This is us: Meet the people archiving family legacies
Revolutionary great-grand-uncles, pioneering ancestors, homes with vivid pasts. Archiving services are breathing life into family histories, turning scraps and half-remembered memories into illustrated novels, photo albums, videos
Sometimes, it’s a work of historical fiction, sometimes a collection of recipes. One project is a memoir that traces the story of a family that left Lahore in September 1947, hoping to return after the troubles subsided, only to never go home again.
A growing number of services are helping families archive their memories and tangible and intangible heirlooms in creative ways. Family Fables, founded in 2016, turns memories and memorabilia into books. Past Perfect, set up in 2016, started out as a corporate archiving company and now uses the historical accounts of clients to create novels or illustrated works of historical fiction.
Calcutta Houses, evocatively, specialises in documenting heritage homes that are at risk of being razed. One home they are documenting in images and video had housed the same family since before the Revolt of 1857. Known as Barrister Babur Bari (Barrister’s House), it encapsulates slices of the city’s history, with its large courtyard, arched corridors and slatted French windows.
The initiatives have interesting origin stories too. Samrata Salwan Diwan, 38, founder of Family Fables, grew up hearing tales of how her family left Peshawar for Delhi during Partition. Then, in 2015, she lost two of her grandparents and the enormity of all that had been lost with them dawned on her. “I began to wish that I had recorded the conversations,” Diwan says. “Now, it was all only in my memory, and that would be scattered as time went by.”
Determined to honour their stories, she started looking for services that could help her with a family archiving project. “I couldn’t find any, so I worked on a book about my family myself,” she says.
While on the project, she began getting requests from friends who wanted similar histories created of their families. She now heads a team of eight at Family Fables and says she has executed 42 projects so far.
One was commissioned by Deepak Gupta, 61, whose father left Lahore with his parents and siblings in September 1947, and could never return. Gupta’s father (Avinash Gupta)left behind an incomplete manuscript. Family Fables is using it as the basis of a book, interviewing others in the family and scouring old letters, documents and photographs for more details. What’s emerging is the kind of dramatic tale that hides in a number of family histories, Diwan says. In Manali, for instance, the Gupta family were trapped in the wake of a landslide, and had to subsist on one meal a day, slowly reconciling with the fact what had been meant as a temporary getaway would now be their home.
With Past Perfect, it doesn’t have to be an entirely first-source take. This service is aimed at those with dramatic flashes of family memory, but a dearth of detail. Founded in 2016, Past Perfect archives actual histories, but will also offer fictionalised accounts on request, to give their clients a sense of what life must have been like for their predecessors.
Entrepreneur Aditya Gupta, 66, for instance, can trace his family back six generations, and grew up hearing that relatives died in Delhi during the Revolt of 1857; that his great-grand-uncle was a revolutionary and, in 1912, threw a crude bomb at a British officer (and was subsequently arrested and hanged); and that, in 1936, his grandmother travelled alone to London to study at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
“These are fascinating stories and I wanted them to be documented,” he says. Since he doesn’t have much associated detail or archival material, Past Perfect is now helping him craft a series of four books about what life was probably like for these illustrious ancestors.
“Things like what was going on in a person’s mind at a certain point in their lives, for instance, are fictionalised with the help of content writers,” says Deepti Anand, co-founder of Past Perfect. “But all of that happens keeping the historical context of time and place and character intact.”
Manish Golder is usually called in when the details are fast-fading. His service, Calcutta Houses, co-founded with Sidhartha Hajra and Sayan Dutta, began as an Instagram page. For eight years, the three men walked about Kolkata, archiving unique heritage homes, some dating to the early 1800s, others as recent as the Art Deco trend of the 1960s. These were the structures that gave this melting pot of a city its unique character, and they knew some might not be around very long.
Last year, a woman whose family home featured on the page approached the co-founders to shoot more photos of the house for her. In the months since, they’ve had more such requests.
Golder is currently working with Krishnakali Basu (Mitra), a Gurgaon-based theatre artiste who is struggling to keep her 200-year-old ancestral home, Barrister Babur Bari (Barrister’s Home), from being razed. There is a chance that it could end up sold, demolished and replaced by a high-rise, so Golder has been commissioned to document it in images. “In a project like this, everything, from the shadows and doors to damp corners, turn into a cocoon of childhood memory,” he says.
Mitra, who grew up here, says she tries hard to maintain the three-storey mansion with 17 rooms. “I want a larger community to be aware of this house. I believe there are a lot of people in the city and beyond who feel strongly about the old houses of Kolkata. I need their support to save this house,” she says.