Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Speak, Memory

"wet, beneath the blue suburban skies I sit and meantime..."

It's a Yahoo Groups thing. We are about 180 members and what brings us together is Space and Time. You see, we all grew up and lived in this little town in Northern India. Many of us were born there and some moved there when their parents found work in our little town. We love this place dearly.

Everybody in the group is desperate to relive the past. Remember, remember, remember. We remember names of pets and dead friends and plaster of paris statues of women; we remember our teachers, our crimes and their punishments. It's like a never-ending school reunion party except there are no jokes about receding hairlines and no drunken confessions made to the ladies in the room.

"So", one of my friends writes in, "does this place even exist or am I imagining it?" He is talking about this park that he visited once as a child. It was high up on a hill, overlooking some river and there were picnics under a giant bargad-tree.

Some members post helpful suggestions but none seem to satisfy my friend. "Are you talking about this park by the dam?" No. "You mean this park and this tree?". No, that's not it either. Another person thinks my friend is indeed imagining things.

I think there is some anxiety in his question. Our childhood memories are a huge mash-up of sounds, smells, textures, photographs, paintings, films, pictures from story-books and descriptions that we have only heard from other people. So how the hell does anyone know anything for sure? We are so convinced of our past. After all, we lived it once, didn't we? So why can't one of you tell me where this goddamn park is!

Every community grows closer with memories. Be they memories of songs, films, books, TV shows or even news stories. For example, if you too remember the Ranga-Billa case, you and I have something in common. Culture is memory, tradition is memory, even nationality is memory. But how much of our memory "really exists" and how much is imagined? If everyone remembers the past differently, how is it still a shared past?

Still more worrisome is the fact that if a sufficiently large number of people challenge your memory, it becomes (at best) a product of one's imagination, something insubstantial. Truth is heavy. Imagination, being lighter than light, floats on the surface of our memories.

I carefully read the responses to my friend's question. Every new response convinces me it is the correct answer, but sadly, everyone is wrong. I am disappointed but I am also delighted to read about all those places. And even though we all remember it completely differently, this is a community. By some fantastic coincidence, we travelled through the same Space at the same Time! How do the details matter, there is something much more important than just names, locations and street addresses - all mere facts.

At every such intersection of truth and imagination probably sits a beautiful park (with an infinite number of empty swingsets and see-saws) high up on a tree-covered hill, overlooking a sparkling river and on the tiny island in the middle of the river stands an old bargad-tree with millions of inseparable branches and roots, and under that tree stand our mothers with their battered Milton water-coolers and casseroles and badminton rackets.

And somewhere in a battered old temple sit three men on a rainy afternoon, swapping stories, each insisting what they saw was the truth.

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