Last summer when I was graduating from A levels, I decided to intern at The Citizens Archive of Pakistan. They were launching their Oral History Project and I thought it would occupy me until University began. Even at orientation I didn’t suspect that I would get emotionally attached to the project. However, it came to change a large part of my own view of the world, and of Pakistan.
I didn’t grow up sitting at the feet of my grandparents, listening to their stories. I didn’t have the chance to even talk to them, as they all passed away before I turned four. My first approach to CAP was neutral. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I figured I would go around, interview old people, come back to the office, type up the interviews and go home.
The internship entailed a lot more than that. At orientation, we were shown how to use professional recorders, so that we would record good-quality audio for the audio-video clips we were supposed to produce at a later date. We were also trained to interview people who were older than 75 years. For that we had to be patient, speak clearly and allow them to tell their stories. After the interview we had to create logs and transcribe the interview so that academics, students or historians could access it at a later date.
Admittedly, I was a bit overwhelmed by the work at first. I was terrified of messing up transcriptions and antagonizing the people we were interviewing, But that changed when I went out into the field to interview the people. I found it was easy to speak to them and record their interesting stories. These are people who lived through Partition, who walked across the Indian border, who saw other people being killed. The fact that their memories of all that went towards creating Pakistan had not been recorded before shocked me.
I remember meeting with Ardeshir Cowasjee and being blown away by his brazen views about Partition and the first government. Talking to people from two generations ago made me realize that their stories are the ones that count, the ones that made our world today. If I hadn’t come to work at CAP, I wouldn’t have had the chance to meet these people. They may just be other people’s grandparents but to me and the rest of the organization, they held knowledge of a world that was fast disappearing.
What I didn’t expect was that interviewing old people would change a little part of me, change my view of the world. I walked into interviews knowing full well that they had a whole lot of knowledge that we could use, but somewhere along the way of asking them to tell their stories, we incorporated those words into our own memories.
Maryam Musharaff Shah