At the outset, the paper will have a lot of accounts drawn from personal experiences apart from some insights and research findings. Stories have always fascinated both the young and old since times immemorial. Listening to stories widens horizons which opens to a new world of imagination. Who were the people that enabled us to open the mind’s eye and travel to unknown lands, experience beautiful sights, aromas, and sounds? Our grandmas, grandpas, uncles, aunts, parents, and cousins have been part of our growing up experience fed on fables, folk tales, family histories, etc.
How many of you have been an eavesdropper to a conversation between adults, pretending as if you are asleep? Conversations that spoke about relatives distant and near, their trials and tribulations of settling into a new place or finding a suitable match for their daughter. Something interesting was to remember these people through their nicknames and meeting them at weddings or family gatherings and quietly grinning at knowing their inside secrets.
If observed, listening plays an important part, sometimes there are active listeners like in the case of granny’s bedtime stories and in other cases eavesdroppers. In both the cases, the narrators play an important role in capturing the attention of these listeners. All these informal conversations and stories about our forefathers, our origins will trace out a story of the influences one can have. An individual who has had this experience of tracing his/her roots is an encyclopedia of stories in himself/herself.
The paper’s objective is to urge the current generation to soak in their own family history that can be a pandora box of stories ushering in new hope, inspiration, and triumph of the human spirit. What can the elders in the family do about it? How can technology aid in making this a reality? This paper would illustrate real examples of the effective usage of social media such as Facebook and Whatsapp groups to further the cause of storytelling within families.
To begin with, as you all know storytelling is an ancient form which is in fact the mother of all the modern art forms, such as cinema. Everything begins with a story and the intention of sharing stories whether fictional or non-fictional was to pass on the knowledge, cultural traditions, moral values from one generation to another. Leaving aside the other important aspects of storytelling in the form of entertainment, education, let me talk about the significance of storytelling from a cultural preservation point of view and how technology and social media can be of great help to further this cause. But the natural question would be why we must know about our family history, the stories within our families? The answer to this question would be a question again- why should we not know? Some would say, how does it matter? In the current era of forming connections based on clicks and swipes, which are fragile, transient, and rarely long-standing, are we losing sight of our existing connections that are already there, thanks to our family roots? This is not to propagate clan culture, but with passage of time, our future generations might not even know from where we have come so far from the lands that are alien to us, which would be merely dots on the map.
Most people don’t know about their family history. It is because most people get interested in their genealogy, much later in life and by the time they realize the importance, the previous generations, i.e., parents and grandparents would have passed away. In the process we are losing generations of stories, anecdotes, real-life experiences from which we can draw inspiration and courage to battle the tough times.
According to Robin Fivush, Ph.D., one of the researchers behind the study The Power of Family History in Adolescent Identity and Well-Being, “Because our families are among the most important social groups we belong to and identify with, stories about our family tell us who we are in the world, and who we should be. Stories about our parents and grandparents provide models of both good and bad times, as well as models of overcoming challenges and sticking together.” Jody Koenig Kellas, Ph.D., a professor of communication studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who does research on family identity and storytelling, cautions that how we tell our stories matter. “Families who engage in storytelling by being pleasant and warm, who share the floor and build on each other’s contributions, who seek out and honor each other’s perspectives on how things happened or the meaning of the story, and who work together to create the meaning or moral of the story — these families report higher levels of health and happiness than families who are distant, disengaged, don’t take each other’s perspectives into account, and don’t work together to build story meaning.
The answer to this problem is to get people, especially the younger folks interested in their family histories. As adolescents and young adults, they can still hear directly from relatives. But the real question is to inculcate this interest? This can be done by asking thoughtful questions, more participation in casual storytelling at the dinner table or a Sunday afternoon session after lunch. Using common interests and similarities helps us to connect not just in our family circles but also having informal conversations at the workplace. Imagine meeting someone at work and you realize she comes from a place familiar to you. It happened with me. This is not exaggeration, but a real-life account of how knowledge of family history can connect two friends after four decades. I met a girl in my office, and I came to know that she has relatives in Bheemili, a small town close to Visakhapatnam. I remember that I have some connections in that place and asked her dad’s name and communicated the same to my father. To our surprise and delight, this girl’s father and my father were close friends in the 1970s and due to lack of communication and moving across different cities for work reasons, they lost touch. They reestablished contact and were in constant touch until my dad passed away last year. Both my dad and his friend credit me for this beautiful reunion. If I hadn’t known my connection to Bheemili, probably this reunion could not have been possible.
