By: Hunza Chaudhary
Illustration By: Jason Logan
The practice of intergenerational storytelling is ingrained in my culture. To this day, my mother shows me personal belongings and tells me stories of her youth. When I physically hold pieces of her past, my imagination pays tribute to all the lives she has lived.
Being a part of the South Asian diaspora community means I’m paving my own way in discovering my identity but also that I’m living between a binary of cultures.
I thought one of the best ways to learn more about my ancestry would be to visit museums. So, why did I feel so disconnected from the abundant knowledge on display when I walked through the South Asian gallery at The British Museum in London, England?
I’ve thought long and hard about the way I felt that day late last year. The irony of being out of touch with my own country’s history and having my colonizers explain it to me was not lost on me.
I walked aimlessly through the museum, staring at decor, rugs, jewellery and items of clothing dating from generations past, taken from those who survived the partition of India and Pakistan 75 years ago. It felt surreal; I was surrounded by history, with plaques on walls defining the contents of display cases, and yet I gained no real knowledge. I was surrounded by people’s personal belongings without even a glimpse of what their lives looked like.
To me, these personal items on display in such a public setting were an oxymoron. They sat in a fancy big room, locked away where no one could touch them. They told the story of the times, but they didn’t tell the story of their owners. Who were they? What were their lives like?
I yearned to learn more about the owners of certain items. Were these heirlooms that their mothers had also showed them while telling stories of the past? Could any of these items have been owned by my ancestors? What was the point of preserving all these cultural artifacts without preserving their stories?
Although museums can be a great place to learn, I’ve realized they carry a lot more questions than answers for me. Perhaps this feeling in my gut is rooted in the existential diaspora dread that I hold because of my conflicting identity.
I left that museum questioning how I would want to be remembered in 200 years. I might not have the answer, but I know I will continue to preserve my culture’s storytelling tradition in any way possible so that many years down the line, when there’s a young woman thinking about her Pakistani-Canadian ancestors, she will find the answers she seeks.