Family and friends occasionally tell me that I have a pretty good memory when it comes to trivia and incidents that have transpired in the past. I think each one of us has a good memory, we just tend to remember different things. I can remember conversations from the past or what song was playing in the car as my wife and I were driving down a certain road but I can’t remember what I wore yesterday. My wife, on the other hand, can remember what she wore several years ago at a party and also remember what everybody else wore! Of course, I don’t remember much of what I studied in my engineering school! When it comes to relationships, however, few can match my dad or my mother-in-law. Long before the engineers at Facebook perfected their algorithms or there were graph databases in existence, my dad had all the intricate relationships between various family members across generations mapped accurately in his head.
Growing up in Bangalore, we had a steady stream of visitors to our house. Each vacation found me visiting my grandparents and relatives in Bombay. Social networks were strong. I was comfortable visiting my mom’s or dad’s uncles and aunts and spending a day conversing with them. However, as time goes by, I find myself unsure about relationships, especially in my grandparent’s generation. I had started compiling a family tree when my parents last visited me in 2000. I wrote down relationships in a notebook but it was not complete or thorough. Last year, I finally decided to compile one online. Sites like ancestry.com help their members find relationships by matching names in their databases. While this is of significant value to immigrants who are trying to trace their roots and possibly lost relatives, I just needed to record known relationships. I finally settled on familyecho.com. Then started a series of delightful conversations with my dad.
I’ve been speaking to my dad on the phone daily for the last 10 years. I usually call him when I’m having my breakfast, it is in the evening for him and he gives me a rundown of his day’s activities. Around a year ago, we started working on our family tree. I started with my name and then added my parents. We then worked our way vertically and laterally as my dad’s memories flowed. Of course, my dad would add a tidbit about each person being added. Speaking of a cousin, “he was in the army and was standing in a queue to get some rations when an officer skipped the line and went to the front. He had always been short tempered and he had words with the officer and then ended up beating him. Needless to say, he was court-martialled and discharged from the army” or speaking of another relative “her husband was the secretary to B.G. Kher, the first Chief Minister of Bombay state”. These anecdotes made the exercise all the more interesting. We would stop after half an hour or so as it would be time for me to head to work and then resume the next day. Sometimes, my dad would be unsure of a name and he would ask me to hold off and he would invariably remember the name a little later in our conversation. Since he could not see my screen and his memories would rush forth in a torrent, I would have to slow him down while I typed the information in. There were marriages within the family in the previous generations. These marriages led to some labyrinthine connections in the tree.
My dad remembered the relationships until his grandparents’ generation. Fortunately, a second cousin of mine happened to have a hand-written copy of just the direct lineage of 4 generations prior to my great-grandparents. I found him on Whatsapp and spoke to him after 20 years and he promptly sent me a picture of the tree. So the tree now spans 9 generations, albeit the first 4 generations have no offshoots. On my mother’s side, where my dad could not remember, I relied on my aunt to trace relationships. Some surprises showed up. A very dear relative of mine, who I thought was my uncle actually turned out to my second cousin! Interestingly, Facebook came to my rescue when it came to my generation. When I was not sure about the names of family members, I could rely on Facebook to dig up names. The tree now has 917 members and is growing. I don’t have everybody’s names and I’m not sure if I ever will find them.
As I look at the tree some interesting facts leap to my mind. My mother had a little over 70 first cousins, I have 18, my daughter has 4. India’s family planning efforts have certainly paid off! Mortality rate was higher in my grandparents’ generation. My dad or my aunt would mention that a certain relative passed away at a young age – usually due to sickness. Death by drowning also curiously showed up. Children often played by the river and accidents were bound to happen. I’m also struck by the lack of malice as my dad and aunt talked about their various relatives. It is refreshing to see that they got along well with everybody. There were no family vendettas or misunderstandings. Gratitude is another quality that comes to the fore. My paternal grandmother passed away when my dad was 12 years old. His maternal uncles and aunts were responsible for taking my dad and his siblings under their wings and giving them a foothold in life. My dad spent 5 years in Hubli with his uncle and aunt and he never fails to remember their kindness and affection. As he traced the relationships, he would also pause to mention how so-and-so helped relatives find jobs or gave them a place to stay for a few years. It is humbling for me to realize that I owe my current position in life indirectly to a number of people and their acts of kindness. The help was extended with no expectations. People had few luxuries, large families and lived in small homes on shoestring budgets but they would gladly take in relatives and give them a place to stay.
For good measure, I also traced my wife’s family tree when my in-laws visited us earlier this year. This tree is not complete but I’ve progressed up to 668 members. There are several lacunae that need to be filled. My fear now is that data formats will invariably change over time and even though I have downloaded the information in various formats, I may not be able to view the tree online in a few years. Perhaps, I do need a good old paper copy. The trees are not complete, I need to add pictures and possibly more biographical information. It is nice though to look at the trees once in a while and relive memories of relatives who have passed on or to rekindle relationships with relatives with whom I’ve not been in touch. I don’t know if my children or their cousins will ever be interested in tracing their roots, but if they show any interest, I will be ready, thanks to my dad’s and mother-in-law’s phenomenal memory and their patience in sharing all this information with me.