In Situ: Unearthing Family Histories and Reconciling the Gaps in Our Records

Finding traces of a grandfather’s life in the archives of an empire

In my twenties, I spent a lot of time playing with dirt. As a geotechnical engineer, I alternated between days behind a drill rig and days behind a desk. In the field, I logged soil samples as they were extracted from the depths to the surface, and recorded what was retrieved. I rubbed soil between my fingers to ascertain the fineness of the sand and the plasticity of the clay. This knowledge I brought back to my desk. I was interested in soil behavior and how the earth responded to human and natural pressures.

I remember that one day while I was studying for an exam in graduate school, a PhD student sitting next to me on the bus from Oakland to Berkeley inquired about the diagrams of clay consolidation in my text. I don’t usually talk to people on public transit, but I engaged on this bus ride. I told the guy about clays—how when subject to loading they consolidate, or compress, as the water in the pore space between particles gets squeezed out. But what excited me most about clays was their memories.

“They are like elephants,” I said to him. They carry with them the history of their previous stresses. Engineers call it “overburden”—the vertical pressure on a soil from the weight of the earth above it. How a clayey soil behaves is linked to its history, and how much it compresses is linked to this memory.

At this time in my life, while I was gaining a deeper appreciation for the earth’s history, I wasn’t paying much attention to my own. As a first-generation American—my parents are from India; I was born in the United States—I was always pushing forward, adapting to new situations, carrying the past with me, but not stopping to open it up. But perhaps, like clays, we carry our histories embedded in us. We are affected by those who came before us, whether we know it or not.

I had always known that my paternal grandfather was a civil engineer who worked in Burma for the British before quitting to join the Freedom Movement in India. He gave up all his wealth, traded in his engineering post for a divining rod, and went village to village developing wells in rural Tamil Nadu for those who had previously been denied access to water. He moved his family to a small village called Kallakurichi, where my father, the youngest of thirteen children, was born. My grandfather died when my father was just sixteen years old.

These bits of family lore accumulated like silt behind a dam. It wouldn’t be long before a breach would happen, removing that barrier between the past and present.

At the time of these field assignments in my twenties, I was also yearning to trade my comfortable engineering life for something radically different. I put in for a leave of absence to volunteer at a wildlife sanctuary in Cameroon, wanting to be a surrogate mother to orphaned baby chimpanzees. But it was my engineering background that caught the sanctuary’s interest. At that time, they had to travel twenty miles to the nearest tap to fill up on water. They had unsuccessfully drilled two wells. They asked me from thousands of miles away, “Where is the water table?” I wasn’t thinking about my grandfather at this time—how what this sanctuary was really asking for was a water diviner, or dowser, like my grandfather. His engineering skills were also his entry into social activism— part of a newfound Gandhian worldview that linked sanitation with social justice.

In 2003, one year after my trip to Cameroon, my mother called me from the hospital, and I rushed over. When I arrived, my father was sedated and couldn’t talk. They were preparing for a dialysis procedure in the morning and waiting for his vitals to stabilize.

I didn’t know what to say, so I opted for Tennyson: “And out again I curve and flow / To join the brimming river; / For men may come and men may go, / But I go on for ever.” My father and his siblings were homeschooled in Kallakurichi. They learned Sanskrit and English in addition to speaking Tamil at home. Each day, they would copy a page of the dictionary by hand, and they memorized Shakespeare, Tennyson, Goldsmith, and others. My father had given me his beat-up copy of Memory Work and Appreciation, a collection of poems that I could also “by-heart.” His father had given it to him; this book of British verse was the only physical artifact passed on between our three generations.

As a child, I found it curious that that my grandfather, who, after all, had quit the British in Burma to join the freedom struggle in India, would make his children memorize the oppressor’s literature. I later realized that relationships are complicated and noncooperation didn’t apply to poetry. I recited those lines to my father on his deathbed, only I didn’t know he was going to die, and I don’t know if he heard me.

Grief weighed on me like overburden. I was filled with loss—not only the loss of my father, but also of all the things I didn’t know about his past, which suddenly felt so relevant as I was figuring out how to move forward with my own life. I needed to better understand where I came from, learn more about my father’s childhood, which was intimately tied to who my grandfather was.

I wanted to know more about my grandfather’s time in Burma before moving back to southern India. How did he connect his professional life with his personal politics, his engineering with his activism? What did it mean to raise a family at the time he did, and how did the decisions he made connect to the larger struggle that was occurring in the country?

I began probing my family history, approaching this mission like one of my field assignments. I gathered tidbits of stories about their childhood in Kallakurichi from my father’s remaining siblings. They told me about the ashram my grandfather built there, where his thirteen children shared the chores equally. Where there were no doors or rooms, just common spaces—an experiment in trust. Where each child’s small pile of homespun clothes fit on one shelf. Where my grandfather—M. S. Narayanan, known to his grandchildren as Thatha—wearing nothing but a white cotton loincloth he made himself, made oil by crushing sesame seeds in his own hands.

As an engineer, I drew conclusions based on what I knew; if I didn’t know enough, I could draw only weak conclusions. What I didn’t know about my family still exceeded what I knew. Relatives’ stories didn’t quite match. Dates were fuzzy. Letters were lost. Searches came up empty.

I recall sharing my frustrations with my writing professor, Louise DeSalvo, who encouraged me to write about my process—how not getting the story was part of my story, too. Another writing mentor, Minal Hajratwala, also reminded me that the loss of memories, the erasure of our histories, is part of the narrative of many of us children of the diaspora.

I knew I’d never be able to fill in all the gaps, but I believed there was more I could learn. Surely I had writerly tools I could use to understand the silences in my records and to honor my story and the craft while working with the unknowns.

Engineering, hydrology, and geology were languages my grandfather and I shared. I thought if I could find records of his public works projects, engineering drawings—anything—I would be able to better understand him.

I didn’t know the exact dates my grandfather was in Burma, the details of the projects he worked on, or exactly where he had been posted. I sent numerous queries to historians and scholars, who marveled at my questions about Burmese infrastructure but had no information. They all thought my best bet would be the India Office Records at the British Library.

When I arrived at the British Library in London in 2013, I found the vastness of the collections housed there—the legacy of colonialism—both impressive and unsettling. Would I be able to find any record of my grandfather in a place like this? How does one even begin navigating the archives of an empire?

I knew that my aunt and uncle were born in the southeastern city of Tavoy when my grandfather was stationed at a lighthouse there, so my first requests were for two reports about lighthouses in Burma. But I was met with disappointment; the librarian explained these reports were “missing.” So much was lost or destroyed in Burma during World War II.

I then pored through volumes of the Civil Yearly lists, which recorded civil servants in Burma. I combed through page after page of the Public Works Department, until finally I saw the words Manakkal Sundaralingam Narayanan. M.S. Narayanan. I had found him! Class II Assistant Engineer. The civil yearly lists were formatted in spreadsheet fashion: Name, Date of Appointment to Department, Date of Promotion to Present Grade, Station, Remarks. The 1932-1933 files told me this: Manakkal Sundaralingam Narayanan B.E. M.E. (h.), (b.) was appointed to the service on October 31, 1919; promoted to his present grade on February 1, 1921; and stationed in Tavoy, (South Subdn, Tavoy Dn.). The handy list of abbreviations at the front of these records explained that my grandfather had a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in engineering and passed an examination in Hindustani and Burmese, but at a lower standard than if he had a capital H and B next to his name.

I couldn’t fully explain how elated I was to discover the row carrying these briefest of details of my grandfather’s service. For the next few days, I combed through every year in the file, tracing my grandfather’s service and populating my own spreadsheet, which eventually would become a detailed timeline and map tracking where my grandfather was posted, to what division, and how much he earned from 1919 to 1934. (It also documented the shocking pay disparity between European engineers and Asian engineers.)

There is truth to the adage that if you want to know what is going on in a place, you should follow the money. I cross-referenced the dates and places in my spreadsheet against the annual public works budget for each region to discover the range of projects my grandfather could have worked on while stationed there, and then I tried to cross-reference that information with family accounts of my grandfather’s work on roads, bridges, and lighthouses.

Equally interesting was what was not contained in the records. I learned that from July 1929 through August 1930, my grandfather took a thirteen-month leave of absence. What did he do? Where did he go?

My father had told me that meeting Gandhi in Burma had inspired my grandfather to quit the British, give up his worldly possessions, and move to India to join the Freedom Movement. Gandhi visited Burma in March of 1929. At that time, my grandfather’s record said he was stationed “On Foreign Service under the Governing Body of the University College, Rangoon.” Did he hear Gandhi speak at the university? Was my grandfather’s leave of absence inspired by Gandhi’s visit?

Following his leave, my grandfather returned to his post and worked a few more years. The abbreviation PR (Permitted to Resign) appears next to his name on the yearly civil list in 1934. What did his resignation letter say? Where was this document that signified his shift from engineer to activist, from civil servant to freedom fighter? Alas, that’s not in the records.

What I retrieved at the British Library was a gift, a chronology. It was more than I ever knew about my grandfather, though I also know that a life cannot be reduced to a single spreadsheet. And there are countless others, like my grandmother and my aunts and uncles and the Burmese people with whom they lived side by side, whose existences are undocumented in these records.

I tried to get a better understanding of this time through other books and records set in the 1920s and ’30s in Burma. I learned that my grandfather was stationed in Katha at the same time as a young British police officer named Eric Blair, who later penned a book about these experiences called Burmese Days, under the name George Orwell. Burmese Days is unsparing in its depiction of racism at this time and how the British viewed the Asians. I wondered about my grandfather’s own experiences with discrimination while working for the British.

