Josna Rege

261. Nostalgia

In health, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Music, storytelling, Words & phrases, writing on April 16, 2014 at 9:05 pm

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P1020691

Nostalgia is defined as a wistful longing or sentimental affection for a period in the past, especially a past for which one has happy personal associations. Looking back, perhaps with old friends from that time period, one indulges in rose-colored “those were the days” reminiscences, generally seen through a misty-eyed blur. Even if one’s personal associations with that particular past are not all positive (or not positive at all), there is a tendency to downplay or suppress the negative memories.

It seems obvious to point out that nostalgia is a backward-looking state of mind, indulging in which risks plunging a person into melancholia. That seems contradictory, especially if the memories being conjured up are pleasant ones. But by definition, nostalgia (taken from the Greek compound, νόστος (nóstos), meaning “homecoming”, and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning “pain, ache”), is experienced as pain. When the term was first coined by a Swiss medical student in the late 17th century, it was thought of as a disease. Translated into English, it was called homesickness.

The writer Doris Lessing has called nostalgia “that poisoned itch”: if so, then the more one scratches it, the more inflamed—even infected—it becomes. So that pleasant haze through which one relives the past can be pernicious—even paralyzing—in the present.

Enough with the alliteration: what is a person to do, especially a writer like me whose stock-in-trade is personal stories from my past? Is my backward gaze just an escape from the difficulties of the present? Am I playing to people’s nostalgia, inviting my readers to wallow in sentimentality? How can I dwell imaginatively in the past without merely indulging in a useless longing for something that can never be recovered? This can be especially dangerous for immigrants, who, like Lot’s wife, as Salman Rushdie once wrote in his essay, Imaginary Homelands, risk turning into pillars of salt if they look back.

(from theprospect.net)

(from theprospect.net)

Of course the answers to these questions will be different for everyone. In my case, I notice when a trip down memory lane is beginning to slip into a sentimental nostalgia. There’s nothing wrong in itself with delving into the past, whether it’s my personal past or a collective past. It has made me who I am and connects me to the web of all life. Moreover, telling stories from the past is what human beings do. We tell these stories to sustain ourselves, to come to know ourselves,  to guide us in the present and into the future. But if we are truly to find our way home, we must look at the past as clearly and honestly as we can, not through the mists of nostalgia.

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260. Monuments

In 2010s, Britain, history, India, Inter/Transnational, places, Politics, travel, United States, writing on April 15, 2014 at 1:34 pm

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As a tourist, it’s hard to avoid statues and monuments. They are the first things a foreign visitor tends to be taken to see, because they showcase the region’s or the nation’s history, identity, and cultural heritage. For my part, I am more interested in going to parks, street markets, bookshops, and even supermarkets—the sights, sounds, and smells of everyday life—for an insight into the history and culture of a place; but as I said, sometimes one simply can’t avoid a monument or two. After all, who would think of visiting northern India without visiting the Taj Mahal, Mumtaz Mahal’s mausoleum and the Emperor Shah Jehan’s unforgettable monument to love (and power)? Who would visit London without taking in Trafalgar Square, with Nelson’s (pigeon-populated) Column, that monument to British naval supremacy? Or Big Ben, that monument to British dominance over Time itself? Since I’ve been staying in Bremen, Germany for the past two weeks, I couldn’t leave without visiting the city’s Marktplatz, or Market Square, where the famous Statue of Roland (erected in 1404) occupies pride of place, and it didn’t disappoint.

Roland is a legendary figure in Europe. It is thought that the historical Roland was a Frankish military leader under Charlemagne charged with defending Francia’s border against the Bretons, who fought the Moors in Spain in Charlemagne’s army and died in 778 in a battle with Christian Basque rebels. Ever since, however, the figure of Roland has been appropriated as a chivalric hero (as in La Chanson de Roland) to represent different struggles, against the Saracens (a group of people who lived near Roman-controlled Arabia, later used to refer to Arabs, and later still—inaccurately—to all Muslims), or more generally, against threats to a state’s sovereignty. In Germany, it seems, Roland came to symbolize the freedom of cities from the control of feudal rulers, and a statue of Roland in the city’s marketplace was a gesture of defiance. So it was with the Roland of the Free Hansteatic City of Bremen, which has long prided itself on its independence. Fine, so far, so good, it would seem. But monuments can also present problems, especially in modern democracies.

