Monday, May 7, 2012

"Finding Your Roots" - Margaret Cho, Sanjay Gupta, and Martha Stewart

Yes, I know I'm behind on posts for Who Do You Think You Are (and I really do intend to catch up, but I've been in training since February 27, which has played hell with my schedule).  And I know that this was the eighth episode of Finding Your Roots, and I haven't commented on any of the earlier ones.  So why am I jumping into the middle like this?

This episode of Finding Your Roots touched me in a very unexpected way.  The focus was on experiences of first- and second-generation Americans.  One of the aspects discussed was how these children born in America have felt cut off from much of their family histories.  One thing in particular that was mentioned was the belief that no records existed that could help them learn more about earlier generations of their families.

My stepsons' grandfather, Karm, was from Khatkar Kalan, Punjab, India.  Along with researching the rest of their family on both sides, I have tried to research Karm's family in India.  One thing I was quickly told by many people, both native-born Indians and people married to Indians, was that there simply aren't records for natives from the period during which India was ruled by Great Britain.  The British barely did any record-keeping for their own people; they totally ignored records on natives.

The only thing close to "records" I had heard of previously were for Hindu families.  When someone in the family died, you went down to the river and spoke to the man who was your family "chronicler" about the death.  He would then remember it and add it to the history of your family, but it was all oral.  He passed on the oral history to his son, who became the new "chronicler."  I even spoke with a professor who was born in Rajasthan about this lack of documentation.  He went back to India years later to try to find some record of his own birth.  Even with the resources available to him at that time, he found absolutely nothing.  He learned that his brother had arbitrarily chosen a birthday for him.

But the researchers for Finding Your Roots found something!  Apparently not all the family histories are oral only.  Two brothers are responsible for Gupta's family chronicle.  The records are only for the men in the family, but they are written and they go back eight generations.  When I saw the book I was in tears.

Karm was Sikh, not Hindu.  I have no idea if similar books might exist for Sikh families.  But just learning that written records from before Partition exist for any native Indians gives me hope.  Karm's family is said to have been prominent (Karm's grandfather was supposed to have been the last "headman" of the village before the British took over).  Important families in other cultures are more likely to leave records documenting their history; why not in Punjab?

And I promise that as soon as I can I'll get back to Who Do You Think You Are? ....


  1. Hi Janice, I started following your blog after reading your reviews on the episodes of Who Do You Think You Are?

    I found this post especially interesting because I was born in southern India and can understand the challenges and discrepancies in record keeping in different cultures. One of the biggest, in addition to the lack of written records is the issue of date (as you've mentioned above). All Hindu families follow a completely different, lunar calendar to signify birth and death. With the advent of standardization practices, modern birth certificates/records use the Gregorian calendar to simply things. However, this practice was probably not widely spread before independence, or partition. Hence, one possible solution (in case it's not blatant disregard as in the case of the gentleman you'd mentioned)is to verify the date against both types of calendars.

    You had mentioned the keeper of communal records. Here's another cultural record keeping practice, which has existed because of a patrilineal society. The head of the household (and his wife) would always know the names and history of the previous three men in the family line, ie, his father, grandfather and great grandfather. This practice is inscribed in the funeral (and any subsequent remembrance ceremony) rites/ceremonies, so that his family history was always with him. This is signified by the placement of 3 pairs (to denote each couple) of rice and sesame seed balls during the funeral. And when the son passed away, the great-grandfather is "bumped" and the newly deceased "takes the last place", and so on. Thus family history often stayed within the family, operating on the assumption that they would always stay in touch/live in the same geographic location.

    You have written such a touching account of your journey in tracing your family's Indian roots, that I just wanted to share some of the other zaniness one might encounter while doing that :)

  2. Thank you for the additional information about Hindu family history (and for your kind comments about my blog). I found particularly interesting the practice of remembering the names and history of the previous three generations of men, because that's exactly the case with my stepsons' father. He knew his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather's names, but not the women's names.

    I've been warned that likely the only way I will find out more about the family is if I travel personally to Khatkar Kalan, but since I don't think I'm going to be able to budget for that for a long time, I keep trying to find alternatives!

  3. I am not a certified Genealogist, nor am a writer. But when I found the history and the family tree was written in my native language, Malayalam, I really wanted to do an elaborated version of it online to keep the records up to date. I started doing the research few years back and started working on it between my day job and I am still not even half way through.

    Once I started doing my own research, I feel like I am into it. I was never a great person in the family but doing this project is making me feel proud and part of the family.

    Moonnanappallil Family

  4. It is good to hear about more written records of Indian family history, and wonderful that you took it upon yourself to keep the information up-to-date. Is your online version in Malayalam also?

  5. A week ago a story was posted about Anu Anand, a reporter for the BBC News in India, who visited Haridwar and discovered a family scroll for her family going back ten generations, to the early 1800's. Her father's family came from a village outside Rawalpindi, now in Pakistan.


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