Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Remember the past to inspire the present...

Memory Narratives
The Fifth T. G. Narayanan Endowment Lecture, 31 January 2017
Jayashree Rajan, II MA English 

The Fifth T. G. Narayanan Endowment Lecture was delivered by Dr. Premila Paul on the topic, ‘Memory Narratives,’ on Tuesday, 31 January 2017. It was an extremely informative lecture and had a wide ambit of facts, which were introduced to students for the very first time. The lecture started at around half past ten in the morning in The Centre for Media Studies Auditorium, Madras Christian College. 

Dr. Premila Paul who has a huge list of accolades and achievements and is undoubtedly a wonderful orator, started the lecture with a slideshow of Mr. T. G. Narayanan’s (1911-1962) who was a journalist with The Hindu during the war years. He was known for his coverage of the Bengal famine, the war on the Imphal front and his interviews with India’s freedom fighters. His writings on the famine were one of the earliest instances of investigative journalism. His coverage and analysis were recorded in a book “Famine over Bengal,” and published by the Book Company of Calcutta.

After Indian independence, Narayanan joined the UN in New York and at the time of his death he was the deputy and personal representative to UN Secretary General, Dag Hammaskjold, on Nuclear Disarmament at the 18-nation talks in Geneva. The T. G. Narayanan Memorial Lecture on Social Deprivation has been instituted at the Asian College of Journalism by his son Dr. Ranga Narayanan.

During the entire conference Dr. Premila Paul kept Mr. T. G. Narayanan’s “Famine over Bengal” as the centre-piece of the conference and also shared her views on movies and literature which were based on memory narratives.

Dr. Paul said “Memories are born out of anxiety”. She goes on to say that journalists are future historians. They create history in a hurry. She takes the example of Mr. T. G. Narayanan who had close access to documents, started unearthing truths beyond facts and how Nature and Man destroyed ‘Sonar Bangla’. She beautifully explained the difference between History, Memory and Narrative.

What is the relation between “history”, “memory”, and “narrative”? We might put these concepts into a crude map by saying that “history” is an organized and evidence-based presentation of the processes and events that have occurred for a people over an extended period of time; “memory” is the personal recollections and representations of individuals who lived through a series of events and processes; and “narratives” are the stories that historians and ordinary people weave together to make sense of the events and happenings through which a people and a person have lived.

We use narratives to connect the dots of things that have happened; to identify causes and meanings within this series of events; and to select the “important” events and processes out from the ordinary and inconsequential.

“Your History comes in the way of my memory” - Agah Shahid

Dr. Paul takes examples of various incidents like the Jallianwala Bagh, Bengal Famine, Emergency and Sikh Abolition. These incidents were recorded and have several interpretations in course of time.

She reads out a passage from the novel Night of the Dark Trees by Abraham Eralys, “and luring his voice the oracle said, you should not have been born in the first place, Fear not death, fear life.”

Dr. Paul shared her views on a few more books such as “So Many Hungers” - Bhabani Bhattacharya. (Utter Denial of freedom). These were known as emergency literature. Democracy constantly getting redefined. She mentions a haunting incident in Calicut where a boy named Rajan mysteriously disappears and his family is lost in the agonising reality of not knowing what has happened to their son. The incident is woven into a book written by his father called Memoirs of a father, professor T. V Eachara Warrier.

From the tears of a father's pen comes an eloquent, moving and remarkable statement on cruelty, courage, and enduring hope. Professor Eachara Varier describes his desperate and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to get his son out of a police camp where he is taken one morning for no reason. The camp is a place where the rules of life and death are very different to the rest of the world. It isa place where a few officers have absolute power to decide who to arrest, how to arrest them, how to torture them, when to kill them, and how to dispose of their dead bodies. Above them are the senior police officers, politicians and bureaucrats who must hide the truth from the families of victims and wider society. And then there is the father who struggles against them all…

Absence is a state of life.

The movie Piraivi is based on this incident.  

Dr. Paul points out that where there’s a law, there’s always a loophole. Furthermore books such as An Iron Harvest, Gospels of Yudas by K. R. Meera and also The God Of Small Things by Arundathi Roy which is a story of crossing times where memory is in layers and refuses to unwrap itself. Good novels may end but they do not conclude. Dr. Paul goes on to talk about N. S. Madhavan’s short story When Big Trees Fall, which formed the basis of the movie Kaya Taran, a movie based on the emergency.

She says that the purpose of memory narrative is not to look back in anger but to reverberate with hope and love and be grateful to have a present. Memory is capricious and unreliable but it carries its own truth. Memories should continue to narrate itself. It’s the wake-up call to reset our moral compass. She ended the conference with grand simplicity, with the words, “Remember the past to inspire the present”.

Jayashree Rajan

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