How I found missing pieces from my mother’s life
I always wondered about the Grandfather I never got to meet; Mummy obviously loved him dearly. He died in an air crash in 1973, leaving my then teenage mother, aunt, and 30-something year old Grandmother in a state of shock — something they understandably never really recovered from. Their world changed very suddenly after that.
We rarely heard stories of him, and growing up my sister and I learned not to bring him up or Mummy would cry. The only photo we saw of him was a framed photo on Mummy’s dresser. I gathered he was handsome, very tall, and doted over his two daughters. I always felt terrible I didn’t know enough about him and hoped some day the mention of him would bring Mummy happy memories so she would maybe talk about him.
Months before Mummy’s 60th birthday, I happened to watch the Bollywood film Neerja — a true story about a valiant Indian air hostess on a hijacked plane, and I was reminded of my Grandfather. It got me to think that I should Google him to see what’s out there beyond information of the air crash. After several combinations of search keywords, I actually got results!!!
I learned that he was mentioned in a book called ‘History of Soybean Crushing’. Say what? My Grandfather was a bigger star than I realized! One page described a photo of him and two other men ‘looking at cans of vanaspati stacked high’. OH MY GOD. I just need to find this photo, give it to Mummy as a birthday gift, and she’ll be so overjoyed! Turns out, finding a photo from 1965, pre-internet, isn’t as simple as one would think.
From scanning every page of the almost 4000 page long book, to trying more combinations of Google search keywords, I spent the next few weeks hitting the same roadblock one after the other. I just could not find this photo! On the plus side, I did find his name in search results related to six Indian Standards that he was on the approving committee for. Maybe I could get official copies of those standards that contain his name? Except — I didn’t know where to start.
A mentor once told me — if you want something, tell everyone you meet about it. When I did, I was told I was trying to do the impossible. My Niagara Falls raised-Fulbright Scholar-PhD in Economics aunt immediately pulled up the Bureau of Indian Standards website, and suggested I find a way to get introduced to the Bureau Members. ‘They’re all IAS officers, your father must know people who could find a connection to them’. I asked my father who said ‘Sorry, all my IAS acquaintances are long retired’.
Roadblock part 2. Seemed like I was getting Mummy another sari for this birthday. :(
A few weeks went by, and the trailer of Lion was playing on TV. I watched it highlight the story of a man who got lost as a boy, and successfully traced his lost hometown using Google Maps over dial up internet. With my high speed internet, I had no excuse to give up on my search. Roadblocks are meant to be broken, right?
I read and re-read the page of the book with my Grandfather’s name. I realized that this book was actually a compilation of various research papers/journals, and identified the name and date of the journal that perhaps contained this photo. Google searches gave me the contact details for the Editor in Chief of the journal and the author of the book. I spent several days randomly calling them and the various members of the Bureau of Indian Standards. When the Editor in Chief finally picked up, he said it would take him too long to go over the archives because they didn’t have digital copies. Meanwhile, members of the Bureau just ping-ponged me from one Department Head to the next, who were invariably out on lunch. Just when I was thinking I was hitting part 3 of the Roadblock Train, the author of the book picked up…
I explained my story, and he said he had digital copies of ALL his research and would email me in 10 minutes!!! I refreshed my inbox incessantly until — after what felt like eons — I got an email with the subject ‘Your Grandfather’. I wept silently, uncontrollably, while the feeling of euphoria swept over me. Attached was the photo I had spent months hunting for… my tall, handsome waist-coated Grandfather stood on the right alongside two other men, looking at cans of vanaspati stacked high.
Me 1; Dead Ends 0.
Suddenly I felt invincible. I decided to Google for the Indian Standards again, this time patiently reading through every inch of the search results. Eureka! I found a way to retrieve the official copy of each standard as a color PDF. It felt like a unicorn literally jumped out of the sky and did a little dance with me.
During this time I had simultaneously tracked down my father’s former schoolmate who incidentally worked for my Grandfather. He emailed me a memory he had of my Grandfather. Two of Mummy’s childhood friends sent their memories as well. These stories told me he loved to Waltz, had a wicked sense of humor, was a beloved boss, and inspired many around him. I bound prints of the journal, the Standards, the memories, and presented it to Mummy as a surprise present for her 60th birthday…
She went through it and while I explained each item it occurred to me that she was learning about the professional side of her father she never got to see.
She wept, this time with joy.