WHY I'M OBSESSED WITH BEING THE KEEPER OF MY FAMILY STORIES
Growing up in Pakistan, I spent most of my time at my grandparents’ house, playing hide-and-seek with neighborhood kids, reading Archie comics, cuddling up for nightly Bollywood movies in their air-conditioned sitting room. My grandparents called me their “puchree”, their tail. I tagged along with Nani on errands to the bazaars when she went shopping at the bazaar or to Wendy School, which she owned and ran. I hung around Nana and my uncles as they watched cricket matches on TV. Nana had played on a national level and cricket was a family obsession. At night, we cuddled in the air-conditioned sitting room and watched Bollywood movies.
When I was 11, my family moved to Canada. My grandparents followed a couple of years later. Now I drove Nani and Nana around, to Walmart for shopping, to Stanley Park to watch cricket matches. I brought over Bollywood movies and we cuddled up with the heater on full blast.
Years after we left Pakistan, still homesick, I developed a voracious hunger for my grandparents’ stories. Like any immigrant, my identity is a complex and nuanced web of experiences and understandings from my two cultures, and in those early years, it was a very fragile web. Moving to Canada at 11 had been traumatic- I felt severed from my family, my culture, everything that was familiar. My grandparents’ stories became a balm. They helped to unite my otherwise disparate existence. Filled in the blanks that lived inside me.
In my 20s, I spent hours at their dining table, asking for more and more stories. I scribbled them down as they spoke: I always tried to write their exact words, their particular turns of phrase, which to me, were as much a part of the stories as the content. As they spoke, I’d inevitably reach for a napkin, or one of the index cards Nana kept by the phone for messages. I tried to keep them safely in one place, this hodge-podge of papers and napkins. I worried I’d lose these stories, lose my history.
I became an ESL teacher, teaching and exploring the world over. Eventually, I settled in the Bay Area, quit teaching to focus on writing. My novels were always set in Pakistan, I was still obsessed with my heritage, obsessed because it always evaded me. I wanted to interact with it in any way I could.
Last year, I landed a job at The History Project. A San Francisco start-up, this online platform allows you to preserve the history of a loved one by adding photos, videos, other memorabilia, then telling the stories and memories associated with them in writing and audio recordings. It was basically a more sophisticated version of my paper and napkin approach to family history preservation. The first thing I was asked to do was to make my own History Project. I immediately made one about Nani and Nana.
Even though I had been hearing their stories for about two decades by this point, building their History Project provided a surprising number of insights, insights that I would never have come upon without sitting down and following through on each of these narrative strands.
Some highlights from my project:
EMPOWERING INTERGENERATIONAL CONNECTIONS
Cricket: A Family Obsession
Three generations of cricketers: Left, we have my grandfather (top row, center) and my eldest uncle (right of Nana) playing in Northern Pakistan. Center, my grandfather stands proudly with his three sons, all in their gleaming cricket whites. Right, my cousin officially begins the next generation of cricket players.
A Family of Teachers
Nani (center, white sari) with her very first staff members in 1964.
Three generations of teachers: my aunt, the Vice Principal, in the red sari in the top row, then Nani looking regal in green, and below her, me (in white), future teacher.
Finally a teacher, I pose outside my very own classroom, clearly a proud moment.
Adding this photo, of me teaching senior citizens Bollywood fitness, really sparked so many connections all at once: Bollywood, the love that began in my grandparents’ sitting room; teaching seniors, connecting with them easily because of my experience with my grandparents; teaching fitness instead of elementary school- I am a teacher for life.
AUDIO NOTES BRING EVERYTHING TO LIFE
We all know the story of how they met: Nana, the quiet musician, Nani shyly taking him a cup of tea, their eyes barely meeting, yet that instant and infamous spark. I made an audio recording of them telling this story right onto the platform. Listening back to it, I was amazed. Without them in front of me, I had only their voices in my ear. I began to notice things I never had before:
The rich timbre of their voices, their unique intonation, their word choice.
Nana teases Nani, Nani reprimands him though she clearly doesn’t mind, it’s part of their schtick.
Nani prods Nana along, filling in the details of his story on his behalf. When you’ve been married 65 years, you’ve got teamwork down to a science.
This audio clip is my most prized possession: I have captured the essence of my grandparents, as individuals and as a couple. And I get to keep it forever.
MULTI-MEDIA CONTENT CREATES INVALUABLE CONTEXT
Cricket is a huge part of our family history. But their great-grandchildren are growing up in Canada playing soccer and baseball. From my History Project, my nieces and nephews will now learn more than just the fact that Nana played cricket. They will learn about his cricket career in a deep and contextual way because they have access to:
An audio recording of Nana describing his cricket career.
A story of a match in Calcutta where Nana saved the team from losing their practice grounds. His talent as a cricketer is captured for the whole family to enjoy.
An article entitled “Parsi Cricket Pioneers”, a hundred year retrospective which mentions Nana and his teammates as significant contributors to the sport.
Nana’s statistics from 1948–1952 found on a cricket website, including his specialty (left-handed bowler- very rare, very coveted).
REFLECTION EASES OLD WOUNDS
As an immigrant kid, explaining myself wasn’t always easy- “Well, I’m a Parsi. No, not Farsi, Parsi. In my culture, we have a navjote. It’s like the Jewish Bar Mitzvah? You wear this flower garland, and you hold a coconut stained with red powder…” and that was about when people zoned out. But to see several generations of navjotes, well, it helps.
To see my aunts and uncles before me, all my cousins, also in silk pajamas and red-stained coconuts- I feel part of something. Something bigger than myself.
I think again of the next generation growing up in Canada, who will have even less context for these cultural traditions. I imagine that seeing these cross-generational photos will help ease their transition.
PROJECT MAKERS: THOSE WHO CREATE AND THOSE WHO ENJOY
I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who is this obsessed with family history. Who’s made a career out of it.
I thought building Nani and Nana’s History Project would be a solitary venture, that others in the family would give it a cursory glance and then get back to more interesting things. I was wrong. When I shared it with my sister, she was blown away. She stared at each beautiful black and white photo for several minutes. She was captivated by Nana’s cricket story, listened to the whole thing. She knew Nana had played cricket, but hadn’t known the story of Nana saving the Calcutta cricket club. She loved my descriptions of each event, stories she hadn’t known but are also a part of her. Most of all, she loved that it was all laid out and ready to go. And she had photos and videos she wanted to add on- no problem, The History Project allows collaboration. Which means my family can contribute their own media, memories, perspectives.
Here’s something else I’ve learned in working in this arena of family history gathering: each family has a keeper of stories. Everyone else appreciates the work they do but they don’t want to do it themselves, not to this level. That’s fine. Speaking as the keeper of stories in my family, I’m happy to share. It feels good to play this role because it is what I know, love, am.
Thank you to Phi Romer for contributing this article.
ABOUT THE HISTORY PROJECT
The History Project empowers families to connect artifacts and memories across media to build experiential stories that transcend generations. The History Project offers a set of mobile and online tools to intelligently collect, beautifully curate and delightfully collaborate in building your personal life story. Preserve and relive the memories that matter most through The History Project. For more details visit www.thehistoryproject.com.