The eternal sadness of an oral historian

During the very first interview I did with my mother, I had an intense sense of time running out. I felt a sense of urgency about recording the stories that I had heard from her. This was not an unfamiliar sensation when I went to interview elders – there was always a sense that I had to “finish” the interview before time ran out. Looking back, this sense of time running out haunted me when I sat at different points with two friends closer to my age when they were dying of cancer, one of them couldn’t be persuaded to record her stories and the other immersed herself in her writing till the end of her days. When I lost both within a short span of time, I realised that there is never a right time to be recording oral histories, because time flitted away unpredictably, capriciously. Too soon.

My life as an oral historian officially began with interviewing Obaid Siddiqi in 2003. These interviews began at the institute he founded in Bangalore, the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS). Since Professor Siddiqi was a celebrated scientist, the burden of this task was immense. I felt paralysed with anxiety. The younger scientists who worked at NCBS or at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) where Siddiqi had started the first molecular biology unit in India, softened the edges of my anxiety with stories about Obaid. In the two years I spent at NCBS I interviewed him for fifteen hours. I spent much more time just walking around the institute grounds with him, having lunch and generally chatting in his Lab. Obaid talked at length about his family, his school days, the choices he made and about his training as a scientist, relating past and present through the lens of his insights on life itself. Long after I left NCBS, I would run into him at every meeting that I attended at NCBS or TIFR. Our conversations continued even though officially my project was over. When Obaid died unexpectedly in 2013 from injuries caused by an accident, like everyone else I was shocked. In a completely illogical way, I missed his presence at his memorial meeting. Since then, that sense of loss often echoes through my mind when I talk about my oral history interview with him, or when I write about the history of biology in India. It leads me to wonder why I had missed asking him questions that now insist on answers. In theory, I have always known that oral history interviews are always incomplete because one cannot ask all questions. Besides, interviews are subjective, and the interviewee might offer an answer with a different emphasis a week later or elaborate their response in ways that can turn your initial understanding on its head. And yet, the first thing that I think about when I speak about my interview with Obaid, are the things I had not asked. For example, my interview was so strongly focussed on his professional life that I had not delved into his other interests – photography and music (he played the sarod). How could I have missed asking him about his music, particularly because he had once entrusted me with his sarod instructing me to carry it to Kolkata for repairs to the legendary Hemen & Co. On reflection I realise it is not the lack of details that is distressing for me as an oral historian; the deep sadness arises from a sense of powerlessness that we all feel when death intervenes and life as we knew it ends. One of the obvious sources of our sorrow as oral historians is our very human inability to cope with the impermanence of life.

Perhaps, it was this apprehension of death that kept me from interviewing my mother for many years. When I began it was driven by a deep desire to hear again stories she had stopped repeating as she grew older. At age six she had lost her father. Talking about this loss at age eighty-six during the interview she tells me that her father who died in 1934 had been suffering from pleurisy and would frequently be away at a sanatorium in Madanapalle in South India. In fact, she and her two siblings saw him infrequently. Even when he was home, they were not allowed near him – they saw him from a distance standing at the doorway of the room he lay in.

After he died, she wrote him letters as she used to when he was at the sanatorium. She would take the scraps of paper on which she wrote and slip them into the red pillar box near their home. Until one day her playmates asked her with the guileless reasoning of children, why was she writing to her father who was dead and could never ever read them. The words pierced her core. Outraged, she called them liars. As she ran home, her friends shouted after her that she had probably not taken a close look at how her mother dressed in the white sari of the widow – could she not see? Or was she stupid? She raced home. Blind with tears she burst into the room where her twenty-three-year-old mother sat shielded by a pathos of mourners. “Is my father dead?” she began and stopped when she noticed her mother’s white sari for the first time. Suddenly, it was pointless to ask. In the interview my mother pauses and says with a mixture of regret and dismissiveness, “I was so stupid!” “But were you not there on the day he died?” – I ask quietly, stunned by her story. She recalls how she and her siblings were sent to a neighbour’s house and fed there. Rituals of death demanded that no fire be lit in the house till the last rites are over. She had witnessed the weeping and the gloominess that pervaded the house but had thought that her father had left for one more bout of treatment at the sanatorium. Nobody disabused her of that notion. And nearly a month after he died, she finally grieves for her father. I am appalled that nobody thought of talking to her or to her siblings about the loss that would mark them for the rest of their lives. She tells me many other stories about her childhood – about the extended family members who loved and protected her, about her mother going to work in a school – but nothing remains with me as powerfully as the story of her father’s death, told eighty years after she had lost him.

