We are honored to have permission from Indira Chowdhury to share this essay, written originally as an address to students in Nepal. On 25 April 2015, the Gorkha earthquake destroyed the Madan Puraskar Pustaklalaya Archives (http://madanpuraskar.org). It had also disrupted the last day of a course on Oral History and Digital Archiving taught by Chowdhury, the current President of the International Oral History Association and the Oral History Association of India. We thank Chowdhury for contributing this evocative piece, which may hopefully provide us in the diverse fields connected to the history of science and technology of Asia with opportunities to reflect broadly upon our roles as supporters and beneficiaries of scholarship in and of Asia. Those wishing to learn about or contribute to the reconstruction of the MPP Archives in Nepal may visit this link. – Lisa Onaga

Patan 25 April 2015: I woke up full of anticipation as I was going to interview the 95-year-old cultural historian, Satya Mohan Joshiji. The previous evening, I had dropped by with Nishant to Satya Mohanji’s house. He was about to go out to inaugurate a conference and we could not speak. He asked me to come back on the 25th in the morning at 9 am.

When I arrived he told me that he did not wish to be recorded as he was not really prepared and did not want to make “mistakes”. I had heard from Kanak Mani Dixit that he was unwell – he had had a stroke. He now told me about it and said he could not speak for too long.

satya mohanjiWe ended up speaking for an hour and a half. He spoke in English and Hindi. He sang for me in Nepali. None of this is recorded. As an oral historian I had to respect his wishes. That would be the only way to build trust. In my mind, I saw this as my first meeting and I felt that I would have the opportunity to record another, more elaborate interview with him later.

As he spoke, I realized that Satya Mohanji has a way of speaking that brings so many things alive. I noted down his words scribbling fast and furiously, hoping I would not forget, how he said things, how he paused at times and how completely at ease he was as he spoke about his life. I was moved and inspired. I stopped at Café Swotha and started the process of reconstructing the interview from my notes. In my experience as an oral historian, I am used to playing back the interviews. The recorded voice does a strange thing – it brings back memories of the interview and its setting – sometimes the call of the koel in the background, sometimes the arrival of tea and conversation breaking into more personal sharing and sometimes the long silence during which the interviewee thinks about how s/he wishes to answer your questions. Satya Mohanji’s refusal to be recorded had denied me that privilege. But this particular unrecorded interview gifted me something else – something rare and extraordinary – the realization that the power of the voice remains indelibly marked in memory reminding you of not just the words and the manner of speaking but also what the narrator cherishes or abhors, what s/he dwells on or wishes to let go off. Perhaps, without recorders, we practise a different, deeper form of listening and unconsciously work harder with our own frailties to hold on to the narrator’s stories as we attempt to recreate from memory the meaning it holds for them. But as I discovered, Satyamohanji’s interview also took on a specific meaning for me and it is this reflection I want to share with you – fellow survivors and my most inspiring batch of “students” – I use scare-quotes as I have learnt so much from you – so you are not just “students”

As I was wrapping up the interview, I asked Satya Mohanji a question about the 1934 earthquake. I recount here what he said – using the process of reconstruction from notes, memory and the power of voice that remains with me.

IC: I wanted to ask you – do you remember the earthquake of 1934?

SMJ: Why should I not remember that – it was only eighty years ago?

Eighty years seemed like a long time to me but not to this historian who had vivid memories of his experience, it seems like it happened just the other day. Satya Mohanji was 14 or 15 at that time. He lived with his father, Shankar Raj Joshi in the quarters of the Teaching Hospital in Maharganj. His father worked there and Satya Mohanji would help him. His mother and his new-born sister lived in their house in Walkhu. When the earthquake struck on 15 January, Satya Mohanji recollected that he was sitting in the quarters with a friend looking at the trees that were quaking. “They were shaking like this” – he gestures demonstrating a snake-like movement.

SMJ: I had never ever seen such a thing! My friend and I were clapping and laughing looking at the dancing trees. That’s when the landlord came and took us and pushed us out on to the field in front. He said – “Don’t you know what’s happening?” That’s when we heard the shouting – the kolahol – the sound of people crying. We asked what had happened. The landlord told us that the Palace had been ground to dust and the house had cracked.

