‘We never tell the story whole because a life isn’t a story; it’s a whole Milky Way of events and we are forever picking out constellations from it to fit who and where we are.’ Rebecca Solnit’s image of dynamic engagement with the past captures what is, for me, one of the most enthralling aspects of oral history interviewing: each telling speaks to its moment in time. But I hadn’t imagined finding that spark through reading oral histories in an archive, nor that memories recounted by others fifty years ago might help me find new bearings in the present. The interviews in question were recorded in the early 1970s with women in the industrial north-west of England by the oral historian Elizabeth Roberts and are housed at Lancaster University’s Regional Heritage Centre in the Elizabeth Roberts Working-Class Oral History Archive, which is now accessible on line. I was interested in memories of animals and there were methodological reasons, which I won’t go into here, for exploring this collection. But there was another, more personal, impulse.
For those of us lucky enough to be able to set foot in it, the English spring of 2020 was a poignantly beautiful counterpoint to the unfolding horrors of the pandemic. From where I live in Northumberland, my own government-sanctioned daily walk led past hedgerows that grew impossibly lusher each day with cascades of the creamy-white hawthorn blossom known as ‘may’. ‘This summer’, wrote the Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson in To a Child before Birth, ‘is your perfect summer’, one of blue skies, birdsong, and may that ‘smells like rum-butter.’ Next year, inevitably it will rain again and the may ‘will have its old smell of plague about it.’ The poem first appeared in 1948. Seventy-odd years later, on the other side of the country, the may that could well have smelled of plague exuded an unusually powerful scent of honey.
But the may was just part of the reason I couldn’t get Nicholson’s poem out of my head on those walks. As a nature poet, he evokes the part-rural, part-industrial Furness region, where I grew up in the coastal town of Barrow. I hadn’t spent any time there for years, but during that first spring of Covid, when travel was prohibited, I found myself longing for the place. Coincidentally, Barrow-in-Furness is one of the towns where Elizabeth Roberts recorded her interviews. Confined to my desk for the rest of the day, I immersed myself in those transcripts.
Roberts’ work, which was based on those and subsequent recordings made in Barrow, Preston and Lancaster in the 1970s and 80s, latterly in collaboration with Lucinda McCray Beier, helped shape the then new field of oral history in Britain and resulted in two landmark studies: A Woman’s Place: An Oral History of Working-Class Women 1890-1940, and Women and Families: An Oral History, 1940-1970. It is a testament to her vision – at a time when there were few precedents – that the sources should be as compelling and rewarding as they are today. Using a life-story framework, they focus on family and social relationships, health, education and training, domestic economy and work, but leave room for the conversation to follow unexpected threads.
Initially, then, I was looking for incidental memories of animals. But before long I was also being struck by references to phenomena that were neither central to Roberts’ enquiry nor directly connected to mine. From plants to minerals, from vegetable allotments to the sea shore, nature began to seem as insistent in the archive as it did in the world outside. In one interview, for instance, almost the first thing we hear about is sunlight. Responding to Roberts’ opening question, ‘Where were you born?’, Mrs W.1.B (as we know her) gives the address – which the archivist has redacted for security reasons – and explains why she and her husband had chosen to live in that street themselves.
‘My husband liked this house because of this beautiful view. We’ve always lived in the back because we get all the sunshine here – we don’t need our [electric] light until long after all the other houses have their lights on – and the most gorgeous sunsets you ever saw. We stay up to see the sunsets. […] Before they built the [new] houses, we used to just stand at the back garden and watch them, but of course all that’s spoilt now.’
The subject of housing was important to Roberts’ research, and the interview continues with an account of how Mrs W.1.B’s parents took the opportunity to move there in 1901 through her father’s job, the street being one of a number built by the Barrow Shipbuilding Company towards the end of the nineteenth century to provide homes for its work force. But the narrator began by showing us the sky, and its existence is now impossible to forget. Then there is the sea, a crucial, and unspoken, presence. It is the reason for the Shipbuilding Company, many of whose workers had sailed east from the Irish shipyards of Belfast to this town at the tip of the Furness peninsula, and it is also the reason for those sunsets. I too lived in a house that backed west across the sea to Ireland and remember rooms ablaze with evening light reflected from that great expanse of water. Although the narrator’s address has been redacted from the online transcript, I can visualize its bearings because in answer to the question, ‘Where were you born?’ she describes it in relation to the light.
At first, I wondered if noticing references to other biophysical phenomena was a consequence of focusing on animals, in a similar way that farmers preoccupied with livestock are alert to plants and wildlife and weather. But that seemed fanciful. More likely, my brain was trying to compensate for being housebound. Or could it be because I was craving a sense of connection to a childhood home? Certainly, these sensory memories – because above all, they were sensory – lent substance to my own remembering of that place.
I was still speculating about this when, in connection with my work on animals, Indira Chowdhury recommended Rustom Bharucha’s Rajasthan: an oral history, which consists of commentary and transcripts of Bharucha’s conversations with the ethno-musicologist Komal Kothari. In one chapter, Bharucha presents Kothari’s account of researching how people view the five elements: fire, earth, sky, wind and water. ‘I wanted to know,’ Kothari explains, ‘what kind of insights could emerge from their day-to-day experience of these tatvas (elements).’ He began with a study of water, which revealed, for example, how, for hundreds of years in a drought-ridden region where livelihoods depend on animal husbandry, ethno-geological knowledge had enabled cattle fairs to be held at the right place and time to ensure a natural water supply for people and animals. Bharucha is also interested in the mythic significance of water, and Kothari responds with accounts of fables, songs and personal tales that recall human resilience at times of drought, stories of survival that are, as he says, ‘now part of people’s memory.’
If the references in the Roberts archive to other-than-human aspects of the biosphere have no such obvious purpose, this does not mean they are gratuitous. It always makes sense for humans to register environmental phenomena, and a heightened awareness of life as precious and/or precarious may make us especially receptive to them. But the current pandemic is just part of a bigger picture. Writing about the climate crisis, Solnit says she is afraid ‘that this chaos will come to seem inevitable, and even normal, as war does to someone who has lived their life in wartime. I believe we now need to tell stories about how beautiful, how rich, how harmonious the Earth we inherited was. […] Otherwise we might forget why we are fighting.’
In his poem to the unborn child, Nicholson asserts that the experience of that pre-natal summer will not be lost to them: ‘Perfection is not the land you leave/It is the pole you measure from; it gives/geography to your ways and wanderings.’ Mrs W.1.B’s recollection of the view does something similar: ‘Before they built the new houses, we used to just stand in the garden and watch [the sunsets], but of course all that’s gone now.’ Whether or not the houses were needed is not the issue here; the point is to remember what they have obscured. Human memory is permeated by experiences of the biosphere. They speak from the past to the future and are there to be found in old and new oral histories alike. How or why we find them doesn’t matter, but it is vital that we can and that we do.
‘The present’ says Solnit, ‘rearranges the past.’ Certainly, my focus here reflects my own concerns rather than those of Elizabeth Roberts or the women who talked to her, and I have found their accounts inspiring both as a personal reminiscence resource and in terms of animal history. But reading these memories recorded half a century ago has also made me want to ask new questions, about relationships between human and other-than-human life in our shared world. To that extent, these histories have rearranged my thinking: animals, it seems, are just the start. With thanks to Elizabeth Roberts, Mrs W.1.B, and to Sam Riches and Ann-Marie Michel at Lancaster University’s Regional Heritage Centre.
Sue Bradley is an oral historian who listens out for animals . She is a research associate on FIELD (Farm-level Interdisciplinary Approaches to Endemic Livestock Disease) in Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy, and a member of the Newcastle University Oral History Unit and Collective. Her article, ‘Hobday’s hands: recollections of touch in veterinary practice’, appeared in Oral History vol 49, no 1, 2021.
 Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby, London; Granta, 2013, p.246.