Listening – one of the skills we oral historians nurture inside us brings with it the physical sensation of watching what happened in the past in the mind’s eye. When Obaid Siddiqi speaks to me about an early experiment with wheat that had failed because of a devastating storm, I hear his crestfallen voice, “I didn’t even go to take a look.” In my mind I see the mud, the rain and the wheat stalks felled to the ground, and I also see a dejected young man. When my mother speaks, I see the child, tears streaming down her cheeks, running. The voice of memory, it strikes me has a synesthetic dimension – allowing us to see what we hear our interviewees speak about. Often the voice of memory enables us to reconstruct in our imagination what the scene might have looked like in the past. We also imagine the depth of emotions that even today draws out so much sorrow. The act of reimagining that source of sorrow reverberates inescapably inside the listener. This is a process of transmission that transforms our understanding of our own life events – past or present.

Scholars of memory studies and practitioners of oral history have long recognised that memory weaves together the past and the present. Similarly, the voice that remembers is stereophonic, drawing from two different, if dissonant sources – the past and the present. My mother’s is a voice grown old and deepened by many losses, but that voice expresses the hurt of the child she was. I feel protective towards my mother as I hear her talk about the death of my grandfather, but I know that she is not yet my mother; she is the child who will one day grow up to become my mother. Obaid Siddiqi’s is the confident voice of scientist that also houses the disappointment of an inexperienced experimenter who is not yet a distinguished scientist. The act of listening to memory draws us to both those voices – the voice of the past and that of the present. I have often wondered if the realisation that we are listening to two voices shaped differently by the passage of time points to the transience of the human voice and layers our understanding of the transitory nature of life itself. Is that why our practice demands that we recognise the preciousness and precariousness of what we are entrusted with? And is that why we must carry the weight of what we listen to?

Nearly six years after the interview with my mother, I still carry the stony weight of her childhood memory as I nurse her through advanced dementia. I notice that her condition makes her memories appear unexpectedly, in disjointed flashes. Her lucid moments never last long. Some months ago, she tells me that her father had come to visit her. She no longer repeats that story from her childhood, but I can touch its heaviness inside me. That stone remains lodged deep inside, nothing can move it. 

Indira Chowdhury

Acknowledgement: This post is dedicated to Veronica Rodrigues and Madhavi Sardesai – friends with whom I can no longer have this discussion. I am grateful for several informal discussions with Alessandro Portelli. This piece was inspired by the writings of Luisa Passerini, Urvashi Butalia, Alessandro Portelli and Valerie Yow.

Growing up with stories

A family photograph with my great grandmother, Bidhumukhi (sitting right), 1977.
Courtesy: Soumitra Choudhury

I grew up in eastern India, in a small steel town called Burnpur – echoing the name of Burn & Co – the company that played a major role in setting up the township. The furnaces burnt all day spewing orange, purple and white smoke into the skies. Growing up, I did not think of these colourful skies as polluting, but they were. My father worked in the factory and suffered from emphysema for the rest of his life.

Ours was a “joint” family and I grew up with my uncles, aunts and cousins with countless stories which invited us to imagine a past that was difficult to relate to. As a teenager I had quite accidentally conducted a very short interview with my great grandmother who lived with us. I was trying to do a test recording on the brand-new tape recorder my uncle, who was visiting from the UK, had brought back.  Our great grandmother, Bidhumukhi had recollected her childhood and how she loved to watch the travelling theatre – the Jatra performances. She even sang an amusing song about a foppish man of colonial Calcutta – the “koilkatta babu” who used “pomatom” (pomade) on his hair. More than two decades later, while doing my Ph.D. research, I would discover the words of her song in a nineteenth century Bengali song book in the India Office Library in London. I regretted not paying more attention to what she had said. I could not revisit her narrative either because we had not preserved the recording. At that point as I struggled to become a historian, in the debates between history and memory, history always emerged triumphant. I was never taught to value memory and so the significance of my great grandmother’s story escaped me.

My great grandmother was not the only storyteller in the family. My father, my aunts and uncles were all full of stories – about their village Merkuta (a village on the banks of the Titas), their grandfather’s house in Comilla and their growing up years in the mining town of Gua. They talked endlessly about the places that they could never forget, especially those they could no longer return to after India was partitioned in 1947. It took me decades of doing interviews with people from all over India to realize why these stories were important not only for my family but also for the history of contemporary India. I realised that the stories of my family had shaped the person I was and I too endlessly retold them in an attempt to grasp at a past that seemed to elude me. Perhaps that is what made my family recount stories of their lives as they too tried to make sense of the past. But this understanding came long years after my father and most of his nine siblings were gone.

This blog is about my experience of doing oral history in India – for institutions, within communities and with members of my own family. I look forward to sharing my reflections on how people talk, the stories they tell and the promise of an understanding that this process brings to all of us.

Indira Chowdhury