Of History and Forgetfulness

By Manu Dubey

The year is 2019. In the warm embrace of familial relationships, winters are spent sharing stories under the sun. My father, now in his early sixties, gets exhilarated when he talks of his school days, just as a child would be excited about when talking about a prank. He reminisces about the first time he got to wear slippers in 6th std. ‘Oh, the joy!’, he says, ‘it was incomparable’. ‘And what before that?’, I question. ‘Nothing. Barefoot’, his voice now filled with a sense of pride. A particular scene from my grandfather’s village house flashes in my mind. A big mud house with freezing insides sits beside the Rapti river in Uttar Pradesh, with numerous mango, lychee and mulberry trees on its banks. Effortlessly flowing through Nepal, the river bends south-east to enter Uttar Pradesh and through our backyard. So when like all desi fathers Papa said he crossed a river to attend school, I easily believed him. In hindsight, it’s funny that I played by the same river that was once a struggle for him (which he totally denies, just as fathers do!).  

With nothing but each other’s company, Papa tells me about his surgery. The year is 1975. His first visit to Bombay and the relatives who sent dabbas to the hospital throughout his stay. ‘I would never forget the food, it was tasteless yet delicious’. A scar resembling a giant lizard rests on his arm now; almost like a whitish silicone mould just emptied of ice cream. As a kid, I believed, one day the lizard would crawl through Papa’s arm and slither away into nothing. Instead, it stayed with him, with us as a family and occupied space like any of us. The scar(y) lizard is unhealable. The year is 2020. I imagine the hospital bed; small and dull, comforting my father in pain, trying to map the faces of those relatives I never met but will always have gratitude for. I imagine a young boy with a moustache that my mother would later fall for, roaming on the streets of Bombay having no idea he’ll be back after 3 years and then not for another 42. 

The year is 1981. In the chilly winters of North India, a girls’ choir is singing while the mesmerized onlookers clap to the beats. The moment is captured and later produced to a 4 by 5 inches photo souvenir. The year is 2021. While rummaging through family albums, I find pictures of waterfalls and hilltops. Four small images, precisely 2 by 3 inches, tucked inside cheap plastic pockets of the long red photo album. I try to take them out, struggle with the photos stuck to the plastic, and find another photograph carefully kept behind the black and white sunset. It’s a picture of my mother and her friends (singing) on their Rover Ranger Scout trip to Panchmarhi. Inheriting music and trauma in equal parts, my mother is many things but hugely the most lively person in the room. 

The year is 1997. My mother keeps getting ill. Word of mouth, papa took charge of things and shuffled between the office and home. The year is 2021. Outside home, an egalitarian society still exists in only hopes. But inside, we wish papa too on mother’s day for instinctively, and naturally, breaking stereotypes of a patriarchal society. Living with progressive parents, it scares me to think that life could be lived any other way.   

In the digital universe, our social media feeds are structured in a way that the most recent things float to the top and everything is in reverse chronology which conditions us to believe, rather falsely, that the most recent is the most important or that the older events matter less or just exist less. 

We are compelled to believe that things that are not on Google or on the news channels never happened or never existed or just don’t matter, whereas, I think probably 99% of the record of human evolution is off the internet. It suggests, what is urgent right now always holds much more value than what is important in the grand scheme of things.

But do historical events lose sentimental value with time? Will my father’s first slippers and last visit to Bombay ever mean any less to me when I turn 62? Will the details of the first house my parents moved into after marriage ever fade in my imagination? I fear this sort of time bias. My forgetfulness scares me. In the time of screenshots and archived posts, I fear losing the bits of details my parents hold so close to. I have this urge to claim history, of my mother’s wonderful college life and my father’s shoe-less childhood, of the places they inhabited in their early days, of the moments of love fabricated with the time that I can only feel now, like when I hold the photograph which my father made; Mumma getting dressed up in front of the mirror, not knowing of being the subject of his frame. 

I can only play those simpler times in my head by never really being a part of it and trying to leech onto it for some belonging. Just like a cuttlefish can remember every meal it has eaten even in old age, I yearn to never forget some things.

In the past couple of years, I realised my forgetfulness isn’t just a careless habit but something I have unconsciously developed over the years as a defence mechanism. It’s called motivated forgetting. In 1894, it was Friedrich Nietzsche who brought the idea of motivated forgetting. He wrote that man must forget in order to advance and stated that it is an active process, in the sense that we forget specific events as a defence mechanism and Sigmund Freud agreed on the idea of repression of memories as a form of self-preservation. Which is to say, if something reminds my mind of an unpleasant event, my mind may automatically switch to unrelated topics to distract itself. This in turn induces forgetting, unintentionally, making it a motivated action. 

A very simple example being, while writing about these memories, my mind struggled to put the bits and pieces in place. What started with avoiding the unpleasant memories sometimes takes over the pleasant ones too.

In the order of things, archiving and memorialisation always comes last. It is almost always done as an afterthought. So if there was a museum of memories, I would intricately weave a garland of all my happy-sad remembrances into a wreath and exhibit it for the world to see how beautiful life can be. 

The idea of presentism is calming yet a little scary. To say that things once never existed or would not do eternally is to say we would one day lose our existence to nothing, that the universe would go back to where it once began, a mere speck of dust.

Manu Dubey is an independent photographer and writer. Her practice revolves around subjects of art, culture, personal narratives, familial history and relationships. She loves reading books and dislikes artspeak.

Instagram: @kuchtasveers

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