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December 18, 2020

For the Record

Text by Reem Khokhar. Images courtesy: Family Fables Co.

Samrata Salwan of Family Fables Co., a publisher of personal histories, is turning memories into memoirs to chronicle the unique legacy of individual families and connect several generations over their shared heritage

It began in 2015 while she was listening to her grandmother recount stories from her life. Govardhan Bali was brought up around the jungles of Chamba, far from the madding crowd, because of her father’s role as the Chief Conservator of Forests in the ’40s. Her anecdotes about her childhood were filled with lions walking nonchalantly around, shikars, snakes and scorpions that she collected, animal calls she learnt and recollections of her dapper father. The more Samrata Salwan heard, the more she realised the need to document these memories. History books focus on public personalities. But what about our own families’ biographies? Many such accounts are lost once the narrator is gone. In May 2016, Salwan began recording Bali’s story and took a few months to put together a book in which she could preserve her grandmother’s legacy. The successful result prompted other family and friends to ask for help with similar projects, cementing Salwan’s interest in lived experiences and charting ancestries, and she eventually started providing her services publicly. In February 2017, she formalised her vision by establishing Family Fables Co., a platform that publishes family and institutional histories.

Since then, Salwan and her team of writers, translators, designers and researchers have worked on a variety of books including individual profiles, family or institutional histories, commemorative books and cookbooks that seal in the flavours and stories of handed-down recipes. “The importance of oral recollections is that they make the past more relatable through lived experience. What did people go through while living during those times? Their memories provide personal, emotional insights that no history book can,” elaborates the 36-year-old with a Bachelor’s in History. Interviewing (sometimes up to 60 people), researching, translating, designing, compiling audio and visual elements and commissioning artwork are all part of the process, which can range from a few months to a year. And, weaving in the political, social and cultural context is essential to providing a more comprehensive narrative, for which the oral accounts, photographs, documents and family heirlooms are helpful. “I’ve discovered something new in each project I have worked on. I may have studied the history of a particular time or event, but there is always something unexpected that comes up in conversation, particularly about the cultural aspects or human interactions and reactions,” says Salwan.

It is often the younger family members who commission a relative’s memoir or a more elaborate account spanning several generations. Usually, the people she interviews are surprised to see that the events they perceive as routine or ordinary are special enough to merit inclusion in a book. But it is these very stories that throw light on and humanise pasts that might be hard to relate to or comprehend in the present. For instance, a family history told through the oral narratives of eight siblings captured the triumphs and trials of life around Partition, with recipes, music and traditions of Multan (now in Pakistan), the city of their origin, woven in. 

The lockdown has been a busy time for Salwan: “With the uncertainty around, people have been thinking more about family and connection. And being home, they have the time to engage in a project like this. We started work on several new books during lockdown,” she says. Today, with access to a vast network of people and information at our fingertips, we often don’t acknowledge or understand the significance and uniqueness of the experiences of those closest to us, the familiarity with them rendering their narratives unexceptional. We instead turn to the supposedly more intriguing lives of others, particularly public personalities and celebrities. But this year, the appetite for nostalgia and connection has grown. And as Salwan continues to prove, it is the seemingly ordinary lives that make for extraordinary legacies.

Here’s a look at a few projects taken on by the bespoke publishing company….

Diwan Surindar Lal

This book captures the fascinating journey of Diwan Surindar Lal, who belonged to the Diwan family of Eminabad. The family held the hereditary post of the Diwan of the State of Jammu and Kashmir from 1846 to 1908, and the book traces the story of the family’s history through the ages up until Partition and their new beginnings in India.