A monument is erected to commemorate an important person or event. The word itself comes from the Latin monere: ‘to remind’, ‘to advise,’ or ‘to warn. So a people might want to commemorate a leader who had laid down his or her life for the country’s independence or a military engagement, whether winning or losing, that reminds the people of the history that made them what they are. The problem with monuments is that unless the nation is 100% homogeneous in every respect, there will always be competing versions of history, proud victors and humiliated vanquished in every battle, groups historically represented as “Them” or “Other” who might better be welcomed into the “We,” the collective self of the contemporary nation.

I will always remember the French philosopher-historian Ernst Renan’s famous speech, What Is a Nation? (1882). In it, he identified the glue that most successfully unifies a nation not as collective memory, but as forgetting. As he put it:

Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in historical studies often constitutes a danger for [the principle of] nationality. Indeed, historical enquiry brings to light deeds of violence which took place at the origin of all political formations, even of those whose consequences have been altogether beneficial. Unity is always effected by means of brutality; the union of northern France with the Midi was the result of massacres and terror lasting for the best part of a century.

A nation or collectivity naturally wants to remember historical atrocities lest they be repeated by future generations. Germany, for example, must remember the Holocaust, or Shoah; as must the Jewish people themselves. The United States and the other participants in the Transatlantic Slave Trade must remember the days of slavery; as must the members of the global African diaspora. There are always those who seek to deny or forget such atrocities to shore up their own power in the present, and their effort to sweep them under the rug must be resisted. But then there are countries such as South Africa emerging from the long, hard struggle against Apartheid, who must find a way to move forward as a non-racial nation without being paralyzed by the poison of hate. In such cases, initiatives like Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission try to work through a process of remembering, of bearing witness, to find a measure of forgiveness that will make national reconciliation possible—without driving all the white people who upheld apartheid into the sea.

Here, then, in a nutshell, is the problem with monuments. There is almost always an agenda, an ideology, behind them, and an attempt to assert sovereignty or supremacy. As they seek to unite their nation or group behind a dominant ideology, they tend to simultaneously exclude and alienate others by designating them as the enemy. It is no accident that most monuments are monoliths, tributes to masculinist power. For those who feel victimized or disenfranchised, such symbols inevitably serve as invitations to defy that power. Hence the attractiveness of Bob Marley’s lines:

If you are the big tree,
We are the small axe
Sharpened to cut you down

P1050739Nowadays after a traumatic national event, there is generally a debate as to how best to memorialize the event in a thoughtful manner that recognizes the enormity of the event but does not perpetuate the polarization, creating more conflict and inviting further retaliation. A case in point was the national debate in the United States on how best to memorialize the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center.

As I prepare to bid farewell to Bremen, I must say that, for me, the Statue of Roland, standing in the middle of the public thoroughfare, benevolently conveyed Bremen’s pride in its historical and continuing spirit of independence, and I’m glad that I paid a visit to it. But I still preferred my walks in Bremen’s Bürgerpark as a glorious living example of this city-state’s public spiritedness.

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259. London without Lily

In 1930s, 2010s, Books, Britain, history, India, Inter/Transnational, people, places, Stories, travel, United States, women & gender on April 14, 2014 at 8:42 am

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Kenwood House Coffee Café (artist: Ashley Cecil)

Kenwood House Coffee Café (artist: Ashley Cecil)

Every time I return to the city of my birth, I prepare for a hectic and joyful flurry of visiting—my mother’s sister and brother, cousins (or as we say in India, cousin-sisters and brothers), their children and grandchildren, and old friends—friends of my parents from before my birth, their children, who go back with me to the beginning, and a small number of friends who have either migrated to Britain from the Indian Subcontinent or whom I have got to know over the years during one of my extended stays. I ache for London when I am away from it and certain places in it (Hampstead Heath, Kentish Town, Camden Town) have an almost magical resonance for me, but as I plan to return once again, this time after six long years, I am reminded that it is people, as always, who matter the most. This time though, it will be the people who have passed away during the intervening six years who are uppermost in my mind: for I will return to a landscape without them in it. This time, no one defines London more by her absence than my mother’s oldest and dearest friend Lily.

Over the years I have visited Lily at a succession of different houses, in Highgate, Haringey, Kentish Town—just a short walk from where Mum and she were born, in adjacent streets—and Regents Park. We have met for lunch or coffee in Hampstead, shopped for boots at Camden Lock (Lily had impeccable taste), or just sat companionably over tea in her living room and talked about everything, from difficulties with family to personal fears to favorite musicians (hers were Pat Metheny and Miles Davis), books, and writers. In retrospect, it was probably I who talked, mostly, and she who listened.

