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Agents of Nostalgia

by Anupama Krishnakumar

Anupama Krishnakumar, as someone who tends to grow nostalgic often, shares the several agents that help her relive some memories, and wonders if it is ever possible to know the answers to all questions about one’s past.

Sometime last month, a memory from five years ago popped up on my Facebook newsfeed. It was a scanned photograph of my sister and myself, clicked by our father in Delhi, 29 years ago. The picture put a smile on my face and succeeded in transporting me to another time for a few minutes. I suppose I am not the only one who’s grateful for technology-assisted memory keeping. Whenever friends and acquaintances share their memories on Facebook, I have noticed that they often add a line about how thankful they are to Facebook for reminding them of a particular moment from their past. We all love good and fond memories, don’t we?

I am someone who tends to grow nostalgic quite often. I am intrigued by the small things from my past, frequently wondering about trivial instances that would have engaged me for a few moments of my life. Some of those would have made me happy, some sad, some would have turned me reflective and some would have annoyed me. The combination of all of these, I am sure, has fashioned my perceptions about people, life and the world and my reactions to situations.

For a person who enjoys drifting into the flashback mode frequently, certain helpful triggers aid the walk down memory lane. Several photographs, conversations, and writing and music – the two most powerful agents of nostalgia for me, help unearth memories associated with different time periods of my life.

Very often at my own home or when I visit my parents or in-laws, I undertake this quirky ritual of pulling down old albums from cupboards or lofts and looking through pictures; the ones from 80s or earlier in Black & White and those from the 90s or later in colour. The photographs in many ways have shaped my memory of my past and have served as pieces through which I have drawn an (incomplete) picture of what my life had been through the decades.

Yes, I am entirely conscious of how there’s so much that has not been captured in photographs. Additional details sometimes emerge in conversations with my parents, my sister, my husband, my in-laws, and aunts and uncles who have closely seen me growing up. Bits and pieces of my past add up when they recall our experiences or moments spent together, leaving me wondering how on earth all these escaped my memory.

One of the most exciting things about being a writer is to be able to preserve significant and insignificant moments of your life in your writing. These could be wrapped tenderly in poetry, fiction or essays and that’s something I have done ever since I took up writing seriously. Whenever I revisit my written work from the past, they open up, throwing the doors open to a host of warm as well as painful memories. It’s interesting how I leave a little bit of me and my life in my writing, only to rediscover it later.

If photographs and writing usher memories in their own ways, what do I say of music – the most beautiful presence in every single day of my life? It isn’t easy to explain the extent to which music is intricately tied to me and all that I do. Like I once wrote on my blog years ago, music is so much a part of my life that “I tie music notes to precious instances in time.”

Listening to the best of Illayaraja (the list is too long!) any time would transport me to the late 80s. I distinctly remember that I would listen to his songs on MelTrack tapes. My father, a passionate listener of good music, would draw up lists of songs and get them recorded on blank tapes. I have lost count of how many times I would have played those tapes that I can still remember the order of songs on Side A and Side B of those cassettes.

The entry of AR Rahman into the Tamil film industry, incidentally, was the time I stepped into my teens. Some of his earliest compositions like Roja, Pudhiya Mugam, Kadhalan, Duet, May Maadham, Gentleman, Uzhavan, and later, Rangeela, Kadhal Desam, Taal, and many more, are overpowering sources of nostalgia, that whenever I listen to them, I just meander away to those years of my life, so much so that the present would feel completely unreal.

It’s fascinating how there are certain songs/albums that I distinctly associate with different phases of my life. My college years and hostel days come rushing whenever I listen to Yanni, George Michael (Careless Whispers), BSB, BoyZone, Savage Garden (Truly, Madly, Deeply), Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and then AR Rahman’s Jeans, Dil Se, Alaipayudhe, Kandukondein Kandukondein, and En Swaasa Kaatre. Asoka and Dil Chahta Hai unfailingly bring back memories of my internship days in Pune, while Yuva and Kal Ho Na Ho remind me of the carefree moments of riding my Scooty through Bangalore roads with my headphones on! Without doubt, this is just a sneak peek into what music can do to a person who likes to slink away into the past, given a chance.

Life, as many people rightly point out, is full of surprises. Once I became a mother to two children, there’s something I discovered much to my delight and that is the fact that my son and daughter are turning out to be mirrors to my own past. The happiness that I saw on my son’s face when he took off on his bicycle without the trainer-wheels for the first time, instantly brought back a forgotten memory – my very own joy when I learnt to ride my first bicycle as a seven-year-old, mastering the art of balancing. It’s hard to describe how nostalgic I feel each time he sings the beautiful Abhogi raga varnam, Evvari Bodhana, for it would consistently take me to the times I learnt the same composition from my paternal grandmother, albeit as a not-so obedient student. The entire scene of my grandmother with her sruthi box and myself seated opposite to her would spring in front of my eyes.

Sometimes when I look at my daughter, I end up feeling that I am looking at my younger self. What with her distinct curls that she is proud of and her undying love for the delicious Milk Bikis! And the fact that she totally adores flowers, leaves, roots and plants and trees – it’s just a reminder of how I would talk to plants as a four-year-old like they were my friends, telling them about the arrival of my dear aunts. Really, how much more surreal can it get!

Of the many things about human life that fascinate me, I am particularly enthralled by the multitude of experiences and moments, both good and bad, that have made up our pasts. It’s the inevitable nature of our lives that, caught in the daily grind, we invariably end up losing track of many instances that have shaped us into what we are today.

While I try to trace my own personal history through my access to varied yet scattered sources, my memories with my children are probably the ones I have the best and organised record of, thanks to technology. Yet, I wonder if it would ever be possible to record every single detail of their growing up years. Their search for their past, much like mine, while being aided by several agents of nostalgia, would still have some questions that would remain unanswered.

The answers would be there, but they would lay buried somewhere and may never surface. Our lives possibly remain an enigma in some way because of this – the unanswered questions, the moments we lived through but have no memory of. I think it’s this reality that makes us experience the joy of wonder and mystery and sometimes the joy of discovery. Revisiting the past, I believe, is much like a swim in the river, meant to be enjoyed and experienced in the direction the current takes you, and then waiting for life to surprise you. As much as I am curious about the trivialities that dot my yesteryears, I try to sit back and enjoy the ride, looking forward to an unexpected turn somewhere and a chance to be surprised. And that I guess, seems like the best thing to do, rather than getting all worked up and trying to demystify something that remains beautiful primarily because it is delicately mysterious.

Anupama Krishnakumar is an engineer-turned journalist. She co-edits Spark and is also the author of two books, ‘Fragments of the Whole’, a flash fiction collection and ‘Ways Around Grief & Other Stories’, a short-story collection. Her website is www.anupamakrishnakumar.com.
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