24 July 2011

Here's to my fascination with 'The Past', for all that it's worth

I am a sort of person who loves to live in past (quite contrary to the go-getter, tame-the-future rhetoric which people of my generation are supposed to demonstrate). It doesn’t take a lot to make me nostalgic. I love old songs, old movies, old books, old TV serials, old photographs, old articles of daily use and of course, reading memoirs from a bygone era. I know that a part of this fascination of mine with ‘Old is Gold’ is due to a fashionable disdain for anything modern. This again is probably because I am an old-school wallah and a purist (OK. A part of it probably began as pretension) in many respects. Then, there’s my enduring love for history, historical trivia, ruins, monuments and forts. (I still remember how I bored S, my wonderful traveling companion, on our trip to Hampi ruins).

Yes, many people of my generation who have seen a glimpse of the world before internet, facebook and mobile phones with QWERTY keypads do get nostalgic while viewing all those Doordarshan videos on Youtube. Listening to Louis Banks’ music and watching the old episodes of Mahabharat & Hum Log transports you back to late 80s when an Indian middle class family’s favourite (and probably the only) mode of transport used to be ‘Humara Bajaj’. But I am sure that there are not many who soak in that nostalgia with an indifference to the present, like I do.

As I sometimes mull over the fact that I would have been much better off, happier if I would have entered this planet a couple decades ago. When life was relatively less stressful, simpler, less crowded, slower, neater and straighter and had less number of variables. (Ok. I know. I know that life never used to come in neat packages irrespective of the era you belong to but still I feel that India before 1991 valued things which really matter). But then isn’t everything relative – even your own existence on the timeline of the existence of this world. Again change is one of the inalterable things of life and this world.

Past, as against the future, has a certain amount of certainty & permanence and the fact that it is unalterable and cannot be changed gives you a sense of comfort. Past also humbles you. The realization that so much has been achieved in every sphere of life from literature to music, science to metaphysics, engineering to philosophy, before you made your presence felt in this world, is both awe-inspiring and humbling at the same time.

Another aspect of my love affair with past is my constant ruing about the fall in intellectual and moral standards of people with increasing prosperity. The basic virtues of humanity are degrading with every passing day. At least in context of Indian middle classes, when I compare people of my or younger generation with that of elder generations i.e. Children of 1960s and before, I, more often than not, find that the elders are more well-read, generally more aware about the world around them, have higher moral standards and live by a certain value system, as against the live-in-the-moment, everything-has-a-price-tag younger generation for whom, most of the things, ideas, values and principles I personally hold dear, are nothing but relics from past or worse, 'negotiable'. This despite the fact the younger generation is more tech-savvy, is more confident of themselves, and have more tools at their disposal to enhance their knowledge & awareness. As has been pointed out by many commentators, this downward slide is the result of both social and economic changes, which have changed the very outlook of people towards life. For example, these days everyone talks about ‘smart work’ – taking ‘shortcuts’ is both acceptable and recommended. Shortcuts, not only in context of making money but everything from reading a book to nurturing a relationship, are in vogue. Then, what about the skills which one acquires with years of long and patient labour like an awesome command of one or more languages. (As an aside, listening to an educated, cultured person of an earlier generation speaking in English tells us how inadequate our ‘Hinglish’ is and what passes these days as ‘Good written and verbal communication in English’. Forget the language of our former masters; people can’t communicate themselves in their native tongue either.) Modernists (and pragmatists) will say that different skills are important in different periods of time and it is all determined by the salability of a particular skill in relation to a particular place and time. This particular blogpost set me thinking about all those skills which were once so important at different periods of humanity’s history but are now ‘extinct’ (if I can use that word).

Then, I am a sentimentalist in many senses of the word like I regret the fact that writing letters is a passé. I have a general fondness for written letters and good hand writing in particular. I miss referring to the bulky Oxford Dictionary for meanings of unfamiliar words or long forgotten spellings. Dictionary.com, word web and MS Word are always there. Just imagine how an entire generation, which doesn’t know how to hold a pen, will be. Then, I miss those days when everything was recycled and reused, with many novel uses of various items of daily life, long after they have served their primary purpose. Like making a pen stand from the first can of coke I drank. It was a treasured piece on my study table – an empty can of coke. People repaired stuff to extend their lifetimes by a couple of months, if not years. Nowadays, the Indian Middle Class just walks into the nearest mall to buy a new one when the old one has lived his life (or when they get bored with the old one). Similarly, even though I am not very fond of cricket, it will be a sad day for me when Test Cricket becomes obsolete at the cost of T20. Just like the way Kindle and e-books replacing physical (print on paper) books, makes something inside me cringe.

One of these days I was probing myself about the reason for my fascination with history. And history for me is not just the subject in its academic sense. It includes the history of a community, a society, a family and an individual as well. Even when using the word in purely academic sense, I don’t think I have equal degrees of fascination for all forms of history. I am not enthused by history of Neolithic Age as much as I am by say, history of colonial India, post-colonial India or Mughal India. Political and social history allures me more than economic history. But in general, studying the techniques of VLSI design or writing data structures in C is a bigger turn off for me than any subject remotely associated with the study of the world before us. A part of it is of course, curiosity. I don’t understand why people find history to be boring. I guess one of the reasons is, for most of the people history is nothing but a monolithic, homogeneous collection of dates, facts, and incidences to be memorized and regurgitated at the right time (instead of a colourful mosiac with myriad hues and shades). But history is much more than that. Isn’t it? It brings a whole world – a world that existed long ago and has been lost forever – into life. The civilizations and their accomplishments; the inventions and their impact; the great men and their ideas; the wars, battles and conquests and their social, political, geographical ramifications, aren’t they fascinating, just for the sake of studying?

Most importantly, our present is defined and shaped by our past. The present doesn’t exist in chronological vacuum. This makes an understanding and appreciation of past all the more important to understand the present and its myriad problems. We take for granted so many things which didn’t exist a couple of centuries back. As if they have always been there. An example is the concept of nation-states. History explains things as varied as correlation between industrialization and urbanization to the fact why North Indians have a fairer complexion than South Indians. Every development of past – from Greek and Roman Civilizations to Protestant Reforms of Church; Europe’s Industrial Revolution to Evolution of Islam; Aryan Invasion of Indian sub-continent (if at all there was one) to Rise of Communism; Invention of the Printing Press to the Second World War – can be used to explain today’s world - socially, politically, economically and culturally.

So, it scares, overwhelms and sometimes saddens me, when I see the world wheeze past around me with a complete disregard for the so-called small and unimportant things. When it labels the time taken to savour and appreciate something beautiful as ‘being slow’. When it calls a fondness for things of past as ‘fatalism’.

Well, I have always been an outlier, an aberration in this respect, without ever wanting to. (And I only know how many times I have tried to ‘belong’). Unfortunately, in the real world where only the 'fittest' survive, outliers don't even have a 'statistical significance'.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Dear Rajarshi,

I know you have been following my blog for some time, and I have been recently exploring yours. It seems we have many interests in common, including history. Your blog deserves a wide audience. I am thinking of linking it to mine. But before that, can we talk privately a bit? My email i.d. is suvro.chatterjee@gmail.com

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