THERE has been much talk of late about the distortion of history in Pakistan. Another feature of our historiography that our eminent historian Dr Mubarak Ali has lamented is the excessive focus on rulers and not enough being written about the ruled. We need more of ‘popular history’.
In that context I have found the Citizens Archive of Pakistan an innovative and commendable enterprise that should fill this void that has been growing as the primary sources of history — the people who lived through an era — are drying up. Founded by the Oscar-winning filmmaker, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, CAP, to use its acronym, describes itself as the “first ever youth-led private initiative to collect, archive, study, disseminate and exhibit all aspects of Pakistan’s history both before and after partition”. It claims to be playing a value-added role in creating national awareness and identity.
A lot of this archive is in the form of oral histories recorded by a dynamic team of youngsters who locate people they feel would have something to say. This is a worthwhile endeavour because a few years ago when families were more integrated and members would spend hours sharing thoughts and experiences, a lot of oral history was passed down from one generation to the next. That is not the case anymore.
Of late, people with the propensity to write have taken to putting their life history on paper. Of course, most of them never think of publishing their writings, unless they are accomplished writers, such as Qurratulain Haider who published a voluminous family chronicle titled Kaar-i-Jahan Daraz Hai. Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family was widely acclaimed — having been translated into 37 languages and screened by television as a miniseries. It inspired many and is said to have created a public interest in genealogy writing.
Haley’s research was spread over 10 years and took him to The Gambia from where his ancestor Kinte Kunta was kidnapped in 1667 and sold as a slave in Maryland.
Those who write as a hobby record their history primarily for their family — immediate or extended. Many of these pieces of writings contain gems of information that shed much light and not just on places where the author lived and the numerous personalities who played a role in his/her life and his/her ancestors. Depending on the style of writing and the writer’s skills as a storyteller, a lot more emerges from such accounts.
Take the case of Qaiseri Begum (1888-1976) who was an obscure personality in the realm of Urdu literature. She wrote her memoirs that were published posthumously by her granddaughter, Zahra Masroor Ahmad, in 2004 under the title Katab-i-Zindagi.
Her life was full of events and she had an eye for detail and a memory for anecdotes. So what the reader gets is a delightful cultural history of Muslim families at the turn of the 19th century in Delhi. Rituals, customs and beliefs are described fully which shed light on the lifestyle and cultural practices of people. A historian’s delight!
In this context, I was fascinated by an unpublished family chronicle I was given to read by a friend, Rabab Naqvi, who I visited in Montreal where she has lived and worked since 1969 when she migrated after her husband’s death.
A library science graduate, Rabab set up the Documentation Technology department in a Montreal college and in recognition of her services the Rabab Naqvi Achievement Award was instituted. She writes with flair about her ancestors in a non-judgmental style. She laces her writing with humour that has a charm of its own. She is not disparaging and one would not take offence at her anecdotal narration exposing the naivety of some family members, along with her own.
There is no attempt to gloss over weaknesses or resort to gimmicks that we see among some professional family chroniclers. No Uncle George’s execution had to be dressed up by describing it as his “occupying a chair of applied electronics at an important government institution, where he was attached to his position by the strongest of ties, and his death came as a real shock”.
In her honest style, Rabab has a history to narrate in the pages of her chronicle which traces the origins of her ancestral village, Kajgaon, and contains a vivid account of the UP Shia culture. The writer has done a lot of research to describe how her forefathers migrated from Iraq and Iran several centuries ago. She is at present writing a chapter on her own migration experience to the New World.
It was a coincidence that when I called up another friend who has moved over to North America — the former principal of the Habib Girls’ School in Karachi, Zubeida Dossal — she informed me that she was also working on her family history. I do hope she will dwell at length on her experience as an educationist in Bombay and Karachi.
Many of these family chronicles will never be released for public circulation. CAP would do well to trace out such writings which are potential sources of history and scan them for its archives, if the authors agree. They may come in handy many years from now when no one is there to tell us those stories which our mothers and grandmothers narrated. That is how we learnt how they lived a century ago.