Using common interests and similarities really does help us connect, research proves that. Our similarities make us more open to listening, and more willing to break down our implicit biases. Alicia del Prado, Ph.D., a therapist and one of the researchers behind the study What a Coincidence! The Effects of Incidental Similarity on Compliance says, “We are more likely to agree to help someone when we see them as similar to ourselves, even if those similarities are small, like sharing a first name or a birthday. This approach doesn’t mean that our differences don’t matter, but rather that an acknowledgement of similarities can be a productive place to start.”
As an individual who is of mixed heritage with ancestors coming from faraway lands such as Bengal, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, I am privy to the tales of my people who have migrated to different lands, seeking fortunes, intermarrying and bringing about a rich cultural diversity unintentionally. I have been the only child to my parents, who have worked in the Govt sector in Visakhapatnam, practically I lived all my growing up years in the coastal city. My father always narrated stories during bedtime and stirred my imagination and I often wonder how he tried to instill humanity in me by talking about lonely children in the form of David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, young little boys lost in the big bad world, often abandoned by their own families. In hindsight I realize, coming from a broken family himself, my dad was reliving his experiences in the form of these stories. Of course, he also narrated stories of adventure when he spoke about Sinbad, Alladin and an interesting story called kaupeenasamrakshanaradhamhyampotatatopum which loosely describes the funny struggles of a hermit trying to preserve his loincloth in a dense forest. But that’s for another day. Apart from fictional narratives, I grew up listening to stories about my origins, imagined places of my ancestors which I never visited till date. Apparently during the 18th century, some of my paternal ancestors migrated from Madanpur in Bengal to Odisha and over centuries, they intermarried with the locals and then slowly moved to the north coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh, that are Srikakulam and Visakhapatnam. In the process, we have lost touch with our Bengali and Odiya roots and we speak Telugu at home, also because we have a completely Telugu flavor from my maternal side. From all my conversations and endless story sessions, my memory is peppered with whole lot of anecdotes, experiences shared by extended family including my grandfather, aunts, uncles apart from my father. I don’t know if guavas still grow in the orchard of the Raja of Paralakemidi, courtesy my grandfather who narrated a story of his cat eating away those guavas from the orchard of the Raja. As a child, I questioned him on how can a cat eat fruits when it eats only fish? He quoted the reference of Mowgli’s cat from the Junglebook animated series in Doordarshan. I still have my doubts if the cat really ate the fruit. There is one family recipe which has been passed on from generations, a simple but tasty egg preparation which my grandfather ate during his stint in army during the pre-independent India, probably in Peshawar or Lahore. Till date, we prepare this dish in our extended family and is a great comfort food and a living reminder of my dear grandfather. I know about some railway track in the small town of Amadalavalasa where my dad spent his childhood and I wonder if the hotel that he describes still exists and serves those hot piping puris he mentioned. By now you can understand that intergenerational storytelling has shaped me up and my experiences and I am fortunate for having such rich and diverse experiences.
Rediscovering our past and our family history is a beautiful journey to understanding ourselves and our family. I remember looking at some old family portraits and seeing some resemblance between a great grandfather and my mother, the jaw structure was quite similar. Not just physical attributes, we never know from whom we would have inherited our resilience, sense of humor or even our stubbornness. In this context, technology and social media can play a major role in rediscovering our family history. The social media that is bringing absolute strangers together, in the same vein can’t we use the same social media to bring our families together? We are annoyed with the family Whatsapp groups with the incessant good morning messages, forwards, and videos. However, if put into good use, social media can be a great source of connecting families.We have a Facebook page that is maintained by an uncle which documents our extended family’s history on my paternal side with many vintage photographs and some interesting descriptions. We have a Whatsapp group which is called Our Blessed Families with membership of 87 people, and we are not immediate relatives. Most of us are either third or fourth cousins and the credit should be given to an uncle who keeps posting some interesting accounts about our ancestors and experiences. This is very active with people sharing their memories of some cousin who passed away thirty years ago. Not just happy occasions but we have had great turnout at funerals as well, thanks to these connections build through social media and technology.
I have been quite fascinated about knowing more about the ancestors from my childhood, I should blame it to a blind spot in my gene pool. I am not sure of my maternal great grandmother’s origins. In a cinematic way, she was adopted as a young child and came from some faraway land with rubber plantations on a ship. This part of my family past continues to intrigue and I hope that I will find my answers. On this note, I would like to reiterate the importance of intergenerational storytelling once again.
Let us rediscover our family history. Let us rediscover ourselves. Thank you!
Feature Image Credit: harmonyindia.org
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