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Two years and 1,381 posts later, Instagram handle Brown History has a loyal readership of over 400k, along with a podcast featuring interviews and talks with historians, authors, cultural experts, and artists. Started by Ahsun Zafar, an electrical engineer in Canada, Brown History is a digital archive exhibiting anecdotes focused on South Asians from all over the world.

Brown History
Ahsun Zafar

Historically speaking, we, South Asians, are the underdogs in the western world. Our stories have long been narrated by others, setting a premeditated idea of how we want to be perceived. While many may have attempted to change this via books, television, movies, and other pop-culture representatives, but nothing as powerful with a lasting effect came through (blame human memory, too). However, that’s exactly what Brown History has managed to achieve (courtesy of social media) via its crowd-sourced stories from real people and nuggets from various digital archives on the internet. Just like all of us, Zafar realised the desperate need for a platform where people could share stories from their past that can be as private and visceral as they desire. It’s this hunger for borderless narrative by South Asians for South Asians that inspired Zafar to start Brown History. 

From featuring Indrani Rahman, the first beauty pageant contestant from the Subcontinent in 1952, to showcasing pictures from the gruesome Mustard Gas Experiment conducted by the British Military on South Asian soldiers in the 1930s, to posting real wedding pictures of couples from the 60s and the 70s and their experiences as immigrants in foreign countries, Brown History takes on history with sheer truth.

 

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We caught up with Ahsun Zafar on what makes Brown History better than history textbooks and the importance of finding truth in history by being a discerning learner, among other things. 

What prompted you to create this channel? Why does the bio say, ”South Asian History retold by the Vanquished?” 

What prompted me to start Brown History consists of two things. I want to learn more about my roots. There’s a famous Greek saying, ”The first step to being happy is to know yourself.” And the more I learnt about my background, the more I realised that I need to start learning about our neighbours’ as well. Everything in South Asia is connected, including the British and the impact they had on us. Number two, I’m always learning, but I got tired of learning stuff and not doing anything with it. So I promised whenever I start a new endeavour, I’ll do something with it. 

On why does the bio say, ”vanquished’. There’s a famous saying by Winston Churchill, ”History is written by the victors.” If that’s true, then Brown History is history re-written by the vanquished. There’s a tectonic shift now in narratives. We are telling our stories, we have the tools, the awareness, and the strength. Here, we are making history a democracy where we tell it how we see fit. 

 

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Did you have any stories of your own that channelled into this platform? 

(Laughs) I’m a private guy and very anti-social media. I keep myself out of Brown History as much as I can, except when I post a picture of me to raise donations for the page. My story is not that interesting; I’m a regular guy who grew up with stuff everybody else goes through. 

Has the narrative with which people share their stories after becoming acclimatised to your style changed? If yes, how? 

People have become more honest and courageous about their stories. Each story gives inspiration to somebody else reading it, and I have collected enough for my followers to feel inspired and empowered. We, South Asians, as a community, are conservative. We don’t like to talk about personal stories, especially the ones about mental health or heartbreak. I feel people have become more honest with time. 

 

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How is Brown History helping underline borderless narrative? 

It’s no secret that we’re divided people — divided in language, religion, ideologies. But what creates this divide? Fear. Fear usually comes from the things we don’t know anything about, and the only way to get rid of that fear is to acquaint yourself with it. We live in our bubble, separated by borders we can’t cross (India and Pakistan). The best way to eradicate preconceived stereotypes is by getting to know each other. These borders keep us divided; stories keep us united. 

 

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Should we be replacing this with our history books?

Yes! Definitely. Not just South Asian history but any history. If you go to a bookstore and ask the seller to recommend top ten books on Winston Churchill, they’ll give you ten bestsellers by numbers. Even Hollywood movies such as The Darkest Hour glorify Churchill. However, you need to be discerning about what you read and see. As a brown person, you’d have to dig deeper and find a book that gives you a different perspective on Churchill and the things you’d never known before like his indirect participation in the Bengal Famine of 1943 and all the racist things he said. History is muddy and cloudy, but teaching your kids about the ugly truth will empower them in the long run. 

What is relevant history, according to you? Even CAA protest or farmers’ protest will go down as relevant episodes in the annals of our history, do you think Brown History will be posting about it? 

Everything is relevant; the past connects to the present. The tension between India and Pakistan is connected to the partition; Kashmir is still a hot topic. It’s like one big story and irrespective of the chapter we are in; we need to know about previous chapters. And sure, I will be posting interesting stories surrounding the current climate affecting South Asians in the future. 

 

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What is your personal learning from Brown History? 

Now when I see something, I don’t follow it systematically. I’d question everything, and I feel stronger mentally. 

Do you get messages from non-brown fans? 

Yes, they love the stories. It’s honest, real, and it surprises them.

How has the pandemic affected the entries? Have people become more pro-active? 

Yes! But a lot of stories people submit now is about COVID deaths. It’s really depressing to know how much the pandemic affected us. 

 

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When did you start your podcast? Tell us all about it. 

It’s a selfish pleasure. I love reading books, but now I can read books and also interview the author. The topics are complex and so talking with an expert helps untangle a few knots. I wanted people to submit stories and then tell that story in long-form, but it’s hard to get stories that long. 

Will you be doing any live events in future? Maybe a TV show in tow?

I don’t know as yet, but I’d like to do a book one day. But whatever I do next, has to be fun and inspiring for me. 

All images: Courtesy Brown History/Instagram

Harleen Kalsi
Harleen feeds off her nomadic spirit and incessant shenanigans on the road to stay alive. When not writing, she is busy searching for a good read/art/act.