Memory as a cure for forgetting
Today, out of the window on the bus, I saw a woman in a yellow-gold kurta kicking along an abandoned chappal. As she butted the sandal along, she sent up small cyclones of dust scattering. She did not seem to have a purpose in doing so, save maybe some childish glee in an act that has no reason. I remembered then my childhood spent at boarding school at the foot of Phulchowki. Many a time, I would wander among the trees that dotted the premises, happen upon a stick and start digging a hole. I was seven, eight, maybe nine then, crouched above a hole I was making by stabbing the ground with the point of a stick. There was no purpose there, just action.
Both these incidents are by no means extraordinary. They are the most mundane of images and yet, they stick in my consciousness as if they were something of vital import. I do not choose the memories that my brain retains, at least not consciously. It does not seem to be a question of retaining but a question of access. I have read somewhere that the brain is like an always-running video camera and memory is simply about finding one specific reel of tape, popping it into the VCR and pressing figurative play. The only catch is that there are mountains of tape and some memories are easier to find than others.
Memories sometimes come unbidden. Like thieves in the night, they sneak up on you and overwhelm you with their immediacy. These are often triggered by a smell, a sound, a sight, like the involuntary memory that Proust details in the episode with the madeleine:
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me.
Even now, any song off of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon reminds me of the waning end of my first year in college when I was lonely, sad and confused. A specific perfume, the name of which I forget, always takes me back to a simpler time when I was very much in love, walking through Babar Mahal Revisited with a girl more beautiful than I could’ve ever imagined.
There is one incident, though, that I have tried and tried to recall. It was one cold night a year ago in January. I was inches from death then but somehow survived. There is a story to tell here, only I cannot tell it. It remains locked away somewhere and I have lost the key. I have tried to reconstruct the memory but there is nothing, not even vague outlines to fill in or dots to connect. Just a gaping void, and there is nothing scarier than a void.
Though I cannot remember what it was, it left me with my face half paralysed, a number of bones fractured and a collarbone broken. Thankfully, they have all healed now, except for the hole in my memory. It refuses to scab and taunts me with its darkness. The inability, the sheer frustration in trying to recall something that you know has happened to you is unimaginable. It is limitless, this hole. I have spent days and nights just searching my brain, weaving through people, faces, places and events. I have tried everything and still, the details of that night elude me like darting slippery fish in the stream of time.
Since then, I have revisited my favourite works of art that deal with trauma, time and memory. I have contemplated long the shattered visages and the plaintive soundless cries in Picasso’s Guernica. I have watched, rewatched and watched again Chris Marker’s La Jetee and Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. I have listened time and again to Narayan Gopal’s Yo Samjhine Man Chha and I only find loneliness at the other end, not solace or meaning. Only Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness gives me heart. There is a dream-conversation that Darwish begins with which beautifully wraps up all of remembrance and forgetting:
—Tell me, when did it happen? I mean, when did we meet? When did we part?
—Thirteen years ago.
—Did we meet often?
—Twice: once in the rain, and again in the rain. The third time, we didn’t meet at all. I went away and forgot you. A while ago, I remembered. I remembered I’d forgotten you. I was dreaming.
In the book, which is really a prose poem, Darwish writes about the 1982 shelling of Beirut by the Israelis and he speaks, both obliquely and directly, about the persistence of memory, memory as a salve, memory as a cure for forgetting. In times of trauma, as in the course or aftermath of a war or an accident, forgetting is an easy task. In fact, it is often encouraged by the victors and takes the shape of history. Only recent examples of Truth and Reconciliation take heed of the danger of forgetting. Forgetting might seem confined to the mind but once enough people forget that something has happened, who’s to say it even happened in the first place? Forgetting then is a kind of amnesia, wilful or imposed. To forget is to capitulate, to give in. To resist, one must constantly remember. There is no defiance like the ordinary. Darwish understands this best when he goes to lengths to describe the act of making coffee—the minute movements of boiling the water, pouring it into a cup, stirring the coffee. When a city is being bombed, even the simple act of remembering how to make coffee becomes an outcry.
For Darwish (and for me), writing is an anti-thesis to history, which is the history of the powerful. Writing itself is memory, an attempt to preserve memory outside of the mind and onto paper. It is a slow and painful fight against the forgetfulness of history, which so easily throws its empty bottles out the window. Unlike Darwish, whose trauma is collective, mine is personal. But it is still a struggle. Soon, I am afraid, forgetting will take over and the incident that once was will cease to have ever been. My writing, my memory, is a constant battle to stave off this forgetting.
(published on The Kathmandu Post, September 21)