Essay: The past is not a foreign country
I was recently reading an old essay by Salman Rushdie in preparation for a class that I was going to teach. I had assigned the essay to my students with whom I now meet twice a week on a digital platform. Most of our faces remain hidden behind our computer screens. Faces now confined to squares and identified by the first alphabet of our name. Anonymity has its own comforts. I had no quarrels with it for a long time. In fact, I embraced anonymity and delighted in its company as and when I could. At this juncture, I am suddenly reminded of Emily Dickinson whose poetry is filled with pithy insights into life. She doesn’t turn poetry into a manifesto. In one of her numerous untitled poems, she says –
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
Salman Rushdie and Emily Dickinson have very little in common. I love Dickinson’s poetry. I enjoy Rushdie’s essays more than his fiction. Having said that, I should mention that I don’t think of literature in watertight categories or genres. In a recent interview with Sukant Deepak, the writer and my friend, Sumana Roy mentioned that she doesn’t believe in the artificial distinctions between genres. She said, “The affection happens as a natural response to the person. Similarly with genres. I do not need to be told that I am reading a poem or a story. What it evokes in me should be in the blood of the writing itself.” I couldn’t have said it any better. Also look at how beautifully Roy articulates her thoughts. Is it prose or verse? Does it really matter?
In the essay referenced in the beginning of this piece, Salman Rushdie says something that stayed with me. He remarks, “It may be argued that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity.” While I agree with the second half of the sentence and also concede that any act of erasure of the past is a loss, I failed to reconcile with the first half. It is a beautiful looking and sounding sentence to say the least. It is a sentence that I want to read aloud, underline, highlight for the beauty of its construction. Upon sharing it with a writer friend, he immediately echoed my sentiments about its beautiful architecture. Writers sometimes are so predictable.
Salman Rushdie is perhaps making this statement at a time and context that is very different from mine. No two experiences of/with the past are similar. Midnight’s Children is a tome built upon the memories and events of the past but many of those still continue to haunt us today. Memories have an afterlife. Are they really time bound or constricted by cause-effect?
Emigration from the past/memory is also a continuous process. I wonder if that emigration is ever complete. Memories or the past inform our present. There is no present without the past. The writer, LP Hartley referred to the past as ‘a foreign country’. I remain far from convinced. The past is neither foreign nor easy to forget. The past finds ways of cohabiting with us. There are attempts to misrepresent the past. And we often write about the past to challenge or correct such misinformation. Or to simply record as we remember the past. Writing about the past can be a political choice but writing about the past is also deeply personal. I want to avoid citing the Personal is Political dictum here. I want to think of literature beyond the traps laid by the conventions of critical and literary theory.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the past has found ways to catch up with me. These guest appearances largely happen unplanned and in most mundane settings – at the breakfast table, while reading a book, watching a film or taking a lonely stroll. A friend in Kerala recently shared a video of his long drive to a picturesque neighbouring town. The shade of green captured in the video is perhaps unique to the state. My mind instantly wandered to the rich palette of some Kerala painters and the murals I had seen at the Mattancherry Palace in Fort Kochi. My friend also mentioned that he longed for solo bus rides which he doesn’t risk anymore and has had to make peace with the relative safety of travelling by car.
I miss travelling by public transport. I think about my bus rides on solo trips. It was also an opportunity to meet people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. Once during a bus ride in Kolkata, I asked my neighbor about the book he was reading and we spoke for the remainder of the trip. I recently saw an interview with the Bengali poet, Srijato who mentioned that he would often get off a bus and start walking when an idea or a line of a poem occurred to him.
On my last and only trip to Dharamshala, I went to meet the filmmaker, Ritu Sarin who welcomed me into her house. We weren’t friends. I thanked her for allowing a stranger into her home. She said something that I will never forget, “There are no strangers. Only friends...” During the last few months of my largely sedentary existence, I am often reminded of the past which afforded opportunities to travel and meet people and hold new dialogues in settings far and distant. A new world had opened up in such a process. I constantly long for that past to be restored to my present.
The writer is a culture critic. He teaches literary & cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune