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Remembrances of things past

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Questions of memory and time are examined masterfully in The Sense of an Ending .

The rain pours down. The glowering grey of the clouds thickens the green of the neem, the jamun , even the keekar trees of Delhi. Traffic grinds to a halt; all manner of cars show that they are capable of stalling. Little rivers with a hundred rainbows swirling in them flow swiftly down the sides of the glistening roads.

Memories of monsoons past glisten in these flowing rainbows. Childhood monsoons in a very green valley when the sky cracked up in a way it no longer does and little paper boats went tossing down the bricked drain that ran outside our gate. When lights had to be put on at noon in school classrooms and nothing could be heard but the drumming of the rain on the corrugated iron roof and on the way home we let the rain wash us down, invincible in our raincoats and gum boots. Youthful monsoons when we dodged from one dripping tree to another down University lanes, crossed arms protecting original certificates in flimsy cellophane folders and a rose that drifted from the hand of a leaning beauty into a fast forming puddle could have been the beginning of a romance that never went anywhere. Bombay monsoons when the rain lashed my Marine Drive window with apocalyptic force and a sea of black umbrellas came onto the streets and we extended our office lunches in the gentrified Irani restaurant just to ponder the mystery of the cold, unsmiling visage of the owner’s daughter as she stood behind the counter, counting coins.

Press the monsoon button in the mind and these memories inevitably appear, their colours untarnished with time. But how true are these memories to what actually happened and are they really shared by anyone else in exactly the same way? How many classmates of mine from that school under the pines remember the way the raincoat stuck to your arms when you tried to take it off? Does that leaning beauty ever think of the rose that drifted unknowing from her hand into a puddle? And what does that nameless girl behind the counter recall of those monsoons, certainly not two callow youngsters who wouldn’t get up from the corner table? Not just monsoons- the same applies to memories of people, of relationships, of regrets, emotional debts, guilt, anger all stored up from the past and left to solidify through the passage of time.

Such questions of memory and time, and the tricks they play with each other, are examined masterfully in The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, a slim gem of a book. “What you end up remembering,” says Barnes’ narrator “isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed” and what we carry with us towards the end of our lives whether they be visions of misty monsoons or long-ago broken hearts may actually only be “approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty.” The young can predict to a large extent the pains and tribulations that ageing is likely to bring — loneliness, divorce, death, loss of status, loss of desire and desirability. But they usually cannot imagine themselves looking back from a vantage point in the future, with the advantage of new emotions that only time brings. They cannot imagine how their view of the past will evolve, how a remembered scene will dissolve and reform, until it again finally settles into something permanent. As one ages, the entire process becomes even more unreliable as more and more witnesses to one’s past fall by the wayside and “there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been.” The thought is disturbing.

The book has a deceptively simple storyline — which I am not about to reveal in its entirety — but successfully plumbs impressive emotional depths. The narrator, Tony Webster, a retired, quietly divorced man has memories of his youth with which he is comfortable — memories of a clique of intellectually pretentious friends, a girl-friend, a weekend spent with her family, a suicide or two — all of which he is now reconciled to and has slotted into permanent pigeon-holes with the right amount of attachment of affection, admiration, regret and guilt. Then suddenly, a letter from a lawyer informing him of a strange bequest upends all this. It reopens assessments of relationships and events, the why and wherefore of life that he had neatly tied up and left in the warehouse of the past. A letter he wrote 40 years ago is given back to him: he finds his younger self standing before him, and it is not a pleasant image. He realises that time can confuse and confound. It can inject doubts and questions into what we always thought to be certainties and make them wobble before our very eyes. He begins to recall forgotten details and replays long familiar images, holding them up to the light, twisting and turning them to see if they actually meant something different than what he had always assumed. Slowly the past begins to transform, motives change, new causalities appear and relationships are reformulated. In short, a new reality replaces that vision which memory had always believed to be true. He realises that “when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.” And often these inventions do not hold. Memory is simply not events plus time; often it may turn out to be what we have forgotten. Time doesn’t always “act as a fixative, rather as a solvent.”

Which leads me to another half-forgotten thought that today doesn’t sound as glib as it did in one’s youth: It’s not time that is passing my friend, it’s you and I who are passing.

navtej.sarna@gmail.com

The book has a deceptively simple storyline — which I am not about to reveal in its entirety — but successfully plumbs impressive emotional depths.


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