In the end, it’s up to the roaches

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on December 08, 2020

Done and rusted: There is something intrinsically sad about the elapsed moment   -  ISTOCK.COM

Memory is a trolley bag that we have to drag behind us for the rest of our lives

* The literary writer, after a night wracked by strange dreams, wakes up and walks into the arms of memory, a sweet surrender

* Every time a writer sits down to write, she has to open the sluices, set the mousetraps, prepare the bait and wait for the penny to drop


Memory is like a kite, fastened to its owner by a slender thread. Memory is also, at times, a cup of slowly brewing tea, each tea leaf marinating in its taste and smell; at others, it is a storm in a teacup. Memory is a trolley bag that we have to drag behind us for the rest of our lives. Memory is the currency we deal in when we talk to ourselves at night.

We are caged in by our memories but the graveyard of memories nourishes us too. Memories come flooding back like waves, bringing in its wake tiny fish, clam shells, used condoms and milk packets, the fragments of our lives. Indeed, memory is a landscape — writers often speak of the map of memory. It’s a landscape, at times parched earth, at others flooded plain, peopled by eccentrics and tyrants, plumbers and masons. Here we meet elephants with elephantine memories, snails and tortoises with all the time in the world, and the occasional green parrot streaking across the tropical jungle in the wink of an eye.

There is something intrinsically sad about the elapsed moment. We possess a subterranean awareness of this, which is why we plunge ourselves into nervous activity from the moment we wake up. Whether it is the labour of chores or watching a film or the filling sounds of music, it’s all a means of distracting us from the burden of memory. Memory knows this only too well and therefore chooses to strike at night, when all activity has ceased, and man has tired of his maniacal pursuit of ‘making new memories’.

No writing is possible without memory. Memory is a writer’s occupational hazard. A trumpeter or surgeon or soldier can forget about mundane memories and lose themselves in the immersed moment of the daily grind. The literary writer, after a night wracked by strange dreams, wakes up and walks into the arms of memory, a sweet surrender. It’s a burden she takes on on behalf of her fellow humans. Ordinary mortals suppress their memories. They need a psychoanalyst to unearth these buried memories. Or the novelist. Or the poet. Or the singer/songwriter.

A writer can never escape memory. Even a fantasy writer, who might be accused of escaping from memory, relies on memory, sensations and impressions to create fantastical creatures. Where most people treat memories as an irritant meant to be banished or to recoil from, the writer stretches them out like spaghetti. In the reassuring environment provided by desk and lamplight, each letter of the keyboard waits patiently for the writer to pull these strands of memory into a cogent whole.

Every time a writer sits down to write, she has to open the sluices, set the mousetraps, prepare the bait and wait for the penny to drop. What haunts the human is hunted down by the writer. Sitting in the machan, the writer keeps vigil, waiting for the leopard to appear. There is no guarantee it will; memories can play truant. It’s possible that, as the writer squints his eyes and pours another mug of coffee, the leopard has found its way to the local airport, scaled the walls and taken refuge in a hangar, the centre of someone else’s attentions.

When the storm of memories threatens to uproot one’s house, most people rush to secure their doors and windows. The writer throws the windows open and allows the storm to fill each corner with pieces of ripped cellophane and tarpaulin, bird feather and cosmic dust. Every sentence is an act of recovery, of that long-elapsed long-buried moment. Scavenging is a painful, exhausting, exacting process. What it gives us though is not something morbid or unedifying. Instead, it gives us a work of art, a bricolage which renews and refreshes briefly, until the work of art, too, perishes and turns to dust. Memories and the works of art they feed are both fireflies. It’s a cat chasing its own tail.

Memory is essential to literature, even when it is not put down on papyrus or hard drive. In the oral tradition, storytellers of yore would recount tales sitting around a fire, each rendering being ever so slightly different in each retelling. Urdu shayars are expected to recite from memory.

As a child, I remember visiting with my parents the house of a famous local industrialist. They were the types who cherished their memories. Cherishing memories is like an act of defiance in the face of adversity. One clings to flotsam thinking it is a tusk of ivory. For the industrialist family, this meant watching VHS home videos of their grandchildren riding tricycles in the spacious compound, spraying water on each other and cutting multi-tiered birthday cakes. Memories seem to serve no purpose until they are shared with the world. And so each year, when we went for our annual visit, the same videos would be inflicted on us, with new footage of birthdays, which had been celebrated in the year gone by. Recently, I found myself working on a new story, which features prams, birthdays, tricycles and home videos. People and what they do with their memories is the stuff of literature.

The purpose of this column is not to elevate the writer into some kind of omniscience, where she is able to do things with memory which ‘normal’ people can’t. Writers are human too, and like Doc Martin in the British television series — he is a surgeon terrified by the sight of blood — writers, too, tend to avoid writing about certain memories. When the world ends, and the human race is wiped out, the only ones to survive will be an intrusion of sagacious cockroaches who will remember everything that we did.

Palash Krishna Mehrotra   -  BUSINESS LINE


Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of Eunuch Park and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India

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Published on December 08, 2020
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