Stamp by India Post, Government of India via Wikimedia Commons

Writing a Life

Chitralekha Zutshi

For historians, writing biographies can be challenging. We are trained to think in terms of broader social and political processes, not individual lives. But while writing the life story of the Kashmiri political leader Sheikh Abdullah, I came to recognize how valuable such a narrative can be in terms of interpreting and understanding local events as well as wider regional, even global ideologies and processes. For figures whose legacies are deeply contested in the present, untangling their thought processes and resultant actions from the simplistic labels assigned to them is part of the challenge. One must also untangle their own attempts to shape and reshape their images to get a glimpse into their character, politics, and worldviews.

Biographers are always concerned with their sources. They may face one of two scenarios: one in which the subject has left behind a large corpus of writing or not very much at all. Both scenarios pose their own issues. In the former case, it becomes difficult to extricate oneself from the individual’s views and runs the risk of a one-sided biography told from the perspective of its subject alone. In the latter case, it becomes difficult to access the thoughts and ideas of the individual, leaving the historian to cast a wider net and to bring in associates, critics, relations, friends, enemies, and other interlocutors into the picture. In both cases, the individual in question and those around them become part of the larger tapestry of a life. After all, we all exist as members of families, faith and national communities, as well as countries.    

Accessing the sources provides yet another challenge. More fortunate biographers have only to visit one or two libraries or an archive that houses a collection of their subject’s neatly catalogued papers. But the less fortunate must visit multiple sites scattered across different countries and continents to access fragments that are then stitched together (thus turning them into adventurous scavengers). These sites are not just formal institutions such as libraries and archives, but also people’s homes where private collections are preserved and maintained. While the former requires the navigation of several bureaucratic hoops before one is allowed access to the documents—such as when I filed a Right to Information request in India to gain access to a set of documents—the latter requires delicate maneuvering that is sensitive to and respects the feelings of the individual or family to whom the documents belong. This becomes especially important if the documents in question are divided among the descendants of the subject of the biography or involve a family member (usually parent or grandparent) who was directly connected to the subject of the biography. Often, the biographer has to turn away disappointed at being denied access to family documents.   

Oral histories form an important source for a biographer, especially if they are narrating the life of an individual who lived in the not-too-distant past. Besides the formal interview that this entails, simply listening to people speak of their impressions of the subject and their times adds critical texture that ultimately informs the larger work. I have come to appreciate the act of listening as an important part of my work as a historian. Thus, in cases where I was denied access to a private collection or turned down for a request for a formal interview, I still learned a great deal about the rich web of relationships that form a life by listening to the reasons for the denial. The oral histories themselves that I found most useful were with ordinary men and women who told stories and recounted their memories of the subject, giving new meaning to Abdullah’s public life and his impact on a range of people.

Bringing together these disparate sources—press reports, letters, poetry, folk songs, interviews, informal conversations, government documents, photographs, and his own autobiography and other writings—to draw the contours of Adullah’s life and then filling them in was a delicate task. As the narrator of a life, one must make numerous choices regarding how to contextualize the individual and their actions without becoming their mouthpiece in the present and which events and people in the subject’s life to include. At all times, one has to remember to center the subject so that they can act as a prism through which larger themes and ideas—such as, secularism, federalism, and socialism—become more comprehensible for readers. Ultimately, if narrated with the right mix of involvement and detachment, biography can become a powerful form of historical writing.           

Chitralekha Zutshi is Class of 1962 Professor of History at William & Mary. She is the author of multiple books, including Kashmir’s Contested Pasts, which received Honorable Mention for the Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy Book Prize. She lives in Williamsburg, VA.

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