Remember to remember

Updated on Apr 26, 2012 11:59 PM IST

What makes important men and events acquire more importance with time?

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Hindustan Times | By

The story of the Titanic in the way many of us heard it in our younger days was a moral one - never be too proud of anything. The ship was a symbol of British hubris. Part of the reason why they thought nothing could harm it was the history of Europe since the Napoleonic wars. Britain had become the top power on earth. But by 1912, when the Titanic went down, people living in the small island probably did not know that the United States was fast growing to supplant it.

I could be wrong, but this moral bit was not orchestrated in the manner I might have expected when the Balmoral ship recreated the journey on the Atlantic. And the explanation for this may lie in the way our anniversaries, centenaries and various jubilees are conducted.

There are many differences between birth or death anniversaries of individuals and those of big events. Rabindranath Tagore's 150th year in 2011 was a much bigger event than his birth itself on May 7, 1861, or for that matter his centenary in 1961. But the Titanic centenary on April 15, 2012, and the silver jubilee of Kapil Dev's World Cup victory in 2008 were like the narrowing light at the end of an unusually long tunnel in comparison with what happened in 1912 or 1983.

What does this show? Do great men grow greater with time? Little harm in it if they do. That shows a linear trend. But do bends and curves appear when stories of events are re-told and do such bends and curves come to be institutionalised when their jubilees and centenaries take place? That's not a disaster but certainly poses some problems.

The best thing about the way the Titanic was remembered was the empathy that was sought to be created for those who were drowned and their kin. This gesture has greater moral content than the 'hubris' story because it has no faultfinding aspect and assumes that all are human and can empathise.

Immediately comes the question: How then should we remember other events such as the centenary of the Russian Revolution of 1917? Or the start of World War 1 in 1914? Just remember them as occurrences in which some lives were lost and not talk about the impoverishment of the Russian muzhiks or the Anglo-German naval race, or the hunt for colonies? Or say a few words on how great or wicked Lenin was? An ordinary Japanese, I am told, wants to erase the memory of World War 2. But do the Koreans and the Chinese in Manchuria feel similarly about it?

If the flab of importance of individuals thickens over time, it is on account of the issues and challenges of the times in which they did not live.

So why, pray, should the story of the Titanic shrink and not grow bigger?


    Uddalok Bhattacharya was part of Hindustan Times’ nationwide network of correspondents that brings news, analysis and information to its readers. He no longer works with the Hindustan Times.

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