 A Cumberland treat made from butter and sugar laced with rum.
 Norman Nicholson, Rock Face, London; Faber and Faber, 1948, p.36.
 Elizabeth Roberts, A Woman’s Place: An Oral History of Working-Class Women 1890-1940, Oxford; Blackwell, 1984; Elizabeth Roberts, Women and Families: An Oral History, 1940-1970, Oxford; Blackwell, 1995. See also: Lucinda McCray Beier, For their own good: the transformation of English working–class health culture, 1880–1970, Columbus; Ohio State University Press, 2008.
 Mrs W.1.B interviewed by Elizabeth Roberts, Barrow-in-Furness, 1972 (Elizabeth Roberts Working-Class Oral History Archive).
 Rustom Bharucha, Rajasthan: an oral history: Conversations with Komal Kothari, Penguin Books India, 2003, p.65.
Childhood and youth are idealised as times for carefree pleasures – with few responsibilities and little impact from the troubled adult world. But as oral historians, we are often asking people to recall memories from their childhood or youth. So we need to consider how the age and perspectives of youth shaped the ways young people observed their world or how they remember it, as well as wondering about what they chose to say about it now. But it is just as important that we consider that memory is shaped in social interactions. We must therefore also consider families and how the conventions and emotions of family relationships shape memory.
This is a reflection on two different types of projects which both drew on the memories of children or young people and each case study shows us aspects of family impacts on memory. One is focussed on an Indian subject and the other on events in Australia. Both projects have asked me to think about what children see around them, what they learn in their families and how they understand it all in their later lives.
My first reflections are on the life history of Smt Kapila Khandvala, (1906-1982), a woman of Bombay, the daughter of a reforming Gujerati eye surgeon who encouraged her in her career as an eminent educator and as an outspoken activist. My next reflections are on research into British testing of nuclear weapons in Central Australia in the mid twentieth century.
I came across Kapilaben as part of a wider project of shared research with Professor Devleena Ghosh at the University of Technology Sydney. We have been tracing connections between Indian and Australian left-wing women activists from the 1930s through to the 1980s. Kapilaben along with Smt Mithan Lam, came to Australia in 1946 as representatives of the AIWC to speak at conferences about women’s rights and about Education for Cultural Understanding in the hostile atmosphere of the Cold War. Kapilaben had already taken the courageous step in 1939 of dissenting from her fellow committee members in the Report on Woman’s Role in a Planned Economy. In this planning process set in train by Jawaharlal Nehru on behalf of Congress, Kapilaben was the only dissenting voice, challenging the failure of the women’s planning committee to propose practical changes. Kapilaben rejected traditional constraints on women and, while valuing national and regional cultures and languages, she sustained the calls for civil equality that she made in this Dissenting Note throughout her life.
In 1962 she became President of the National Federation of Indian Women, serving in that role for five years, then devoting herself to the college in Bombay which was later to bear her name, where Gujarati language and community awareness were taught as well as an academic preparation for further study, including that at the closely associated women’s university at SNDT. These accomplishments might have made her a revered icon of the women’s movements in India, Australia and elsewhere, but there were obstacles to her recognition which are suggested in the ways she is remembered.
Some of the people we were able to interview, like Sarla Sharma, (interviewed on a number of occasions by Devleena Ghosh), were about the same age as Kapila when they knew her as a fellow activist in the campaign to achieve better recognition and pay for professional working women who were nurses or teachers. Sarla’s recorded oral history stressed Kapila’s energy and commitment to the long process of surveying these women and then campaigning within the AIWC for support for them. Both were frustrated by what they saw as a lack of enthusiasm within the AIWC for professional and working women’s rights and both were active in their respective cities in Delhi and Bombay in the development of the National Federation of Indian Women, which they hoped would be more supportive of professional and working women.
For those who were younger than Sarla, however, Kapila was remembered as more distant. Indira Bharadwaj was the granddaughter of a close friend of Kapilaben, Smt Bellatangadi Mainabai Bhujanga Rao. Indira spoke to me about her memories of Kapila and her grandmother early in 2014. Indira remembered her grandmother to be in many ways a conservative woman, who was nevertheless a strong advocate of education for girls. Smt Mainabai was an active philanthropist, fully involved in the Seva Sadan, caring for and educating orphaned girls (https://sevasadan.org/) and had become president of the suburban branch of the Bombay Presidency Women’s Council. Indira was around 10 or 11 when she met Kapila and her partner CM Trivedi, and, although as a youngster she took little detailed notice, she remembers them well. Kapila was more reserved than CM Trivedi, whom Indira remembers as ‘very warm’, but Indira appreciated that Kapilaben always acknowledged each of her friend’s grandchildren. Smt Mainabai and Kapila were relaxed in each other’s company, sharing many jokes between them as well as their mutual interest in girls’ education. It was clear to Indira that Kapila and CM Trivedi were more left-wing politically than her grandmother, but this difference in politics was another source of warm humour between the older women. Kapilaben and CM travelled in a shiny black car, reflecting perhaps CM Trivedi’s position as Chief Magistrate when Indira first met them, which had a red flag flying on the front with a hammer and sickle on it. Indira’s grandmother would laugh at Kapila’s trips to the USSR, telling her that she was being invited because they were ‘indoctrinating her’, although Indira felt that ‘they were not communists, which is why I think the Russia thing’s stuck in our heads.’ Indira remembers that her grandmother and Kapilaben saw each other often, speaking frequently on the phone, with Kapilaben valuing Smt Mainabai’s knowledge about setting up philanthropic organisations as she and CM were the establishing what was initially called the Sadhana Education Society, eventually renamed as the College of Education which bore Kapila’s name. In a sign of their sustained and affectionate friendship, Kapila continued to visit Indira’s grandmother even after the older woman became frail and housebound.
This memory of Kapila as a steadfast friend but as more reserved that her partner, is confirmed by the Australian Lee Rhiannon, who was a very young woman when she stayed with Kapila and CM Trivedi at Santa Cruz in 1970. She was the daughter of Kapila’s Australian friend, Freda Brown, a fellow left-wing activist in the international women’s movement. Just out of High School, Lee was travelling with confidence because she could stay with her mother’s close friend. She too recalled that although Kapila was unfailingly generous and helpful, she was a reserved person who did not openly display her emotions. Yet Lee felt the same quality of sustained friendship in Kapila’s long and affectionate correspondence with Freda and then with Lee herself, continuing until just a few years before Kapila’s death in 1982.
For some young family members, however, there was a complete absence of memories about Kapilaben and her achievements. This obstacle lay in social conventions and as well, without doubt, in personal distress. CM Trivedi had been married at some time before he entered a relationship with Kapilaben, and he had left his wife and young family. As a consequence of the irregular situation, CM Trivedi and Kapilaben did not marry. There are few details surviving of how or why this happened but the outcome was an estrangement between Trivedi and the other members of his family. So there was little contact for CM Trivedi himself and none at all for Kapila with the younger nephews and nieces of the Trivedi family. There is instead an absence of memories among younger members of the family, who might otherwise have been interested in the work that Kapilaben had done.
Not only was there an estrangement between the Trivedi family and C.M. Trivedi and his new partner, but there was also an impact on relations within Kapilaben’s own family. Kapila’s father, T.C. Khandvala, an ophthalmic surgeon, was an active member of the reforming organisation, the Brahmo Samaj. He held strongly liberal views and insisted that his four daughters completed tertiary education before they considered marriage. Yet it became clear that, despite his liberalism, the fact that Kapila lived unmarried with her partner was a challenge for his beliefs. In his 1941 autobiography, My Life Story, he simply said two of his daughters had remained unmarried by their own choice, despite receiving many offers of marriage. He felt the need to explain that her ‘choice was to devote [her] life to the educational and social career [she] had chosen’ without making any reference at all to her choice of a life partner. [p56] Kapila had completed a BA at Bombay University and then taking a scholarship at Ann Arbor College of Michegan University to take an MA in Education then a further degree in Sociology in New York. As the youngest of the five sisters, Kapila was close – in age and in experiences – to Jyoti Master, the daughter of her oldest sister, Tara, who had married M.A. Master. Jyotiben Master (1922-2015), who would grow up to become a medical doctor, marry H. Trivedi (the brother of CM Trivedi) before becoming well-known as Vice-Chancellor of SNDT University.
