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Past lives – and an interview

I've been living in the past a lot lately.

It started, perhaps, with looking back to find out what had always mattered to me, and reorient myself a bit. Moving onwards is inevitable, but sometimes the past provides answers about the future.

Perhaps it was also a little bit about the reality we now live with. We're more careful with our future planning; there's a lot of "let's see" and "fingers crossed" than there was pre-pandemic. For a while, it was too hard to envision anything about the future, even the near future. No wonder then that the past became a refuge. (And I've also been working on two personal projects that deal with history.)

Sometimes I can't believe that I'm the same person who travelled, had adventures of a sort, that feel like a lifetime ago. Yet I recognise that somehow, I'm living many of the lives I'd hoped for. Not all of them, but that's mostly okay. I do lament the others at times, but I don't think I'm alone in this. 

When I re-read my journals, I'm reminded of a line from Before Sunset – we really don't change much through the course of our lives. Things happen, but perhaps our core isn't that easily swayed. Celine said that she found the same anxieties, the same way of looking at the world in her past self. I feel the same when I read my words. It is a feeling both discouraging and freeing.

One of the things that helped me reflect on the last few years more constructively and see the patterns and reasons was an interview I did a couple of months ago for the lovely Shaista Tayabali, writer, poet, artist. Here is an excerpt.

So, there you are, three years old in the Himalayas… were there books there? Did you start writing as a child? 

There's a whole wall of books, though I can't remember whether this excited me at that age – I was a bit of a late bloomer when it came to reading. It's one of my favourite nooks in my grandparents' home. There was no internet here until a few years ago, and even phones arrived relatively recently. As a child, I used to communicate with my grandparents through letters. Many of the books are encyclopedias and reference texts on everything imaginable; my grandfather had many interests, from carpentry to photography. He once bought the contents of an entire bookshop! 

I used to write poetry before I ever wrote anything else. I remember the first 'serious' poem I wrote was in fifth grade, and it was probably very derivative – I mean, I was only ten – but it felt like I'd found my calling. I'd come across little snippets of poetry at my grandparents' home, newspaper cuttings of poems by Patience Strong that my great-grandmother used to send to my grandmother, which I found wonderfully simple and musical. My nana also loved poetry and would recite some of his favourites often – Omar Khayyam, Swinburne, Henley – and inevitably start crying a few lines in. I wrote poetry all through my school and college years, with rhymes gradually giving way to free verse, and imaginative themes being replaced by real experiences. 

Since 2016, you have been on an ancestral quest to discover more about your family tree. Tell us a little about that? 

That's literally how I took a step forward with my research – I Googled my great-grandfather and he popped up! I'd done this for years, but there was nothing. I'd heard stories, seen photos, made family trees, but I was desperate for more. Then I went on a trip with my grandmother to her parents' last home, my first time there, and I felt really close to them even though I'd never known them. When I returned, information was awaiting me. I think the universe was sort of collaborating with me by giving me what I sought right after this trip.

An entire family tree appeared, going back generations. It made me realise that there were ways I could do this research myself. I didn't actually end up using much of the information since I wanted to verify everything on my own, but it was a start. Since then, I've been learning about genealogy through online courses, resources, Facebook groups, and I recently attended my first genealogy conference too. Of course, as you say, the availability of records has made it much easier to trace the lines and connect with more people, places, and contexts. I'm about to embark on research of another branch of my family, for which there will be far less information (and perhaps a lot lost during Partition), but interestingly, we do have access to a handwritten family tree in Urdu that might give us something to work with!

Read the full interview here.


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