How reliable are our memories? Not much, as a source of objective truths. Memories do play a vital role in our lives for various reasons. But if you think your memories are the true records of what really happened in the past, you are mistaken. “Remembering is not a passionate or dispassionate retelling of a reality that is no more, but a new birth of the past,” says Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich in her book, The Unwomanly Face of War. Memory doesn’t merely remember what actually happened but re-creates it.
The narrator of Julian Barnes’s novel, The Sense of an Ending, says rightly that what we end up remembering isn’t always the same as what we have witnessed. We add colours and patterns in order to make painful realities more acceptable. We “adjust, embellish, make sly cuts,” as Barnes puts it.
We don’t do it consciously. We are not being villains by adjusting, embellishing, and making those sly cuts. On the contrary, we are doing our best to make sense of what has happened.
Life has no intrinsic meaning. Whatever meaning it has is given by us. Unless we add those meanings, life will be unbearable. The sheer absurdity, ridiculousness, villainy, perversion… of what we did and what was done to us by others will weigh us down like millstones around our necks without the rearrangements we do to our memories. Actual memories can be brutal monsters. Modified memories are palliatives.
Svetlana Alexievich goes on to say that educated people’s memories are less reliable because “they are infected by secondary knowledge. By myths.” Educated people have additional reasons for modifying memories, in other words. Their knowledge about a lot of related issues comes into play and reshapes memories substantially.
This is the case of events that happened to us. What will be the case of events that happened long, long ago? Centuries ago?
We rely much on history for understanding our past. How reliable is history? How much of it has been reshaped by various people for various reasons?
In the last few years, India has been trying to reshape its history, both recent and ancient. Since we possess a lot of literature about the recent history, we have ways and means of checking the modifications done to that. But what about the history of centuries ago? What happens when a country decides to re-create a 5000-year-old past?
We will get new myths, that’s all. As individuals we reshape our memories and some of them end up as myths which console us for our failures, comfort us in our moments of grief, give us hope in times of despair… Is India trying to do the same as a nation? Create an alternate history that soothes our national ego? Create a new myth in which we will appear as some colossal heroes while others [like the Mughals and the British] become villains?
What purpose does it serve in the end? Are we hoodwinking ourselves? The world is not going to be hoodwinked anyway.