Remember the good old days? Those magical yesteryears when the skies were bluer, air purer, people nicer, music sweeter and life a rainbow-hued fairy tale. In those mythical halcyon days, love and friendships lasted lifelong. Life was all pristine innocence and goodness. Today's crass materialism and soul-stifling lack of morals were unimaginable then. At least that is what we wish to believe when we daydream our way into a nostalgic time-warp.
This was published in Sunday Herald
Most of us at some time or other, have compared the glorious past to the degenerate present. It’s tempting to tell our successors how we were more intelligent, diligent, honest, better behaved and better in everything than them. We forget that we too were at the receiving end of such grievances from our own elders. Our venerable elders would surely have heard similar complaints from their own venerable elders. Our prehistoric caveman ancestors would probably have lamented the hairless bodies, larger craniums and more erect gait of degenerate younger generations. They would have deplored the new-fangled way of communicating with words as needlessly complicating the traditional hominid system of modulated grunts. Those new bone and iron tools would have seemed more cumbersome than traditional rocks and sticks.
Nostalgia makes us gloss over the flaws and cocoon ourselves in an idealized version of olden days. We feel that in the past people lived better lives. But we conveniently overlook the fact that their lives were shorter because of smallpox, cholera and other ailments which can be cured today. Let's carry the argument further. If the past was indeed perfectly wonderful, what about the Thugs who waylaid innocent travelers on the Grand Trunk Road, and the murderous hordes of Genghis Khan and Timurlane's armies? They too belonged to the golden past. Life in the Middle Ages or Dark Ages as modern ignoramuses call it, was a time of faith. Blind faith. The people were discouraged to learn and ask questions. Thus they were protected from unpalatable truths. The Salem Witch Trials and the Spanish Inquisition belonged to the golden past too. In our own land, widows were routinely burnt upon their husbands’ funeral pyres. Human sacrifice, slavery and other progressive social customs prevailed along with all sorts of superstitions and taboos. People dared not cross the seas and travel to foreign lands for fear of being excommunicated from respectable society. Time-honoured institutions, sadly forgotten today.
In the distant past, cavemen led the purest life. No hectic work schedules; no money, and therefore no need to chase that root of all evil. Issues were resolved swiftly and decisively. They simply smashed opponents with their clubs and either killed, or got killed. The apelike forefathers of the Homo Sapiens lived on a higher plane above their degenerate future progeny. They thrived close to nature with their heads up high, usually in the branches of trees. The remoter the past, the grander everything was. Just think of the dinosaurs. Those primeval monsters truly lived life king size.
So are we the inferior waste products of history and pre-history? Is Darwin’s theory of evolution a crazy myth? Is human civilization hurtling toward a cultural compost pit? Think about it. Is nostalgia deceiving us? Was the past ever perfect? Is the present merely imperfect continuous?
Idealized images from the past have their uses. When the computer gives up its ghost to a virus, or when the Internet grinds to a crawl, it’s therapeutic to go strolling through the tranquil bends of memory lane. Sentimental longing and wistful affection for the past; treasuring selective airbrushed and rose-tinted mental images of times long gone; that’s what nostalgia is all about. It’s but human to long for a home and loved ones, who have changed considerably with time. Even loved things such as old movies or books can trigger feelings of nostalgia. An old Lata Mangeshkar, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan or Kishore Kumar song can unlock the gates of magical memories, depending upon the generation and culture to which the listener belongs.
Nostalgia smooths and softens the rough edges of things from the past. In the words of Doug Larson, nostalgia is a device that removes the potholes from memory lane. Nostalgia can add cheer and joy to our rat-race weary lives. How magical it is to leaf to your childhood autograph book, filled with scrawls from school pals, teachers, and those film stars who shot a scene in your school if you were lucky enough. Oh, that dreamy feeling of reliving old memories as you view sepia tinted photographs in the family album! Have you ever felt more delight and contentment? The aromas of your mother’s cooking; that camping trip you took with your father; the warmth of his hug as you snuggled into your grandfather’s lap and listened to his stories; our dear elders had made our lives worth living. They were only human, and not all-powerful superheroes. But when we were young, they were perfect in our eyes as they lovingly nurtured us into becoming what we are today. Some of them have left this world, but their affectionate memories continue to guide and uplift us.
