Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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The Importance Of Personal History

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 20, 2009

The tradition of charting and maintaining a family tree is dying a gradual death. My eight year old son while unlacing his shoes after returning from the school hurled a question at me “Nana, what did your great, great,great, great, great, great, great, great, grandparents do?” I replied to him laughing out aloud that they lived in caves. He was puzzled and told me that it was not true. Yes it was not true and I do not know and will never know who they were, how they looked, what they did for a living and what their times were like. The real import of this question did not hit me till my parents came to stay with me after a gap of two years

I was surprised to see how much my parents have changed in the interim – both shrivelled and slowed down a lot. The shock of white hair on their heads was complete. There were times just a few years ago I used to teasingly search for white hairs in my mother’s hair and now I have to search longingly for the opposite. They have aged a lot and quite suddenly. The feeling of suddenness probably was on account of my own unchanged mental image I had of them from my previous meeting. As they were settling down with updates on all the relatives and family friends including details on a couple of deaths and generous additions, I could not stop thinking that one day they too would be gone, leaving some traces for my children and probably none for my grandchildren and their progeny. Looking at my parents sitting and chatting up with their grandchildren, it struck me that they are not mere representatives of lives lived but lives that witnessed some momentous convulsions of modern India. In their own way and like millions of aspiring middle classes of India, my parents did their bit to building modern India. My father with his diligence in his job as a vet and my mother with a superbly refined emphasis on the education of her children. As I sat there thinking about my parents with a deep sense of gratitude and their enormous love, patience and sacrifice in shaping us, it struck me how little I know of their childhoods and their times and what of this will I be able to convey to my children and grandchildren when the time arrives. And even the very little that I know, I appear to be forgetting quite fast. In a sense, I was beginning to lose a huge slice of personal history to the vagaries of memory. I felt a little despondent that there is nothing much that I can do at this stage in terms of recovering the personal past that is rapidly getting lost, except, start building a richly descriptive family tree with the best of available information and keep passing it down the generations which hopefully will be enriched as it goes along

As I was thinking of the ways to document an elaborate family history and more specifically construct a family tree with the finer details of the actors there in and the hurdles I am going to encounter in the process, an unavoidable question around the utility of having a documented family history popped into my mind. How does it help me in knowing who my ancestors were and what they did? Does this exercise have a utility? The dictum that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it may well be applicable to aggregates, but is it applicable to individuals who are mere parts of a historical process? If some great, great grandmother or grandfather of mine was a right wing extremist or a brilliant mathematician or a failed business person or a successful artist, what is it that I am going to derive from it? What is it that I am going to gain deep diving into the past when the whole urge is to drive forward and achieve progress in the worldly sense of the word? These questions puzzled me a bit and I became ambivalent towards the utility of a personal history. I felt I needed to think much deeper than simply brushing off the idea. I allowed all my thoughts to ferment knowing well that anything that ferments will eventually rise up to provide something heady. Eventually it did and I found my answers in two simple but powerful words : Curiosity and Gratitude.

To know what my ancestors were like, what they did, how they lived, what challenges they went through, what were their times like and most importantly what has been the trajectory on which we all stood over a period of time will be an interesting and humbling facet of a personal continuum to explore and understand. In the same breath, to stand where I am standing today, I owe it to successive generations of my ancestors who took it on them – knowingly or unknowingly –  to relay the best they had to their successive generations with the finest of intentions 

Attaching a utilitarian angle appears belittling my own past and not to feel a sense of gratitude would reflect on my own ungratefulness – either of which I loath to be attributed to me

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