Josna Rege

219. Palimpsest

In 1980s, 2010s, Books, Family, history, India, Inter/Transnational, places, postcolonial, reading, Stories, United States, Words & phrases, writing on July 27, 2013 at 12:36 pm
Family reunion, Ratnagiri: in the Arabian Sea

Family reunion, Ratnagiri: Arabian Sea

We had just moved to the farm in Winchendon when I became pregnant with Nikhil. (This happy event may or may not have been the result of circumambulating a 4,000-year-old mango tree at a temple in Tamil Nadu, but that’s another story.) Since the interior of the old farmhouse was covered with leaded paint, Andrew and I set about scraping the baseboards and window frames and stripping layer upon layer of paint and paper from the walls. In our room and the one that was to be the baby’s nursery we must have peeled off at least three successive layers of wallpaper, each featuring a design of its own era, starting with the 1970s, stripping down to the 1950s, then the 1920s, and finally, plaster and lath. When we broke through a crumbling section of plaster and lath to blow in cellulose insulation, we found ancient newspapers, c. 1915, stuffed in-between the walls. (The only room whose walls we didn’t touch was the one upstairs with the Star Wars wallpaper. When Nikhil and Eric got a little older, this was to be their super-cool shared “pipartment,” as three-year-old Nikhil called it.)  All the earlier generations that had inhabited the house, although they weren’t always visible, left their traces, sometimes papered over, but frequently making themselves felt.

layers of old wallpaper (photo: Elizabeth, apartment therapy.com)

layers of old wallpaper (photo: Elizabeth, apartment therapy.com)

Who was the writer who said that in India, the past never goes away? I think it may have been Salman Rushdie. Nowhere is this more evident than in the postal addresses, where post-colonial attempts to restore or otherwise replace street and city names changed by the British with the original (or at least, earlier) names are frustrated by the Indian tendency to simply pile on history in layers.  An address may look something like this:

RBTB Hospital
Kingsway Camp
Mall Road
Guru Teg Bahadur (or GTB) Nagar

In this case, the British renamed the locality at the time of the Delhi Durbar in 1911, when King George V visited India to inaugurate New Delhi as the new capital of British India.  After Independence, Kingsway was renamed Rajpath (the meaning remaining the same) and, since 1970, Kingsway Camp has officially been Guru Teg Bahadur Nagar. (Teg(h) Bahadur was a Sikh Guru and warrior who was arrested and executed in Delhi before the British era, by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb after he refused to convert to Islam. Interesting that the post-colonial renaming should recall resistance to still-earlier rulers, ensuring that they too remain imprinted in the collective memory.) Nevertheless, to be on the safe side, Indian addresses still typically include the colonial name as well as the post-colonial one (not to mention other helpful landmarks, such “opp. Sales Tax Office” or “behind Odeon Cinema”). All this makes it quite challenging to fit them on an envelope.

Rajpath (photo by Naresh Sharma/Firstpost)

Rajpath (photo by Naresh Sharma/Firstpost)

Postcolonial theory likes to uses the term palimpsest to refer to this phenomenon of the past never quite going away. A palimpsest is  a parchment or manuscript that has been erased and overwritten, but still bears traces of the earlier inscription(s). In postcolonial studies the idea of the palimpsest reminds us that, in the countries they colonized around the world, colonial powers like the British didn’t impose their rule on a blank slate, and by the same token, the institutions they imposed and the ideologies that they inculcated in the people they ruled didn’t simply disappear when the flag of the newly-independent nation was hoisted in place of the Union Jack. Traces always remain, traces of both the pre-colonial and the colonial pasts.

My students love the word when it is introduced to them, and subsequently use it as often as they can, not only because it is enjoyable to roll off the tongue, but also because the idea of the palimpsest is an attractive one. As one of Anita Desai’s characters acknowledges at the end of Desai’s novel, Clear Light of Day, “Nothing’s over, ever.” It’s one of my favorite lines in any novel, and is quite different from the idea, more prevalent in the United States, that one can simply erase the past and start over with a clean slate.

