had stunned the entire country a hundred and one years ago through this ninety-three-year-old historian’s intermittent sobs and childhood memories. I had never been able to feel the impact so strongly even while standing before the bullet holes in the walls – the ones which are highlighted by white rectangles in Jallianwala Bagh at present. Perhaps the pain of losing his mother as an infant and the deep wound inflicted on the people of Punjab by the Jallianwala Bagh massacre had merged into a single whole in the mind of Prof. V.N. Datta.

V.N. Datta with his father, the poet Brahmanand Datta (seated), and daughters
Anu and Nonica. Photo courtesy: Nonica Datta from the Datta family album.

December 08, 2020

A photograph of V.N. Datta’s father Brahmanand Datta hung from one of the walls in the dining room. I am wondering if that photo hadn’t been there, would we have had long conversations on Brahmanand that afternoon. He was a renowned poet who wrote in Urdu and Persian, and also had a thriving business in Amritsar. Brahmanand was well-acquainted with some of the people who had gathered at Jallianwala Bagh on April 13. His close friend Ratanchand Kapoor had survived, although he was hit in the leg while fleeing the Bagh. The bullet was removed through surgery, but Ratanchand always had a limp. VN Datta and his family grew up watching this survivor. In the family memory of Nonica and her sisters, Ratanchand’s limp is intimately linked to Jallianwala Bagh. In fact, for this very erudite family, Jallianwala Bagh has less to do with books and much more with family history and unwritten local narratives.

V.N. Datta (middle) meets prime minister Clement Attlee in Cambridge in early 1950s.
Photo courtesy: Nonica Datta from the Datta family album..

I got to know that Brahmanand Datta regularly hosted mehfils with poets and litterateurs at home. Renowned poets like Faiz used to attend those. Brahmanand was a ‘Hussaini Brahmin’. I doubt if I’d have ever come to know of this community had I not visited VN Datta.

Legend has it that their ancestors settled in the Arab country many centuries ago. Men from the Datta lineage had fought next to Hassan and Hussain during the Battle of Karbala. Later on, they migrated to the subcontinent and settled in the Punjab-Sindh area. They had adopted some Islamic customs and rituals in their daily life. The Datta-family history records the custom of taking Imam Hussain’s name during the ‘mundan’ ceremony of young Brahmin boys! For many years, their spontaneous participation in the Muharram processions in parts of Punjab was expected. Nonica has written about this herself and told me that the Tajiya from Amritsar’s Farid Chowk wouldn’t begin before a Hussaini Datta appeared and lent his shoulder.

This was Amritsar’s tradition until 1947 and Brahmanand was at its forefront. But as I learnt that afternoon, riots and the Partition changed everything. Brahmanand had sheltered some of his Muslim friends, which didn’t go down well among the divisive and rioting sections of Hindus. There was already a perception among some people that Hussaini Brahmins weren’t ‘sufficiently’ Hindu. Days after the Partition, it was time to teach them a lesson!

“But that’s another story!” Nonica exclaimed when I kept prodding her to say more. What I learnt then was that her grandfather had gone to the railway station to see off some friends. His house at Katra Sher Singh in Amritsar was burned down that night, during his absence.

It is, indeed, another story. But as I was to find out soon from other interviews, memories of the Partition, that happened almost thirty years after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, would be inextricably linked to memories of the turbulent 1919 in many conversations with Punjabi families.

Kamla Datta with her daughters Poonam, Anu, Nonica and the author.
Photo: Utsab Chatterjee.

Kamla Datta and I talked again at lunch. While savouring the Punjabi dishes, I let slip that their parathas are unmatched. Kamla quickly gauged that I was fond of flatbread, and asked her daughters to make me a paratha, ignoring my protestations. Soon after, a piping hot paratha arrived at my plate.

I couldn’t sleep till late that night, enveloped in the warmth of that extraordinary afternoon with the Dattas. Since then, whenever I’ve tried to grasp the meaning of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Prof. V.N. Datta’s emotional turbulence has returned to haunt me.

**********************************************************

Sarmistha Dutta Gupta is an independent researcher, bilingual writer, curator and a feminist activist. She conceptualied and curated an installation-exhibition called ‘Ways of Remembering Jallianwala Bagh and Rabindranath Tagore’s Response to the Massacre’ at the Victoria Memorial Hall in 2020. Her research is primarily on gendered histories of politics, nationalisms in south Asia, the Partition of India, and women’s writing from the sub-continent. Sarmistha’s published works include Identities and Histories: Women’s Writing and Politics in Bengal (2010) and Biponno Somoy. Barnobad, Jatiyobad, Bak-Swadhinata o Ajker Bharat (Casteism, Nationalism and Freedom of Expression in India Today; co-edited with Trina Nileena Banerjee (2016). Sarmistha is also the founder-secretary of Ebong Alap, a Kolkata-based voluntary organization that she co-founded with a few like-minded friends in 2003 to engage with critical pedagogies and gender-sensitive citizenship.

A story with no ending: Meeting Vincent Stone

Vincent Stone, recording his story at Dylan’s Cafe,
Shillong, November 2017.

