Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Of Memories, Melancholy and the Milieu

Memories can fade as fast as freak snow flakes in summer or they just refuse to disappear like the gigantic Himalayas. Durable memories can either make one’s engagement with realities worthwhile or mar the future with devastating consequence. It has been over a month since I attended the Fifth Arambam Somorendra Memorial Lecture as a discussant on the 10th June 2010 at the Gandhi Memorial (GM) Hall, Imphal. All this while I have not stopped pondering over a great lecture delivered by Dr. Xonzoi Barbora, titled ‘Friends, Familiar Places and Melancholy: Life and Death in Northeast India’. It was not just the late visionary’s reputation that drew me to the event but also the continuous discursive engagement of the Arambam Somorendra Trust to generate debates on the issue of contemporary life and politics in Manipur and the Northeast.

The 10th of June lecture indeed gave a clear picture as to how we situate ourselves amidst violence, death and silence. Dr. Barbora succinctly delineated our engagements with the everyday-ness of violence and death and the consequent feelings of guilt and melancholy that engulf us all. He recounts his experiences with friends who are no more. He said, “We have become adept at writing obituaries in Northeast India. We write them at times when we are choking in guilt, or drowning in sorrow”. Listening to Dr. Barbora’s lecture made me ask this question; Is it this feeling of guilt and melancholy that constantly produces and reproduces strange acts of silence? Barbora's lecture or for that matters the act of writing for the dead falls between what we understand as “silence and protest”. Recounting familiar narratives and remembering the dead is one way of negotiating with existing realities. Hence, there is the need for stories to be told and retold even though they may be repetitive while simultaneously unique.

Dr. Barbora specifically recounted the lives of the late - Nilikesh Gogoi, Kabiranjan Saikia, Thingnam Kishan, U A Shimray and publicly unknown yet familiar friends who are no more. There is a need to understand narratives like these in order to witness our lives as well as the lives of friends and acquaintances. There is also the possibility that death itself might be too encompassing for lives to be remembered and articulated into spoken language. Perhaps there also exists a language of silence which speaks louder than words quite distinct from the act of indifference. Death and silence then become ominous and begin to reflect in our literature, visual and performing arts and become inscribed in landscape.

It then could also be said that melancholy is the landscape where lives are acted out, recounted and narrated and felt deeply through the act of narration. This could be the reason why (to quote Dr. Barbora) “our poets have been marshaled into writing pamphlets and our sloganeers have become poets”. However, there seems to be no contradiction in one oscillating between two beings – the poetic and the political. A symptom of an ephemeral confusion that has continued to haunt us for long has been the inability to make a clear distinction between binaries that have ruled the progression of human civilization – like the civic and the political as in poems and pamphlets.

I was particularly drawn to Dr. Barbora’s invocation of the idea of “hüzn” or “hüzün” to describe melancholy. Those of us who are familiar with Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul Memories of a City know that line by Ahmet Rahim – “The beauty of a landscape resides in its melancholy” writ on the page after the dedication. Dr.Barbora had perhaps got more from Pamuk’s description of “hüzün” or “huzn”, the Turkish synonym for melancholy. One of the descriptions Pamuk gave was: “…the spiritual anguish we feel because we cannot be close enough to Allah, because we cannot do enough for Allah in this world.” The reference to the “Almighty” here can be taken as a deeper “inability” by all of us to accomplish the set tasks before us. Interestingly, it can be the absence of “hüzün” which can cause even more distress. This seems to indicate that there can be another type of melancholy – the melancholy that one feels because one has not been melancholic enough.

Melancholy evokes memories. The trepidation with memories is that memories can go back a few thousand years which can veer towards an imagined presence of the past, be it either tragedy or glory. The question that haunts us in the present is: What kind of memories do we need to keep alive to make sense of the present? What has a “unique” vengeful memory or a “glorious civilizational” memory got to do with a collective “poetic and political” future? These are rather questions and not answers that we have to keep engaging with. Dr. Barbora said, “…all of us here know what food is cooked in the hills, just as surely as they know what is fermenting in our iromba. This is what makes us different from the rest of the world! ”. This is a good literary trope to examine “ourselves” vis-à-vis the idea of “collectivity” and “exclusivity”, between “the raw and the cooked”, and also between “the fresh and the fermented” over the hills and the valleys in the Northeast. Dr. Barbora gave us enough “cooked and uncooked” food for thought. Cooked, because he addressed the primacy of “feelings” over the meta-narrative of the “self”. Uncooked, because some of his ideas may be “raw” for many of us in the Northeast and the milieu we live in.

This review was published in The Imphal Free Press on 11th of July 2010 ©

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