In speaking with Jyotiben in January 2015, just months before her death, I found that she was delighted to talk about her aunt Kapila, describing how she had travelled as a young woman with her in 1937 to attend an education conference in Tokyo and then, immediately after, had accompanied her to China to speak in support of that country as it faced Japanese military invasion. Yet Jyotiben reflected as she spoke on how little she had talked about Kapila in the years that followed, despite having such warm and admiring memories of her from her travels as a young person. She explained, that unlike Taraben, her committed Gandhian mother, her aunt Kapilaben had been the most outspoken of the sisters, with ‘socialist leanings.’ Jyotiben believed that Kapila ‘was not a card holder but had all the communist things in her house.’ Yet this political difference seemed less important to Jyotiben than the fact that CM Trivedi was her partner. When I raised his name, Jyotiben became uncomfortable, quickly dismissing my inquiry by insisting that C.M. Trivedi was ‘her FRIEND!’ – with her emphasis indicating that this was all he was. She then turned quickly to lengthy discussions of other topics including her own projects at SNDT and the importance in her view of the increasing confidence the University imparted to its women students.
It seems that the absence of memory about the remarkable achievements of Kapilaben has a number of contributing factors. The memories of young people suggest that Kapila’s own reserved personality must have maintained some distance between her and others. Family estrangement meant that although some young relations may have grown up to be interested in Kapilaben’s work, they were simply not in touch with her and may have been deterred by family discomfort from pursuing her work. Finally, even young people like Jyotiben who had closer relationships with Kapilaben when young, may have been separated from her in later years by social conventions about marriage or the lack of it.
Such gaps and distortions in memory are not limited to any one society, although they may take different forms in each. In my Australian family, for example, one of my mother’s siblings divorced when I was a child and, although no criticisms were ever voiced in my hearing, the subtle innuendos of all my family’s references were that the family member was blameless in this separation and the faults rested solely with the other party. I later came to realise that this was very far from the truth, but my changed understanding was accidental. Without such accidents, my misapprehension might have continued forever.
Still other factors obstructed recognition of Kapilaben’s work, like the inaccessibility of the Mumbai Education Department archives. Even the three factors sketched above, suggested by the memories of young people, might have limited knowledge about her. There may, however, have been another process involved, related to the political affiliations of activists in events of intense significance in community life. For Indians, this can be seen in the struggle for Independence, which had continued for so many decades before the final departure of the British in 1947 – and which continues to live with such vivid power in the imaginations of Indians to this day. During the Quit India campaign, led by Mahatma Gandhi, for example, many people sacrificed liberty and faced imprisonment to demand an end to colonialism. Yet there were many Indians, affiliated to the Communist Party, who were not active in the Gandhian Quit India movement but instead advocated a United Front with the British for the duration of the second World War in order to defeat Fascism. While these positions were eventually to be reconciled because all groups fought for Independence, just with different strategies, the rifts and bitterness of that difficult struggle continues to live on into the present.
This question – about memories of deeply-felt events – is relevant in an example from my work in oral history in Australia. The British government tested nuclear weapons with fission explosions in two desert sites in South Australia in the 1950s. The initial test was two detonations in 1953 at Emu Junction, in the north east of the state, then a series of 6 explosions in 1956 and 1957 at Maralinga, in the south of the state.