On pleasant November day in 2017, Sandro and I set out to meet Vincent Stone. We are in Shillong – the beautiful capital of the scenic state of Meghalaya [literally, “the place where the clouds dwell”] in north east India . Alessandro Portelli (Sandro) and I had just finished teaching at the Winter School in Oral History that we organise at the Centre for Public History in Bangalore every other year. That year’s Winter School had focussed on “The Inner Life of Interviews: Oral History and Intersubjectivity”. We had spent two weeks discussing the processes of meaning making in life story interviews and relationship that was created between the interviewer and the interviewee in the course of the interview. We were on our way to the Third Conference of the Oral History Association of India organised at Gauhati University. But we had decided to take a two day break at Shillong before joining the conference at Gauhati.

An evening of music and conversations with Rida Gatpoh, Peter Marbaniang, Shaun Morehead at the home of Errol and Mary Morehead, Shillong, November 2017

We had arrived in Shillong the previous evening to spend two days with my old childhood friend, Mary Morehead (nee Smith) and her husband, Errol Morehead who live in Risa colony. Both were schoolteachers, both painted, and Errol was a musician too. They hosted us on the evening we arrived, and we had the privilege of listening to Rida Gatpoh who sang with their son, Shaun Morehead and Peter Marbaniang playing a range of instruments. It was my friend, Mary who had taken the initiative of introducing us to Vincent Stone who she said was waiting to share a story with us.

Mary Morehead at the Dylan’s Cafe, Shillong, November 2017.

We set up our meeting at Dylan’s Café, just a short walk away from the Moreheads’ home. The café is a tribute to the legendary singer and Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan. Shillong must be the only town in the world where Bob Dylan’s birthday is celebrated every year, for more than two decades now. Vincent arrived at the café soon after we had settled down and began narrating his story almost as soon as we are introduced. It was as if he couldn’t wait begin his narrative, I wondered at the time, if he feared that his story had to be let out before it retreated into some dark corner of his memory. But his sense of urgency did not seem to stem from the fear of the memory of an event fading out, Vincent narrated the event that happened almost almost five decades ago, when he was twelve or thirteen; it still seemed freshly etched in his memory.

Much before the coffee arrived, Vincent completed a quick recapitulation of his story. Then he asked for our advice on how to write it, and Sandro suggested he start by recording it. He said it was a good idea, and Sandro pulled out his digital recorder (“I never go anywhere without the tools of trade,” he commented). Then Vincent started talking. Sandro recalls that in his talk at the conference he had planned to talk about how the recorder or the notebook interjects in the interview relationship, and to show some images that showed how the interviewers were looking more at their machine or notebook than at the person they were talking to. On the other hand, Vincent just folded over the machine and spoke directly into it, concentrating on it and hardly looking at us. He wasn’t talking to us but putting his story into a memory that would preserve it. Sandro took some pictures, and showed them at the conference, to make the point that the relationship could also be the other way around.

Vincent began with genealogy – telling us about his father, John Stone, who came from a family of musicians responsible for founding the Shillong School of Music in the 1930s. One of his father’s brothers was the well-known Khasi poet and writer, Father Hopewell Elias. He tells us how his father, John was summoned to play the violin for a major general who was visiting Happy Valley. It was this encounter that led to John being offered a position in the Army. He was teaching at the Shillong School of Music at that point and needed time to think it over. After informing his students that he would be leaving and they would have to manage on their own, he joined the army. He was quite young at the time. Vincent, pauses and then says, “What we didn’t know until very late in life that actually he had joined the army, but he was in the Intelligence.” Later, he adds that unlike those who worked in the army, their father never wore a uniform. Posted in Shimla, his father had an assignment at Rampur. At this point, Vincent’s retelling is fiercely focused, he hardly looks up, or at us.

It was a few days before Christmas in 1968, Vincent recalls the possible date – 18th or 19th December, when his father called and told them, he was coming home for Christmas. This was exciting news for the family as John Stone was often away from his family. The memory of the phone call is layered with another memory, one that is weighed down with premonition:  “My sister told him, see, I had a dream that while you’re coming down or travelling, you will have an accident. And he told us, don’t worry, I will live till 80 – 90 years. No problem. So I’ll be there. I’ll see you.”

Two days later, on 20th December, John Stone met with an accident – the army truck he was travelling in had hit an oil tanker and rolled off the road and fell into the Sutlej river. The army had informed the family that they had done a search but there was no sign of the truck or the people who were travelling. They had returned John’s bedroll, his jacket and sweater and one left shoe to the family. Vincent tells us that it was inexplicable why all the others disappeared without a trace.

Vincent narrating his story while Sandro listens, Dylan’s Cafe, Shillong,
November 2017.

Later, when I think about it, it strikes me that 1968 was a critical year in the sub-continent. After India’s war with Pakistan in 1965, the communication lines took a long time to reopen. The 1968 movement in Pakistan which was a protest against Ayub Khan’s dictatorial regime had begun. Any intelligence gathering from the border would have brought news of political disturbances. Could there have any contentious or controversial information that John Stone was bringing back that cost him his life that day? In the absence of documents, we cannot know for sure, but speculations are inevitable.