British Edition, Michael Joseph, 1962 (dorislessing.org)

(dorislessing.org)

I never made elaborate plans in advance to meet Lily, simply let her know when I was coming and arranged to meet once I had visited all my aunts, uncles, and cousins. In fact, on one visit I surprised her by just turning up at her door unannounced. If she was put out she didn’t show it; she seemed unflappable, which was balm to me after the high drama that always attended my family relations. Although we were as close and went back as far as any member of my mother’s family, she shuddered at the thought of my calling her “Auntie” and strictly forbade it, saying that it made her feel old. So from my teen years on, she was always just Lily, who never judged or patronized me, never presumed to tell me what to do, but always listened, with brief responses that were absolutely on the mark. And she told me what to read.

(wasafiri.org)

(wasafiri.org)

Lily was a voracious and discerning reader who had her finger on the intellectual pulse of the city. She seemed to know everyone, had entertained Natalie Wood back in the day, had taken a creative writing class with Beryl Bainbridge before Bainbridge wrote her first novel, and had an impressive knowledge of the music and culture of our generation as well. Now that I look back, I realize that I counted on her to let me know what I had missed since I had last been in London, and to point me in the right direction for catching up. Only now do I realize that it was Lily who introduced me to the writers and ideas that have become the subject matter of my scholarly work and the touchstones of my sense of belonging in the world. Only now, after she is gone, do I realize that it was Lily who turned me on to Doris Lessing (“If you liked The Summer Before the Dark, that’s nothing compared to The Golden Notebook”) in the Spring of 1974 when I was studying in London and trying to read all the contemporary British fiction that I could (see TMA #135, Doris Lessing and Me); Lily (as well as my dear Uncle Ted) who sent us a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in the early 1980s, soon after its publication; Lily who, on hearing in 1990 that I was interested in Black British writing, sent me to Compendium bookshop to pick up a copy of Peter Fryer’s Staying Power; The History of Black People in Britain. Who else of my mother’s generation in England read all Maya Jaggi’s book reviews in The Guardian as well as remembering what life was like before the War? How is it that only now, as I try to process the shocking news of her death, do I see what a critical role she played in my intellectual development?

Street Scene Kentish Town circa 1931 ( artist: Cliff Rowe, at the Tate )

Street Scene Kentish Town circa 1931 ( artist: Cliff Rowe, at the Tate )

Lily had been my mother’s best friend from childhood. They were born months apart in the late 1920s and grew up together in the same working-class neighborhood of Kentish Town, North London. They aced their Eleven-plus exam together, went off to Grammar School at Parliament Hill School together (well, six months apart, but that’s another story), were both evacuated from London, along with their school, to live with different foster families in St. Albans during the bombing, left school together, got their first jobs at the same time, and went to the movies and out dancing together a couple of times a week. It was indirectly through Mum that Lily met and fell in love with Leon, the man she married; Mum met Dad around the same time and marriage was soon to take her away from England and Lily, but they remained close friends, writing to each other, exchanging cards, and getting together every time we returned.

After global communications became easier, Lily would always ring on my mother’s birthday and Mum would do the same on hers. She even came to visit in America once or twice, and Mum made a big fuss of her. She loved Lily, and always respected and admired her as well, her intelligence and dry wit, her beauty, sophistication, and style. Perhaps in her mind Lily had the life that she sometimes felt she would have liked to have lived if she had stayed in England rather than uprooting and traveling across three continents. In any case, whenever I visited Lily in London I couldn’t escape the feeling that somehow it should have been my mother, not me, who was enjoying tea with her in her sunny and elegant living room (no one else we knew, before or since, had a chaise longue). But it wasn’t my mother, of course; it was me.

Now, as I prepare once again to return to London, the city will present me with a bleaker, more impersonal face. Doris Lessing died in November at age 94, and though I have mourned her, the loss will come home to me again as I ramble over the Heath in Hampstead as she did so often (and where my mother once happened to see her, walking on the Heath herself—with Lily, I shouldn’t wonder). Lily died several months before Doris Lessing, although I still don’t know the date; as things turned out we didn’t receive the sad news until some time after Christmas. I will try to visit her daughter and son, whom I haven’t seen for many years and but nonetheless feel a kinship with. Even as I look forward eagerly to meeting my beloved friends and family, I can’t help feeling a certain dread, because for the first time I will be returning to a London without Lily.

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