All of life it seems, is either a process of accretion, of piling up, or a labor of stripping away. This past week, visiting Monhegan Island, an old artists’ colony off the coast of Maine, with the ebb and flow of island life awakening me from my workaday routines, I found wave upon wave of earlier seaside sojourns washing over me.  As my friend Anna put it, “so much of you that is buried comes to the surface,” even as you luxuriate in the tidal present, with morning mists giving way to steamy sunshine, and the sound of the waves, always the waves, crashing on the rocky shore.

Like the old farmhouse in Winchendon, like the addresses in New-Old Delhi, like the sea, history itself, I am a palimpsest, as are we all.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

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  1. No question that life simply does add layers to our lives. In a memorable debate with a head hunter who was only interested in the previous 2 years of my career, I was at pains to point that those 2 years would not have happened, indeed, were even shaped by, to some extent, by the years before.

    I want to hear more about the mango tree!

    • Thank you for your comment. That head-hunter was short-sighted. It’s always fascinating to me how people’s careers unfold. I tell young people who are afraid to switch fields because of how it’ll look on their resume that no effort they have made in any arena is wasted–it all contributes to who they are and what they have to offer, both in and out of work.
      Your wish is my command! I will soon write about the mango tree.

  2. Never heard that word before! Lovely as usual xxxxxx

    • Thank you, Cussin. Yes, isn’t it a strange and wonderful word. Once you’ve encountered it you’ll see examples of it everywhere. xxx Jo

  3. So many thoughts come to mind reading your beautiful piece Josna which has always the right word in its right place. Yes. The edibility of ‘palimpsest’ and the truth (and grief) of, ‘Nothing’s over. Ever.’ And the writing about colonialism reminds me of Paul Scott’s tour de force: The Raj Quartet. Amongst the books I would take to a desert island would be the Raj Quartet. And the other – again historical/cross cultural – novel would have to be (for me) Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres. They fill one’s heart with the light and darkness which is man.
    Evangeline

    • Thank you, “E”. What a lovely response. I love your word use and turn of phrase—”edibility” and that beautiful last sentence, “…the light and darkness which is man.” About “Nothing’s over. Ever,” I suppose there is sorrow in it now that I think of it. In Anita Desai’s novel, though, it is a strong sign of hope for reconciliation between siblings who have been long estranged. I must go back to the Raj Quartet. I have them all but don’t think I’ve read past the first one, and perhaps didn’t even finish that–or did, but so long ago that I can’t remember. I usually remember if I’ve read a book, but in this case may be confusing having watched The Jewel in the Crown (aah, the young Art Malik as Hari Kumar!) with having read the book. Louis de Bernieres is another one of those novelists whose work I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t yet. I’ve had Captain Corelli’s Mandolin sitting on my shelf for years but somehow haven’t got to it. Perhaps I’ll start with Birds Without Wings instead. x J

  4. I loved this piece – and I’ve always loved palimpsests – both the originals and the idea as we use it in our lives… your comments have inspired me to get down the Raj Quartet and try to read it again – I’ve always found it too powerfully painful to re-read until now… but I’ll gird my loins…
    I’m searching for your story about not letting babies cry ( which i also wrote about months ago) and can’t seem to find it…
    The sad thing about writing in a blog is that I tend to feel we reach the converted, rather than be-nighted desperate parents !!!

    • Thank you for your comment, Valerie. Yes, The Raj Quartet. Something seems to have kept me from delving into it all these years. Perhaps I need to get similarly girded 🙂
      I need to make it easier for people to find things on my site. The piece is called “No Baby No Cry.” There’s a link to a Table of Contents (two, actually) at the bottom of every post and a search function at the bottom of the Home Page.
      You’re right that we are more often than not preaching to the converted. Still, I like to think that someone may stumble upon a piece of mine while searching for something completely different and be introduced to a new idea. And then, most new parents feel pretty desperate at one time or another!

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