This essay is part of Firstpost’s ‘India and the Indian’ series, which examines the renewed idea of nationalism in vogue today, and what it means.
Read more from this series.
Words by Sunalini Kumar | Art by Sarnath Banerjee
A man in Russia — a boy of 23 really — was injured by a German bullet in 1943, as the battle of Smolensk was bringing Hitler’s army to its knees. The bullet burnt away the part of his brain responsible for arranging the meaning of objects his eye perceived. Strangely, this meant that he could no longer tell stories, including the story of his own life — who he had been before he was injured and what it had meant to who he was. This once-promising engineering student could not recognise his town, his street, and sometimes his own mother (in whose person of course, other stories were stored). Since he no longer had a past, he could no longer tell where he was going — in other words, his future.
However, the tragedy of Comrade Zasetsky (for that was his name) was even worse than the story of simple amnesia. The bullet injury healed well enough physically for him to live a long life and left enough parts of his brain intact that he remembered enough, saw enough, and knew enough to feel the shame of not knowing. So he struggled, all his long life, sitting at his desk every day trying to remember words and their meanings, and the grammar that makes meaning universal. It was a terrible, unyielding effort; he forgot the next word almost as soon as he remembered the previous one; it was, he said, as if his brain had developed a leak. But he sat daily at his desk, and through an effort that often left him exhausted, wrote what he knew, what he knew he might forget tomorrow. From his journals we know that brilliant young Zasestsky, casualty of a war between nations, wanted to know his past so that he could know his future, a future in which he hoped he could still be “useful to his country”.
They say the battle for memory is greater than all battles, Smolensk or Leningrad or Seine.
A man remembers his past so he may have a future. Nations offer men their pasts, so they can bring their children up in a better time. Yet it is nations that take these pasts away too, and not simply through the bullet fired by the enemy. The woman who knows the bel flower and the toddy sap, and the way they look at different times of the day, she is remembering the placement of the clouds in the sky for her next planting. The goddess in her field — the one with the plum mouth and blazing eyes — comes from the time of the meteors. Does the woman stack the sky, the flower, the goddess and the nation in the same time-box in her mind? Or does she store them all separately, pulling each one out one by one?
A gardener far from his village, in a dusty basti in the city, pulls at a bougainvillea shrub and seeing the spider-web roots buried in the dark soil, knows it’s the first sign of death. That soil, perhaps as old as the subcontinent, will be renewed in its unforgiving cement pot soon, experienced hands turning it over thoroughly, airing the roots, for they may yet give life. Mixed eventually with manure, it will when the sun dips give off a smell more pungent than the words of the sons-of-the-soil on nightly television.
There are too many people in this heaving land we are told, too many for this soil to sustain. Worse, not all of them can be arranged, like cigarettes inside their box, inside the time of the nation, lined up, ready to be lit. They come and go in their fields and furrows, shaking the paddy a little to see if it is dry, smelling the beetle dung and screwing their eyes against the sun to know when it’s time to go home. Their bodies have risen, bent, twisted, sweated, sat, swum and swung on trees and animals, in streams and ponds. They have grown gnarled roots in their villages, just like the trees they learned to climb and unclimb. They have stories that are older than the nation.
But the nation’s stories must be the oldest of all, even if they need the young to tell them.
The young are orphans in this nation, they have forgotten the names of plants and the meaning of the movement of the sun in the sky. They can’t catch fish or mend the nets. Their feet have grown soft and (they don’t know this yet) will fail them in old age. Many such young are as old as the schools in the nation. Those whose parents had their arms crooked and legs bowed from a lifetime inside the shallow loom pit, they worked until a classroom showed them how to shape letters on paper and find their way out of that life, for better or for worse.
Yanked from the click-clack of the loom and the smell of beetle dung and shown the shape of letters, they learned to wear collars that chafed their necks and go to work. They learned the time of the nation in their offices, looking at the clocks before lunch and again before tea. Their children read the books, who told them of the glory of their nation in six parts. In those books, the soil was divided into regions, and their past into chapters. The goddess in the field was too old for even the ancient nation, so she was forgotten. But many stayed back in the fields with the goddess, knowing no other way, sweaty from their work, too damp for kindling.
Even when not through the scar tissue of a bullet injury to your remembering brain, the nation takes your memory away in other ways. It makes your memories irrelevant, your stories ridiculous. It says the sky and sea are not yours to know, the soil is not yours to till, and the goddess is a fiction only illiterates recite. In place it yokes your past to other gods, gods you can never know as well as the sons of the soil, with their books and their armies. And with this half-remembering brain, you struggle because you must have a past and you must have a future, and all too often, because you must be useful to your country.
Sunalini Kumar is associate professor, School of Global Affairs, Ambedkar University. Sarnath Banerjee is a leading artist and author of several graphic novels, including Corridor and The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers.
Updated Date: Jun 30, 2019 12:16:20 IST