I read Emma Larkin’s book Finding George Orwell in Burma, in which she contends it was Blair’s experiences there that led him to quit his civil service post with the British in Burma to become Orwell, the writer of conscience whom we know today. In a similar manner, I realized, I was examining my grandfather’s time in Burma to try to discover what had forced him over the edge and inspired him to quit and become a satyagrahi and join Gandhi’s nonviolent movement for social change focused on a commitment to truth.

I retrieved transcripts of Gandhi’s speeches from his 1929 tour of Burma. He gave several speeches in Rangoon, where my grandfather had been stationed, and I tried to determine what it was at these meetings that inspired my grandfather to quit.

The purpose of Gandhi’s visit was largely to raise funds for the poor and to promote one of his key initiatives, the adoption of homespun cotton, or khadi, and the boycott of foreign cloth as a path to self-reliance and Indian Independence. In his speeches, Gandhi acknowledged that some talked “light-heartedly” about his views of the spinning wheel and khadi: “I know there are still many who laugh at this little wheel and regard this particular activity of mine as an aberration.” But he encouraged his listeners to study more deeply “the immense bearing of the spinning” not only upon their own lives, but upon those of “the starving millions of India” as well.

In another public meeting in 1929 in Rangoon, Gandhi told the audience, “If you import foreign cloth you deny yourselves the privilege and duty of working with your hands and preparing your own cloth. This is like cutting off both your hands.”

I thought of my father and his siblings in Kallakurichi, with their homemade cotton clothes and mattresses. Their hands were never idle.


Finally, during the 2013 monsson season, I visited Burma. It struck me that monsoons are caused by a shift in wind, and I had come to continue my search of the moments that led to my grandfather’s radical shift from engineer to water diviner. How does one divine the diviner?

“The map of Burma is shaped like a kite,” a water engineer and activist in Burma explained to me. I had traveled to the north, near the tip of the kite, to the confluence of two rivers, which join and form the Irrawaddy, the lifeline of Burma. My grandfather had been stationed north in a town called Mytkyina, “near the big river.” I collected rounded alluvial stones from this riverbed and cupped the river water in my hands.

In the middle of the country, I rode a bicycle around Toungoo, where my grandfather was first stationed in 1919, working on the renewal of road bridges.

In Rangoon, I visited the university where he was stationed and 42nd Street near the Rangoon River, where my uncle told me my grandparents once lived.

And in Tavoy (now known as Dawei), near the tail of the kite, I searched for a lighthouse—my grandfather’s last posting before quitting the British. The lighthouse was not in the town of Tavoy itself, but on a small island called Reef Island, where the Tavoy River meets the Andaman Sea, about fifty-five miles south of town. I had help finding it from the website of a university professor in the United States, who is also a lighthouse enthusiast. He posted a Google satellite view of the island and the tiny white speck which was the lighthouse. By showing the reception staff at the hotel where I was staying a screen capture of the map on my phone and pointing to the island, I was able to hire a car to drive me to a small village a few miles inland from the lighthouse island. I wasn’t sure if there would be a boat to take me to the island or whether I’d be granted access to the island, but when I arrived at the village, the village school’s headmaster greeted us and told me his brother had a boat and could take me to the island. As we sailed around the island, we spotted a small metal shack and saw figures on the shore. It was the lighthouse keeper, his wife, and their dog. Though unaccustomed to visitors (I was their first!), they welcomed me on the island and guided me along a steep hike on the wooded and snake-infested trail to the lighthouse where my grandfather was once stationed. It was a white square masonry tower with a rounded lantern top. The structure was a bit dilapidated, but every night at 6 PM, it still flashes and lights the way. Adjacent to the lighthouse were abandoned living quarters, perhaps where my grandparents lived, which were now overrun with monkeys—long-tailed macaques—who had evicted the humans. Much of the island seemed untouched since the time of the British. Before seeing it, I hadn’t realized how remote and isolating this post was, and I wondered how my grandparents and my aunts and uncles got to the island. How did my grandmother give birth to a set of twins here?

I took deep breaths and looked out at the river and sea. What did Thatha see, on watch? Ships leaving the country, taking out its forests and resources for the benefit of an empire? I stood from this lighthouse, peering at my grandfather’s last view as a civil servant for the British.


I look back now at my quests over the past decade, and I can see that, just as if I had been on an engineering field assignment, I was unearthing stories, connecting the past and the present by rubbing the dirt between my fingers. I wanted to know what it was like in situ. How did my family respond to human and natural pressures? 

When I returned home from London and Burma, I began assembling these fragments of information, retrieved from various times and places, as one would create a geologic cross-section. I thought about how much more of this cross-section had been filled in, over the years, and about the decrease in the number of gaps, which I was now able to view as information, too. As I headed back to my desk, I could finally picture the book—a story with both knowns and unknowns.

About the Author

Sangamithra Iyer

Sangamithra Iyer is the author of The Lines We Draw (Hen Press 2014). Her writing has been published by n+1, Hippocampus, Waging Nonviolence, and others. She is the editor of a special 2015 anniversary edition of Satya magazine.

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