How 31-year-old Karachi born is giving History lessons on Instagram

Updated: Jan 13, 2019, 21:50 IST | Prutha Bhosle | Mumbai

Brown History - an Instagram page started by a 31-year-old Karachi-born - has lesser-known, gripping tales about humans of South Asia

Cornelia Sorabji is the first woman to graduate from Bombay University
Cornelia Sorabji is the first woman to graduate from Bombay University

Do you remember Cornelia Sorabji, the first woman to graduate from Bombay University and study law at Oxford University? Or Amrita Sher-Gil, who died at the age of 28, but established herself as one of South Asia's most celebrated artists? Does Indrani Rahman, the first Indian to compete in the Miss Universe beauty pageant in 1952, ring a bell? If not, an Instagram page started by a 31-year-old Karachi-born will come in handy.

When Ahsun Zafar, an electrical engineer in the aerospace industry in Montreal, started Brown History in September 2017, out of sheer curiosity to understand his roots in South Asia better, little did he know that the page would get a whopping 55k followers in one year. While his father is Pakistani and mother half-Pakistani, half-Irani, his maternal great-grandfather taught at Aligarh University and his maternal grandfather was a student there. "Everyone ended up in Pakistan after Partition. However, I grew up in Canada and knew very little of South Asia except for what I had seen on TV," he says.

"Therefore, with an agenda to learn more of my roots, I researched a lot and learned that there was a time when we all lived together as one community. In that mindset, I made @brownhistory. And it's important, too, because when you have an understanding of your roots, you also obtain a strong sense of identity and that gives you the strength to go through life, which can be a daunting task. One's history is like the foundation of a skyscraper; only when it's strong and sturdy can it make it to the skies."

Ahsun Zafar
Ahsun Zafar

The page offers historical vignettes of South Asia, and is followed by quite a few B-town celebrities, with actor Sonam Kapoor being one of the biggest fans. But how much does Zafar really research before posting content on the page? "I was always an avid reader and a curious person. I want to know everything and I can't get enough of it. If I find something interesting, I go deeper into it. The black-and-white pictures from the time can be found in museums and books. It's all there waiting for you; you just have to get your hands dirty and dig a little."

Some of his most popular posts feature Teja Singh. According to the post, "In 1908, the Canadian government with the Prime Minister devised a plan to get rid of all the South Asians in Canada by sending them off to British Honduras (now Belize). And they would have succeeded, if it weren't for Singh who came down from New York (where he was studying in Columbia University) and led his people to defend for their residency rights."

Today, there is even a day reserved to commemorate this 'first Ambassador of Sikhism'. Another picture of young women from Calcutta (now Kolkata) donning skirts and jackets in London is captioned, "After the destruction of WW2, Britain needed to rebuild itself, but there were severe labour shortages. They figured more immigrants will solve their problem. The British Nationality Act of 1948 gave commonwealth citizens free entry to UK. Hundreds of thousands came from South Asia to Britain through the 1950s, not just for short-term work, but settling for good."

While we know our favourite snaps from the page, we ask Zafar if he has one of his own. "I like them all, and all these historical stories can and should have Hollywood movies based on them. However, if I had to pick one, then it would be the post on Indian indentured labourers, who were the ones to introduce marijuana to Jamaica. It is always fun when I mention this fact to people."

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