Storyboard History & Culture

Look back, look forward

We no longer see nostalgia as a cerebral disease. It is just an abstract feeling

I did not know that the word ‘nostalgia’ was coined in 1688 by Dr. Johannes Hofer by combining two Greek words, nostos and algos, meaning homecoming and pain. Nostalgia means ‘pining about the past’ or ‘longing for homecoming.’ As a medical professional, Dr. Hofer was describing “a cerebral disease of essentially demonic cause” at a Basel conference.

Imagine what we would be without nostalgia. It convinces us that ‘our days’ were so much better than today—our college had reached the apogee of glory during our days, our city was fabulous, the leaders of our country used to be principled people.

But we don’t regard nostalgia as a neurological disease. Rather it is an abstract and overwhelming feeling. Thanks to new knowledge, nostalgia has recently been declared a “positive thing, which puts balance into your psychological state, and is a high-order emotional experience.”

Family roots

This is reassuring because as I grow older, I experience more nostalgia. A universal and driving source of nostalgia is about where one’s genes came from. At 45, sitting under a tree at Khali Estate near Nainital, I experienced the urge to know who I am, where I got my genes from and where my genes were headed. I started to write down all that I had been told about family history and relentlessly enquired about family ancestry and social changes over 200 years. Conversations with knowledgeable people and delving into books continued for 27 years.

In 2013, I managed to script a document, which narrated my family story from 1823 to the present—the historical and social changes perceived by my ancestors from remote Vilakudi in Thanjavur through six generations.

So far as I was concerned, I had embarked on an egregious journey of nostalgia with no thought about any neurological disease. It was deeply personal: after all, who would be interested in my family roots? Yet Rupa Publications published the book, A Comma in a Sentence. The title signalled that our own life is a mere comma in a much longer sentence.

It is nostalgia that convinces us ‘our days’ were so much better than today, our college the apogee of glory, our city fabulous.

Many readers and strangers commented on the story of my ancestry, migration and social change, but five strangers are worth mentioning. S. Lakshmanan wrote from Wellampitiya in Sri Lanka to say how my story was similar to that of his own family, which had originated in the Madurai area.

He was, he said, so touched that he “asked son Niranjan and daughter Maya to read the book.” V.K. Ram of Mumbai wrote to say that he had identified with the events, based on the stories of his family. He shared with me his family experiences.

V. Chandrasekharan, about four older than me, wrote that he was born in the same flat where I had grown up in Pratapaditya Road near Kalighat, Calcutta. A senior journalist, R.C. Rajamani, informed me of his relative, Vilakudi Nallan Chakravarty, from my village. Young Santanu Chari brought his 92-year-old grandfather to enquire whether I could shed any light on his aunt, Alamelu, who had married into a Vilakudi family in 1905. My 87-year-old aunt recognised the family, and he was touched to learn whatever she could tell him.

Bengali-Tamil connect

A Bengali-Tamil Iyengar community in Gori Bera, Purulia district, asked me to visit and be honoured at the village temple. Around 1650, a travelling Iyengar priest stayed at the Gori Bera temple during his pilgrimage. He delivered a stentorian Vedic chant, so the local raja requested his services for the temple. He declined, but sent his younger brother. In this manner a small community of Iyengars came to reside in Gori Bera in the 1650s and became known as the Gori Bera Iyengars—they speak a strange Bengali-influenced Tamil, and they even changed their name from Chari or Acharya to Achari.

It is emotionally enriching that my simple story of nostalgia could connect strangers in so many ways. I marvel at the human emotion of nostalgia. As Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother in 1889, “[T]he little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.”

The writer, a former director at Tata Sons, is thought by Tamils to be a Bengali masquerading as Tamil while Bengalis think he is a Tamil masquerading as Bengali.

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Printable version | Mar 29, 2020 2:39:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/look-back-look-forward/article18928263.ece

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