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OP-ED: Documenting lives of consequence in the 21st century

  • Published at 12:32 am October 23rd, 2021
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What we call institutional knowledge in business is equally applicable in the familial and social milieu

People get older and die in the course of time, and the ones left behind generally mourn and write eulogies. This is not one of those essays. Well, not exactly.

My beloved aunt -- the only sister of my mother -- passed away last month due to complications from Covid; given she was in her late 70s and with a couple of heart issues, it was not quite a shock. After the fog of grief and regret is negotiated from its initial onslaught, what remains is learning -- an approach to the death of a loved one that would have impressed my khala given that she was an educator at heart. 

The lesson is this: While there is time, keep as comprehensive a record as you can from those who are bearers of knowledge -- for they are not destined to be here forever. What we call institutional knowledge in business is equally applicable in the familial and social milieu. 

It is a paradox indeed that as the modes of communication and the costs associated with them have gone down drastically in the short space of two decades, the depth and scope of the same have moved in the same downward direction. The short SMS, the tweet, or the quick Facebook/Whatsapp message has the blessed quality of being quick and easy and very useful, while also being far more superficial than the well-thought out and engaging letters that were sent by post or even, later, by email. 

I still have letters written to and received from family members and pen-pals well into the 1990s, tomes of a vividness that is almost as quaint as waiting on the postman to bring those to us. 

In those letters and emails I got glimpses, unfortunately not quite valued at the time received, of the context, the history, and the relationships that formed the familial bonds, the illuminating stories, and the apocrypha that became part of our lives. It was merely the background, the noise, the minutiae, or so I thought.  

The years progressed, letters were replaced by shorter emails, emails by yet briefer text messages and social media posts, and long-distance phone calls with a few minutes of quick “hellos” on video chats. The frequency was welcome; the depth was lost unawares.

This was an aunt who taught military officers in three different countries, edited well known newsmagazines, produced award-winning broadcasts alongside CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, and travelled the world on her own, well before it was socially accepted for respectable South Asian women to live such lives of daring independence and decided autonomy. 

Yet, this was also the aunt to whom her nieces and nephews leaned on to share travails, trepidations, and triumphs, hopes and fears, aspirations and heartaches, that they could never with their own parents. I know because I was one of those nephews for whom his khala was the first port of call during times of doubt from the time I was not even a teenager to the end of her life when I was in my late 40s.

What I regret is not the time I didn’t have with her; by actuarial tables her time and mine was bound to diverge about this time of our respective lives. But as a professional focusing on organizational effectiveness, the concept of institutional knowledge comes to the fore again and again, in a most agonizing manner. 

I could have and should have encouraged her, the consummate teacher and journalist, to write more things down, to record more of her narratives and thoughts, to electronically document her life and conversations and feelings, far more than I did. She did write some long emails in the last couple of years and promised to write more; her articles in the news media over the last half a century are there somewhere in paper archives never to be updated to electronic formats; the memories of her more recent conversations remain, so far, fresh in the minds of her family members, friends, and well-wishers. 

Yet, it is simply not the same. For a woman whose life was a testament to history from before the end of the British Raj to our own times, this realization is sad; for a khala whose actively engaged love was limitless for her nephews and nieces at every stage of their lives from crying newborns to middle-aged professionals and executives across the far reaches of the globe, this realization is downright tragic.

Document the stories of your loved ones; even in this age of hi-tech, it is likely to be worth it. You will be glad you did.    

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and writes from the USA. He can be reached at [email protected]

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