The Mumbai-based cinematographer-author talks about her memoir that traces the lineage of her family and the history of a nation across 100 years

In Nusrat F. Jafri’s memoir, This Land We Call Home: The Story of a Family, Caste, Conversions and Modern India (Penguin Random House), home is ever-present and transient. It is a plot of land and the map of a country; it is a physical entity and an imagined space. Home is a reality imbued with the brevity of a dream and a destination shaped with the restive impulse of a journey. Home is an answer to prayers, and it is also a query: in an ever-transforming world, is there anything called home?

In her fascinating book, the Mumbai-based cinematographer tracks the lineage of her family and the history of a nation; both narratives unfold together. It opens with Jafri’s great grandparents in colonial India, who were Bhantus, nomadic outcastes, considered criminals under the British Raj’s Criminal Tribes Act between l87l and I947. They converted to Christianity to escape the otherisation they faced by the Hindus. Using them as a starting point, Jafri assembles the tale of her family across 100 years with attention and care, outlining the varied ways in which people close to her maneuvered corners of identities. For instance, her mother married a Muslim man, and Jafri married a Hindu man. And yet, they are all part of one family and India.

It is riveting for how delicately her words upend the dominant political narrative that links purity of lineage to an idea of home. She chronicles a set of people and the birth of a country, both of which are so complex and varied that they resist easy summation, evoking a defining conclusion: home can be many things but not someone else’s decision. Jafri spoke to The Federal about her memoir, the way she went about with the research and if her relationship with the past altered as she reckoned it with in the present. Excerpts.

In This Land We Call Home, you express gratitude to your mother for letting you write this book. Given that you lived with the story, and also lived inside it, when did the idea to write the book occur to you?

This Land We Call Home primarily tells the story of my maternal family, with my mother being its most significant contributor. She shared deeply personal experiences with me during the writing process. Some parts of her childhood were difficult for her to revisit, which is why I feel especially grateful to her for this book. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to tell the story of my nomadic ancestors. Their struggles and journey have always intrigued me. Additionally, India’s reactionary response to religious conversions among its largely free-thinking adult population, and the negative connotations attached to the word ‘conversion’ itself, further motivated me to narrate this story. Major political movements like the anti-CAA and NRC protests, the unjust incarceration of political thinkers, and the incessant attacks on the religious places of Indian minorities, particularly the Christian community, made writing This Land We Call Home an urgent process for me.

The book tracks an expansive story, across space and time. It starts with your great grandparents and concludes with a mention of your son. A lot of it feels like documenting oral history gathered from your family members. How did you go about the research and were there instances of self-censorship because you were writing about people you love. I ask this because I found it fascinating that you included how Kaali, one of the sisters of your grandmother, had feelings for John Wilson, your maternal grandfather.

There is a fair amount of research material on Bhantu tribes available in the form of dissertations and documentation by British researchers and writers. Most of it is, of course, written through an orientalist lens. Fortunately, I still have family members who can recount some of the oral history accounts to add to the research. I won’t deny that self-censorship often arises when narrating stories about people close to us. Interestingly, the detail you mentioned about Kali, Prudence, and John is something I recall from my teenage years. It was never particularly salacious, but it was always known to us as a unique dynamic between the sisters. However, other anecdotes surfaced during my research that I chose to omit. My goal was to tell the story honestly but also honourably.

One of the more unsettling and reassuring things about the book is its foundational idea which insists that our preoccupation and pride in lineage is futile because the past is so varied and complex. While doing research or writing the book, was there any point where you confronted or reconciled with something in the past?

That’s a wonderful observation, and I agree that our preoccupation and pride in lineage are ultimately futile. Personally, I didn’t have a specific moment of reconciliation or confrontation with the past. However, I was continually surprised by the intense intersectionality of caste and caste movements. For instance, I had always heard the term Bhantu-Rajputs, and realizing that it represents a complex process, including intricate and organic movements within and outside the caste through something called Rajputisation, was fascinating to me. I think many in my extended family would also find this intriguing.

Your book is a memoir of a family. What I found most interesting is the way you referred to your parents (Meera and Abid Jafri), grandmother (Prudence), great grandmother (Kalyani) with their first names, thereby establishing a distance, and sneaking in terms of endearment. As a reader, it came across as an interplay of objectivity and subjectivity that the author might have grappled with while writing about people who are close to her. Will that be true?

Absolutely true. Early on in the writing process, I intended to maintain a certain distance from the main characters of the book. It was a strategic decision. However, I also wanted to conclude each chapter by stepping in as the granddaughter or daughter, sharing my own thoughts on the events. I wanted to reflect on how these events affected me or how I perceived they influenced and shaped the history that was at once familiar and revelatory to me. This process culminated smoothly in part three of the book, with most of the narration delivered through a first-person account. That approach made sense to me as we spanned decades to cover an almost 100-year history of the family and the nation.

In your book, religion plays a central role as it tracks the repression it espouses. For instance, your great grandparents, who were Bhantus, had converted to Christianity because they were otherised by the Hindus. And later, when your mother decided to marry a Muslim man, you write how your great aunts were not in favour of it. While writing the book in a time as volatile as now, did your relationship with religion transform in any way?

I was always conscious of the era in which this book was being written, particularly regarding the role of religion in politics and its influence on the socio-political environment in India. Religion plays a central role in the book, especially in part three, where I explore its influence and relationship with me. While I wouldn’t say my personal relationship with religion was transformed during the writing of this book, I have included several instances where it directly influenced my life.

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