It is no secret that social media has changed how we learn, communicate and self-identify. The internet has therefore become a fertile ground for ideas about the past, present and future to crystallise and spread. For better or worse, many old, analog myths of historical storytelling no longer resonate amongst a globalising population armed with a smartphone. New communities are gathering online to rewrite the script. Silence is breaking.
Spurred by this evolution, over the last five years, a collective awakening has occurred amongst people with South Asian heritage. The 70th and 75th anniversaries of the bloody Partition of India in August 2017 and August 2022, respectively, have sandwiched a shift. The eldest generation who experienced Partition firsthand in 1947 – when India was carved up by the retreating British establishment to create West Pakistan and East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) – are ageing, forgetting and, at worst, passing away, often taking their unspoken, personal tales about a barely-documented period of history with them.
Sons, daughters and grandchildren are asking questions and sharing answers. Meanwhile, technological innovation has allowed the elderly to watch or listen to documentaries or dramas that depict their memories on demand, and video call their relatives in other continents, all from the warm comfort of their armchairs. Friends and families once violently separated by a border are sharing recipes, photos of lost ancestral farmlands and inherited gossip on WhatsApp and Facebook groups. A steady supply of journalism, literature and educational initiatives on the suppressed legacies of empire, energised by louder calls to decolonise public space and school curricula since the summer of 2020, grows every month. As cementing divisions between South Asia’s religious communities play out across the world, these progressive efforts to learn about and from the past reflect a ray of hope.
Contributing towards this explosion – arguably embodying it – is Ahsun Zafar, an engineer based in Toronto, Canada. In September 2017, Zafar set-up an Instagram page documenting his own journey of self-discovery about his family’s roots. Brown History soon gained a keen audience from others taking inspiration from his efforts. The page now boasts over 600,000 followers and has solidified into a reputable public photo book, educational platform and archive of postcolonial storytelling. Alongside daily posts on Instagram, Zafar now edits a regular newsletter, publishing submissions from his followers across the globe, runs a shop selling merchandise, and hosts his own podcast of interviews with authors and thinkers. Here, I caught up with him about the journey so far.
Ciaran Thapar: Hi Ahsun. How did Brown History start?
Ahsun Zafar: I wish I could say that I’m a genius and I planned all of this, but really, I was turning 30 and I just wanted to learn more about my place in the world. So I started to read more books about my roots. Then I started an Instagram account, and I would post whatever I learned that day. It was really a conversation with myself, but it started to attract followers … soon I was getting messages from people thanking me, and saying stuff like, ‘I’ve just had my child, and I don’t know what to teach them about my history, so your page is helping a lot’, or ‘my dad is really old and I don’t know what to talk to him about, and I visit your posts as a conversation starter every day, and this is helping us to bond.’ It got emotional, which made me want to keep going.
CT: But you soon started publishing other people’s stories, too. How did that start?
AZ: One day I woke up and the page had grown by, like, 15k followers, and I realised that Riz Ahmed had done a shout out. I would post twice a day for different audiences: one audience awake and another sleeping. Then I started to get messages saying, ‘Hey, why don’t you talk about my people?’ or ‘hey, I’m from this minority group in this area, and we speak these languages, why don’t you talk about us?’ I had to explain that I am just one guy, I can’t do every story justice! So I started to reply, ‘Why don’t you tell me your story? Your parents’ story?’ And I would get submissions from people about how their parents met, or how their grandparents survived Partition. It went from a page to a community. I think it’s one of the only pages in the world where you have all of South Asia coming to one place, from different sides of the border in India and Pakistan, reading history. Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, all being part of the same conversations. That’s one reason I think Brown History is so special.
CT: Your first post was in September 2017, within weeks of the 70th anniversary of Partition. Why was this such an important milestone?
AZ: If you read [the work of comparative mythologist] Joseph Campbell, the ‘hero’s journey’ might begin, but the hero doesn’t become a hero until he realises who he is, and where he comes from. When he learns, that’s when he becomes a superhero. In all our lives, individually, we don’t properly start our journeys until we know where we are coming from. Everyone comes to that at some point. 70 years after Partition, I think the global South Asian community reached a stage where we’re trying to figure out where we came from.
CT: Why do you think this history needs filling in?
AZ: When my parents settled in Canada, they were busy with survival. They didn’t care about much else. But growing up, I was trying to establish myself. Now we’re established, we’re making money, we get how the world works. So we’re wondering, what’s next? There has to be more to life. We’re asking questions. We’re above water, finally, demanding more.
CT: Many family stories are inherited through living room conversations, but not much is written down.
AZ: Exactly, but we have a voice on the internet now. There are more South Asians speaking up. I think now that we’ve established ourselves, wherever we are in the world, we’re watching British and American TV and starting to question parts of history, what stories we’re being told. We’ve realised something is off. It’s made people seek more knowledge and information.
CT: What is the main thing you’ve learned from running Brown History?