For several years after that the Stones did not celebrate Christmas. However, the family did not believe that John Stone had died “because there was no dead body.” Their collective disbelief was reinforced by a visit to the site – the slope, he tells us was not a steep one and the river was very narrow. His father could have jumped off and run away – perhaps because somebody wanted the information they had collected. The family was convinced that John had not died – a hope that gathered ballast after their mother visited a folk seer – “one who has visions” and was told that her husband was alive. The belief in the power of traditional seers is intriguing given that almost 80% of Khasis – the indigenous people of Meghalaya are Christians. The evangelists arrived in this part of India in the early nineteenth century and set up churches, hospitals, and school, so I asked if these beliefs remained? One would have expected that the older, animistic belief system would not survive beyond a few generations after Christianization. Vincent had a very clear answer, “Yes, Khasis do believe…Because this is in the culture, no? You might be Christian, you might be Catholic, you might be whatever you say, but that is there. It is there, so you use it!” He explains with a laugh.

As I listen again to the interview, I am persuaded that the belief in traditional “healers” or “seers” was, in this case, drawn upon to corroborate and even validate a belief that was more profound for the family – the belief that John Stone was alive. Several times during this short interview, Vincent speculated about what happened to his father – his narrative became more intricate as he wove in a complex story about how one of his friends met an old Buddhist monk who was closely watched by a foreign government and  seemed to know Vincent’s name. He speculates that his father had probably escaped on that fateful day and taken refuge in a Buddhist monastery beyond the Indian border. But the magical realism of this story is offset by more mundane and ordinary happenings – he also tells us that the local priest had reported seeing Vincent’s father board a train, but was puzzled when Mr. Stone ignored him. “So, the story goes that he had lost his memory.” A question that Vincent returns to in the second segment of his interview is the one that gnaws at his heart, “The only thing is that why didn’t he come back? Even if he did survive – why didn’t he come back? Many times, I have thought about it. I think maybe he didn’t want his family to be in further danger…” This third retelling is when he starts looking at us and begins responding to a few of our questions. But we are not yet his “audience”; he no longer speaks to the recorder, but nor does he speak to us. He speaks to himself, as if speaking aloud thoughts on his father’s disappearance. In his musings he is still a child, staggered and unwilling to accept the tragedy that changed his life forever. He talks to us about his education at the Bhopal School of Social Sciences, but that narrative is dispersed, and he makes almost no attempt to knit it together.

Indira, Mary and Vincent, Dylan’s Cafe, Shillong, 2017

It is only when we come to the last segment of his interview that Vincent enlists us as his “audience”, he speaks with pride about his youngest brother who was born posthumously and named after his father. Since their mother worked, it was Vincent and his sister who spent time with the infant. Even though Vincent was in his teens, he saw himself as the “father figure”. Sandro asks. “So, he learnt his father’s story from the family?” Vincent responds animatedly: “For years we used to talk about it. And many incidents did remind me that he is like him because he is very sporty, very happy go lucky. Also interested in playing drums etc. And a really jovial fellow – a charmer – just like his father was.” 

Vincent talking to Sandro while Mary looks on, Dylan’s Cafe, Shillong, 2017.

Tracing the similarities between his younger brother and his missing father who he remembered so well, seemed a narrative that needed an audience. We were now not merely listeners who had heard the story, but we had become witnesses to the arc of Vincent’s narrative that had had so many beginnings and as yet, no ending. In every segment, he began narrating the story of his father’s sudden “disappearance” and the family’s collective sense of disbelief. His was a story that could not have an ending because the belief that his father had not died returned in every telling, unresolved, almost like a haunting. It was only in the final segment where Vincent tried to trace the similarities between his father and his brother that he needed us to be witnesses to the strange compensation life had offered him – where he recognised some of the qualities he so admired in his father in his brother. Recounting those similarities brought him joy and perhaps a sense of closure.

As we ended our interview, we repeated what we had said at the beginning: to use our recording as a starting point to write his story. He was excited and said he would gather more material. We shared the recording with him and through our friend got his news. His health was frail when we met and soon began deteriorating. Perhaps his illness did not offer him any respite to begin writing. A little over six months after we met,  Vincent Stone , passed away on 15th May 2018.

Alessandro Portelli and Indira Chowdhury

This post was written collaboratively. We are grateful to Mary and Errol Morehead for being our kind hosts in Shillong. To Mary, especially for introducing us to Vincent. We are grateful to Rida Gatpoh, Peter Marbaniang, and Shaun Morehead for a delightful musical evening in Shillong.

References:

Several scholars have pointed out the continuities and discontinuities between older, traditional beliefs and Christian beliefs. One such example is Margaret Lyngdoh, “Tiger Transformation among the Khasis of Northeastern India: Belief Worlds and   Shifting Realities”, Anthropos, 2016, Bd. 111, H. 2. (2016), pp. 649-658.

