Tucked into an album that my mother filled with my photos over years, I found an envelope. It contained a few photos. One was of her from a time just before I was born. I have to guess, but she looks younger than I remember her, and I can recall the brown and beige checked woolen coat, with a deep green silk lining. How you find a thing is as important as what you find. “… that particular [medieval] manuscript has five copies, and one is in the Rampur library, two copies are in the British library, and two copies are in the Berlin library. The scholars get grants and go to Rampur and London and Berlin, read these manuscripts and they write the book. What I mean by post-colonised is that the condition of postcoloniality is in the dispersal of this manuscript. When we visit these archives, we cannot write that out of the story” explains the historian Manan Asif Ahmed in a recent interview. Our telling of the past is mediated by all the things that happened since then.
An album starts with a cover. As a child I’d admired the matte gleam of the silver ash pattern of this cover as it stood in a little shelf built in below the bedside table next to my mother’s bed. Now it is a battered looking thing, which will be trash in thirty years. The album preserves an ancient technology, black and white photographs. In high school I learnt to make a small dark room and develop and print my own photos. The technique remained useful even when I was in college, exposing and developing X-ray diffraction patterns from crystals in a lab, learning the techniques that had been used nearly thirty years before to unravel the structure of DNA. As I developed those X-ray plates, the first charge coupled devices had been built. CCD cameras were soon to become common on space probes. The photo album had outlived its time, and I was still preparing to start my life.
“Societies, not states, are the social atoms with which students of history have to deal,” this sentence from Toynbee’s first volume of A Study of History could apply to my family. In this album I find people whose history transcends that of my young country. My grandmother was born in what today is Odisha, in a house a few doors down from where Subhash Chandra Bose lived as a child. Her elder brother kept up the correspondence with his childhood friend until the war. As a child I listened to her stories of her brother trying to hide the letters, and their father discovering the cache and burning it. The British Intelligence of the day was raiding houses of Bose’s known friends, and would have considered those letters evidence of treasonous terrorism. How times change! My grandfather lived through a momentous time. As an employee of the colonial Indian government, he had a choice of citizenship. He brought his family to India, leaving his land and ancestral home in what is today Bangladesh. My grandmother’s brother in law was in Rangoon as the Japanese invaded. He walked to India through the forests of erstwhile Burma and Nagaland. I couldn’t believe that an old man dozing in an armchair had had such adventures. This old man told me of his meetings with Justice Radhagobinda Pal, who, through the Tokyo Trials after the war played a role in shaping modern international law.
I played cricket, dreamed of being a Gary Sobers, learnt to bicycle, went to school. This photo of me (center) and my cousins probably comes from a time between Apollo 8 and Apollo 11. I became a long haired teenager, wearing bell bottoms, watching Amitabh Bachchan become a bigger star through movie after movie. I listened to The Beatles, King Crimson, Dire Straits, and (of course) Kishore Kumar. I left home. There are no photos in the album of the times that I remember. After we were married, my mother showed this album to The Family. She found that the photos were beginning to fall out. The old black photo corners were coming unstuck. In the 90s black corners were no longer available, people had moved to albums with plastic pockets to hold prints. The gold corners were all she could get to help my mother repair the damage. The daughter of the young girl in the photo who can’t quite stay away from her mother became a one girl fan club for The Family at the same age.
One of the few photos from my angsty teenage years is this one of me with my brother. I looked at it after a long time, and realized that his eyes have been passed on to my niece. The same quizzical look! “When a word is properly defined it loses its capital letter and can no longer serve either as a banner or as a hostile slogan; it becomes simply a sign, helping us to grasp some concrete reality,” wrote Simone Weil. Sibling is such a word; it takes a lifetime to move beyond expectations to a place where we can create our own definition of the word. Then there are the fictions inside all our photos, of which the biggest is that a photo is a slice of life. The photographer is always unseen, but always present through his or her arrangement and framing of the subject. I cannot remember who took any of these photos, why we were asked to stand or sit in a particular way, and why we agreed. My mother created another fiction by choosing and preserving some moments, not others. History is just such a record of the past. So much is lost, the documents that we have were written by people with agendas. That immense hole which has to be mended and reconstructed is where contexts and interpretations slip in.