By Roshni Patel
I’m not sure about everyone else, but Zoom is not the only platform that has soared in terms of popularity among all generations of the family. I would argue that the reach of WhatsApp is more powerful than ever right now. Well, maybe only in my family.
A little background. My family is massive. I don’t mean that in the hyperbolic sense either. My grandfather has six brothers and one sister, each with their own children and their children with their own children. Basically, we have four generations almost all living in southern California, which is remarkable in my mind. The ability of my family to have remained in the same region to the point where my friends are my cousins has been nothing short of a miracle and a blessing.
When you are a kid though, you don’t question those kinds of things. Rather, you are inquisitive about personal worldly discoveries like the depth of the ocean and why the sky is blue. It is only when you grow and momentarily sit in silence at a grandparent’s home or more heartbreakingly, sit in silence on the screen of a virtual prayer for a late family member that your genuine and innocent child-like curiosity resurfaces.
“Dad, who is the lady in the top right box?”
“How did she know dada?”
“Ma, what was your favorite memory with ba?”
It’s all too often a scenario in which I am unfamiliar with some of the participants who had love for the individual just as I did, or even more, during a Zoom bhajan, prayer. Following one bhajan, that child-like sweet inquisition manifested as a state of panic and sadness. How much did I really know about Generation’s One and Two? The better question to ask myself was: why do you know so little about every generation before you?
Ashamed at my egocentric perspective on family and mainly the fact that I had taken for granted my friends literally being blood and born directly into my life, I devised a plan to learn my dada’s childhood, his journey to the United States, and everything after being as they were the more recent roots of my existence. Pandemic willing, I visited and still continue to visit when safe to inquire about everything I didn’t know and even what I thought I knew. He always replies with so much excitement consistent throughout all of his incredibly thorough responses. Responses that become stories never failing to exclude even the tiniest detail. Even in this smaller act of the larger interview (stay tuned), I was able to learn about my dada as a man and father and even learned the origin of my mother’s storytelling quirks.
Yet, I still was not satisfied. Yes, the plan was solid, and the interview questions were coming along, but even the stories he told me off-script now only left me with more questions about his brothers and sister, their lives, and all their grandparents and every generation before that in which the oral history remained alive. Here is where WhatsApp comes in. Don’t worry, I did not forget about it or accidentally include that in the introduction. All those years of public American education would never allow it.
A couple weeks ago, my masi created an “All Generations Family” WhatsApp group with about one hundred participants. This of course does not include youth without a cellphone and the elderly using cellphones vicariously through their children and grandchildren. So, we are missing some people in the virtual participant count, but everyone is included I assure you. This group was nothing out of the ordinary with expected announcements, article-sharing, and home remedies for all illnesses. That was until my mama, an avid photographer and videographer, chose to share a black-and-white and sometimes colored photograph of the day from his archives. I’ll be honest, I am often clueless about the subjects in the photographs, but that never diminishes their beauty. Each snapshot is essentially a tailored interview question being answered in the WhatsApp group by those same individuals in the photographs. You cannot get a better primary source or more raw account of events.
Personally, it is one of the best things to come from this move and dependence on technology, as each day bridges gaps in my knowledge of my roots and lessens the blank stares of confusion in a mind-race overtaking my gaze during those Zoom calls or during my dada’s narratives. Though I am slightly yet lightheartedly bitter for not thinking of it myself, these daily photographs revitalized the union and closeness of my family. It catalyzed the return of that same intimacy I took for granted and only realized was inherent in my soul when the pandemic stripped us of any interaction, as even a verbal greeting would create permanent loss.
Albeit this is no profound thought on my end, I am eager to share this new ritual of my family. You may not have the scale of hearts and souls we have, but the stories of your roots are no less valuable in understanding yourself and should not risk being lost in time. I figure if everyone is always taking photographs anyway, let’s look at them more often, beginning with the firsts in the history of you.