This archival project wants you to talk to your grandparents

Mumbai-based Malvika Bhatia is putting together a public archive of India’s history as told by its oldest citizens

July 07, 2018 04:25 pm | Updated 04:54 pm IST

 Malvika Bhatia sorts through old photographs, letters and other material acquired from interviewees.

Malvika Bhatia sorts through old photographs, letters and other material acquired from interviewees.

I catch Malvika Bhatia on a busy day. She has just been granted access to the photo archive of politician Vijaylakshmi Pandit’s nephew, the scholar Gokul Pandit. As the project head at Citizens Archive of India (CAI), Bhatia pieces together scraps of history and memorabilia to present a compelling portrait of India before independence.

The Generation 1947 Project spearheaded by her brings together a fascinating montage of photographs, documents and videotaped interviews of people who have memories of that era. Bhatia’s interest goes beyond the Partition. “History is also about everyday life and how it changed”, she says. It could be something as simple as someone recounting how they used shampoo for the first time.

When she started her job, she and CAI founder Rohan Parikh just wanted to unravel some of India’s lost and neglected stories from the Independence movement and after. Modelling the project after the Citizens Archive of Pakistan, the pair began to build a public archive of India’s history as told by its oldest citizens. Freed from the confines of textbook history, the project fuses the political and the personal. Quotidian routines merge with anecdotes about eminent political personalities. Interviews can be meandering — from the construction of Marine Drive in Mumbai, to the city acquiring its first tram, to what Nehru and Patel were really like in person.

Intricate stories

Personal interviews are central to the archive. “You’re essentially making a stranger comfortable in their own home,” says Bhatia. She helps her nonagenarian interviewees feel at ease by beginning with simple questions about their parents or a childhood home. Soon enough, she finds, they launch into intricate family histories, recounting how their lives were shaped by rapid industrial growth or multiple migrations.

“When you interview someone from your grandparents’ generation the first thing they say is ‘You’re the first person to ask’.” She taps into their memories and together they unlock untold stories from the Indian subcontinent: the birth of two nations, real, lived experiences, The trauma of communal politics. Bhatia says her interviewees sometimes have a good cry mid-talk, overwhelmed by the perspective hindsight offers them.

The project attempts to bridge the gap between the last surviving generation that knew 1947 and the younger ones. The archive wants grandchildren to talk to their grandparents to create a discourse. Usually, a treasure trove of diverse stories emerges.

Bhatia’s work also challenges the linearity of history as we know it. The stories she hears can come from Portuguese Goa or French Mahe in Kerala, all existing simultaneously. She’s heard the testimonies of people who lived in the princely state of Hyderabad or Bhrugupur in Gujarat. There was no single moment when India came into being, there were multiple Indias. An interviewee remembers the time he drove into colonial Goa and immediately switched his side of the road to follow the European norm.

Large gaps

A 101-year-old Parsi woman, Mithoo Coorlawala remembers her time at the Nizam’s court: “Oh it was such a wonderful life. I don’t know why we had to join the Indian union,” she tells Bhatia candidly. The last Nizam had generously signed a driver’s license for her husband when he was just 13.

Partition inevitably enters these conversations. A Punjabi couple she interviewed, who escaped from Burma during WWII, crossed the Northeast on foot, entered the plains to settle in Lahore. Five years later, Partition would uproot them as their home was “not in their country any more”. However, Bhatia remains very aware that the testimonies belong to certain classes and castes, leaving several marginalised groups unacknowledged. There are large gaps in the archive, and “It is a constant struggle to make sure you’re not sanitising the narrative because most of your interviewees belong to one socio-economic group”.

Another project in the pipeline is ‘Delhi ki Khirki’ which will record the dying history of Delhi’s Khirki village, a site that is part-village and part-Select City Walk Mall.

Bhatia says she developed a keen interest in family history listening to her great-grandfather’s tales from his days as a freedom fighter. “My grandfather had eight brothers and at one point all their families lived in the house I live in today. So you can imagine the kind of mad house it was.” Bhatia wants people to listen and learn from history, from these histories that never got told. “So that we don’t repeat our mistakes.”

The Mumbai-based writer and feminist hopes to break patriarchy one word at a time.

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