An Interview I never did: Jyotirmoy Choudhury (1919-1995)

I was not an oral historian when my father was around. He remains among those I have never interviewed. But after I became a practitioner of oral history, I have been delighted by the number of times he has turned up in the context of my interviews with others – predictably in interviews with family members but surprisingly also in interviews with people who I discovered came from the town my father was raised in. What would it have been like interviewing my father, I sometimes wonder – would I have brought my professional patience and listened to his endless stories about the many types of fish that were available in that town which now lay on the other side of the border – in Bangladesh? Would I have the wisdom to quell my irritation and try to understand why he would repeat so many times details of the grand feast that the Nawab of Dhaka had treated his victorious school hockey team to? Would I really be attentive and find meaning in stories that were so familiar already?

My father, Jyotirmoy Choudhury (known to his family and friends as Benu) was the first born of my grandmother, Ashalata and my grandfather, Harendra Mohan Choudhury. My grandmother was still in her teens when he was born and had left him to the care of her parents, Prakash Chandra and Suruchibala Dasgupta in Comilla while she travelled with her husband to the Gua Mines where he worked as a doctor. During an oral history interview I conducted some years ago with my father’s youngest aunt, Madhabi Roy Choudhury, I learnt that he was much indulged by his grandparents. He was allowed to have as many pets as he pleased – dogs, cats, ducks, chickens and other birds and even a monkey. I had heard about the monkey and it had impressed me the most. I also knew that the monkey was called Madhu and that he had died strangulated on the rope he was tied to. My heart-broken father had given his pet a grand farewell with a proper sraddha to which friends, neighbours and relatives were invited. This story was repeated often to stress how much his grandfather, Prakash Chandra spoilt him. I learnt more about this incident from Madhabi Roy Choudhury, almost 20 years after my father was gone. The funeral of his pet monkey had also initiated the shutting down of Baba’s menagerie. As his aunt put it, “You, know, our father treated your father like a son, not as a grandson. But after the monkey died, our father said, “Stop keeping these animals – it is very painful when they die this way. And so, he had to stop.”

My father studied at Comilla Ishwar Pathshala. He matriculated around the time World War II began and decided that he wanted to join the army. My uncle, Mrinmoy, who grew up with his parents in Gua Mines, Chiria Mines and Burnpur, tells me this about this episode during the oral history interview I did with him in 2009. “One of our mother’s uncle was an army recruiting officer and I think that’s how your father got this idea of joining the army right after his matriculation exam. But our grandfather opposed this. Your father had a first division – he was a good student. Our grandfather got him admitted into Intermediate Science [ at Comilla Victoria College]. But your father took a deliberate decision not to take the last examination and therefore did not clear his Intermediate Science.” In exasperation, his grandfather sent him to his parents, who by then had settled down in the Steel town of Burnpur. If I had interviewed my father, this conflict is certainly something I would have asked about.

My father came to live with his parents in 1940. He was 21 and headstrong. Thwarted by his grandfather from joining the army, he now attempted to find a way of earning a living. From my uncle’s recollection, “Our father had asked at the factory if he could work there and he was told that they would be recruiting apprentices six months later. But your father did not want to wait, he went and stood in the queue for khalasis – unskilled labourers – that the factory was recruiting at that point. And he joined as a khalasi on a daily wage – earning 15 annas – at the Melting Shop of the factory. He had to carry cylinders on his back, shovel coal into the furnaces.” How did our grandfather feel about his eldest son joining the factory as a labourer, I asked my uncle, after all, he was a respected doctor in the same town? My uncle answered with a laugh, “The recruiter was Ashok Chatterjee and he knew our father well. Mr. Chatterjee had first tried reasoning with your father – he had told him that this is a tough job – you have to carry a lot of heavy stuff. But he was stubborn, your father. In the end, Ashok Chatterjee called our father at the hospital, to ask what he should do, and our father said, if he is unwilling to listen to advice, let him work.” Now, when I think about this, I wonder if his parents who had hardly spent time with their first born had felt helpless before his obdurate determination.

My uncle goes on to tell me the story of my father’s progress at the factory. Some months after he had started work, he was taunted by Jabbar, a Pathan worker for being a “puny Bengali” while trying to lift a heavy load. I am amused by this characterisation because the evolution of this particular colonial stereotype that contrasted frail Bengalis with sturdy Panjabis and Pathans was an intrinsic part of my PhD thesis. Until this interview which took place in 2009, I had no idea that this nineteenth century stereotype about the weak Bengali that originated in the Martial races theory propagated by the British had proliferated well into the 1940s. My uncle also alerted me to the deeper sense of resentment that my father faced when he joined the factory as a daily wage worker. One day, he got into an altercation with Jabbar who at this point teased him because he was often asked to stand-in for the foreman. “Ha! do din ke badshah – kal to fin ake hamare sath ita pe baithoge!” [“Ha! You are only a king for two days – tomorrow you will again sit with us on the bricks!”] Mr. Berrow, an Englishman, who was the Assistant Manager witnessed this fight and decided to intervene. He was fond of this brash young man and had occasionally given him other responsibilities which he had discharged well. Besides, this young worker was educated, spoke English fluently, and was therefore, useful. He gave him a small promotion and then another until he finally became permanent and then became an officer. By then he had matured.

