An “Incomplete” History

There is always a spattering of stories during adda, sitting around the kitchen table at home long after the food is gone, painted in that rosy hue of memory that always comes with the retellings of moments that have long passed. The anecdotes will stretch as far back as the marsh green village my nana was from and perhaps the names of my great grandparents, but beyond that I know nothing. I have always taken these gaps in my knowledge as fact—reading all of my family history as a collection of clues rather than a full picture. 

Since coming to college, typical of many diasporic experiences, the impetus to reconnect with histories and cultures that I spent 18 years rejecting has forced me to reflect on what I do not know about my family. The urgency initially came from missing the people who had raised me after moving away to school. Suddenly I was seeking them in these reflections. In many ways, I was trying to recreate the belonging I felt while standing in the archways of my grandfather’s home in Kolkata, with knowledge that was now beyond my reach. 

My ancestral history can feel distant and unrelated to my experience as a student. The more I moved through Tufts, the more I began to internalize a very different conception of “family history”: it was that of a spindling family tree, with neat branches where names, dates, times, and family connections are outlined and written in fine ink. It feels silly at times to draw such significant meaning from family histories that are long gone, from people who are not here, and from experiences that are not mine. 

Even still, I find that in an institution where the quantifiers of knowledge are bound by what is and is not recorded in academic texts, it is empowering to recognize this knowledge as more valuable than what I’d ever be able to find out about myself by going through library sections at Tisch. There is a drive to see myself mirrored in the experiences of those within my own lineage, especially because those experiences are not reflected in any other media, history, or storytelling, which then has consequences on how I move through the world.  

 It is not novel to deduct that a fully dated and extensively recorded family history has its ties to race and class privilege. I do not have the scope of knowledge to examine the full ways that this manifests itself. However, on this campus, that kind of capital is not only prevalent but is also the norm. This isn’t to draw comparison, to make my version of “family history” comparable to a White student who can point exactly to where a family member was and with whom in the year 1898. Instead, it is to argue that there is a crucial value to the adda around the table, and that the yearning to have a “complete history” can be met by closely examining the anecdotal knowledge one may already have. 

         I came into this perspective through a talk I assisted in organizing with the South Asian Political Action Committee. This October, we hosted Anthropologist Megha Shankar Sehdev to present her work on kinship, an anthropological term that broadly encapsulates creating relations and belonging. Sehdev organized what she shared about her family history around the very gaps in her knowledge that may otherwise serve as weaknesses. It astounded me how she was able to speak on her family history even though so much of it was obscured by a lack of access, or family fragmentation. 

I saw a lot of my own lack of knowledge reflected back to me in her descriptions, but it became apparent that how much of it was actually written or recorded didn’t matter as much.  A small crowd of folks who attended the event later gathered—in our discussion, it was clear that Sehdev had done the work of making our own respective experiences visible to us as significant fact, more than just family lore. 

Through the fragments of time, a border crossed, and family members spread around the world, there is no one “complete history” in a leatherbound book, waiting to be opened. To understand this, as Sehdev underscores in much of her work, is to validate the stories exchanged in less formalized ways.

The most significant point that I took from her was the idea that even anecdotes with very little detail can often point to larger, structural issues at hand. My grandfather’s story of crossing the border into present-day India from what is now Bangladesh, with all of his siblings and family in tow, is not an anomaly: displacement and migration during the partition was epidemic, more than unique. Even still, his story is important when put under examination, when parsing through its detail. His privilege in being able to leave in the first place—tied to the land once owned, then sold—points to the class structure that undergirded much of who was and was not able to migrate successfully during the partition. In this way, his story can point to nuances that dominant narratives cannot.

However, few details exist in my knowledge; the fact remains that the same fate was faced by millions of families across the subcontinent. In looking at what I know of my family history in this way, it is easy to see how valuable even bare knowledge can become.

 The photos in my mom’s basement are preserved in plastic and matted covers. In my mind, I’ve categorized the photos by color and general time frame: the black and white photos are of my great grandparents whose names I know. Taken in maybe the ‘30s? ‘40s? The photos of my mom and uncle are always toothy; the hue of the photos themselves always a bit red. They’re growing up I think. ‘60s, ‘70s. That I know for sure. And then, there are the photos of all four of them—nana, nani, ma, and mamu—in glistening purple and blue tones, beaming in the US ‘80s, ‘90s and beyond. Their immigration story—my grandfather’s favorite American store being the Macy’s, the dry cleaner’s they frequented around the corner, the first red car they ever had—I know well, and this is enough to start.

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