March 31, 2020
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Memory: A Wound, A Womb

Memory is a contested field. Demagogues have tried to erase and rewrite it. State apparatuses have bent it to their needs.

Memory: A Wound, A Womb
Tau tau statues memorialise the dead. A gallery at Lemo village, Tana Toraja province, Sulawesi.
Photograph by Pavel Chakraborty
Memory: A Wound, A Womb

In his novel, Shame, Salman Rushdie calls Pakistan, “insufficiently imagined...a failure of the dreaming mind”. The root of this insufficiency and failure lies in Pakistan suffering from the absence of a history. Pakistan is a nation with an insufficient past, without a long enough historical memory that nations live and suffer from. Pakistan suffers an opposite phenomenon: from the lack of mem­ory. Being a nation built on the logic of religion, its official history had the pernicious burden of dividing its claim to an older history of the Indian subcontinent into religious lines, glorifying the Islamic and downplaying the others. Hamida Khuhro lays bare the lie of Pakistan’s history, which invents its origins from the conquest of Sindh by the Umayyad army, led by the young general Muh­­ammad bin Qasim in 711 AD. In Sindh, textbooks mention Mohenjodaro and the Indus Valley cities, the Maha­bharata, and Buddhism without serious pause or attention. Born out of the ripped belly of a beast named Partition, history for Pakistan not only reflects the severance of ties, but also a severance of memory. A country without a past remains paranoid about its future.

In history, the desire to obliterate the past may also give rise to a similar paranoia and act of aggression. In The Wall and the Books, Jorge Luis Borges wrote how China’s ‘First Emperor’, Shih Huang Ti, ordered the construction of the Great Wall of China, and also the burning of all books written before his reign. These were “two gigantic operations”, Borges wrote—“the five or six hundred leagues of stone to oppose the barbarians” and “the rigorous abolition of history, that is of the past”. A mad gesture of paranoia, where both past and future are threats against the desired immortality of the present. Huang Ti did not only burn books but executed scholars. He was as scared of a thinking kingdom as he was of time. He knew, rightly, that thinking was the secret enemy of power. A man who wanted to live forever is haunted by a fear of omens. A king’s ambitious des­ire to rule forever is pursued by the pha­­ntoms of a conspiratorial death. This paradox has outlived crazy monarchs and their modern, secular avatars: They wanted to own the future, with the gnawing realisation that time was never in their hands.

The Communist emperors of the 20th century, Stalin and Mao, weren’t any different when it came to megalomania, cultivating personas provoking fear and awe. Boris Pas­ternak felt the chill on a day in 1934 when Stalin asked him over the phone about Osip Mandelstam. Pasternak fumbled in his efforts to defend a fellow-poet, saying he would like to talk about “life and death” and Russia’s future. Stalin hung up, saying he would have done better to save a friend. Pasternak missed the point. Stalin was also talking about life and death, having decided on Mandelstam’s literary exile in the Gulag, hearing how the poet had reviled his figure in a poem. Mandelstam remarked later, “Only in Russia is poetry respected, it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?” A regime wishes to control the fate of language, whose fate lies in the hand of time. Stalinism upturned Plato’s theory: poets are dangerous, for they can strip the emperor’s version of truth. In his letter to Brezhnev before leaving the country in 1972, Joseph Brodsky wrote, “A language is more ancient and inevitable than the state”. Stalin destroyed Mandelst­am’s life, but The Stalin Epigram had the last word.

The history of censorship has deep connections with the future of memory. In 1923, Lenin’s wife Krupskaia, as part of the People’s Commissar for Education, started a book purge. The list was illustrious: Plato, Descartes, Kant, the Gospels, the Quran, the Talmud, Carlyle, Tolstoy, William James. There was a massive elimination of books in public libraries, considered harmful for the Soviet project. Similarly, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a large number of authors considered pollutants, including Sha­kespeare, were banned. In 1966, Lin Biao, the man who invented the Mao cult, called for the destruction of the ‘Four Olds’: customs, culture, habits and ideas. The idea of inventing a new social order and cultural possibilities is promising. But to rename ‘Blue Sky Clothes Store’ into ‘Def­ending Mao Zedong Clothes Store’ was a funny enthusiasm. In a similar context from Greek history, Yannis Ritsos called it “imp­­­­­rovised substitutions”. The future of writing was stalled in both countries, creating an industry where imagination was replaced by a functional motive: to produce books toeing the party line, serving the official truth. In Alexander Solz­henitsyn’s plain words, the aim of ‘soc­ialist realism’—Stalin’s apology for art and literature—was “to abstain from telling the truth”. Russian Futurism, des­­pite its radical break with the past, did not convince the Bolsheviks and its writers and artists were persecuted after 1917. Some managed to emigrate, while May­akovsky, who joined the Sov­iet establishment, committed suicide in 1930. From Ha Jin to Bei Dao, the list of Chinese writers in exile is long. Lines from Bei Dao’s famous poem, The Ans­wer, written during the Tiananmen demo­nst­rations of 1976, were carried on posters by students during the massacre of 1989 at the same site. The memory of a poem is transposed to another event in the future, but gets entrapped within the sinister repetition of political memory. That is when the future of a poem, like that of a people, is in grave danger.