My father, Jyotirmoy Choudhury at IISCO Steel factory, Burnpur, c. 1942.

“Your father was full of energy. He would cycle to Asansol 6 kilometres away to buy huge baskets of mangoes for the family.” My uncle told me. I recall that my father had told me how he would ride more than 200 kilometres to Calcutta on his motorcycle to watch English movies. My aunt, Barnana adds her memory to my uncle’s recollections: “He always looked out for us – the women. He would peep into the kitchen find out what we were doing, find out what we needed. That was unusual in those days.” Not only my aunts, my cousins who called my father, Jethu baba, enjoyed playing and talking to him. One of my younger cousins would seek my father’s permission to attend school socials when her father refused to let her go.

Jyotirmoy Choudhury, in one of his favourite roles as “Jethu Baba”.
Clockwise: Soumitra Choudhury (Bappa), Jyotirmoy Choudhury, Moushumi Choudhury (Piali),
Subrata Ranjan Choudhury (Ranju), Debapriya Choudhury (Sonali), at our house in Rambandh, Nabaghanti Road, Burnpur, c. 1980.

My father’s indomitable vitality and his sense of adventure remained with him even as he grew older. Throughout my school life, every holiday, we travelled all over India – literally, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Puri to Bombay and to various places in central India. In July 1961, he took me and my mother to visit his grandparents in Comilla, then in East Pakistan. After the Partition of India, my father’s grandfather had opted to stay on in East Pakistan and the family visited whenever possible.

Jyotirmoy Choudhury’s India-Pakistan passport, 1961 used for his visit to Comilla that year.

Travels with my father were most often by train (though we also travelled by bus, by taxi to Badrinath and by air when we visited Comilla). Our train journeys were often interrupted with what were called “break journeys” as my father enjoyed meeting his countless relatives en route his holiday destination. These holidays were memorable not only because of the places we saw and the people we met but also because of a few misadventures. I recall that Baba had taken my mother and me to see the temple at Rameshwaram in December 1964 and we were on the last train that made it across the Pamban bridge before the Dhanuskodi Cyclone struck, washing away the bridge and the next train. We had a lucky escape. It was during that same trip that he made friends with Mr. Mishra who was also travelling with his family on the train to Calcutta. Mr. Mishra was short of cash and my father helped him with no hesitation although they had never met before. After that, the Mishras became family friends and we would often visit them in Bhowanipur whenever we were in Calcutta. My father made friends easily, and he helped and cared for people. I guess that is what made him unforgettable to many.

Jyotirmoy Choudhury at 10 A Tee Road, Burnpur, c. 1968.

In 2017, I met Mr. Jatish Chakrabarti as part of a project on Dr. Triguna Sen, the first Vice Chancellor of Jadavpur University. During the interview I found out that Mr. Chakrabarti was from Comilla and knew my father as a young boy. He was eight years younger than my father but obviously admired him for his dynamism and open-hearted approach to life. A couple of years ago, my friend, Nina’s mother, Manisha Purakayastha, recounted her close interactions with my father when we met to talk about the book she has written commemorating her father,  Dhirendranath Dutta. Dhirendranath was a Member of the Pakistan Parliament and former Minister who had been martyred in 1971 before the Liberation of Bangladesh. Manisha mashi was from Comilla too though much younger than my father. She called him “dada” and Baba treated her like a younger sister. Manisha mashi and her family lived in Burnpur. Her husband, Kalyan worked at the Indian Iron and Steel factory like my father. But we felt very close to the Purakayasthas because of the Comilla connection. I still remember, how in March 1971, my father came home from the factory, looking agitated, anxious, and quite lost – “They have killed her father!” And we all rushed to console and spend time with the stunned Purakayastha family. When I meet Manisha mashi, so many decades after her father’s gruesome, and tragic death, she surprises me by telling me that her father, Dhirendranath knew my father from his Comilla days and was very fond of him. He was an early elected member of the Bengal Legislative Council in 1937 from Mymensingh. My father’s grandfather, Prakash Chandra Dasgupta knew him from Comilla and he too belonged to the Indian National Congress.

