Wednesday, July 29, 2009

I like testimonials!

I couldn't resist posting this on the blog. Out of modesty, I removed the bit about how 'sweet' I am... but I have a feeling that plan just backfired!


My parents remarked on how much they enjoyed working
with you.

Thank you for all of the kind attention you have
given them. This has been a very wonderful experience
for them and I look forward to seeing the final "version".
We have been wanting to do this for quite some time,
so I was thrilled to learn of your company.

I will surely recommend you to anyone I know who might
want to do the same thing.

V R, San Antonio

Yay for happy endings! This interview was one of the best I've done so far - you could see the couple was still clearly in love after 57 years... their stories were happy stories!

Tongue-tied and full of stories.

Earlier this week, I interviewed an elderly gentleman. Prior to the day of the interview, there was a lot of email correspondence and calls put in between his wife and me... his wife being the one who commissioned the Video Biography in the first place.

Her main cause of worry was that her husband would not stop talking once he got started. And she feared that that would make it extremely tricky for me to steer the conversation from one topic to the other. Now that's valuable insight to have on your subject - and it allowed for me to customize my questions to his life yes, but also to his personality. And I approached the day with grit of steel and a determination to have a fruitful interview no matter what.

What I hadn't been told was that the husband had had a series of small strokes in the not so distant past, and this had left his memory quite jagged... and by his own admission, in a state of affairs he wouldn't have chosen for himself. Nonetheless, he was bursting with stories to share. Before the camera went on, he took me on a tour of the house... and we paused at walls with little bits of history hanging from them, and an office that looked like a treasure trove of memorabilia accumulated over decades of a life well spent. It spanned across generations, continents, countries, dictatorships, monarchy, democracy... it was like getting an insider's view into a history text-book. And he had lived through a lot of it - and knew of ancestors who had lived through even more.

This is going to be a great interview, I thought to myself.

But when he was seated comfortably in his favorite chair in the corner of the living room he always claimed for his own... and I had him nicely framed in my camera... something changed. He became guarded. And not very forthcoming with information. I wondered where the man who talked too much was hiding! In past experience I've had some people who take a while to warm up to being interviewed on camera... so I persisted and in his defense, he tried to answer the questions as best he could. But I was yet unable to capture a true reflection of his personality.

When the first tape got over, I paused the interview in order to load a new tape. In this brief 5-minute interruption, the gentleman got extremely chatty. He started to tell me stories of his grandparents from his childhood - stories that he hadn't shared when I had interviewed him about them. So without announcing that we were now recording the conversation, I pressed the red button - and lo and behold, I managed to get a lot of stories out of him - as well as a feel of the person he is by asking about his viewpoint on several world events.

Of course the time came when this subterfuge had to come to an end and I had to revert to drawing his attention to the camera - instantly, he transformed into a grave man.

But in those few moments, we achieved something that would make it all worthwhile.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


The following incident is one of my most distinctive memories from childhood, involving one of my favorite grandpas - and you'll see for yourself how he earned that status for himself in just a bit. Growing up, there seemed to be an awful lot of grandpas going around. Grandmas too, but this one is about Grandpa K. In India, family is really close-knit and it doesn't matter if you're the brother of a grandparent or the cousin of an Aunt to whom you're related only by marriage... it's all family and you call them by the names applicable to them. We have names for every possible computation of 'relativity' that you could think of.

Grandpa K was the real brother of my real grandmother - Grandma M, my father's mother.

Grandpa K was a lawyer and it is a universal fact that if that's your profession, no matter where you live, you make enough money to be happy. And so he was. As was his wife. They were so happy, that it made them semi-progressive... his wife was the only grandma I knew in my large family who would drink her booze, enjoy it and ask for more. Not that that made her an alcoholic or anything. Of course, everyone knew and at weddings and other social gatherings, glasses covered with white napkin around them would make their way mysteriously into her hands... the logic being that if the glass is covered and you can't see through, you really couldn't be sure what she was drinking. But everyone knew. Even I did. And I was only 6.

Anyway, to return to Grandpa K, he had a peculiar habit. And before I was incorporated into the ritual, I thought he might just be evil and sadistic based on all that I could make out of it.

