Of Memory, History, and Itinerant Museums

By Shruti Lakhtakia

“There’s no escape from the shadows that mount, inexorably, in this darkening season. Nor can we escape the shadows our families cast. That said, there are times I miss the pleasant shade a companion might provide.”

We live our lives in the shades and shadows of personal histories. Histories constructed by memories.

Sipping the chai that I’d become accustomed to over the past eleven months of moving back home, I turned the last page of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts in July. I remember being left with an unsettled feeling and lingering remnants of the lyrical, descriptive prose that she excels at. In a year marked by fear and difficult decisions regarding health, livelihood, and border limitations, the free-flowing movements of migrants’ lives prior to the pandemic seemed to be an entirely different world. 

A friend had remarked a week before that as a migrant, I would relate to Whereabouts. But after staying at home for so many months, my senses were perhaps not alive to unfamiliarity in the same way that they would be in a new place – a railway platform in a foreign city or an unexplored neighbourhood. I just couldn’t immediately bring myself to appreciate the novel.

Walking through the streets of Oxford

And then a week later, I returned to the UK, where I am deep in the weeds of my PhD research in Public Policy. There, in being attenuated to the smallest of shifts in my surroundings, in conversations with baristas, in airport lounges with strangers, snatches from Whereabouts sneaked up on me. In the London tube journey from Victoria to Charing Cross, observing a young mother and daughter pair lost in the world of their own conversations. At the Old Bodleian Library in Oxford, where the silence felt comforting, the lack of a fan in the heat- overwhelming. On a boat that floated back at dusk into the Cherwell boathouse, gleaming with fairy lights. At the Ashmolean, Britain’s first public museum, founded in 1683, where a special exhibition commemorated the arrival of the Windrush generation, rendering in ceramic the intersections of tea, trade, and transatlantic slavery. 

The chapters in Whereabouts all refer to places. ‘At the Stationer’s. ‘By the Sea’. ‘In My Head,’ a place more real than any other. But more than that, they captured the narrator in those places. They referred to how those places constructed the narrator’s sense of self.

I spent most of the flight from Delhi to London reading Home in the World, Amartya Sen’s memoir, which I picked up after Whereabouts. As a development economist, Sen’s journey resonates and inspires endlessly. But more than that, his recounting of personal history and how it intertwined with India’s freedom struggle and the partition, made me think of how our personal histories interact and intersect with others’ histories. Family histories, to be sure. But also national histories, which somehow being in a foreign land underlines in a way that being at home, surrounded by those stories, similar ones never made salient, somehow did not.

Cherwell Boathouse Oxford

On my second weekend in the UK, I visited a friend from India in Cambridge, doing his own PhD in Law. As we spoke about social science research and its relationship with policymaking back home, I brought up the complicated feelings that Sen’s memoir engendered. I soon found myself in the middle of a rant, and as with rants, it took a life of its own. “If we can’t learn from our history, then what’s the point, even? If in seventy years we’re still fighting about the same stuff, what did we learn? They might as well just shut the History Department and go home.” What, I thought, was the point of all this scholarship in history, if human beings are unwilling, or unable to learn from the mistakes of the generations past? What is the purpose of all those personal and national stories beyond the point of indulgence and narrative? How could such lessons be made more germane to policy?

Four days later, I caught up with a friend from Kashmir in London. A PhD candidate in History, I might have pored over some of my frustrations to her but felt sufficiently mortified by my previous rant to not take the matter further. In a cosy tea room in London, over cups of black tea infused with citrus orange peel, blue cornflower petals, and the scent of lemongrass, we exchanged and repeated stories from our days in Delhi, Oxford, London, and the toils of the previous year. Stories that defined our here and now, and determined whether we would take the flight home next week, or visit a sibling far away in the winter. We made hopeful plans to visit new neighbourhoods and museums together and commiserated about not doing so in the past. As South Asians do, we paid obeisance to our history in British museums. And yet, as we acknowledged the fact that most of those artefacts in the museums should never have been there in the first place, we appreciated the nuance that our record back home in preserving records, archives, and artefacts in national and state museums was less than stellar. Her work in the archives had been enough to establish that.

When I returned to Oxford and mentioned this to the friends I was staying with, an Irish and American couple, they empathized. The Library of Congress in Washington DC was destroyed by British troops in 1814. In 1922, when the British left Ireland, vengeful armed action at the start of the civil war led to the Public Records Office being destroyed, wiping out hundreds of years of Irish history. As per the list of destroyed libraries on Wikipedia, more have been destroyed by human action than by earthquakes, floods or fires. 

As debates about statues and artefacts, colonial power and cancel culture rage on in the UK, and indeed in the rest of the world, it is worth acknowledging that the country has put an immense amount of resources in preserving and displaying objects of history, making them freely accessible to visitors. Free admission to national museums, once a highly contested public issue, is now a fact of British cultural life. About 40 percent of all visitors are foreigners.

And yet, how many people from the rest of the world can access central London? From visas to the affordability of travel, the barriers run high. Part of creating access means thinking outside these boundaries. Making artefacts available to larger swathes of humanity, especially those who are owed access to their own history. Perhaps museums should no longer be grand buildings in central London, but mobile institutions setting up camps for weeks at a time in the small towns and large cities of Romania, Botswana, and Bangladesh. If such itinerant museums could mean that younger generations of people across the world can see with their own eyes the treasures and lessons of the past, then perhaps larger cultural histories could intersect with personal ones in unimaginable ways. Such access to history would ensure that the lessons of history are not relegated to hardbound volumes in archives and libraries, to inaccessible corners of museums and scholarship, but live on in a way where Sen’s history converges in physical places with the history of the narrator in Whereabouts.

Oral historian Aanchal Malhotra, author of Remnants of a Separation, describes families’ journeys during the partition by encapsulating that time in the material objects that people chose to carry with them, physical reminders of family, home, and soil. Objects of the past embodying personal but also national history. In mobile museums, we could find an entire world, made accessible irrespective of literacy and wealth. 

“We’re enfolded by the wide-open space, enclosed by all that emptiness.”

Personal history is not about finding a home, but constructing it, just as memories over a lifetime are constructed by what we choose to remember and what we choose to omit. It is the alternating forces of push and pulls, centre and periphery, home and world, that define us and our ability for appreciation. Whereabouts grounds the places we visit in the context of places we come from. And it is in this process of meaning-making that it excels. In the personal histories that we carry within ourselves, and in the way these histories choose to link up with those of others, in the way that shared meaning emerges when that connection takes place. In doing so, we find home and community in people we never knew, we never thought we would know, and never imagined knowing. If history can help build that shared meaning with people in countries that your own may have once colonized, or warred against, or just never known, then there is a lot that we can yet learn from it. 

It is an understanding that Lahiri brings to life in an intimate and yet open way, probably given her own experiences of choosing to live in foreign places and own them. Daughter of Indian immigrants to the US, she moved to Italy in 2012 to learn and write in Italian. If you read Whereabouts, prepare to be unmoored and lost, and in that losing, find a new manner of looking at your personal past, and that of those around you.

Shruti Lakhtakia is a PhD candidate in Public Policy at the University of Oxford working on development economics and governance. She loves the magic of words and walks. Instagram: @shruti.lakhtakia 

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