“I know almost nothing about her - so I measure the strength and fragility of my grandmother’s life by the markers of our history that she outlived. Colonialism, independence, nationalism, civil war, peace and the illusion of progress…Her memory was long and in the end completely erased.”
This text accompanies a black-and-white portrait of an elderly woman. The image and the caption were submitted by her grandson to an Instagram page— Brown History. In this tale, we do not know the names of the grandmother or the grandson. We know very little about this woman who lived in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, a few years ago.
The grandson, while talking about his grandmother says, he remembers “how at night her eyes shone like hessonite gems at arm’s length of a kerosene lamp.”
And so, we can summon the image of a young boy looking at his grandmother in a small town in Sri Lanka during the ‘80s, seeking comfort in her gaze amid a civil war.
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This is just one of the hundreds of posts available on Brown History—a project, initiated by Montreal-based electrical engineer, Ahsun Zafar. Brown History aims to let the ‘Vanquished’ retell South Asian history.
And if you’re wondering how can an Instagram page embark on such a massive journey, all you have to do is scroll through the page.
Right from Muhammad Ali’s visit to India, to someone recounting how their parents met in pre-partition Punjab, to the racism that one experienced as a first-generation immigrant in the US, Brown History addresses a wide range of issues.
The page documents history in a very unconventional manner— it relies on stories submitted through the internet. And by this, Ahsun aims to let the ‘losers’ narrate South Asian history.
“Winston Churchill once said, ‘history is written by the victors but with Brown History, it’s written by the people who lost. We have all grown up reading textbooks written by people who won the war, people who wrote stories which they wanted to narrate, to make them look good. And Brown History attempts to change that. It gives people a platform to submit their stories, in a way by which they are acknowledged,” says Ahsun.
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But it’s no small task to “retell” South Asian history, when the region has been wrought with war, violence, enmity and division. However, Ahsun feels that’s precisely why his project is important. “These stories allow people to see each other as human beings and not as statistics. There’s so much division in South Asia, which has arisen due to the fear of the other. We are all afraid of the unknown. And the only way to get rid of this fear, is to get to know the people, you are afraid of,” he says.
The project materialised in 2017 with Ahsun wanting to learn more about his history.
“As I diaspora kid, living in Canada, I wanted to know more about my roots. Brown History is essentially a conversation I am having with myself, where everybody else is listening in as well,” he says.
And when asked if his project is an example of the Empire fighting back, Ahsun says his page does that unintentionally and automatically.
“It wasn’t really about fighting back. When you tell your story and your truth or what you think is the truth, you are automatically fighting a power that tells you the opposite story. So, it is just being you, in a world that’s constantly telling you who you are and what you should do,” Ahsun says.
Certain posts on the page, give the viewer a sense of déjà vu.
For instance, a post that has a picture published in The New Yorker in 1987 shows a group of people holding placards that read “Hudson Against Racism”. The caption further elaborates on the anti-racism movement prevalent in New Jersey at the time, something that emerged as a response to hate crimes against South Asians. The post makes one immediately draw parallels between the anti-racism movement then and the Black Lives Matter movement, now.
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When asked about this, Ahsun says, “History does repeat itself and if it does not repeat it definitely rhymes. There’s always some new power that comes to be and it does whatever it can to maintain that power. Those who are not aware of the past fall into a trap and they just repeat the cycle. But if everybody understood the past and how communities that are in power oppress minorities, they would know better and that’s why history is important.”
But it is not easy to always demarcate documentation and activism and in fact many would say it’s wrong to mix the two. And with a project like Brown History, the lines blur. However, Ahsun believes there’s nothing wrong in it. “I try to stay neutral but if I am quiet and silent to injustice then I have automatically chosen the oppressor’s side. And I cannot do that. I want no part in someone’s oppression,” he says.
But neutrality brings with it another set of problems, that of representation and portrayal. And when working with a group as diverse and conflicted as South Asians, criticism and allegations of bias are sure to rear their ugly head. And Ahsun admits that it’s becoming more difficult, with every passing day.
“No matter what, you are going to piss off people. If I post something about Hindus, then Muslims attack me and vice versa. If I post about the treatment of Shias in Pakistan, then the rest of Pakistan will hate on me and say that I am making Pakistan look bad. But if you are a Shia Or Ahmadi Muslim, then the Pakistan that you live in, is very different compared to the Pakistan that an upper-class, Sunni Muslim lives in. But I Don’t let the negativity get to me, I accept stories from everyone and do not discriminate,” says Ahsun.
Further elaborating on this, he says that while history is complicated, each person/group is probably a victim in its own way and we all should “have the right to have our pain acknowledged”.
Brown History began as a personal project and within three years it has gained more than 500K followers. And Ahsun has been overwhelmed with all the love and support he has received during this time.
“For every person, who abuses me, there are 10 others extending encouragement and support and that’s what keeps me going,” he says.
And now, the Montreal-based electrical engineer hopes to compile all that he has documented in the form of a book in the near future.