AZ: We get our history from broken conversations that we hear. But that also goes with our parents’ and grandparents’ histories. We only see bits and pieces. Then we watch a Bollywood movie that is conservative and one-dimensional, and it’s easy to place that movie into our parents’ history to make sense of it. But learning history properly allows you to humanise your elders. There has always been dancing and dating, and people having crushes and dreams, and being rebellious, too. So now I see my parents and grandparents in a different light: as complex, flawed people trying to make things work. One of the most viral photos that I’ve shared was, on the face of it, a classic mommy-meets-daddy story. But the photo was of this couple about to kiss. And for some reason, just because of this photo, a black-and-white 1940s photo of this husband about to kiss his wife … it really blew up! If we saw a photo of a white couple about to kiss, we wouldn’t care, but because they are brown, it breaks our rigid image of the past. It wakes us up.
“Learning history properly allows you to humanise your elders. There has always been dancing and dating, and people having crushes and dreams, and being rebellious, too” – Ahsun Zafar
CT: Tell me about another noteworthy Instagram post you’ve shared.
AZ: In one story, there is this beautiful woman who is married to this guy who was abusive, and she was stuck in their house. So in a moment of rebellion she sneaks out, goes to a photography studio wearing her best-looking dress and takes a photo of herself. Her son sent it to me. Then he sent me a second story later on, a passport photo, where his mum left her marriage behind. So the two photos and their stories became a series. These stories show you how fragile life is. Sometimes there is no lesson or meaning. Bad things can happen anytime. It reminds you to appreciate what you have.
CT: How do you choose story submissions?
AZ: I try not to touch people’s stories. I fix spelling mistakes, or if it’s too long I work with them to focus on one part. So I guide them, but I wouldn’t write it for them, unless they can’t speak English. It’s their words, it’s their point of view … it makes the history a bit more personal and touchable. When we read about Partition, we are used to facts and figures and data, which can make it one-dimensional. But when you hear a perspective about it, the history becomes more real and humane. It’s important that we start to see each other as humans, not facts, not just those people from the other side of a border … and I never share stories about the person who submitted it themselves. One of the rules since the beginning is that Brown History has been an anti-social media Instagram page. People tell other people’s stories, not their own story. The children tell their elders’ stories. Someone else holds the microphone.
CT: It’s an amazing way of preserving family histories.
AZ: It might be the only way. Sometimes we’re too late. So many people are like, ‘Man, I wish I asked my grandparent this question.’ But I’ve seen someone tell a story on Brown History about their grandparent being from some village, and then other people will be like, ‘Oh my god, my grandparent was from that village, and I never knew about that!’ Our history isn’t on paper as much as people think, and it’s slowly been disappearing because the Partition generation is slowly dying away. But when people tell their own family story, it fills in the holes of other people’s stories.
CT: I see Brown History as helping those of us who might be distant from our late grandparents’ pasts learn about and feel more connected to them.
AZ: Recently, someone submitted a Partition story. They said how their grandfather was 11 years old when it happened, and his parents put a tattoo of an Om on his hand to indicate that he’s Hindu, and another tattoo on his other hand to show who he was, so that if he ever got lost he could be located. And when I posted that – a photo of an old man’s hand with a faded Partition tattoo – all of a sudden people started commenting ‘my grandfather has this tattoo’, ‘my grandmother has that tattoo’, ‘that’s what that means!? This whole time I had no clue! I asked my grandmother about it, but she wouldn’t tell me.’ And then I started receiving all these photos of grandparents with hand tattoos. For Muslims, it was a half-moon tattoo to represent Islam. So there was this whole tattoo culture on children during Partition. It shows you how wild it must have been. Parents knew that there was a very good chance their kid would get lost. Who knows how much other information we don’t know? That we will never know? Who knows how much is lost? It’s sad.
CT: What is your aim when you share a post?
AZ: I like to think I am tricking people out of their biases with my stories. Stories are great ways of getting information into people’s brains. If you look at American history, at homophobia and the Aids scare … it didn’t change from figures and data and science. It changed when stories of gay characters came out, when Will & Grace came out. It humanised the gay community and showed that gay people were just regular people. That’s where the fear started to slowly dissolve. And we’ve come so far since then. With Brown History, I’m trying to tell stories about regular people that other people can identify with. Hopefully, that changes people’s thought processes. Like, you know what, Pakistanis think the same way we do; Muslims think the same way we do. They’re just humans like us. I’m not trying to shove anything down anyone’s throats. You can’t argue with history. Whatever people are learning in their life about one way of thinking, when they come to the Brown History page, it’s about trying to challenge that.
CT: What has changed in the last five years?
AZ: This will sound a bit sad, but I think now I’m needed less … There are more people out there who can express how they feel about Partition by themselves. They have the guts to share stories now, in articles, by drawing, painting, or writing poetry, and you don’t have to be an established author to do it. Young people are coming out and saying how they feel. People are stronger and more confident.
CT: What’s your vision for the future of Brown History?
AZ: My dream would be a TV show or a movie. But this is the first of its kind, so I don’t have much of a blueprint. I am just trying to see how I can keep growing.