The little fires under the family tree

This Land We Call Home', cinematographer Nusrat F. Jafri’s personal history of her nomadic forebears, is as much a precise record of the many transformative events in Indian history.
In 1999, missionary Graham Staines was burnt to death by a Bajrang Dal member along with his two sons
In 1999, missionary Graham Staines was burnt to death by a Bajrang Dal member along with his two sons

The blistering honesty of Nusrat F. Jafri’s This Land We Call Home is comparable to the assured sun of late spring. The book begins in 1870, with the birth of Hardayal Singh—Jafri’s great-grandfather, who belonged to the nomadic Bhantu tribe of Rajasthan. A year later, in 1871, the British enacted the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA), branding various tribes as criminals, in an attempt to obfuscate their lives and cultures. Jafri’s book resurrects histories buried under the timeless violence of caste politics and socio-religious dysfunction. She writes about how her great-grandparents converted to Christianity to break free from the cycle of social stratification. But even as Christianity provided them with the means to educate their daughters and a better standard of living, they continued to struggle to find a sense of belonging in a land that they called home.

As Jafri sweeps through large chapters of Indian history, from colonial exploitation in the 19th century to the rise of the Hindu right in the 1920s and the turbulent events of communal violence during the Partition and Emergency, we access the memories of her ancestors, who bore witness to all these changes. And Jafri records it all with a curious certainty and verve, carefully placing the private and the social together. Various national events coincide and reinforce the domestic and the private lives of Jafri’s ancestors. This is a book with its own life force, alive with the vulnerabilities of its inhabitants.

Jafri also writes about social politics, and caste, and reveals the latter’s wide spread across cultures and religions. Later in life, as her mother accepts Islam as a new avenue for spiritual discovery, we learn how Jafri’s conservative paternal cousins often suggest that she is not a “pure” Muslim. However, the enduring message of the book is not the dismal reality of differences, but rather the promise of unifying intersectionalities. She writes: “Maybe we are conditioned to expect conflict around our social differences but sometimes the world astounds us by highlighting how alike we really are.” Edited excerpts from a conversation with the author:

(L–R) Jafri’s aunts Dorothy, Champa and Hannah at Hardayal’s grave in Biswan, UP
(L–R) Jafri’s aunts Dorothy, Champa and Hannah at Hardayal’s grave in Biswan, UP

What inspired you to write the book?

I’ve always wanted to chronicle the history of my maternal family. Yet, it was the shocking and brutal murder of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his young sons in Orissa in 1999 that affected me deeply. The attacks on Christian missionaries and converts have continued and with each new event, I wanted to understand why conversion is such a layered word in our modern society. Knowing that my maternal great grandparents, who were part of the Bhantu tribe, had converted to Christianity, I yearned for deeper insights into this aspect of my lineage.

The book opens with a family tree. Tell us about the roots, trunk, and branches of marriages and relationships in your family.

Scholars widely acknowledge the Bhantus as one of the original inhabitants of this land. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes evident that our roots run deep, with marriages and natural expansion extending our trunk and branches far and wide. There has been religious conversion to Methodism, Catholicism, Shiism along the way and this expansion not only holds true for our family but has also contributed to the diversity of our nation.

How has your own understanding of and connection to the past developed/enriched during the research process?

During an interview for the book, I had the privilege of speaking with noted Bhantu activist and documentary filmmaker Dakxin Chhara. It was then that I uncovered a Bhantu identity previously unknown to me. The realisation that Bhantus continue to be viewed with suspicion and that development has largely eluded their society fills me with astonishment and a deep sense of humility regarding my own privilege.

What is the nexus between colonialism and caste?

The implementation of the Criminal Tribes Acts from the 1870s not only reinforced existing caste hierarchies but also perpetuated Orientalist stereotypes, such as the concept of hereditary crime. Not all Bhantus engaged in criminal activities, nor did all Nat tribes perform circus-like feats or tricks. These were harmful generalisations.

For example, my own great-grandfather, Hardayal Singh, and his family were nomadic herders and hunter-gatherers. They preserved stories of Bhantu bravery. Nomadic tribes played significant roles in India’s independence movement. They sang dissenting songs and served as vital messengers between revolutionaries. With the imposition of CTA, my ancestors were relegated to camp only on the outskirts of villages and had to report their intentions to local police stations well in advance.

You describe caste as a phoenix in the book.

For converted Christians and converted Muslims, the spectre of caste lingers regardless of how far they believe they have progressed. Even with socio-economic advancement, the stigma and discrimination associated with caste can persist affecting various social interactions, marriage prospects, and access to opportunities.

Nusrat F. Jafri
Nusrat F. Jafri

The book talks at length about Hardayal’s daughters. How have they inspired you?

Hardayal and Kalyani were the pioneering feminists of our family. I attribute my education to their vision of nurturing economically independent daughters, despite the challenges they faced along the way.

The lives of Hardayal’s daughters inspired me greatly. In particular, my great aunt Dorothy. She defied societal expectations and emerged as a fiercely independent woman. She was a nurse in Iraq during the tumultuous period of the Second World War. However, it was my grandmother and Hardayal’s youngest daughter, Prudence, who truly captured my admiration. Despite being a working woman and a homemaker, she dedicated herself to creating a nurturing home environment and ensuring the success of her children.

Your latest short film Pilibhit won the IPTDA Award for the Best Cinematographer 2022 and you were also the DoP for Zakir Khan’s Chacha Vidhayak Hain Humare. How did your training as a cinematographer help you with the writing of the book?

As a cinematographer, years of reading scripts has trained my mind to visualise words as vivid images. The sensory experiences of smell, colour, and other non-tactile emotions all contributed to this creative process. Utilising a narrative voice in the book allowed my cinematographer’s brain to effortlessly imagine childhood scenes.

Kartik Chauhan is a Delhi-based reviewer of literary fiction

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