Hidden inside migration stories

Subha Das Mollick and Deborina Roy

In the summer of 2021, when the country was reeling under the second wave of COVID and children were down with screen fatigue after more than a year of online classes, Bichitra Pathshala attempted to elevate the spirits of the children and their parents by drawing them into a summer project titled “Tracing Your Roots”. In this project, the children had to take their parents and grandparents down memory lane by asking them questions about their childhood, their ancestral homes, the games their parents and grandparents played, the goodies they craved for – and so forth. Through this long conversation the children would understand how lifestyles in their homes had changed over three generations and the values that were passed on from generation to generation. Most importantly for us, it would be revealed when and from where their family migrated to the metropolis Kolkata. It would give us a map of the migration pattern around and within Kolkata.

Tracing Your Roots formed the stepping stone of a grand project on “migration” that Bichitra Pathshala wanted to launch as a co-curricular activity among the students of Kolkata to help them understand their city better. Every big city in the world is a sum total of its inhabitants from diverse backgrounds who bring with them their native cultural ethos in the form of food, fashion, festivals, and of course, language. Being enriched by this diversity is one of the rewards of growing up in a big city. Understanding and appreciating the ‘other’ is integral to peaceful co-existence in a metropolis. And just like charity, appreciation of cultural ethos begins at home. Hence the project Tracing Your Roots.

Children of different age groups, from class V to class X, took part in this project. They dug out pictures of ancestral homes from their family albums. They located the addresses of these ancestral homes on Google Map – some of the homes were in a neighbouring district of West Bengal, some in another state and some in another country. Heart wrenching stories of being uprooted from their homes during Partition, of finding a shelter in this vast metropolis and then starting from scratch poured out of the hearts of so many grandparents. These stories, so valuable as archival material for oral history, formed the stuff of feature films. Some grandparents brought out old artifacts like the musical instrument Esraj (a rare Indian stringed instrument mostly found in north India), or a dictionary, or a brass pot that they had carried from their home and that reminded them of the life left behind.

But all stories were not heart wrenching and all migrations were not the result of forceful uprooting. Some came to Kolkata for higher studies and some came to expand their business. On festive days they wear traditional dresses and cook traditional food – the way it used to be cooked back home. The recipes are passed on from generation to generation. The grandchildren wanted to show off these goodies on the pages of their projects. So grandmas had to get the ingredients and cook them out of season, just for the photo shoot. This is how the whole family got involved in the project and the bonding between the generations deepened.

When schools reopened after summer vacations, class teachers were flooded with submissions of the project. These were displayed on the class notice boards and the best ones were forwarded to Bichitra Pathshala. Here is a glimpse of the students’ work:

In September 2021, 20 students presented their work at the three-day webinar titled Migration, Integration & Identity: The Story of a City. While most of the presentations were in the form of PPTs, some senior students presented video recordings of their grandparents’ interviews and some even presented the Partition stories like a play. The audience was stunned by their performance and blessed the children for their inventiveness and hard work.

The three-day webinar opened the minds of the students to various facets of migration. There were expert presentations on food, fashion, music, and movies. Chinmay Tumbe, the author of India Moving, compared and contrasted the migration patterns in Bombay and Calcutta. The students listened keenly and asked meaningful questions to the panelists and clarified all their queries which would help them to proceed with their own research. Many students wanted to do their own research on migration and that is how the third phase of the migration project was initiated.

Students submitted their research plans in December-January and worked rigorously on their projects during the lean weeks of March after their final exams. They were given an orientation into research methodologies, about collecting qualitative and quantitative data and analyzing the data.

While in the Tracing Your Roots project they explored their family history, in this research project they stepped out of their homes and interviewed their friends, neighbours and even the people who worked in their homes as well as vendors like the milkman, the rickshaw puller, or the newspaper vendor. They even interviewed the tea seller at the street corner or the fruit and vegetable seller. These men and women often migrated from neighbouring states and settled in Kolkata in search of a decent livelihood. However, with the passing of years these migrants grew in numbers and their cultural practices became a part of the city’s list of festivities. The celebration of their festivities now finds a place in the Kolkata calendar of holidays.

Some students preferred to work on their own while some formed groups. One student of Class IX interviewed her classmates and mapped the cities and towns their families hailed from. She also collected pictures of the festivals her friends celebrated at home and pictures of their parents’ wedding. Thus she succeeded in presenting the cultural diversity of her class at a glance.

Another student painstakingly traced the history of the saree and through the story of this six-yard drape, she brought out how migration stories have got inter-woven in the tapestry of the city.

Several students interviewed relatives and neighbours to gather oral histories of migration caused by Partition. These were stories of struggle, resilience, tragedy and triumph of the human spirit.

Food turned out to be a favourite subject for several groups. The students walked the city to savour the street food and trace the story of the phuchka (pani puri) or roll or even the ubiquitous bread. One student took stock of the places of worship in Kolkata and recorded the prayer songs sung in temples, churches, and mosques. An older student focused his attention on the landmark heritage houses in Kolkata and tried to decipher the architectural influences on these edifices.

Through the migration project, the students learnt to know their city better and improved their skills in research work. To use a contemporary jargon, the students constructed their knowledge instead of merely consuming knowledge from textbooks.

For the organizers it was a wonderful experience of having created an awareness that the identity of any place is evolutionary and it gets created and recreated by the different influences that migratory populations bring into a city.

It was our endeavour to raise awareness among students that identities are forged by multiple influences. This realization will help students to accept and understand different cultures and any unconscious biases that they may have can be eliminated.

Subha Das Mollick, as secretary of Bichitra Pathshala, has coordinated the migration project. As a documentary filmmaker, she has made films on migrant communities of Kolkata, the Armenians and the Jews. She may be reached at subha.dasmollick@gmail.com.
Deborina Roy, headmistress at Indus Valley World School is also a teacher of History and English, and has been the chief ideator of the Migration project initiated in the schools of Kolkata. She can be reached at maildeborina@gmail.com.

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