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In Conversation With Subodh Mathur

Ranjani Saigal

“The Dadi Nani book taps into collective memories of 25 individuals from all across India to pay a tribute to Indian grandmothers,” says Dr. Subodh Mathur, who is the co-editor of a book titled “Dadi Nani: Memories of Our Grandmothers.” He talked to Lokvani about this innovative project that has struck an emotional chord in many Indian hearts around the world.

Dr. Subodh Mathur is an adjunct professor of economics at the American University, Washington, DC, and an independent consultant for nearly 20 years.  He has worked for the World Bank, the Washington, DC Public Service Commission (which regulates utilities) and the US Postal Service.

In 2004, he embarked upon a project to document the lives of the grandmothers of his extended family and friends. The collection of stories has been published in a fascinating book called “Dadi Nani: Memories of Our Grandmothers.”  Details and sample chapters are available at www.dadinani.org.

He talked to Lokvani about the project.  

Congratulations on the publication of the book Dadi Nani. What motivated you to create this innovative book?

In 2004, I lost my father, who died at the age of 94. I come from a large family, and after the funeral, we began to discuss the legacy of our parents and grandparents. After I returned to the US, during one late night Internet surfing session, I looked at the literacy rate of women in India in 1901, just to be able to judge the contributions of my grandmothers, who were both literate. I found out that only 0.4% of Indian women were literate at that time!

This meant that my grandmothers, even though they were not highly educated, were the cream of the crop. I decided that it would be good to document the lives of our grandmothers. This the genesis of the project, which culminated in a book and later led to the creation of the web site.

How did the need to document the memory of your grandmother transform into a book with you serving the role of an editor rather than an author?

When it came to writing about my dadi (father’s mother), I realized that my oldest brother was more suited to writing about her, for he knew her longer than any of my other siblings. He thought it would be important to get ideas and contributions from all of us brothers and sisters, particularly my sisters, who perhaps knew her more intimately than the boys in the family . The discussion made me realize that the best portrait of my grandmother should be a collective one based on discussions with the entire family. So, while one person would take a lead role in writing, the content would need editing. I decided to be an editor, not an author.

Why did you then decide to publish a book that includes the life of not just one grandmother but several?

When we began working on the first story, we realized the power of the exercise, and decided to include our friends. In this way, we were able to draw upon lives of people from all over India, and the book is ‘a history of families,’ instead of just ‘a family history.’ We felt the collection was something that might be of interest to the general public, and decided to publish it. We are very pleased with the positive response we have received for the book.

Many of the authors tell us that they put together the profiles of their grandmothers collectively with other members of the family. In many cases, this was an opportunity for extensive communication and bonding between the senior and junior members of the family.

Were there any surprises as you were going through the process?

There were some . We were surprised to note how touchy people still felt about certain events in the family that were nearly a century old. There is a story of a Hindu widowed grandmother who married a Muslim man, and stayed back in Pakistan after the partition. The author is still not comfortable about revealing the name of the Pakistani family of which her grandmother was a part.

You have established a trust called Dadi Nani Foundation Charitable Trust. Could you tell us about the mission of this trust?

Our goals are to celebrate the lives of grandmothers, think about the future role of Indian grandmothers as the Indian joint family system crumbles, and provide financial assistance to groups and agencies that support older women and girls.

We held our first ‘Dadi Nani Day’ in Jaipur on January 13, 2008. This was a fun-oriented event, which managed to successfully entertain grandmothers and their families from various segments of society. Most traditional Indian celebrations are bounded by region or religion, but not this event because everyone has a grandmother. In the future, over a number of years, we plan to spread the event all across India.

To complement this fun-oriented event, we are planning an academic seminar in early April 2008. The focus of the seminar will the past, present and future role of grandmothers in Indian society.

You have created a website and are soliciting contributions for it. Could you describe the nature of the web site?

The focus of the www.dadinani.org website is ‘Capturing Memories, going beyond but including grandmothers. The stories already collected are available at http://www.dadinani.org/call_page.asp?page=New_Contributions_c.asp and the types of memories to be collected are available at http://www.dadinani.org/call_page.asp?page=Contribute_Memories_c.asp

Could you give some examples?

Sure. Many people older than 70 years have described what they were doing in various parts of India in 1942 during the Quit India movement or in August 1947. We have a fascinating story about what is probably Mahatma Gandhi’s last autograph. There is an incredible account about a bus journey that a retired engineer took as a young boy in 1945.

A well-known photographer has written about how he mailed his photographs, with God’s blessing, for the first time to Japan in 1955. An undergraduate student at Yale remembers the impact that her Nanaji had on her religious beliefs, and an American professor remembers his trip to Bihar more than 50 years ago. And, an 80-year old grandfather recounts the struggles, long ago, of his young, widowed grandmother.

How active is the contribution? Are you looking for help with the site?

We get about two or three contributions a month. We are looking to increase this number. We would appreciate volunteers with editing skills for currently all the editing is falling on my shoulders, which is not sustainable with an increased number of contributions.

How can people purchase the book?

It is available via the website www.dadinani.org for $ 20. The full $ 20 will go to the Trust, as my family has already paid all the publishing costs, and we will bear the handling and shipping costs. The book is also available for sale at selected Crosswords bookstores in India for Rs. 495.

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