Through the memories of ordinary people


Naheed Mustafa on what oral histories tell us about Afghanistan @ Maisonneuve. My grandmother often said that as the elders died, so would history. She came from an oral tradition and she was a master storyteller. The details would occasionally shift—the colour of her scarf, the number of guests at a wedding, how many goats were slaughtered at a feast—but the plotline never varied, and the villains and the heroes always fulfilled their roles.Starting from the time of her birth, my grandmother’s stories traced the historical arc of what was then British India. Her tales of change were wrapped up in accounts of daily village life, of a time when your destiny depended on your gender, who your father was and where in the village your house was built. My grandmother had no formal schooling. My grandfather taught her to read after they got married, but she never left the village, and had no idea of life outside the boundary wall. Women and girls lived with each other; the world out there was for men.But the outside world shaped the lives of the people in my grandmother’s village, even if they were oblivious to its force.

The world changed and people agitated and the effects rippled outward. Those shifts—sometimes mere blips, occasionally upheavals—made themselves known in my grandmother’s performances. Her stories didn’t float freely; they were anchored in historical context. There were no dates or years, simply broad references to “when the English were in charge” or “the year the floods came” or, simply, “Partition.”Taken together, my grandmother’s stories painted a picture of a time and place, reflecting the politics of colonialism and the emerging desire for nationhood. By knowing her world, it was possible to know a version of British India: the version that existed in the fields and in the villages, where the language you spoke said something about your religion, which, in turn, said something about your politics.

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