He would line up all the young ones, based on seniority, and then walk down the line giving everyone a loud whack on the face. And then he'd chortle. I knew one day my turn would come and I tried to keep my distance from him as long I could help it. But sure enough, on one of our visits to his house, when the only kids in the vicinity were my elder sister and me, it became rather hard to turn invisible.

'Aha,' he said, sighting us.

'Tee hee,' giggled my sister, who was usually too dignified to be caught giggling.

'Frown', thought I.

'I know exactly what you both are here for,' went on Grandpa K, smiling beatifically. And then he lined us up... even though it was just the two of us. Then he muttered something that sounded like black magic and down came his right hand on my sister's cheek... and she squealed with laughter. And placed her hand over her cheek - because it had to smart, right?

Then Grandpa K moved over to me. Muttered the unintelligible stuff again while I braced myself for what must obviously be a right of passage into adulthood where pain must become equivalent to pleasure. Down came his right hand on my cheek... I closed my eyes in anticipation and winced. His hand landed on my cheek and I could feel something knobby on the point of contact. Great, he has warts to add to the humiliation!

But wait, the stuff is moving... and of my own volition, I find that my hand has moved under his hand and is now cupped around... candy!


That was his thing apparently. He had a jar full of colored candy, different flavor, sparkly wrapping... the promise of endless delight. He'd hide a handful in his pocket, and reload the ammunition after every 'slap' he placed on our young, innocent faces. The slaps were nothing more than a pat on the cheek - but he'd add sound effects which made it seem like they were forceful and must hurt beyond doubt.

Oh the things grown ups do to win the gratitude of young children!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Looking backwards can only do so much.

I recently wrote about the need to look at the present when it comes to Genealogy.
(For the complete posting, please visit:

Too often when it comes to preserving family history, our instinct is to focus on the stories of our ancestors... my question today is, 'What about you?' What about your story and the people you have touched in the journey you call your life?

One day, you will be on someone's family tree and what a valuable legacy it would be for them to have more than your face and date of birth to know you by.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009



Sunday, July 19, 2009

Meeting the 'one'.

The love story is a big part of the Video Biographies I have been fortunate to create for people thus far. Not by design though. It is one topic nobody is shy to talk about and one that needs the least amount of prodding on my part.

And they all make me go, 'Awww'.

'The photographer at the wedding took something like a 100 pictures. When we got back from our honeymoon, he called to say that none of them came out! So there we were... one week after the wedding, gathering everyone we could to come to our pretend wedding at the church once again just so that we could get the pictures. And you'll notice there are no flowers, no maids of honor because no one was available, and my dad had just had his tooth removed so he wasn't really smiling as he walked me down the aisle... it was heartbreaking at the time. But we can laugh now.'

'You know in those days, weddings weren't as elaborate as they are now. My mother made my wedding dress.'

'Well, the first time L saw me was through the peephole of her apartment. I was a friend of her brother's and he thought we should meet. She, on the other hand, expected a writer to be tougher, sadder, weirder, long-haired... something like that. It was quite a disappointment for her, I learned later, to find regular, normal-looking me!'

'We were in Elementary School together.'

'I've been married 54 years. One wife.'

'I had a rule. I wasn't going to ask someone to marry me unless I'd lived with them for 6 months. So at the end of the 6 months, I made dinner and waited for her to come home. And then I got down on one knee... and she said, 'Oh no!' We're still married.'

Friday, July 17, 2009

Guilty as charged.

I've recently been ambushed by a horde of articles with a similar theme.

'If you could call back one ancestor - just one - from the past, who would it be and what would you talk about?'

'If you realized this was going to be the last conversation you'd ever have with the person in front of you, what would you choose to say? And leave unsaid.'

'If you could leave a letter for the future grandchildren you will never meet, what would information about yourself would you include in it?'

'If there is one episode in your life that you wish you would have done differently, how would you do it again?'

Apart from guilting me into the admission that I would be utterly useless in situations like these that require quick wit and the wisdom that probably comes with years of inner reflection, I realized another profound truth. I realized that I am a procrastinator... and well, while I'm at it, so is everyone else in the entire world. There could be a few exceptions and I don't mean to offend any hearts, but it's the truth and that's what the universe was conspiring to tell me by sending these morbid articles one by one into my inbox. So don't blame me. Blame the universe.