I have met many people who knew Baba and would share their reminiscences of him, bringing him alive through their retelling of some incident or other. Most of these were funny, heart-warming anecdotes and spoken with genuine affection and admiration. But Baba’s temper was legendary too. And he was also often foolishly generous with the little money he had. But most people were ready to overlook these flaws. As time passed, I remember noticing that he became less agitated and more at peace with himself. In the lapst six years of his life, as he battled cancer and emphysema, his earlier vigour and vitality metamorphosed into a quiet strength. There was in him, a calm, grounded energy that enabled him to face his pain with great forbearance. In the last year of his life, I remember him sitting up almost every night, struggling to breath – the iron ore dust from the factory had left his lungs in a permanent state of inflammation – and yet he was so quick to shine his flashlight to make it easy for me to locate the bathroom switch in the dark whenever I got up. He did not have to do this, I recall thinking. It was also bothersome to take assistance from someone who was so unwell. Today, twenty-five years after his death, I can recognise in that gesture, his characteristic kindness, his deeply caring nature. I remember too that he was very aware of what lay ahead and while still in Santiniketan, where he and my mother had settled after his retirement, he thanked my mother and me and told us he had had a good life. Rooted as he was in his larger family, he asked that I arrange to take him “home” to Burnpur. As I planned the journey, Rampukar dada, a cycle rickshaw driver who was very fond of him and called him Baba too, spontaneously volunteered to accompany us. By then my father ‘s cancer had spread and he resembled the starving Buddha. The journey from Santiniketan was painful and difficult, yet it was one that he bore with amazing fortitude. On 30th April 1995, within a week of returning to the Burnpur house, he was gone.

Jyotirmoy Choudhury, Pune, 1987.

My father, Jyotirmoy ‘Benu’ Choudhury would have completed a hundred years today – 23 September 2020. It took me a long time to figure out the correct date of his birth. The passport I have with me, with which we had travelled to Comilla in 1961, declares him to be a Citizen of India and states his date of birth to be 10 September 1921. But he always told us that he was born in 1919. My cousin, Soumitra, unearths my grandfather, Harendra Mohan’s diary which has a page that states the dates and times of birth of my father and his nine siblings. That diary records Jyotirmoy’s date of birth as 6th Ashwin 1327 according to the Bengali calendar. Our calculations show this to be 23rd September 1919 which was a Tuesday. Something seems wrong with that as our grandmother always said that he was born on a Monday. Soumitra solves this by looking at the time of birth, since he was born at 4.55 am, before sunrise on the Tuesday, the day of his birth was considered to be on the previous day, that is on the Monday.

I have tried here to reconstruct a fragment of Baba’s life through the memories of others who knew him and while listening to them speak, I learnt to listen to my own memories of my father and what they told me. As I began to put together these memories, I noticed how the focus of what I was listening to began to change. What was earlier an exasperation with interrupted travels to touch base with relatives, I began to understand as his way or reconstituting a sense of an extended family. In his childhood and youth, he had witnessed the coming together of relatives and those with whom the family shared distant bonds of kinship for family festivals. But after Partition, such meetings happened on a much smaller scale. For him, meeting with relatives who were now scattered all over India was a way of making his life whole again. When he met his relatives, he would change into a dhoti and chat away, slipping into the dialect that was spoken in the district to which none of them could belong again.

I realise now that what was earlier just a nostalgic anecdote from my father’s past was perhaps an effort on his part to communicate a sense of place that was important to him. It was something he wanted to pass on to me. I remember being puzzled by his unalloyed joy when he heard that I had bought some frozen Pangas fish from a small Bangladeshi shop on Gray’s Inn Road in London in 1992. The Pangas catfish was not available in India and he used to tell us how easily it was available in his village in Merkuta and also in Comilla town. My tasting the Pangas was for him like the sudden sharing of a memory of taste. And this memory of taste brought with it other memories –  of water bodies and markets that he had so freely roamed as a child. It was as if all that was familiar in his childhood had suddenly come alive because I had tasted something that belonged to his past. As if the divisions that had come up with the Partition had been momentarily transcended and he could, for once enjoy a moment of unbroken sense of continuity between his own life and mine.

I have long forgotten the taste of Pangas but that sense of continuity between my father and myself has grown stronger over the years. I am grateful every day for all that he taught me by example. Those lessons remain alive even today.

Thank you, Baba. And Happy Birthday!

A photograph with my parents.
L-R (sitting: Jyotirmoy Choudhury, Pranati Choudhury; Standing: Indira Chowdhury, 1
10 A Tee Road, Burnpur, 1972.

Indira Chowdhury

Acknowledgements:

I thank my cousin Soumitra Kumar Choudhury, my uncle Parthasarathi Dasgupta for photographs and captions.

Memories, Memorabilia and Memorable interviews: Talking to Mithoo Coorlawala

Mithoo Coorlawala looking at photographs of Homi Bhabha’s set design for Ideomeno, performed at Cambridge in 1939. TIFR Mumbai, 2009.

I hear Mithoo Coorlawala’s voice before I actually see her. It was 26 March 2009 and I had just finished giving a talk hosted by the Mohile Parikh Centre  at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai. My talk titled, “Collective Memory, Institutional Archives and the Writing of Contemporary History” was based on the experience of setting up the Archives of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research founded by the physicist, Homi Bhabha in 1945. “I was in Cambridge during Homi Bhabha’s time and I witnessed the world premiere of Mozart’s Idomeneo for which he had designed the sets.” Mithoo’s clear voice rang out of the front rows of the darkened auditorium. It takes me a while to focus on the petite woman, dressed in elegant trousers and a white top, who had made this statement during the discussion that followed my talk.

