Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > News> Big Story > The book of memory

The book of memory

Social media has made us experts in recording the minutiae of our daily lives. But recently, the number of people looking to record the broad sweep of their personal history is also on the rise

In the past two decades, the number of individuals wanting to record their personal histories seems to be on the rise.
In the past two decades, the number of individuals wanting to record their personal histories seems to be on the rise. (Illustration by Nithya Subramanian)

All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them, and perhaps this is not entirely untrue. — Isak Dinesen

It was sometime in 2006 when I met H at the office of the non-profit she had started in Bengaluru. She was in her mid-60s and on the last week of her India trip before returning home to Germany. The director of the non-profit had thought it important that H’s story be recorded and we were going to see if we could work together to write it. We said tentative hellos. I opened with some innocuous questions. As much as I was hesitant to probe right away, H too was reluctant to open up. At some point in the conversation, she broke down, recalling something from her life. We met again, twice, and these meetings, too, were emotional and difficult. On the day of our last meeting, determined not to make it a sad one, I said, “Let’s talk about dogs.” We spent an hour or so laughing about the antics of her many dogs over the years. For the first time, we said goodbye, smiling, relieved that we could do this. Over the course of the following year, we met both online and in person. I had decided early on to write H’s story in first person, in her voice, because it seemed fitting. The process of revisiting her life and retelling events and incidents brought tears, laughter, quiet musings, sorrow. It was a catharsis of sorts—and a reminder of personal resilience.

In the past two decades, the number of individuals wanting to record their personal histories seems to be on the rise, going by the number of enquiries I have got and conversations with publishers. These are not famous people, or names you would recognise at a glance. But they are people who have worked hard, built a life from scratch, struggled to grow a business, or contributed to society in small and significant ways. They are aware of their legacy and want to make it known to others, even if their readers end up being a circle of extended family, friends and acquaintances. The print run can be as little as 100 copies for distribution during a birthday celebration.

Maybe the internet and social media have contributed to this phenomenon. We are prolific in sharing stories of our families, our travels, our encounters, and our food every day, yet there is a sense of transience to it all. As if to counter this momentariness is the burgeoning genre of people’s stories—in the form of books, websites, films, archives and exhibitions that narrate biographies of ordinary lives.

Authors too seem to give in to the temptation to dip into family lore. “Behind every door on every ordinary street, in every hut, in every ordinary village on this middling planet of a trivial star, such riches are to be found,” wrote Vikram Seth in his book Two Lives (2005). Described as part biography, part memoir, part history, it’s about Seth’s uncle, Shanti, and his German-Jew wife, Henny Caro. In an interview to US’ National Public Radio (NPR), Seth had said that the book came up when he complained to his mother that he had nothing to write. “My mother said, ‘Stop making a fuss. Why don’t you interview Shanti Yentl(ph). A lot of family lore will die when he dies, and besides, it’ll give him something to do’.”

A decade later, in 2015, writer and journalist Raghu Karnad made his publishing debut with Farthest Field: A Story Of India’s Second World War, featuring his grandparents. Later, narrative non-fiction personal histories such as Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants (2017), on her struggles as a Dalit, have doubled as social commentary and memoir. While these narratives had a wider sweep, the personal stories that most individuals want to record are narrower in scope but no less rich in experience.

Also read: Manju Kapur's gallery of life

Milestones such as a “big” birthday, an anniversary, retirement or the birth of a great-grandchild are often a prompt to write a personal history, a time to remember, take stock, and celebrate. Despite the range of formats and media now available, the book remains a popular medium for autobiographies.

“A book has heft,” says Karthika V.K., publisher of Westland Books. They are nice to hold, to gift, to share, to keep. “We receive many proposals for memoirs,” says Karthika. She says that several such proposals come from people who have been in public service and who want to write their memoirs. Karthika says they take forward about 5% of the proposals they receive. One of the more noteworthy titles she mentions is I Have Autism And I Like To Play Bad Tennis: Vignettes And Insights From My Son’s Life (2023) by Debashis Paul.

Many don’t get accepted by mass market publishers, where market economics is a factor. Here, celebrity memoirs are “top of the pile”, because they sell. Those “rejected” by mainstream publishers or not intended for a wider audience often choose to work with a writer and self-publish or approach an independent publisher that is more amenable to small projects.