Having neatly deflected all responsibility for that rash statement, let me now elaborate on my train of thought. If it wasn't for the sense of complacency that 'things' never happen to us but to other people... that there will be a 'right' time that will announce itself to us for all the things that we plan to do but never get down to doing... that life wouldn't be so unfair as to abruptly end, leaving so many things incomplete, including our own stories that often times piggyback on the stories of the people who surround us... why, if it wasn't for all this cotton fluff in my head, I would have known all the answers to the questions asked in those silly articles.

Q). Which ancestor would I call back?
None, thank you very much. Don't want to have to go through heartbreak twice and say good bye all over again.

Q). Last conversation and what I would say?
I would tell the person all that I have learned from their example.

Q). Letter to the grandkids?
I'll tell them I traveled halfway across the world to be able to marry the man I love - and that the rest of the family back home cried watching the ceremony webcast from the County Clerk's office. Of course, by then 'webcast' must sound antiquated to them so I would have to include a footnote explaining the technicalities involved.

Q). One episode I would do over?
None... my life is what it is because of all that I have done in the past. And I'm very happy with the way it's turned out. There will always be regrets and I'm okay with that.

I don't want to sound smug-alive though. I wish I could do so many things. I wish I could be at home right now - to hold my mother's hand as my father gets some stuff done to him in the hospital. I wish I could tell them how perfect as parents they are. I might have hinted otherwise many times while growing up and have since told them how I have amended that viewpoint... but still, it never hurts to say it again. I wish I could push 'Record' on the video camera just this minute and get them chatting about the past... when they were real people and individuals in their right and not just my 'parents'. I wish I could compensate for their absence and instead turn the spotlight on to my husband's parents - who are in the next room - and get them talking. But I know it's difficult to spill the details of one's life to someone you already know. Which explains why a fellow Video Biographer is actually choosing to hire me to interview her husband - instead of doing it herself. And well, there are a lot of things that I wish I had done earlier... and I feel that's probably true with everyone.

Something always needs to happen... an ultimatum needs to be made... to spur us into action. To give us that final push before we actually commit to doing something we realize needs to be done. Should be done. In fact, should have been done a long time ago. I've been fortunate to meet a lot of nice people in the course of documenting personal and family histories... but sadly, it has more often than not taken a trigger to prompt that move. Whether it's an illness or memory loss, that 'warning' never fails to propel us into taking the first step. And well, it doesn't need to be that way.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Goodbyes are tough.

Saying goodbye is never easy. Especially when it's forever. Try doing it long distance though - and it gets a whole lot more complicated. To place this post in context, I woke up one morning a few weeks ago to find myself forced to do all of the above for my grandfather. With the added heartbreak of feeling that even after a lifetime of knowing him, I never made the effort of getting to know him. I was just too much in awe of him to actually sit down and crack a joke or swap work stories or ask him how his day at court was... the little things. The big things.

So I forced myself to remember all that I could of him. To assuage the guilt perhaps? 

I remembered that the first thing he did every morning he got up was walk to the front garden and pick a white flower for my grandmother to put in her hair. I remembered that every time he knew we were visiting, he would drag a cane chair out to the patio and sit waiting for us to drive in through the gates. I remembered that when it got too hot in the sweltering summers, he would help us all drag our folding beds out into the verandah - so that we could sleep under the stars, soothed by a slow breeze. When we were growing up, he would make sure my cousin brothers learned the poetic language of Urdu from him in his room every evening... a romantic thread that still exists in their lives. I remember combing his hair with the new hairbrush my mother gifted him one day - and remember feeling at that time that this was a moment I would remember forever. It was the closest I had ever gotten to him. I remember the smile in his eyes when my parents drove over to his house to show them their first 'big' car. I remember the walks he used to take around the house. I remember how in recent years he became too feeble to even walk. Someone had to carry him in their arms. Of course he was frustrated. 

I found I remembered more memories than I knew I had. That I had a better sense of who he was than I knew. It isn't just the actions that he did that I remember... instead there is a clearer understanding of the person he was and why he chose to do the things that he did. And for that I am grateful.