Time was when you could divine everything about someone from just their surname. In To Kill A Mockingbird, 6-year-old Scout Finch believes that no Crawford minds his own business and every third Merriweather is morbid. In present-day India, we take it for granted that most 'Gandhis' are politicians, the 'Ambanis' are well, rich, and the 'Kapoors' can act. Undoubtedly, children from these families learn early on about the legacy they will inherit. But what about the rest of us who belong to less public families? Do we not have our own, equally important legacies to bequeath? The one identity a child cannot choose for himself is which family he is born into. Nor is it something he can discover on his own. That identity is irrevocably bound to hundreds of old family stories, and those stories must be told.
Three of my great-grandparents were alive when I was born, but passed away shortly thereafter. Apart from vague memories resurrected by yellowing photographs, I cannot recall what kind of people they were. But over the years, their children and grandchildren have narrated bits of their life-stories to me. This has helped enormously in my understanding of how we have changed from one generation to another, and what hasn't changed at all.For example, I now know that I am the fourth generation of a family obsessed with Hindi film music of the 50s and 60s, and third in a line of writers. Will my descendants also hum decades-old songs and hammer out endless prose? Probably. Apart from delineating that common thread, this has done wonders in bridging the generation gap.
Some anecdotes are simply thrilling. While working as an operator in the Bombay Telephone Exchange, one of my grandmothers heard a young Lata Mangeshkar sing over the wires. The other grew up in front of Nathuram Godse's house. And a great-grandfather of mine was adopted! Somewhere out there is a long-sundered legion of cousins I know nothing about. Some other anecdotes explain why my ancestors are the way they are. My maternal grandfather is obsessed with my education; because having had to sprint barefoot to school on roads blazing in the afternoon sun, he struggled to complete his. Although well into her seventies, my paternal grandmother is assertive about her independence; because as a young girl, she had to help care for her oft-ill mother.
In an age where children imbibe morals from archaic proverbs and comic books, it is easy to forget that there are lessons they can learn from sources closer to reality. There is light at the end of the tunnel-many refugees of the Partition who started life again from scratch are now prosperous matriarchs and patriarchs. The frog who made it to the top of the milk-jar simply never gave up-neither did our ancestors when they first moved to the city.
For third and fourth-generation city kids, 'ancestral villages' and 'native places' are obscure concepts. With relatives scattered all across the world and everyone exposed to varying influences, it is easy for them to believe that they are all alone in time and person. Magic is when they realise that they are not.
Someday, when your child is older, you will have a conversation about where we all come from. Potentially embarrassing, but necessary. Even more necessary is the conversation about who you and your child come from. That conversation can start today.