Fortress Of Clay
Huang Ti’s Terracotta Army
Photograph by Getty Images

The desire to monopolise the future aspires to alter the script of memory, invent a new past. This 20th century project of ima­­gining the new took place under the revolutionary rhetoric of being ‘international’ and ‘universal’. But Com­munism in China or Soviet Union was full of nationalist aspirations. In the name of establishing ‘world communism’, the Bolsheviks wan­ted to seize the Baltics and the German-occupied territories of Belarus and Ukraine after World War I, to reclaim what the Tsarist Empire had lost. No wonder Cornelius Cast­oriadis called the USSR: “Four words, four lies”. To which, Milan Kun­dera added: “The Soviet people: a verbal screen behind which all the Russified nati­ons of that Empire are meant to be forgotten.” In a similar vein, Ismail Kadare, in The Concert, invented Mao’s soliloquy to reveal his megalomaniac nationalism: “Yes, he sig­hed, he really was made to measure for China, just as China was specia­lly created for him!” While Com­m­unist countries tried to debunk the past in the name of a new future, the countries of Western Europe inven­ted a new history for the colonies that justified the ‘civilising mission’. The future was imagined in both cases through the lens of rational, scientific progress. It needed two world wars to prove the barbarism of the West, bef­ore they left the colonies to their future.

It is in the smaller nations of the Middle East and Latin America, in Greece, Turkey, Chile, Cuba, where the communist movement was more impressive, as they fought oligarchies and American intervention. Till the breakdown of the USSR, these countries were caught in the politics of the cold war, apart from internal tussles for power. Apart from shining figures of resistance like Che Guevara, these countries produced great political poets in the 20th century. Yannis Ritsos, Nâzım Hikmet, Pablo Neruda and many others, wrote on the clash of blood and ideas in the passing, historical moment, documenting the language of aspirations. There was no memory, no future, outside the present. In the case of Palestine, battling Israel's "agoraphobic war" (to use the term by the French writer, Christian Salmon) memory has been barricaded. Memory is under siege. Mahmud Darwish's Arab generosity however puts the Israeli-Palestinian encounter as "a conflict between two memories." The Greek poet, Ritsos, dialogued with his history and refashioned its myths. In many arrested nights, he made legends and ancient statues speak within the silence of prison walls. But regimes like Castro’s betrayed its propensity towards censorship. The poet Herberto Padilla, despite being a supporter of the revolution, was put under house arrest in 1971 for being critical and skeptical of the regime’s ideals. It took Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Susan Sontag to petition for his release. Defiant literature is always under trouble. 

In another horizon, America made Nicanor Parra realise its “liberty is a statue”. Home for the world’s political dissidents, America is also the home of racist paranoia. Its ‘discovery’ was an act of violence and forgetting, as the guns of white settlers took over from exterminated native Indians. Then slavery, the human cargo from Africa, till the Civil Rights movement from the 1950s brought resistance to the streets. Bob Dylan pointed his finger at timid apologists by singing about a real event in The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll: ‘But you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears / Take the rag away from your face / Now ain’t the time for your tears.’ Still, Blacks loved America. James Baldwin only insisted “on the right to criticise her perpetually”. In 1924, Lorca wrote about the path­etic deaths in the “pyramid of moss” at Wall Street, and contrasted it with the resisting colour of suffering in Harlem. When Sartre visited New York in December 1944, he wrote of the “filmy atm­ospheres, longitudinally stretched masses with nothing to mark a beginning or end”. Everything in America is a myth, wrote Sartre, from its progress to its happiness. People suffered from an “obscure malaise”. America’s memory and history, segregated by a foundational violence, remains its paranoia.

Nehru grappled introspectively with the idea of the past thro­ughout the pages of The Discovery of India. He is torn between the need to abandon the “relics”, the “deadwood”, the “burden” of the past, the “past of caste”, and the need for a “rediscovery of the past”, to have a “new awareness of the past”. In the light of what happened in the Soviet Union and China, it isn’t surprising to hear Nehru say: “I know that in India the Communist Party is completely divorced from, and is ignorant of, the national traditions that fill the minds of the people. It believes that communism necessarily implies contempt for the past.” No wonder, a serious historian like K.N. Panikkar dismissed the Khajuraho temples  at the Calcutta History Congress as “a degeneration of Hindu mind”. The modern, secular mind unleashes its moralism, its prejudices, in the garb of scientific rationality. Panikkar’s woeful limitations are in stark contrast to Marx’s admission of the ‘miracle’ of Greek art that did not have a logical correspondence with Greece’s social and economic structure. If frank eroticism is degenerate, wonder how we may define repressed sexuality. Nehru prefers a balance regarding nationalist history: “National progress can, therefore, neither lie in a repetition of the past nor in its denial”. He is, however, alert to add, that what we must not learn from the past is the “manipulation of history to suit particular ends and support one’s own fancies and prejudices”. History cannot just be read in terms of class struggle or invented nationalist communities. History is also the history of people, of others, the others of modernity. The idea of the 'primitive' is a reflection of modernity's arrogance, indifference and stupidity. Nehru's optimism for a nationalist history and "scientific progress" also reflects these problems