Librarian and educator Usha Mukunda and her two siblings spent 2017-18 reminiscing about their mother, Leila, who died in 2008. It would have been her 100th birth anniversary and they decided to bring out a book about her. Leila had become a writer in her 40s, writing for Femina in the 1960s, and helping popularise the Miss India pageant—the pageant being quite new at the time, she would meet parents of women who were eligible for the pageant and reassure them about their daughters’ participation. “Amma was a person who had much potential to shine in the public domain. She had the will, a sharp mind, the confidence and the social graces needed. The circumstances of her early life and the time in which she lived did not provide the opportunities. But she never gave up hope and at 40-plus, when she saw the glimmer of an opportunity, she took it with arms outstretched, and how she shone. I feel this book would have been her ultimate wish. How she would have loved to see it come into being and enjoyed the appreciation that followed. She was not a vain person, but she was not exactly a shrinking violet either,” says Mukunda.

The book, Leila, An Iridescent Life, was published in 2018. Narrated in the voices of her children, it chronicles her life and adventures. Her daughters got it designed by a friend and ran 100 copies off the neighbourhood Printo store and sent it to friends. Mukunda says the book still finds readers among those who knew their mother and she receives messages and emails about it.

When Sarathi Boggaram, now 73, completed 50 years in the family’s Bengaluru-based incense business in 2020, his son and daughter-in-law insisted he write a memoir. Boggaram had joined his father’s small agarbatti-rolling business as a 20-year-old and built the incense stick factory into a successful enterprise, expanding its repertoire and exporting its products, and at one point, working with both his father and his son. “It was a time filled with fear, uncertainty and confusion,” he says of the pandemic-induced lockdown during which he began writing. “The need of the hour was resilience and a positive approach, assuring oneself that all would be well. It was an attitude I’d had to have all my life.”

Sitting down to write brought back a flood of memories. “I had shared many of my experiences only with my wife, and so, when my family read the book, and learnt of my struggle, their respect and appreciation was immense… The outcome was an eye opener, to look at the distance travelled, and the experience and knowledge gained.” It had a small print run and was circulated within their network.

Boggaram’s daughter-in-law sought the services of Bengaluru-based Maiya Publishing for assistance with interviews, design and production. Interestingly, Maiya Publishing itself began when its founder Dipika Maiya decided to write a book on her mother, the veteran actor T. Krishna Kumari, who worked in south India, especially the Telugu film industry, from 1951 to the mid-1970s. Her films include Chaduvukkuna Ammayilu (1963) and Gudi Gantalu (1964). “It was a tribute to my mother for adopting me,” she says of the book.

In 2011, as her father’s health was deteriorating, Maiya closed her eight-year-old interior design business and chose to concentrate on the book. Her parents had retired to Bengaluru from Chennai, and settled in a farmhouse outside the city. The couple loved to entertain, and Krishna Kumari’s meals became legendary in their social circles. Maiya wanted to tell the story of her mother, of her life in films and of her life beyond films.

When she started interviewing her mother, Maiya felt she was too close to the story and needed a writer with no familiarity with the family. The book became a huge undertaking over four years, “a university in itself”, as she describes it. Traditional publishers weren’t interested, and equally, Maiya wanted to choose how it looked and was produced. She set up Maiya Publishing in 2013 to publish My Mother, T Krishna Kumari and has been able to support many others who have chosen to embark on a similar journey. The company has published five to seven personal histories in 10 years, says Maiya, adding that print runs range from 500 to 2,000.

In 1963, the late American psychiatrist Robert N. Butler, who worked in geriatric medicine, wrote an article, The Life Review: An Interpretation of Reminiscence In The Aged, for a book, New Thoughts On Old Age, which is considered a foundational work to promote reminiscence among the elderly. He called it “reminiscence therapy”; it is a way to interpret one’s life to oneself and to others. In the process, one can find meaning, understand the choices one made, and make peace with regrets. But Mukunda’s sister, Sandhya Iyengar, says, “Reminiscing opened up many closed windows to the past, and nudged forgotten memories. It was interesting to see in joint sessions that each of us had different perspectives of the same memory. As adults now and with the advantage of time, so many incidents took on a totally different hue.”

