Your Memory is History!

History is all too often thought of as a recitation of grand narratives stringing together the deeds and thoughts only of great and famous men and women involved only in great and dramatic events. While this is certainly true, such histories tell us only a part of the story. Nowadays, even historians trained in the canons of the discipline have moved a long distance from simply studying the Himalayan heights of state politics to retrieving through oral accounts the interior lives of an enormous variety of people in history. They acknowledge increasingly that understanding such momentous, long-drawn and complicated processes as the struggle of South Asians against imperial rule and the shaping of new nationalist imaginings requires also the recovery of the abundant testimonies of those many millions who lived outside the spotlight of colonial politics.

No memory is too insignificant, no deed too small, no story too inconsequential and no teller of it too young. Your grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends and you, yourselves, have a great deal to recount that can enrich our understanding. Of course, not everyone walked with a Mahatma Gandhi or stood alongside a Mohammed Ali Jinnah as they shook the British Raj; nor indeed would everyone know people who did so. But perhaps you remember, or have heard from those who do remember, what it felt like to learn about the Salt March of 1930, the declaration of war by the British on behalf of India in 1939, the Lahore declaration of the Muslim League in March 1940, the Quit India Movement of 1942, the terrible Bengal famine of 1942-43, the struggles of the Indian National Army led by Subhas Chandra Bose in 1942-45 or the devastating violence surrounding the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. For those many who resisted from the mountainous elevations of Nepal or Bhutan, what did it mean that the British were leaving? As in other princely states of British India, what did contestations of double-subjecthood, to a monarchical order and the colonial state, mean to you? On a different note, perhaps you can tell us what it felt like for you or your parents and grandparents to live in the late decades of British colonial rule: for example, how did living in South Asian cities dominated by a colonial government affect them? What were the lines of separation?

No understanding of the struggle for independence could be complete without the valuable insights of those who experienced the story from, so to speak, the other end. As more and more historians acknowledge, imperial rule was a long encounter that embraced both South Asians and a variety of British actors – governors, civil servants, army personnel, missionaries, lawyers, publicists, teachers, doctors, nurses – who dedicated many years away from home in the increasingly contentious clime of a rising anti-colonial nationalism. Please share with us what it meant to live in these times when every instrument, institution and ideal nurtured by the British Raj appeared to be unraveling. Did South Asia cease to feel like “home” or did it still hold possibilities for “staying on”?

Another, equally valuable way, of contributing your memories would be to tell us how some of the usual markers of colonial and nationalist histories simply made no difference or the barest difference to your lives. Perhaps there were other stories unfolding of which historians have not yet taken account and that you can help bring to the record. This is the stuff of history, too. Your memories and those of the people around you are unique and priceless treasures for future generations who will look back upon these tumultuous but also exciting times. 

This historical evidence, however, is ephemeral and as the twentieth century fades into the distant past, its many actors or witnesses and their memories also recede rapidly from our grasp. It is increasingly urgent that we preserve as many of these remembered records as we can today! Please help our efforts by contributing your memories to weave a vibrant tapestry, intertwining the stories we already know with those yet untold, which will reveal the rich history of the South Asian movement for independence.