This Delhi startup lets you document your family history, turn memories into memoirs
We have all grown up, regaled by the many stories told by our elders. These stories have formed the inviolable thread that ties generations together, despite gaps in regular forms of communication.
Samrata Salwan Diwan, Founder of Family Fables Co., grew up with her grandparents recounting riveting stories about their lives - from their childhood, their ancestral homes, friends and cousins, and the trauma of their migration amid the Partition. These stories gave her an insight into their struggles and triumphs, and everything in between.
She read her Honours in History from St Stephen’s College, Delhi University and followed that with a post-graduate degree in international studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, both of which cemented her love for the preservation of oral history.
Lamenting the fact that most family stories are lost with time, Samrata in 2017 embarked on her passion project: to record and preserve her maternal grandmother’s history.
This one-off project ultimately evolved into Family Fables Co, a bespoke publishing company that helps individuals, families, and institutions document their unique and personal stories in the form of a beautiful book.
Samrata Salwan Diwan, Founder of Family Fables Co
Since inception in February 2018, the company creates personal memoirs or legacy books, institutional books, commemorative books, family cookbooks, customised products such as calendars, and offers editing and design services for those already penning their family memoirs. They have 18 books under their belt and are currently working on seven more orders from across the country.
In an interview with YourStory Weekender, Samrata speaks about why she decided to document family histories, the challenges during the journey, and why turning memories into memoirs will always be a good idea.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
YourStory Weekender (YSW): What inspired you to document family histories as a business?
Samrata Salwan Diwan (SSD): When I was attempting to record my own family’s history, I could not find any individual or company who would take on this task from start to finish, making it a smooth and hassle-free process for the family. With Family Fables Co., I am attempting to fill this void. The time and effort that I put in to documenting my own family history became my inspiration as well as my initial investment, as I hired a designer to do the book layouts and print the copies.
YSW: What are the elements that go into making a complete family history book?
SSD: Family history includes oral accounts of previous generations, the recounting of one’s ancestry, shared recipes, medical remedies or ‘nuskhas’, photographs, documents, folk songs, family heirlooms, and documented family trees. This means there are many ways of recording family histories. We made a cookbook for a family whose history we traced through food and preserved recipes shared over decades. In another book, we recorded recipes and remedies of the family in addition to capturing their unique folk Multani songs.
Family histories also entail capturing the social and cultural milieu of the time. It is these personal anecdotes and stories that give us an insight into the life and times of the previous generation.
Photographs and documents, which include letters, certificates, postcards, and newspaper clippings, provide the visual aspect of the narrative.
YSW: In a world that is increasingly moving online, do you feel there will still be demand for a physical documentation of history?
SSD: Our projects culminate in beautiful keepsake books, which become an heirloom for the family. It's a book that is proudly displayed on the family table or shelf, as it has been put together with the efforts of family members who take pride in their shared history. Even though we offer digital versions of the book, I personally believe that nothing can replace the experience of the family sitting together and going through a gorgeous book full of personal memories.
YSW: What challenges have you faced since beginning your business?
SSD: Our biggest challenge is to make the client understand the effort and cost that goes into putting together a family history book. The team interviews, transcribes, researches, writes, edits and designs the final product in the form of a book, sometimes from different parts of the country and the world – that’s a lot of work from beginning to end. We are a dedicated team of seven people including writers, editors and a design director, and we also work with a pool of freelance writers. Our personal historians are trained to interview family members, transcribe, and write the family story.
Since every book is different and exclusively custom-made, there is no standardised costing for a project. We do everything from collecting content, writing, designing, and printing. The price differs, depending on the scope and complexity of the work involved. Sometimes, this can be hard to explain to our clients.
YSW: How has the pandemic affected your work?
SSD: The pandemic has affected our work in many ways. We shifted our interview process to video calls, even though we sorely missed physical meetings. Real-life conversations are a way to build trust and comfort, which is so important when one is documenting a person’s life story.
On the other hand, with so much uncertainty around, people have been thinking more about family and their roots. In the last year, we have spent a lot more time at home with our loved ones, which has got many excited about embarking on a project like this.
During the pandemic and lockdown, Family Fables Co. has chronicled many incredible family stories. With so many people losing their loved ones, more and more people are relying on storytelling to preserve their memories.
YSW: What have been some of the most rewarding memories of your profession so far?
SSD: There are many, but I’d like to share a few. We worked on the illustrated biography of Justice YK Sabharwal, the former Chief Justice of India, and that was a very interesting project. In our most recent book, The Jagatpur Legacy, we have traced the earliest known ancestor of the family to the First Anglo Sikh war of 1845.
The most rewarding aspect, however, is that the work gives us the opportunity to meet many inspiring people with incredible stories.
From Partition survivors to institution builders, immigrants, and first-generation entrepreneurs, Family Fables Co. has given voice to numerous ‘non-famous’ individuals with a story to share.
YSW: Tell us about your clients. Are they mostly elders or do you also receive queries from younger people?
SSD: These days, it's the younger people - children and grandchildren - who are keen on recording their elders’ history. Sometimes it's the older generation, who would like to reflect on their lives and pen down their memoirs after they retire. In some cases, there are people who have already begun writing their own memoir, and our team helps them complete unfinished manuscripts.
A memoir also makes a great present for a special occasion - a landmark birthday, anniversary, or a milestone event (with respect to institutional histories). We often get requests to have the book ready in time for these kinds of important events. People can reach out to us on our website or through our social media pages.