Over many decades, Aboriginal people voiced their concerns about the effects of the testing on their health and on the environment. Finally, as a result of these sustained Aboriginal demands for investigation as well as the concerns of Australian military veterans, an Australian Royal Commission to inquire into the testing effects was established in 1984. I was living in the north of South Australia at that time, after completing my doctoral studies in oral history with Aboriginal people in the eastern state of New South Wales, so I was employed by the Pitjantjatjara Council to assist its legal team, acting on behalf of Aboriginal populations across the region, as they prepared evidence from the Aboriginal testimony to put before the Royal Commission. My work was mainly concerned with memories about the Emu tests in 1953.
The Pitjantjatjara Council mobilised a team of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal linguists, anthropologists and historians, including myself, to make a careful analysis of the testimonies from a number of communities. It became clear that the narrative from one particular community, to the north of the Emu site, where there had been many tragic deaths, was different in detail to that from other communities further to the east. Internal evidence from the testimonies of this one community showed that their memories were associated with events which could only have occurred in 1948, which was some years before the nuclear testing had begun. What had occurred in 1948, however, had been a severe viral epidemic, caused by measles, to which the members of this remote community had had no immunity. The narratives from the other communities to the east, where Aboriginal people also recalled illnesses, included as well sightings of a series of visual phenomena consistent with the airborne radiation cloud, as well as having internal details which were more clearly associated with events around 1953.
The 1948 viral measles epidemic had been poorly described to this westerly community by attending non-Aboriginal staff, and because it was unprecedented and could not be explained by traditional understandings of illness and death, community members worried about it over many years. When later they were told – again in poorly expressed and confusing descriptions – about the nuclear testing, it was not surprisingly that this testing had become associated with the stories of unexplained deaths.
It appeared then that the events at the more westerly community were most likely associated with the measles epidemic, rather than with the atomic testing which had affected the more easterly communities. The legal team needed advice from the westerly community about whether their evidence should be led at the Royal Commission. This was a very hard decision – the community had to decide whether to forsake the opportunity to tell the story of the tragedy of 1948 which had left such a terrible burden of grief and anger.
A large community gathering was held, in which the majority of participants were elderly people who had lived through the awful period of death. As well, however, there were a number of younger people who were the sons and daughters of survivors of the sickness who had since died. These younger people had been told the story by their deceased elders over the years when the episode of deaths had been thought to have been caused by the nuclear testing. The legal team and advisers like myself, some Aboriginal and some non-Aboriginal, spent time at this meeting explaining the grounds for the legal team’s concerns about this community’s evidence. After many hours of discussion, questioning and then more discussion, those present who had themselves experienced and survived the period of illness and deaths, came to individual and collective conclusions that their memories were associated with the 1948 measles viral epidemic. The many dimensions of this complex discussion and its conclusion have been recorded in the Report of the Royal Commission and in various publications about the inquiry.
But there was one group of people who were not happy with this view. They were the people whose deceased relatives had been survivors of the illness and had told their children and young relations about it when they had believed it was associated with the atomic testing. The people who had themselves gone through the terrible illness and witnessed the scenes of death and grief had been able to consider the various interpretations that had been made and revise their views. Those who had not themselves witnessed the events but had instead been told about them by their loved but deceased relations did not feel comfortable departing from the narrative they had been given. To have questioned the explanation of their elder relations seemed to be a betrayal of the trust placed in them. These people deferred to the views reached at the meeting by the elderly, living survivors, whose authority could not be questioned on this matter, but it clearly left deep disquiet and unease to have acceded to the decision to leave this narrative out of the presentation to the Royal Commission.
This burden of guilt did not ease over time. People in the westerly community from this generation – the children of survivors who later died – continued to feel they had let down the elders they loved, who had trusted them to keep the memory of the tragedy and grief alive. It was invariably people of this generation who were occasionally heard through the 1990s and 2000s, repeating the accounts they had been told by their parents, of deaths caused by the bombs, as they tried to fulfil the responsibilities with which they felt they had been entrusted. Most from that generation have now themselves passed away. What has continued have been the narratives from the easterly communities, which could consistently attribute illness and contamination to the 1953 nuclear testing. It is telling that it is now the children of those easterly survivors who can confidently sustain the challenge to the British military and scientific establishment that they failed to protect Aboriginal people – and indeed any Australian people and environments – from the poison of their weapons tests.
