Oral history is precious and fleeting, the retelling varies depending on the mood of the teller, the weather and a million other variables – oral history reflects both the present moment of the words being spoken and the past that it speaks of. How can we record oral history so it doesn’t get lost? Is it possible to move away from the idea of an objective singular narrative of history, can we sit comfortably in a knowing of the past, our past that embraces mess and ends with questions?
My Ba, the youngest of six has insecurity about her ability to remember events from the past. Her memories almost exclusively come directly from being told stories. This translation of story-to-story, how the people retelling put themselves into how things are understood.
I do not believe in innocent curiosity, knowledge is a commodity, it is commissioned, bought and sold, mainstream knowledge production is based on capital - who has and who doesn’t have dictates how history is recorded. So unfortunately, oral histories, histories of diaspora, my history has not been recorded - it’s disappearing and we are pressured to assimilate into a new history that is of our oppressor.
Silence is the space that exists in history for the colonized woman. Between patriarchy and imperialism, subject-constitution and object formation, the figure of the woman disappears, not into pristine nothingness, but into a violent shuttling which is the displaced configuration of the third world woman, caught between tradition and modernization - Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
I began trying to record my Ba using voice notes on my phone. Uncritically using this device as a means to capture memories. The way in which I conducted the interviews was my point of analysis. Through casual non-linear chatting I thought I was allowing and encouraging a messy telling of various pasts. What I didn't analyse was the device - the voice note recorder. It became a central player; it is the interrogator, the object that we centre ourselves around. It's hard to pinpoint the specifics of what this device manipulated. Reality is fragile, memories are confused and the voice note recorder is unsympathetic, causing vulnerability to seem void of care. My first research method uses the same tools as the coloniser and I feel it in the extraction. It warps my conversation with my Ba into a self-conscious performance.
I started asking questions to Ba via Whatsapp, questions mainly about dates. I am not asking about feelings or context. She has started sending photographs, mainly of her, mainly in Nairobi. We talk at length via Whatsapp, she needs comforting and reassurance, this exchange feels more honest, complicated, I don't know what the objective is, because of the Whatsapp layout it feels open ended, there is no record button.
I asked Ba when Nanima and Nanabapu left Gujarat. Either 1947 or 1948, she isn't sure. It doesn't matter really, however these years are arguably the most significant years in modern history in India. There is no framing of a larger context within our history. Is this because there is an assumption that everyone knows about partition and independence, so there's no need to relate it to the micro contexts of our personal family history? Or has this been erased due to sadness and guilt that we have inherited?
Ba and I watch documentaries on partition like we would watch anything else on telly. When did we separate ourselves from our history? Is there a similarity between the UK’s dissonance to the country’s history and my Ba and I’s distance from our past - have we been taught the distance that we feel?
In defining the ‘other’, the subject becomes the object. The subject loses agency/consciousness, without agency the subject-come-object is now research that exists to help understand ‘the first world’. Stripped of meaning beyond existing in difference to define the central, the norm. Our history exists in order to inform the dominant narrative makers about themselves. Does this objectification render us powerless or is it a call for resistance that demands we find new ways of understanding, learning, recording and archiving?
On their first night, after all the guests had left, the oil lamp in their shared room was returned to a neighbour. Nanima realised that they didn’t have enough money to afford oil for light and so they spent their first night together with the light of one diva. Nanima was 16 that night. I only knew her as an old woman, I wonder if I would recognise her at 16. I like to imagine her at 16 under the light of the diva excited and careful, ready for love and whatever life would throw at her. After Nanabapu died she lit a diva for him every morning. After Nanima died we stopped this tradition. Energy once evoked from a holy flame is now put out.
Nanima was born in 1929, she married Nanabapu when she was 16 so that is in 1946, they lived in Gujarat for a couple of years, so these early years in Nairobi are either the year before, the year of or the year after partition.
Nanima and Nanabapu left Gujarat and moved to Nairobi. They moved into an empty room and Ba told me that Nanima remembers each new possession they acquired, one at a time. Nanabapu had a bicycle, which he kept inside the room. When we talk about these times we imagine freshness and anticipation, being young, married and in an empty room.
There is a gap between the body and language. Our interpretations/language that describe the body (or the world) come from abstract thought. I exist, just like you, but our descriptions of each other will never be the whole truth, and without these descriptions, we both still exist in all our truth - independent of interpretation.
Effingham Road, which is on the Turnpike Lane side of the ladder on Green Lanes, was our central London for many years. Nanima and Nanabapu’s house was a time capsule, the carpets were cubic squares, swirls and circles made up of contrasting 80s shades, at the back on the house the linoleum was calm beige.
I question the ability to segment reality, into bite-sized consumables. Reality has way too many variables and the person who is responsible for the final word is of course the last man standing – and no one should trust them. So what are we left with, snippets, traces and silences – is it possible to create foundations from uncertainty?
This research started with my future not-yet-existing family members in mind. Our history is oral, it bends and flex’s depending how the giver and the receiver is feeling. Because unfortunately we live in a society where everything gets whitewashed, and because we live in a society that likes concrete singular pasts, this specific history is stretching to the point of disappearance. So by the time you arrive I’m worried it wont exist at all.