In reviewing Francois Weil‘s Family Trees: A History of Geneaology in America (‘In Quest of Blood Lines‘, New York Review of Books, 23 May 2013) Gordon S. Wood, after tracking an older American obsession with family lineage, possibly noble birth and associated family fortune, notes an interesting statistic:
By 2005, a poll found that 73 percent of Americans had become very interested in their family history. They were not searching for pedigree any longer but for identity.
In 1992, on one of my periodic journeys back to India, I grew intrigued by the possibility of tracing my family tree further back than I had ever previously attempted. Perhaps living in the US had sparked this curiosity but perhaps too, I was old enough to start caring. On the paternal side, I knew my great-grandfather’s name but not my great-grandmother’s; my great-grandfather, was, I think, a doctor. (I can’t remember any more). On the maternal side, my ignorance was almost complete; my knowledge of my family stopped with my grandparents.
In response to my queries, my mother suggested we speak to my paternal grandfather’s cousin, a veritable griot who apparently could rattle off the names of several generations’ heads. A couple of weeks later we met him in Central India, where we had traveled to visit my grandmother and uncle, and sat him down for a chat.
He didn’t disappoint, naming four predecessors to my grandfather, reaching as far back as the times of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. (Apparently, my great-great-great-great-grandfather had served as an official in that regime.) We listened with great interest as my mother made notes in a diary. I asked him a few more questions about the movement of the family within the Punjab and that was it.
A few years later, I had forgotten the conversation, my mother had passed away and her diary had been lost. I resolved to have the same conversation, to record it, to make better notes. That meeting never took place; my grand uncle soon passed away as well. None of his sons–my father’s cousins–had made notes of their family tree either. That was that.
Now that daughter has been born, in Brooklyn, continuing a journey that my family seems to continue to undertake–from the West Punjab to Central India to New Delhi to the east coast of the US–I feel some stirrings of that old interest in my provenance. I doubt there are any familial resources I will be able draw upon; my best bet will be to seek out the Indian equivalent of the National Genealogical Society or ancestry.com.
I don’t know why it should matter. I will not disgraced or honored by my forebears’ deeds. They could have been mass murderers or classical music composers; my life remains my own, with its blessings and curses. And I certainly will not be calling or emailing strangers to say “Hey, we’re cousins, seven times removed!” But I do think that if I ever take this quest on, it will be a useful history lesson of sorts, drawing connections between my life and other places and times and peoples. Just for that filling out of the map, it might be worth it.