How might these reflections about memories of extreme events in Australia, and their effect on the next generation, be relevant to memories in India? As an Australian historian with limited experience and even less expertise in the rich histories of India, I would be foolish to make definitive assertions. But for all of us, the struggles of the recent past – and in particular those which have demanded great sacrifice and led to so much grief, like warfare and independence struggles – remain very much alive in the present. The burdens of responsibility felt by younger generations to celebrate the sacrifices made by their old and deceased relations in heroic struggles must be very heavy, no matter how willingly they are embraced. As others have noted, the narrative of defining moments of national history become simplified in the retelling, with contending groups vying for control of the story. Recent Indonesian history, for example, is replete with accounts of leaders claiming – sometimes falsely – to have been freedom fighters in the iconic Battle of Surabaya. So I am left wondering how the bitter differences over strategies to gain Independence in India might still play out. Are there still differences, for example, between the who took part in the Quit India campaign – those who were imprisoned and injured by the British – and those who did not, notably the communists who argued that a united front with the Allies was necessary to defeat Fascism first, before turning to rid India of British colonialism. These differing strategies may all have aimed at the same result but they were deeply painful differences at the time, none the less. How do they shape the memories about those like Kapila Khandvala, who fought against colonialism all her life, but chose a strategy aligned with that of the Communist Party of India during the Independence struggle? Do the strategic differences of the 1940s continue to shape the way later generations of those courageous freedom fighters, on all sides, recount the struggle?
And what do we then learn about the memories of people who were children or very young at the times they are remembering? From these examples, I suggest children’s memories are extremely important because they are sensitive to the emotional dimensions of interactions – the warmth or the reticence in the demeanour of the people they recall, rather than the details of what they did or said. They remember styles of interactions – warmth, jokes, constancy and – as Indira’s memories about Kapila and Russia suggest – the contradictions and puzzles stand out in memory. But it is also important that the exposure that children have to others is entirely the result of family relations – so if families are estranged, children will have little contact or only the hints of criticism or demeaning innuendo or outright family hostility to shape their memories. Through their storytelling, families reinforce the enjoyable times they shared, so these loom larger in children’s imagination than less happy times. Where there are misrepresentations, they may show more clearly in the memories of adults, as they were in T.C. Khandvala’s memoirs or the insistence on terms like ‘her friend’ by Jyotiben Trivedi to cover discomfort about her aunt’s irregular relationship. Such discomfort might disappear in the memories of children, who have only absences and gaps where otherwise memories might have been. Yet it may significantly shape their orientation towards the people about whom they are asked.
And finally, the example from Australia suggests that young people do indeed carry memories from their elders – but not in any simple way. Instead, they carry responsibilities to protect and pass on intact the stories of sacrifice and grief exactly as their elders told it – leaving them inflexible and resistant to alternative explanations as they uphold the trust they feel has been placed in them. These are noble impulses – but there are costs too.
No-one talks at all any more about the tragedy of the measles in central Australia…..
Heather Goodall is an award-winning author who has published on Indigenous histories and environmental history in Australia, on twentieth century decolonisation in India and Australia and on maritime history in the eastern Indian Ocean. She has drawn on oral history methodology in all these fields, including her co-authored works with Indigenous activists Isabel Flick and Kevin Cook. Growing up near Salt Pan Creek, a tributary of the Georges River, Heather has analysed river environmental history and politics in rural and remote areas as well as in cities.Her recent books include Beyond Borders: Indians, Australians and the Indonesian Revolution, 1939-1950 (Amsterdam University Press, 2018); Teacher for Justice: Lucy Woodcock’s Transnational Life, co-authored with Helen Randerson and Devleena Ghosh (ANU Press, 2019) and most recently, Georges River Blues: swamps, mangroves and resident action, 1945-1980, (ANU Press, 2021). As Professor Emerita of History, at the University of Technology Sydney, Heather continues her work as an activist researcher.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.