My first encounter with Mithoo was delightful. I had met very few people who knew Homi Bhabha in Cambridge. This was hardly surprising because we were nearing Bhabha’s centenary in October 2009 and there were very few of his contemporaries still around. Mithoo Coorlawal, born in 1917, was younger by eight years to Homi Bhabha. At Cambridge, the hierarchies of academic life had stood in the way of their interaction. “I was a first year student – and he was an exalted Fellow” – she tells me when I interview her a few days later. 

The first evening we meet is magical and remains firmly etched in my memory.  Mithoo holds out before me a world I had, until then, only had a glimpse of from letters, documents and photographs. She insists on dropping me to the TIFR Guesthouse where I was staying. We are both so deeply engrossed in Mithoo’s recollections of her times that the short ride appears even shorter. We also discover a different connection. I was at that time helping the pharmaceutical firm Dr. Reddy’s set up their archives in Hyderabad. It so turned out that Mithoo had grown up in Hyderabad. But she mentions another link – Dr. K. Anji Reddy had acquired the piano in Mithoo’s Hyderabad home for his daughter. Mithoo recounts that he had come with his “little girl” to look at the piano. This appears like an interesting factoid that ties two people from two different projects together. It is only later, on reflection, I realize that this chance conversation and interrelationship contributes towards laying the groundwork for the space within which we would co-create the past in the course of our interview.

A few days later, I formally interview Mithoo at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) for the book Ananya Dasgupta and I were doing on Homi Bhabha. Mithoo’s interview gives us insights into several aspects of Bhabha’s life. We learn the Cambridge Society performed a Shakespeare play annually to raise money for their Scholarship Fund and he was very involved with fund raising. “Actually, Homi belonged to many worlds”, she elucidates. Then, vividly describes the Christian Dior Fashion Show organized by Bombay’s Time and Talents Club and held at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in 1962. The show saw Parisian models walking the ramp at the West Lawn of TIFR. A show on this scale obviously needed the support of  Homi Bhabha, Director of TIFR, but the person without whom the show would not have happened at all was Bhabha’s friend and companion, Mrs. Phiroza ‘Pipsy’ Wadia who was Vice President of the Time and Talents Club.  Mithoo was the secretary. But she was also a close friend of Pipsy’s. In my interview with her she mentions how she and Rodabeh (JRD Tata’s sister, affectionately called “Dabeh”) had corresponded with Dior and set up the whole show. She relives the excitement as she recalls: “It [the show] was held in the lawns of TIFR – the ramp was set up from behind the West canteen and it ran into the lawn. Pipsy had set up the venue. The models and Marc Bohan’s Autumn Collection of that year came from France. The show raised money for charity. Dr Bhabha was there of course and he hosted the dinner afterwards. A very elegant affair!”

As we talked, I tried imagining what the place looked like during the Dior Fashion show in 1962. Later, when I mention this informally to a few members of the staff at TIFR most are not amused. Indeed, one of them asks me not to write about it – an institution reputed for its scientific research having a fashion show on its premises sounded grotesquely improper. Mixing the two worlds, according to some, seemed incongruous and somehow disrespectful to science. But Mithoo’s interview evoked a time when it was possible for these two dissimilar and incongruent cultures to co-exist in the same space, however fleetingly.

Mithoo’s recollections, alerted us to multiple dimensions of Bhabha’s personality. She also spoke about the dinner she organized as part of the Cambridge Society to honour Bhabha after he was admitted to the Royal Society. Incidentally, Bhabha had been elected to the Royal Society in 1941 but because of the War, was admitted into the Royal Institute along with Sir Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar in a special ceremony conducted by Sir A.V. Hill in Delhi in 1944. On the day of the dinner, Bhabha had called Mithoo to announce that even though they had not invited her, he would be bringing along Pipsy to the Cambridge Society dinner. But Bishop Lash, the Chairman of the Society felt that the “learned doctor had put them in a predicament” as theirs was an inappropriate relationship – “they are not married”. But Mithoo had responded with some indignation that “it did not matter to anybody in Bombay – as they were well accepted and well respected.” Bhabha and Mrs Pipsy Wadia did attend the dinner in the end, mainly because of Mithoo’s refusal to yield.

While setting up the Archives at TIFR, I had come across Phiroza ‘Pipsy’ Wadia on several occasions: she was part of the committee along with Karl Khandalavala and TIFR scientists such as MGK Menon and K Chandrasekharan that selected the mural by M.F. Husain that now adorns the lobby. Pipsy was also involved in several art purchases that Bhabha made for his institution. M.F. Husain who we briefly interviewed for our book, mentioned Pipsy as the person who conveyed to him the news that he had won the contest for the mural. Mithoo recounted her relationship with Pipsy with great affection – “She looked amazing. She was tall and she had platinum blond hair. She wore a sari very elegantly and moved very elegantly. She didn’t bother about her appearance. She was just beautiful. We liked each other – so we did things together. We went to plays and we used to read poetry together. TS Eliot at that time was a favourite.” Mithoo’s narrative also reveals several dimensions about Pipsy and Bhabha’s relationship – we learn of Bhabha’s integrity in relationships and how public approbation did not matter to him or to Pipsy. More importantly, Mithoo conveyed to me through her stories the liberal free-spirited culture of Bombay of the 1960s.

