Photo Credit: Photograph courtesy Diba Siddiqi
On some mornings, Diba Siddiqi would sit down at the breakfast table in her parents’ home in Bengaluru, and record her father’s voice.
He would hold forth on everything under the sun – science, history, justice, conflict, photography, politics, poetry, philosophy, the evolution of language and silence. The musings continued well after the meal was over and an Olympus digital voice recorder Diba Siddiqi had placed nearby would capture her father’s thoughts.
The sheer range of topics wasn’t surprising. Obaid Siddiqi was one of India’s most eminent scientists whose pioneering work in the field of molecular biology and neurogenetics are well known.
Siddiqi was keen to have an account of her father’s stories in his own voice so that she could revisit them later. She had tried taking notes, but found the process distracting. She started using the digital recorder so that she could give him his full attention.
But the recordings, which started in 2007, ended in 2013 when the senior Siddiqi was killed in an accident while taking a stroll near his home. He was 81.
Immersed in history
Months later, Diba Siddiqi finally revisited the “breakfast monologues” as she called them.
She immersed herself in the stories her father had shared of growing up in eastern Uttar Pradesh in pre-Partition India and the sadness at how the Siddiqis lost track of family members who moved to Pakistan.
It wasn’t long before Siddiqi began to dig through old family photographs, many of them developed in darkrooms by her father and his siblings.
It didn’t stop at that. Diba Siddiqi’s mother, Asiya, is a distinguished historian, who has spent a large part of her life studying Mumbai’s past. Siddiqi began to delve into her mother’s life too.
The result is Rooh: The Enduring Spirit, an exhibition of old family photographs interspersed with new images Diba Siddiqi has taken of places that played an important part in her parents’ lives. A book of the same name is set to be released shortly.
It’s obvious that Obaid Siddiqi was an overarching presence for his daughter. “My father was this colossal figure in my life,” said Siddiqi. “No language is adequate to express his continuing presence in my life. I still find myself quietly and unconsciously carrying on conversations with him.”
Born in Basti, Uttar Pradesh, in 1932, Obaid Siddiqi completed an MSc from Aligarh University before obtaining a doctorate from the University of Glasgow in Scotland. His family lived in Benares in two spells between 1932 and 1948 before finally settling down in Aligarh.
The includes an account of the two years Obaid Siddiqi spent in jail from 1949 under preventive measures at a time when 30,000 communists were detained across country. Recalling his period of detention in the company of 13 Communist leaders, he said:
“So you see jail authorities, they used the criminals, who were called pukkas, to beat us up. They were prisoners who had served ten years, fifteen years, had life imprisonment… They acted like small unofficial wardens to control other prisoners. They were dressed to look like police. They beat up our friend Syed Ali badly, giving him galis, saying, ‘Pakistanse saala Pakistani Communist banta hai!’
However, Obaid Siddiqi could also recognise the benevolent side of the police officer who had beaten up the comrades, realising that human nature can never be categorised as entirely good or bad.
His parents and six siblings managed to send him letters during his imprisonment. His sisters arranged to smuggle letters in and out of jail while delivering home-cooked food to him once a week.
In 2014, Siddiqi visited Benares, where her father spent some time as a child. Waking at the crack of dawn every day, she walked around the ancient city, photographing the people and its streets.
Siddiqi also took many pictures in Mumbai, a city whose past her mother has written about extensively. One of Asiya Siddiqi’s celebrated works recreates the lives of people who went bankrupt in the 19th century. Roaming the bylanes of Mohammad Ali road and Dongri, in Mumbai, Siddiqui imagined that the ghosts of these people “and their descendants surely dwell in the neighbourhood I roamed in… The descendants of tailors, carpenters, blacksmiths, milk vendors, courtesans, dancing girls and prostitutes may continue to live and work here.”
Though the project is intensely personal, she believes it has broad appeal. She said she hoped viewers would let her work touch their mind and spirit and perhaps remind them of their own histories. “It is an expression of life that I have been a part of,” she said. “It has been about finding a voice in the images and bringing it together in one space.”