One of my previous visits to India was incentivised by something beyond the oft-presented opportunity to visit my paternal grandparents and extended family members who reside there. It was particularly geared with a sense of urgency and responsibility to locate, organise and preserve the photographs that are kept by my family there.
While my parents moved with their own collection of photographs when emigrating from India to Zambia in 1990, there was a collection in India that I had never seen before. It included images that were from my grandparent’s youth in Myanmar (formally Burma), images of my parent’s childhoods rather than mine. The photographs conjured up feelings of afsos (an Urdu word meaning sorrow or regret) for not knowing some of the people that shaped the people who have shaped me. It was not just the photographs as objects that evoked these feelings, but the search for them, their location and the conversations that surrounded them too.
I realised that family photographs, unbeknownst to me over the years, have aided in the understanding of my ancestry, identity and family history. Despite the afsos, I wondered: can the memories of people I know, of people that I have not known, become memories of my own?
In the outside veranda area of my grandparent’s house in our village Kosamdi, Gujarat, there is a large swing at the centre. The onions, garlic and potatoes stay there in the shade, and sometimes where the laundry is hung and folded. After lunch one afternoon I noticed in the corner, close to the burglar bars, two old suitcases stacked on top of one another. With broken zips, held together by a rope, there was a thick layer of dust coating them. I pried them open and found that amongst other banal and ephemeral objects such as brand new shaving kits, a Viewmaster, screwdrivers, documents and old passports, there lied family photographs – prints, negatives and albums.
It emerged from my ageing grandfather that these were all items salvaged from the dilapidated and abandoned home (in the same village) where my father and his siblings grew up. The house hadn’t been occupied for over 20 years and was slowly falling apart, putting the things left inside there at risk. Yet, these photographs that I deemed sacred and made the journey for, were packed in British packaging boxes for utensils and soap among other ‘useless’ and forgotten items; gathering dust and amnesia. I was immediately confronted with the ‘mattering’ of these images before even seeing their content – what can we know about how or if these photographs matter, now that they have been afforded the same living space as other unrelated and rejectable objects?
Cassim Dada and the M.G Vehicle
I was determined to redeem the value of these photographs regardless of their neglect. And thus, it began. Over warm afternoons and evenings spent in Kosamdi, I attempted with the elders to organise, identify and scan the images. I noticed that amongst the thousands of images, and in almost every photograph collection in our family (including the ones back home in Zambia), there was always a particular vehicle that recurred. It is the M.G sports car, which was rebuilt by my maternal great-granduncle Cassim Ginwalla (Cassim Dada) who worked for Mercedes Benz during the 50s and 60s.
The repetition of this vehicle in our albums allows for the man behind its construction to become a topic of discussion. However, this was also because of the kind of man that Cassim Dada was. Though I did not know him, narrations from people who did would allow me to piece together an idea of him. As somewhat of an ‘outsider’ to Cassim Dada and his life, these oral narrations from older family members informed me that Cassim Dada was a bachelor and is always remembered for his compassionate decision to dedicate his life to raising his deceased brother’s children. He is a figure that my father and his brothers continue to look up to, not only for his benevolence but his intellect to learn, make and do. The constructed M.G car became a symbol of this part of his personality. Pride was taken in completing this great task and photography allowed the family to immortalise it. Moreover, by photographing it multiple times in different locations and contexts, the car became somewhat of a family prop, an object of pride.
Therefore, having never met Cassim Dada, I grew up listening to stories about him that were often brought about from observing images of him, or during the rare occasions where my family would wind up reminiscing together, relaying their pasts to the younger generation who knew nothing about their forefathers. Photographs – when seen and spoken about, especially of times and people long gone – stir nostalgic reports from the people who knew the subject. However, something becomes disinterred in those like myself who didn’t know the subject, who feel incredibly distant from a bloodline that runs so close and deep. These family photographs become an inheritance of faces, stories and people unknown to us who at the same time formulate the fabric of our beings.
Emulating and Afsos
Photographs of Cassim Dada encouraged positive memories, especially in my father who tells me that “Cassim Dada was like Steve McQueen. He was a motorcyclist champion and won motocross races in Maymyo. A good mechanic and photographer. Always helpful to others, big-hearted looked after all of his brother’s children” (Ginwalla, personal communication 2019, September 9). These portraits below of Cassim Dada caused my usually closed-off father to confess a very personal request from me. He stood, with his glasses on, silently reading these images; and told me that he wanted me to photograph him like this one day.
Several profiles with alternating props, these photographs became a mode in which Cassim Dada could become emulated further by my father, which would consequently allow him to be remembered in a similar light by the following generations. The impact that this man left on my father, stand testament to the reason why my father might want to be remembered in the same way.
The touching admission from my father, as well as the vastness of the collection of the unknown faces and unwritten descriptions, slowly brought rise to the aforementioned disinterment of feelings. There wasn’t an English word that came to mind, but an Urdu one: afsos. English does not quite have the equivalent for it, but afsos is the feeling sorrow or regret, of being saddened by a situation. In this context, when my father would speak of Cassim Dada, I would feel afsos that I never had the chance to meet relatives of mine that so significantly impacted my family. Afsos is the feeling that would surface every time a photograph of a deceased person was held in the palm of my parents’ or grandparents’ hands, while they provided an oral account of them. However, they were not always able to remember details and faces as age had eaten at the corners of their dog-eared memories.
More pertinent though, was to acknowledge that the act of seeing and listening to my grandparents remember at all, is a privilege in itself that perhaps my own grandchildren will one day feel afsos about.
Beyond the aesthetic and historical value that these images have, the relationship to my family becomes fundamental to the reason why I place such significance on them. The paper may be an example of what one can “do with” family photograph intellectually, but more importantly, it demonstrates what a photograph of this type can “do for” one emotionally. Ultimately, I argue that family memories that are not our own can only become ours to a certain extent. There is a resistance caused by distance. In wanting to relate to and remember Cassim Dada in the same way that my father does, for example, the feeling of afsos inhibits the opportunity for me to fully relate and identify myself within the realm of the memories left of him.
Nonetheless, the very act of exercising a collective memory through the informal archival project undertaken in the living room of the Kosamdi house brings rise to the future communications that might occur in the next generations of the Ginwalla family. How might my own images made of family manifest afsos in them? The photographs discussed here will age further and thus increase in value – not just due to their age, but as records of times, people and generations long gone.
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All images used here belong to the Ginwalla family.