The Hindu nationalist project of correcting the past dangerously initiates a double-forgetting: the forgetting of how Hindus victimised the untouchables and what they owe to Dalits and people of other faiths. Milan Kundera’s observation, that remembering “is a form of forgetting” is especially true about the deliberate blindness of fascist projects. It made Jewish Marxists in Hitler's Germany, more empathetically attentive to memory than communists in Russia. Walter Benjamin wrote, "only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past". Nehru's attitude towards historical memory, despite the conflicts and traps of nationalist historiography, reflects a Benjaminian boldness.

In contrast, when you decide the story in advance, history is no longer a discovery of the past but a confirmation of present hatred. Fascism is majoritarian hate, built on feelings of hurt pride. It bides time to play aggressor by claiming victimhood. History is made to justify the politics of vendetta based on past wrongs. These wrongs are however placed one-sidedly: Desecrated temples and conversions become cause for revenge, but violent, caste segregation is no cause for repentance. Hindus and Muslims have to acknowledge their histories of injustice. Democracy is based on the knowledge that history is unjust and we have to relinquish our prejudices. To throttle democracy with revenge-seeking nationalism will mean we value Partition more than freedom. The loudmouths on Indian television busy militarising people’s minds are indulging in forgetting, à la Pakistan. Hate often thrives by imitating the enemy.

Where did it all go wrong? Jinnah said in his fam­ous August 11, 1947, speech, “A division had to take place”. As if  Parti­ti­on was an inevitable and matter-of-fact event, not a hig­hly manipulative one. In his judgement, there were no other solutions, and he believed the verdict of “future history” will be in its favour. It is incredible for a man who saw mass mutilation in the wake of his own decision to speak optimistically of the future. How could someone claim a future at such a moment? The future was being coldly drawn, divorced from memory. If Nehru spoke the truth instead of hyperbole on August 15, 1947, he couldn’t have said, “India will awake to life and freedom”, but that India shall awake to death and freedom. A writer like Manto could say that, not a prime minister. Manto was Nehru’s other, who, in a letter in 1954, caustically reminded Nehru of the threat to Urdu in India. Manto was losing his sanity in Pakistan, but the fate of a language bothered him.

In Pakistan or the Partition of India, Ambedkar asked, “Are there any common historical antecedents which the Hindus and Muslims can be said to share together as matters of pride or as matters of sorrow?” A common future, he seemed to suggest, can be based only on a shared sense of memory. Born an untouchable, he would know. “Touch has a memory”, wrote Keats. Against that memory, Dalits have a shadow-memory of non-touch. Untouchability is a curse upon memory and the need to annihilate it is a way towards erasing that history. To assess Ambedkar’s statement regarding Hindus and Muslims, both share a cultural history and memory of everyday life—but are divided by a politically manoeuvered construction of history. Nehru’s anti-colonial reconstruction of India’s past suggests a way out of the problem. Though he was an admirer of Akbar, writing in 1944 from the prison at Ahmednagar Fort, Nehru mentioned “the courage of a beautiful woman, Chand Bibi, who defended this fort and led her forces, sword in hand, against the imperial armies of Akbar”. Pride in medieval times was monarchical, not religious. Yet, shining instances of generosity stood out amidst cruellest enmities. Guru Gobind Singh’s Persian letter, Zafar­nama, to his sworn enemy Aurangzeb, chastised the Mughal king for taking false religious oaths. The Guru refused Aurangzeb’s invitation to visit him knowing what happened to his father, but invited the sultan instead. To engage with a treacherous man who had wiped out his entire family was an act of poignant grace. We need to revisit such promising moments in Indian history.

Huang Ti not only burned books but also executed scholars. He was as scared of a thinking kingdom as he was of time.

In his essay on Huang Ti, Borges failed to mention the king’s third, significant undertaking: his Terracotta Army, a set of scu­lptures in the form of a funerary. He thought these terracotta men will protect him in his afterlife. Having secured his fantasies, Huang Ti wanted to secure his afterlife with dummies. What a joke these insecure tyrants make of the memory of their future and the future of their memory. They reduce their life and reign to a farce. Is there anything more laughable in history?

(Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer, translator and teaches at Ambedkar University, Delhi.)

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