Under my byline

Reading voices

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 4 November 2008

Studs Terkel at a Michael Moore rally in 2007OVERLEAF 4

A great American died this week. His name was Studs Terkel, and he was America’s best-known and most widely-read oral historian. Born in New York in 1912 to a family of Polish immigrants, Terkel was eyewitness and participant in a century of revolution. All this was grist to his mill: Roaring Twenties, Great Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal, Second World War, Cold War, McCarthyism, and everything between then and now — including the changes in and wrought by radio and television, in both of which he worked very successfully and for many years.

When he was a child, his parents managed blue-collar hotels in Chicago, the city where he spent most of his life. In such hotels the young Terkel was treated to a constant parade of working-class characters, and he listened to them talk.

Talk was his thing — professionally, from theatre to radio to TV. Over time Terkel grew a keen appetite for the lives of others as well as the necessary ability to inspire confidence and intimacy, so that they spoke freely to him about themselves. But what started him off as an oral historian was an enlightened commission from the publisher André Schiffrin, who wanted a book on ordinary Americans to compare with Jan Myrdal’s Report From a Chinese Village, a collection of interviews with Chinese villagers under Chairman Mao. The result was Terkel’s Division Street (1967), a big hit.

A number of books followed, from Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970) and Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974) to the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good War (1984), on American experiences of the Second World War.

It was always ordinary people whose voices he captured, rather than celebrities. Terkel himself is scarcely a presence in these books (although he did write memoirs), and the interviews are presented as continuous narratives, with the questions excised. “I think the gentlest question is the best one,” Terkel is reported to have said, “and the gentlest is, ‘And what happened then?’”

Terkel was no academic. He did not attempt to theorise his subjects or his own role as interviewer. While some reviewers were led therefore to suspect his politics, and call his works exercises in nostalgia (with a little justification), for the ordinary reader they stand as what they are: portraits of moments in recent American history, with innumerable vignettes of astonishing clarity.

The times favoured Terkel — the New Deal in particular. To give employment to writers, the government hired some to go out and record the experiences of, for instance, surviving witnesses to the Civil War and slavery. The Library of Congress started collecting American music and folklore. These institutions laid the grounds for an explosion of postwar professional oral history that has immeasurably enriched Americans’ knowledge of their shared experience.

And what of India? Who is recording the voices of our nation? A few historians have used oral history to recover experiences of Partition and the period before and after. In some cases, they were able to record stories that their sources had never before told, not even to family members. It’s a slow process, but over time such airing will help us understand and make our peace with that great fracture.

On a smaller scale, community histories are being shaped. Hiro Shroff is a well-known journalist who produced Sindhi Jottings (2003), an admittedly nostalgic oral history of pre-Partition Sindh. Earlier he published a collection of columns, Down Memory Lane (1999), which contained anecdotes told him by many important people over the years.

All-India Radio has for years been making recordings of both famous and ordinary Indians, vaguely along the lines of the US Library of Congress. But the work is not well publicised, and much less widely used than such a resource merits. And abroad, some organisations (see HistoryTalking.com, for example) are recording the Indian diaspora experience.

But in our enormous nation there are many unexplored opportunities. If journalist P Sainath’s excellent Everybody Loves a Good Drought (1996) and Aravind Adiga’s recent Booker-winning The White Tiger sold so well, there’s obviously an appetite in the general market for a less mediated view of life in poor and distant parts of our country. Publishers are responding, but very slowly.

Why do we know so little, for instance, about the lives and opinions of tribals, who bear the brunt of evictions and displacements for massive infrastructure or industrial projects? What about marginal groups like the Jews, Africans, Nepalis? Have we heard unmediated Dalit voices? What about railway employees, postal workers, farmers in different parts? Marwari traders, temple priests? Urban slum-dwellers and domestic servants?

Without hearing from these lesser, but no less Indian identities, what can our national identity be but a wobbly untested fiction?

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  1. […] Rrishi Raote remembers Studs Terkel- an edited version of this article has been published in the Business Standard, but I am linking to it nevertheless to introduce an interesting journalist-blogger to Blogbharti readers: The times favoured Terkel — the New Deal in particular. To give employment to writers, the government hired some to go out and record the experiences of, for instance, surviving witnesses to the Civil War and slavery. The Library of Congress started collecting American music and folklore. These institutions laid the grounds for an explosion of postwar professional oral history that has immeasurably enriched Americans’ knowledge of their shared experience. […]


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