There was another reason why Mithoo’s story was interesting for me as an oral historian. Oral history, as we know, is always a dialogue between interviewee and interviewer, it is a conversation in which the historian too becomes a protagonist and where speaker and listener are related through what Michael Frisch has called “shared authority”. Together, the oral historian and interviewer, co-create new historical knowledge. Mithoo’s lively recollections about the past made me see subtle aspects of Bhabha’s life, his relationships and the milieu to which he, Pipsy and Mithoo belonged. Mithoo also recounted other facets of Bhabha’s life – how she had listened to him play First Violin in a Cambridge concert, how despite being the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Establishment, he had helped restore her Gulmohar trees which had been knocked down by a monsoon storm and how he had teased her about her involvement with the Swatantra Party founded by Chakravarty Rajagopalachari in 1959. My co-author, Ananya Dasgupta and I felt, her interview was a unique resource with which to understand cultural and political context of Bhabha’s past. “Great lives” exist too often in the official domain and Mithoo’s interview illuminated significant, unofficial dimensions of one such “great life”. Her narrative, in many ways, countered deferential and official narratives about Bhabha the scientist. Our task as oral historians is perhaps to learn how different dimensions of the past intersect and create new networks of meaning.

Mithoo edited her final transcription with care without diluting the significance of her anecdotes or glossing over the details. We retained most of her interview in our book.  Her edited version, however, included an “Afterword” which for constraints of space, we could not include in our book. I have reproduced it here after a decade:

After our wonderful morning Indira, at the TIFR, I was filled with recollections and memories of Homi and Pipsy which have stayed with me. It doesn’t seem possible that what we recalled was over fifty years ago. Now, at age 91 I am anguished to think that Homi was only 57 years old when his life ended so tragically; but with so much accomplished and perhaps most of his visions translated into reality.

How prophetic that he wrote, ‘If I cannot increase the duration of my life, I will increase it by its intensity.’

My interview with Mithoo was done in the context of collecting material for a book on one of India’s leading nuclear physicists. This context did not let me focus on Mithoo’s own life story. Yet, her way of narrating the past was so compelling that it led me meet her several times after the interview. Now when I revisit the interview, a decade later, I find that her anecdotes tell me as much about Bhabha as it does about her – a self-assured, confident young woman, quick witted and with courage to stand up to a figure of authority. I have always regretted not interviewing Mithoo about her life. That morning when she visited the TIFR, she had brought her Cambridge albums and we had poured over the photographs of student protests in Cambridge in the years preceding World War II. Although I missed the opportunity of interviewing Mithoo about her life, her stories and the lively emotions she infused them with have remained with me. She became a person with whom I continued to communicate as well as meet over the years.

Mithoo’s interview taught me to look with fresh eyes at the relationship between memory, memorabilia and the interview itself. Mithoo was thrilled to see archival memorabilia – photographs of the sets of Mozart’s Idomeneo designed by Bhabha. She recalled with her characteristic spark, “There were curtain calls – I remember that.” I shared this blogpost with Mithoo before publishing it online, wondering if she would agree with my interpretation of her memories. At 103, she is still remarkably sharp and responds through her daughter, Uttara Asha Coorlawala that she found the blogpost ‘quite fine’. ‘She is,’ as Uttara puts it, ‘amazed by the clarity of your representations of her memories.’

Mithoo taught me a very important aspect of the oral historian’s craft – the co-creation of historical knowledge in the course of an interview depends not on the evidence presented, nor on the information made accessible but by the interviewee’s ability to transport the interviewer to the past. Mithoo’s rare ability to communicate remembered emotions enabled me as a listener to relate to anecdotes that had happened a long time ago. That perhaps is the reason why Mithoo’s interview stands out as a very memorable one.

Indira Chowdhury

Acknowledgements:

I thank Sherena Khan and Uttara Asha Coorlawala, Mithoo’s daughters for being active participants in all my email communications with Mithoo. I am very grateful that Malavika Bhatia interviewed Mithoo Coorlawala for the Citizen’s Archive of India (CAI). This 5-hour long interview when made accessible, will ensure that Mithoo’s experience is available to historians to interpret and make sense of the past. The CAI in its Instagram handle has a photograph of Mrs. Mithoo Coorlawala on the day of her convocation ceremony in 1998 – 60 years after she had studied at Newnham College, Cambridge. [https://www.instagram.com/p/Bc_3TfFlW3f/?utm_source=ig_embed]

The British premiere of Mozart’s Idomeneo took place in Glasgow in 1934 followed by the performance in Cambridge in 1939.

The book I was working on at the time was an archival book on Homi Bhabha co-authored with Ananya Dasgupta. See Indira Chowdhury and Ananya Dasgupta, A Masterful Spirit: Homi Bhabha 1909-1966, New Delhi: Penguin, 2010.

For an institutional history of TIFR see my book, Growing the Tree of Science: Homi Bhabha and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016.

For the concept of shared authority see:

Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History, New York: SUNY Press, 1990.

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