Priya Kapoor, founder of Roli Books, set up Roli Roots in 2019 as a custom publishing wing following several enquiries for family and personal histories. Their first book was on Kapoor’s mother’s family. “My nana (maternal grandfather) was one of seven siblings in a large family in Varanasi,” says Kapoor. Commissioning a writer to trace the family history, the book was their pilot and an experiment, and a “mind-blowing experience” with the depth and breadth of stories and memories they gathered. Speaking about discovering how families kept their personal lives separate from their interactions in business, she says, with some wonder, of discovering how family members may have had court cases against each other, but kept up their familial bonds. The book was launched in Varanasi in 2020, with 150 guests, friends and family where conversations were, expectedly, about “the old days”.

Having a personal historian is still somewhat niche in India, but in other parts of the world it is well established. In the US, for instance, there is a 20-year-old Association of Personal Historians that not only serves as a community for writers of family biographies but also helps connect writers, film-makers and artists with family members wanting to produce such histories. The global roster of 650 members offers a wide range of services across various media. India is yet to reach this level of commercialisation, but there is definitely an organised approach to it, via archives like the India Memory Project or independent publishing houses such as Maiya Publishing and Roli Roots or food-focused publishing services like Nivaala and Five Morsels Press. Access to professional resources, whether editorial or design or printing, is easier today.

Scribe, secret-keeper, storyteller

The writer’s role as a personal historian is unique in so many ways, and it’s not simply about being a ghostwriter or an editor. You interview, prompt, ask questions, attempt to find a narrative arc and place the various characters within it. If the story is about a person or a family, there comes a time when you hit a closed door. All families hoard secrets, of love and heartbreak, of abuse, of errant branches, of outliers and rebels. Sometimes they spill out unwittingly as though one just needed to unburden a memory. There was one project I did where nearly all the 25-30 interviewees broke down during the interview, perhaps from remembering the exhaustion of the struggles of everyday life, or because there was someone listening without judgement. The interviewee’s trust is the writer’s privilege.

“I can keep secrets well,” says biographer Saaz Aggarwal, when I ask her about navigating emotional conversations. “Everyone I have spoken to cried when they talked about their parents, sometimes in grief, but also in bitterness,” says Aggarwal, who has authored biographies such as Losing Home, Finding Home; From Sindh To The World: The Story Of A Mohinani Family, and specialises in helping people write their memoirs.

It is on the writer to navigate the complexity of individual lives and family dynamics. Perhaps, it is for this reason, that many who embark on telling their life story choose to work with a writer. They seek, as Aggarwal succinctly puts it, “an objective third person who can listen without judgement”.

The writer’s role as a personal historian is unique in so many ways, and it’s not simply about being a ghostwriter or an editor.
The writer’s role as a personal historian is unique in so many ways, and it’s not simply about being a ghostwriter or an editor. (Illustration by Nithya Subramanian)

The depth of the story of an unknown person and the writing calibre determine a publisher’s interest. Karthika reminds me of Baby Halder, whose autobiography Aalo Andheri (A Life Less Ordinary) was published and translated widely. Baby Halder’s life was a series of misfortunes until she came to work for Prabodh Kumar, grandson of Munshi Premchand. He encouraged her interest in reading by lending her books and gave her a notebook and pen to write. Halder wrote of her life, of being abandoned by her mother, abused by her father, and married at 12. A mother of three, she walked out with her children, unable to bear the abuse by her husband, and went to Delhi where she worked as a domestic help. In 2006, her story was translated into English from Bengali by Urvashi Butalia and published by Zubaan Books to critical success. It has been translated into 25 languages, both within India and outside. There are other examples, too: One of the top-selling books of the 20th century (35 million copies and counting) is, after all, the diary of a young girl who spent two years and one month in hiding during the Holocaust, Anne Frank.

“We take it for granted,” says Aggarwal of our past. Having begun her career writing newspaper columns, she was no stranger to personal stories. Tracing her mother Situ Savur’s family, Aggarwal found the richness of Sindhi history in the stories of people like her mother. The book that emerged, Sindh: Stories From A Vanished Homeland (2012), uses memories, photos, poetry, anecdotes and recipes to tell the story of the Sindhi community before, during and after Partition. None of those featured in the book are well-known, by design. Vanished Homeland led Aggarwal to further explorations into the community, with more books, The Amils Of Sindh, Sindhi Tapestry, an anthology, and most recently, Losing Home, Finding Home. Of her first book, she says, “This is not a tribute to the Sindhi community but a way to say, enough time has passed.”

