Citizen’s Historian, Heritage & People of Chandernagore Project
I am not an architect, I am a student of history at Presidency University, Calcutta and destiny brought me to this project, while looking for an exchange of an article with Manvi, a colleague who was already working on this project. I have forever associated with Chandernagore as an old French town, although just three stations from my hometown, I can actually count on my fingertips the times I actually visited it before getting involved in this project.
Today, I can proudly say I know each and every street of Chandernagore, each and every house and more importantly the stories hidden behind these houses. We walked every street in the blazing 42 degrees temperature to find these stories, knocking doors and speaking to anyone who was ready to engage with us. It almost felt like playing a detective, when we started off every day not knowing what we were going to find, and every discovery brought us more joy than anything else I can remember.
Although a lot of people were very skeptical about us, they had never heard about oral history. Many didn’t understand why we were asking questions about themselves, history for most meant Dupleix. On our visit to the Seal Family home in Palpara, initially they didn’t entertain us thinking we were some sales people selling some insurance or some goods. But there were some very nice people welcomed us into their houses, shared the stories of their youth and families and made us feel part of their homes. On a super hot summer afternoon, we reached the Barasat area near Liberty Gate, I was amazed at the agglomeration of so many historic houses along the lane, although old, their glory was peeping through the layers of grime, dust and soot. We befriended an old day, short clad in a white cotton sari, who welcomed us into her once palatial home, known as the Kundu Badi. She not only patiently answered our questions and went into a reverie as she reminisced the stories of her family and their glorious past, she made us feel completely at home served us some yummy rasgullas and more importantly chilled water. We didn’t know her but as we spent that one afternoon with her, while she showed us her photo albums and family trees, her warmth made her the “dida” (grandma) of the team. Another interaction with the Seal family that I remember is how we helped them develop a family tree and they wanted us to give them a copy.
That’s when I realized how much the stories of the past bind us, as a history student I had never known what application of history meant. Working on collecting the oral history of the people who remembered Chandernagore during the French time was super fascinating and it was like reading an open book only through someone else’s perspective. I have learnt so much more about Chandernagore’s history in the few months than I had ever read throughout my academic education.