Salwan and her team infuse the books with social and cultural context, ensuring that everything from the food, textiles and customs of the time are woven into the narrative. An heirloom of the family are its Parsi garas. They had business interests in Karachi, which saw significant Parsi influence, and this is how they imbibed some of these sartorial choices. The stylish and elegant gara is multicultural; the Chinese fabric is interwoven with embroidery inspired by India’s Hindu and Iran’s Zoroastrian cultures. In this early 20th-century photograph of two sisters, Diwan Rani Vidyawati and Diwan Rani Padmawati, the incorporation of contemporary British fashion trends into the Indian dress sense and style is also evident. They are draped in garas (or garo) – which curiously yet elegantly end just above their ankles – paired with Western-style shoes and blouses, the cut of which closely resembles the torso of the Victorian gown.

A portrait of the Diwan family taken in the 1930s in Gujranwala, now in Pakistan. Many families were unable to carry too many of their possessions across the border during Partition, so old photos and documents were often the only belongings they retained.

A peek inside the book documenting Diwan Surinder Lal’s family history dating back to the 1800s.  The book features commissioned artworks, the family crest, a map of the family’s hometown Eminabad (now in Pakistan), photographs and documents.

Bohemians of Benares

The book documents the history of one of the oldest families of Benares – the Nandoo Ram family – across generations. It includes a 300-member-strong family tree (1885-2019) and traces the family’s origins as betel nut traders, their prominent role in India’s freedom movement and how they became one of the most distinguished families in Benares.

Family Tree of the Nandoo Ram family of Benaras. On the route of self-discovery, the family tree is one of the best tools to understand one’s history and background.

Govardhan Bali

“My favourite childhood memory is of spending every Saturday at my nani’s house with all my cousins, when she would regale us with stories from her childhood. Her father, Prithvi Nath Deogun, had a huge influence on her, so most of her stories revolved around him. He played an active role in the Indian freedom movement, raising money for various political funds. In 1919, at the Indian Congress session in Amritsar, he saved Mahatma Gandhi from being crushed against a wall by an overenthusiastic crowd, and dragged Lokmanya Tilak’s cart through the bazaars. And interestingly, it was Lala Lajpat Rai who gave him the most important life lesson – to complete his education, which he did, and went on to join the Indian Forest Service in 1924. He retired as the Chief Conservator of Forests. Nani would talk about growing up in the jungles of Chamba that included many interesting accounts of shikar and other encounters with the wild. I didn’t want these amazing stories to be lost, which is why I started documenting them to share with my children.”

Bali with her brother on a shikar trip. Hunting was a form of entertainment and sport. It was popular among the Mughals (documented in Ain-e-Akbari), and with the coming of the Britishers, it became excessively popular among the English sahibs. From elephants to birds, everything was hunted, but tigers remained the most popular game animal among the English and brown sahibs alike.

Man Mohan Chatrath

A personal memoir of Man Mohan Chatrath. Born in Murree on 10th August,  1930, M. M. Chatrath grew up in Lahore, Pakistan. He studied at the prestigious Government College in Lahore till the family was forced to migrate during the Partition. Chatrath was interviewed for this book when he was 88 in Kolkata, where the family is now settled. The book covers his childhood in Lahore, the migration to India, the journey back to Lahore right after Partition to secure important paperwork and his life post Partition when he built one of India’s leading chartered accountancy firms — B. M. Chatrath & Co.  For the memoir, Salwan and her team created videos of the oral accounts, like this one of Chatrath speaking of Partition and his journey to retrieve some of their documents and belongings.

The rehabilitation certificate of B. M. Chatrath, father of Man Mohan Chatrath. Many people who migrated after Partition left everything behind; they had no belongings and applied for interim compensation from the Ministry of Rehabilitation. These rehabilitation documents became their primary source of identification and the first step towards rebuilding their lives after Partition.

Grandma’s Table

Nothing brings families together quite like good food. Grandma’s Table is a compilation of family recipes, home remedies and kitchen wisdom by the 81-year-old culinary enthusiast Rajinder Luthra. Food has played an important role in her life as she has always been passionate about cooking. This cookbook will include stories from her childhood, photographs, and her influences and inspirations.

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