Tell Me A Story

A Mumbai-based archive is collecting oral histories in an effort to facilitate a more nuanced, complex understanding of India’s past

Written by Pooja Pillai | Published: May 8, 2018 12:07:29 am
The archive focuses on eyewitness accounts and personal narratives to fill the gap that exists in written records and social history

As a child, Malvika Bhatia had heard many stories from her grandmother about growing up in British India as a staunch Gandhian, with a freedom-fighter father. Bhatia’s great-grandfather had been enough of a bugbear to the colonial authorities that he was even sent to jail. “I remember my grandmother telling me that even though it was difficult when her father was in jail, she was very proud of him,” says Bhatia, “He used to spin khadi, and my grandmother got her wedding sari, thanks to all the khadi that he had spun in jail. He was very proud when she wore that sari.”

As with most children listening to their grandparents’ stories, Bhatia too hadn’t placed too much importance on the memories that her grandmother shared with her. She enjoyed listening to these recollections, of course, but it wasn’t until she started working at The Citizens’ Archive of India (CAI) that she fully understood the value of the stories that her grandmother had once told her. “The history that we learn in school is political history. We don’t really learn about society and culture. But the stories that we hear from older people, about what it had been like to live through the past, it is through them that a full and more complex picture emerges.”

This is exactly the mission of CAI: to tap into the memories of those who’ve seen the country become what it is today and to inform our understanding of our own history. Founded in 2016 by Rohan Parikh, managing director of the Apurva Natvar Parikh Group, this archive focuses on oral history — eyewitness accounts and personal narratives collected via interviews — and uses it to fill the gap that exists between written records and lived experience. They are also collecting photographs for their archives.

“Oral History as a practice is gaining greater importance in India, every day,” says Bhatia, who works as the project head at CAI. Bhatia points to personal accounts of events like the Partition of the subcontinent in 1947 or the Emergency(1975-77), which are helping historians go beyond the abstract and towards an understanding of how major events impact individual lives. CAI’s ongoing project, ‘The Generation 1947 Project’, is reaching out to those who witnessed the birth of Independent India and is recording their memories about what life before 1947 was like. The team, which includes two oral historian-archivists who work alongside Bhatia, began by reaching out to people they knew personally, after which the list of interviewees grew by word of mouth. As of now, the project has spoken to 85 people and the archive. It will be available through the CAI website, with video interviews also being available on its Facebook and Instagram accounts. While most of the interviews carried out so far have been in Mumbai, CAI is hoping to raise funds that will enable the team to travel across the country to collect oral accounts and expand its base.

The ultimate aim, says Bhatia, is for the archive to be available to everyone, from historians and academics to students and laypersons who want a deeper understanding of the country’s history or simply another perspective with which to see people and events. “One of the people we interviewed was Mrs. Indira Patel, the daughter of HVR Iyengar (RBI Governor from 1957 to 1962), and she told us some personal stories of the time she spent at Teen Murti Bhavan as a child. She had a completely different take on people like Nehru and Sardar Patel, because she knew them as her father’s friends, and she had a particularly lovely story about the time Patel was taking a train to Bombay and when he was saying goodbye to her, she asked him to go to the zoo, because the only thing she knew about Bombay at that time was that it had a zoo!,” Bhatia says. Other stories add further shades to our black-and-white view of India just before and after Independence, such as the one told by Pandurang Narulkar, a former brigadier in the Indian army, who was a cadet at the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun at the time of Independence and who recalls August 14 being spent in making transfer arrangements for cadets, including two of his best friends, who wished to join Pakistan.

“There are two questions we always ask our interviewees: What is the one thing our generation has which they didn’t and what is the one thing that their generation has which we don’t. To the first question, most say that there’s nothing they feel their generation missed, but to the second, many of them point out that the current generation is busy all the time and is not bound to its roots,” says Bhatia, “We’re hoping that through this archive, we can show the current and future generations what a vibrant and diverse past India has.

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