Inside an Artist’s Head: Samrata Diwan

Samrata Diwan is the founder of Family Fables Co, a bespoke publishing company that helps preserve individual, family, institutional and socio-cultural histories through books using oral history as a tool. Family Fables evolved out of Samrata’s passion project in 2017, a book on her grandmother (Nani). She worked on this book to prevent losing an essential part of family history and thereafter, continued to extend this opportunity to others by establishing the Family Fables Company.

Shubha: Your team engages with oral histories to document generations of family experiences. We would love to know what guided the creation of Family Fables and how your team navigates through the process of translating memories into memoirs. 

Samrata: Family Fables started 5 years ago but the direction towards its conceptualisation started a year or two before that. I wanted to document my grandparents’ lives. I grew up listening to their stories about partition, how they moved to Delhi as refugees and started life afresh. Such socio-cultural interactions gave insights into the lives and times of an earlier generation. I didn’t want these stories to get fragmented with time or get lost. So, I really wanted to document my nani’s stories and it was then that I was looking for someone to help me with the process. When I couldn’t find someone for the task, I decided to take the job upon myself. At first, I jumped into it like a personal project and would sit down with my grandmother to record her stories. Everything started with a need to document my family history, to just preserve what I could of it. Over time, that personal project took shape into the Family Fables Co. where we are now able to provide an opportunity for others to preserve their own family histories. 

And yes, every story or project that we work on is distinct from the other. But all of them are largely driven by an intention to create a tangible archive of history, culture and identity. So, even though the people in these stories differ, the main motive, which drives both sides, has always been to preserve the memories, and to know more about their roots. That has been the guiding force for us.

Shubha: Are their motives to locate identity also accompanied by a sense of urgency after the pandemic? 

Samrata: What happened to me is also true for a lot of other people. A lot of our clients face a common urge to know more about their roots while they still can. The complexities of everyday lives do not allow them to sit down and ask questions related to their histories to the elders in the family. Thus, in the past, a lot of our clients have been of a younger generation, wanting to know more about their grandparents’ lives. Their parents and the memories they hold serve as the main source of documentation in such cases. I feel that with the pandemic, the frailty and the uncertainties of life came to light which called for a yearning to hold onto such memories even more. We received numerous queries during the pandemic which I feel was largely because people, locked indoors, wanted to do something positive with their family around them. There couldn’t have been a better time to embark on a project like this. 

Secondly, the pandemic also allowed people to reflect and connect more with extended family members. A project like this requires a lot of commitment, not only from us who were helping with the process but also from the family itself. That commitment goes both ways. The process is time-consuming and involves digging through family albums and documents, understanding who are in those pictures, and contacting the right people. 

Interestingly, as life slowed down in a lot of ways, everybody became used to a virtual way of life. We found ourselves conducting interviews over Zoom calls. We could even complete several projects entirely without ever meeting the clients physically.

Shubha: Why do you think that oral history serves as an ideal method for collecting and preserving memories? Moreover, how do you ensure that the stories you’re portraying are neutral? 

Samrata: The information given in oral histories is often not found in books, photos or other archives. It’s the texture and emotion of individual experiences, which brings the past to life in a way unique from viewing objects or reading history books – It’s the weight of personal experience that gives this past its meaning.

There could be your personal views on a lot of subjects but we, as a team, are there to enable you (the client) to document your story; we are just the medium. We are not the key people taking the central roles. Secondly, we work so closely with the families and the individuals who are the initiators that the whole process turns out to be extremely collaborative. It’s more than them narrating and us writing. Every task is first discussed with the family, so we primarily function as a medium, a guide to ensure that the project is completed. Our opinions are not reflected in the text that is ultimately produced. 

However, we do handle aspects related to the book. Our team has the expertise in further structuring the text and designing the book. So, our clients do reach out to us saying, “What do you feel is the right way to go?” But that’s more from a technical point of view. We go about approaching the entire process keeping in mind the visions of the individuals who are overall in charge of the project. So, neither our biases come in stories nor do we influence them but we do give our expertise in terms of the structure of the book. We can’t influence, it’s not our story, it’s their story.

Shubha: Interestingly, Family Fables records personal histories in languages other than English. According to you, how does language play a role in bringing out nuances of a lived past? Given its limitations, would you say that some things are left unsaid in the archival process?

Samrata: Language is crucial. People recount their lives in a language they are most comfortable in, one that is their own. In the past, we have documented stories in Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali, and Hindi apart from English. These are the languages that our team was also equipped to capture the stories in. We have taken up projects in Kerala where we have captured the stories in Malayalam. So, we try to organise our team in a way that we can capture the stories in a language that the particular family is most accustomed to. 

Answering the second part of your question, I would say that every archiving team interacting with personal histories, including ours, attempts to bring out the narratives in the same way it was told, which is why the language turns out to be extremely pivotal. And you are right, the body language, and the gestures all come into play when documenting such stories. There could be points where one could be emotional or points where they would want to share a photograph or bring our attention to something more about that particular narrative. 

I would also like to add something about oral histories here. We conduct a series of interviews with the family members involving wide-ranging questions. The idea has been to establish that comfort and trust with the person. Only if they feel comfortable with you being around and asking them about their lives, will they be able to share their stories. One of the ways to achieve this is to have conversations in a language they are comfortable in. This also involves an exercise of guided reminiscence wherein the person is allowed to revisit their past.

Shubha: Each book, curated by your team, is more than mere genealogical accounts and also records legacies passed down through generations. Alongside these personal memoirs, your team has also curated institutional books, commemorative books, family cookbooks, and customised products. How do you approach archiving projects in such varied formats? Is the process significantly different from recording memoirs? 

Samrata: There are various formats which we have previously taken up. As you named, there could be memoirs, family history books where we’ve interviewed up to 80-85 members in one of our projects, or family trees where we once covered an extensive tree including 300 members. In this sense, documenting family histories could seem more like placing a puzzle together. Depending on how the individuals want to go about documentation, we either do full-fledged family cookbooks which include recipes passed down generations as heirlooms, and recipes made on special occasions or recipes could also be a part of family history books. We have incorporated folk songs and recipes as separate chapters for a book tracing the histories of a family based in Multan. The idea has been to preserve what we can and that differs from family to family. We have had opportunities to document institutional histories as well. 

Shubha: Having completed five years in the publishing industry, which were some of the most gratifying stories that you had the chance to cover? 

Samrata: I started this project because I felt that there is something extraordinary in ordinary stories. Every family has a story. Every individual has something to tell you. One doesn’t have to be necessarily famous or rather “make it” in life to feel the need to document their story. So, one of the most gratifying aspects is to provide people with an opportunity to document their stories. We are committed to making this process as hassle-free as possible. Our process encompasses everything from capturing interviews, research, collecting photographs and documents, writing the narratives, providing editorial support and designing the book, thus providing a carefully produced book of your family history which is almost like an heirloom. Presenting that book to the family knowing that it will remain in the family for generations makes for the most gratifying part. 

I have had the chance to work on so many inspiring stories and meet numerous inspiring figures during that journey that it is truly a motivation for me and my team. We do this day in and day out just because such stories need to be shared and preserved. 

Samrata and the team at Family Fables are working on multiple books including memoirs, and institutional and family history books at the moment. You can find their work here

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