My father came from the hospital and said that we would have to go home to find out what had happened to my mother and the new baby. It took us two hours to cross the Bagmati river. People were crying, houses were falling down. And the waters of the Bagmati had become muddy.

When we came to this house – we found that two of the three storeys had fallen. My father said to me, “Your mother is no more.” We thought they were both gone. Then our neighbours saw us and took us to where they had sheltered my mother and my sister. Both were safe.

Satya Mohanji points to the room in which we were sitting – one part of it was destroyed in the 1934 earthquake. It is now rebuilt. On the ceiling is a piece of wood carving salvaged from the earlier house. “This used to be in the old house – it survived that earthquake.” I look at this piece of work – marvel at the skill of the unknown artisan who carved it and marvel too at the fact that it had survived that earthquake.

I finished my interview with Satya Mohanji at 10:30 on the 25th of April. UntitledI linger for more than an hour at Swotha Café – spending time mulling over the interaction, reconstructing the early part of the interview. I wonder briefly if I should take a look around Patan Durbar Square but change my mind and walk to the workshop instead. Even now I wonder what made me do that.

By 11:30 I am sitting in class where my colleague, Padmini is teaching. The class is engaged in a lively discussion about digital formats – the best way to preserve data for the future. The earthquake hits us at 11:56. At first I don’t know what is happening. But everyone in class seems to know. And they know what to do and keep us calm. We leave the room and walk downstairs even as the stairs are swaying. Later, we stand in the tennis court, watching the quivering windows of the Madan Pustakalay Archives. The back of that building, housing an archive I had just visited the day before, is cracked. The old man who tells me this is none other than Kamal Mani Dixit – who started the Madan Pustakalay. Satya Mohanji had spoken about him fondly that morning. The Pustakalay had instituted the Madan Puraskar, a prestigious literary prize in 1956 and Satya Mohan Joshi had been the first recipient. He had also won it a second time.

We stand on the Tennis Court and tremors come every so often. Each time the ground shakes threatening to split open. The crows flutter and squawk. There’s distress in every movement. That’s when I see the “snaking trees” that Satya Mohanji had seen in his words a “mere eighty years ago”. Suddenly, his words are given a reality that they did not have before. I know now what exactly he had seen, eight decades ago. The interview is now endowed with meaning – not just from the narrator’s experience but also from my own. And both experiences live in my memory ­–his words, his experience, his reminiscence and my remembering. The connections I am now able to trace, create new meaning for me. I begin to interpret his experience in the mirror of my own. Perhaps that is the deeper connection that the interview enables and that is the process we need to reflect on.

After my return to India, I worry about Satya Mohanji. Bhushan sends me an article by Satya Mohanji in Nepali. I cannot read it – but it gives me great relief to know he is safe when everything was so uncertain. But I grieve for days for the destruction of homes and the beautiful temples on Patan Durbar Square – those powerful witnesses to history, fine examples of Newa architecture – now reduced to rubble. I had always seen these temples throbbing with people – now I am numb thinking of what lies under the debris. Thinking back on that day – I was most impressed by the participants of the course – they had organized themselves almost right away. Bhushan had rescued an old woman buried in the hiti in Durbar Square. I watch them leave in groups to be part of rescue operations. I see Prawin with vegetables and provisions that he has bought for friends who are stranded. NayanTara opens up Yellow House for the neighbourhood where they feed us and keep us comfortable in the shelter outside. I am moved by the energy everyone puts into helping others. I wonder if the movement for democracy has left them with these superb organizing skills. The next day, they help us collect our luggage and drop us to the airport – through cracked roads and continuous tremors it takes courage to drive.

It’s been more than a month now and I hear that you are about to launch an oral history project. As you launch your own project, inviting people to share memories of a life that is so completely altered, collecting stories that will inevitably be layered with your own experience, I am sure we will find ways to reach deeper into our own resources of empathetic listening. May it give us strength.

30 May 2015

Indira Chowdhury heads the Centre for Public History at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore.


Oral History and Earthquake Survivors
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