We are made of our memories. The books we read, the movies we watch, the places we visit, the mistakes we make, the lessons we learn, the people we love, and the things we lose make up the plane of our nostalgia, of our identities. Subtly, quietly, gradually, over the years that we live, our interactions with things – tangible and intangible, ideas and stories shape us into the people we eventually become.
And what if we were to begin to lose our memories? How much of us can we lose until we are completely gone?
In Yoko Ogawa’s 1994 novel, The Memory Police – translated into English in 2019 by Stephen Snyder – the unnamed female protagonist, a novelist, ponders over this existential conundrum, as the world around her and her memories of it continue to disappear.
Situated on an unnamed Japanese Island, the novel builds a dystopian picture of a place where an unnamed authority deems things, seemingly random, “disappeared”. The people wake up with an intuitive feeling of something being gone and lost. They get down to doing away with the physical objects that are to be lost now, keeping up with the fading memory of the thing. Books, flowers, photographs, boats – the objects, their meanings, the words we use to refer to them lose all meaning, essence and memory.
As she loses parts of her world, little gaps of vacuum appear where things, words, feelings and meanings used to be. When you lose a thing, the purpose of it disappears too. The few who can’t forget make up the endangered anomaly – hunted by the Memory Police – stone-faced, long-coated agents of the government that is out to control and contour the collective plane of memory and nostalgia.
The protagonist’s mother was one such person of undented memories, a sculptor who hid little disappeared objects in a cupboard in her studio. She was picked up by the Memory Police for interrogation and returned with a death certificate.
Now a similar fate awaits the novelist’s editor, R. So the novelist hides him in a secret room between the floorboards, built by her friend, the old man who lives in a forgotten ferry.
The story doesn’t question the motives or relay the origin of this dystopia or of the memory police. It simply, subtly depicts the lives of those who live in this constantly and rapidly disappearing world. The novelist does not wonder why the roses disappear, she doesn’t care that the birds have all flown away, she doesn’t mourn the books that are burnt in large communal fires around the neighbourhood.
As calendars disappear, time stands still and the island seems to be lost in an eternal winter. She tries to carry on writing even when novels have disappeared from the world but the story she was writing, of a mute typist trapped inside a clocktower, is now a stranger to her.
R tells her: “The island is run by men who are determined to see things disappear. From their point of view, anything that fails to vanish when they say it should is inconceivable. So they force it to disappear.”
On reading the book, the emptiness and the passive acceptance of an infinitely edited world started to somewhat mirror the reality around us. In a world where our truths, facts, intentions seem to be in a losing battle against fake news, rewritten histories, censored words, fetishised figureheads and demonised music and art, one wonders, what are the things we must never forget?
Our story and our history
As a country, we could be seen as an experiment – successful in part, struggling in some part, thriving so far as a project of unity in diversity. We may not have achieved the dream that was laid out for us by the constitution some 70 years ago, but we try.
We cannot forget where we came from, what brought us together, what rips us apart. The mistakes that were made, the lessons that were learnt. The blood that was spilt and the bonds that were created. The monuments that stand, and the structures that were broken down. The lands we loved, the lands we fled, the lands we remember, the lands we belong to. The names we were given, our first ports of identity. The names of the streets we walked, places we visited, the stories that make us who we are.
Our art and music
Think of your earliest memories that are tied to the TV set or the silver screen. From Mile Sur Mera Tumhara to early ’90s Doordarshan animated shorts reminding us that no matter what we look like or the language we speak, we are all Indians. These are the memories to hold on to. Hold on to the movies where the police actually fought for the safety of the people, to movies about the freedom struggle, about world wars, but also of brotherhood, of unity, of peace.
The music and poetry of resistance – from Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Iqbal Bano to Rahat Indori and Varun Grover, Hussain Haidry to Ankur Tewari and Aamir Aziz. The revolution we’re in is being documented in art – music, poetry, photographs, sculptures, paintings. We must remember the words and the melody and the brush strokes – reclaiming our right to speech and expression in any form we can.
“In the dark times will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.” If these be the dark times, maybe it is time for the songs about the dark times too.
Our hope and each other
Every time a troll brings you down with his relentless spittle of hate and rage, remember the thousands singing in unison 24x7 in so many corners of the country. All we have is hope. All we have is each other. Divisive politics will only work if it can truly divide us.
But if the memories and music and stories of what we are and what we can be are not forgotten, we can remember that our only true power lies in our unity. It lies in sticking together, in never shutting up, never giving up, finding hope when all seems lost, in showing up day after day and night after night for ourselves, for each other.