Partition is a theme that has fuelled personal histories. “We tell our stories because we don’t want to be forgotten,” says Anusha Yadav of the India Memory Project, a 13-year-old online repository of personal histories from the subcontinent sourced via voluntary submissions. The last of the generation who saw independence is alive, and with some urgency, we are all seeking their memories of it.

Nilgiris-based designer, film-maker and artist Jenny Pinto, who recently curated an exhibition, Remembering & Reimagining Nilgiri’s Socio-Cultural History, on the social history of the Nilgiris for the Ooty Literary Festival last October, says the history of a country cannot be complete without personal histories. “While the history of India’s independence and the freedom struggle is grand and triumphant, the personal histories of Partition are tragic and violent. Yet, one cannot be told without the other,” she explains.

Stories from the kitchen

The diaspora is a keen market for personal histories, especially for tales of family and food. Food has grown into a sub-genre within personal and family histories. Unlike family stories, food doesn’t exclude strangers. It draws us in using the one thing that’s hard to resist—nostalgia. Food books are warm and fuzzy and everyone has a food story.

In 2020, Delhi-based Shruti Taneja, founder of Nivaala, a cookbook publishing house, became an aunt, and all she could think of was that her nephew would miss out on the dishes she and her brother had grown up eating because her mother was no more. “Growing up, I had never bothered to learn how to cook. We take ghar ka khana for granted,” she says. Setting out to collect her mother’s recipes from aunts and family members, she began to cook. It was a passion project but like so many others who have begun with tracing their own stories, she decided to share her learnings, and created a recipe journal.

“While there are other recipe journals in the market, what makes this one different is that it is designed from an emotional/storytelling lens where there is a space for something called an ‘heirloom indicator’ in which you can mark which generation the recipe belongs to, whose kitchen it comes from and the memories associated with it,” says Taneja. She started Andaaz, a family cookbook publishing vertical (with Chinmayee Manjunath), because “culinary legacies are just as precious as saris and jewellery”. In 2023, she launched the book Memories On A Plate, a collection of 100 recipes and stories contributed by home cooks and professional chefs from across the country (in partnership with Rohini Kejriwal, curator of the newsletter The Alipore Post).

In 2012, Pinto self-published a book, Love To Cook, Cook To Love, Sharing My Mother’s Gift Of Cooking, of her mother Meera’s recipes, which include crab curry, Spanish omelette, shrimp-stuffed pomfret, and homemade Irish coffee. Of the 250 copies, 100 were bought by friends and family, and the rest sold out on Facebook in a day. The elder Pinto had started the first café at Prithvi Theatre, cooking and catering before it became a 21st century trend. Pinto tells her mother’s story, shares recipes and offers a peek into the Bandra of her childhood. Rich with detail, the bustle of everyday life, warmth and chatter, food stories are happy stories.

Writing in first person

In November 2022, historian Enzo Traverso’s Singular Pasts: The I in Historiography was released, in which he examines the phenomenon of historians writing in the first person. In an interview to the Cornell Chronicle in 2023, he said, “Writing in the first person, historians discover the pleasure of writing, which previously was reserved for novelists.” There is certainly a blurring of genres, and Traverso speaks of historians succumbing to a desire to write and of novelists choosing literary non-fiction.

This blurring of lines characterises Echoes From Forgotten Mountains by Tibetan activist and author Jamyang Norbu, released in July 2023. It is a history of Tibet told through personal and collected stories of ordinary Tibetans. In his introduction, Norbu writes of the rise of memoirist writing in the last couple of decades, describing interviews he has done with “regular people” for whom “their memories are all they have of lives once lived, of homes destroyed, and loved ones left behind”.

In such “micro stories” of everyday life, loss and joy is where we hear those voices that were never dominant in the past, whether women, people from minority or subjugated communities, or those who dance to a different beat. People are claiming their own narratives, mining memories and life experiences to derive their stories, choosing how they will say it and when—and it comes packed with emotion.

It has been 15 years since I worked on H’s book. She is now 83. Earlier this year, we decided it was time to update her book, to add the story of these last 15 years. Much has happened in this time, and in that, life never disappoints.

Aravinda Anantharaman is a Lounge columnist.

Also read: Lounge Fiction Special: ‘Unni Nair and Sumathi’ by Manu Bhattathiri




Next Story