Inanimate objects like favourite books, songs or movies can similarly boost our spirits. They gain this power because of their association with our dearest people and happy events from the past. That movie or song is evergreen because we enjoyed it in the company of friends from our carefree schooldays. That favourite book is often the one a beloved parent or teacher gifted us, opening our intellectual perspective in an amazing new way. Whenever I pass a Subway sandwich shop in any city, I am flooded with soft-focus memories of the lively addas I once enjoyed with my children’s author friends in a cozy Subway branch in Bengaluru. We all live in different cities now. Distance and time draws old friends apart. But nostalgic memories can bring back some of that old happy glow.
Pleasant memories can help us tide over hard times. I remember how my late brother was once passing through a rough phase in life. When I visited him, we sat together leafing through old photos of our shared childhood. Then, he brought out his file of testimonials. That letter of appreciation from a visiting dignitary; that photo with a famous film star; a glowing recommendation from a former employer; those newspaper clippings; all helped gradually ease his frown and bring back the spring in his stride. Drawing a deep breath, he then readied to face the challenges ahead with fresh hope and energy. Nostalgia helps us overcome setbacks. It reminds us that if winter has come, spring cannot be far behind. If we succeeded before, we have the capacity to succeed again in our endeavors. Nostalgia can give us hope and courage.
Nostalgia is a great way of creating and nurturing human ties. Families and friends bond over happy memories, sharing experiences and emotions. School and college alumni associations are strengthened by nostalgia. When I attended a meeting of the Lady Shri Ram College Alumna Association in Bangalore, I had hoped to reunite with long lost friends from my college days in New Delhi. I scanned the unfamiliar names and faces of attendees, who ranged from august ladies to youngsters who looked as though they had bunked lectures to be there. I didn’t find a dear old friend, but as I chatted with the others, I realized we all shared memories. Our favourite teachers, discovering fascinating books in the library and bonding over snacks at the college canteen; we had been there and enjoyed the same things. People may have studied different courses, and may be born generations apart. But getting together to celebrate the glory of the shared alma mater can draw diverse people closer.
Our memories of what was good in our past, can guide us to build good things in our future. I sometimes feel nostalgic about dear Melly Aunty, an especially friendly and caring neighbour from decades ago. These memories stand as guidelines for my own behavior today. Nostalgia can help us understand the things that matter the most to us; the memories and emotions that leave a lasting impression in our minds when all else has passed.
Nostalgia can enrich literature and history. Rabindranath Tagore’s enchanting memoir My Reminisces, brings to vivid life Tagore’s unique childhood world as he grew up in the thick of the Bengal Renaissance. Qais Abdul Omar’s Fort of Nine Towers is a moving account of his personal experiences of the beauty of Afghanistan as it was, and of the horrors of recent decades of violence in his homeland. In addition to being memorable reads, such books also help readers experience past realities which they would otherwise never have known. Such memoirs flesh out the gaps and show us the human side of the past overlooked by dry factual history textbooks.
It’s easy to let the magical enchantment of nostalgia overwhelm our sense of present day reality. We must strike a balance and take care not to get carried away. “Nostalgia is a seductive liar,” as George Wildman Ball so aptly put it. It amplifies the glories of the past and can encourage people to ignore what they can do today. It can make us resist new ideas, progress and innovation as we yearn for what is dead and gone. Love for a glorious past can blind us to the good things in the present.
This ambiguous and bittersweet emotion can also sink us in the quicksand of regrets. We need to guard ourselves from wallowing in misgivings; of dwelling upon what could have been, rather than focusing on the here and now. I remember being with a friend as she lamented the lost promise of her youth. If only she had built upon her bright academic career and pursued her dream of joining the Civil Services. Meanwhile her little son tugged at her dress, pleading for attention. She scolded him for interrupting while she was talking. The little one toddled away with downcast head. A crushed flower fell from his tiny hand.
We will be the ultimate losers if we allow nostalgia to distract us from appreciating life as it is now. It’s important to use our memories of the positive aspects of the past, to improve current circumstances. This can help strengthen our will to move ahead and grow. Sometimes the pain of regrets may be unbearable. That’s when we must delve into our nostalgic impressions of the good times, and remember our positive achievements. This will revitalize our hopes, and help us to forgive ourselves. As a writer so aptly put it, people find it hard to be happy because they always see the past better than it was, the present worse than it is, and the future less resolved than it will be.
Dwelling in a self-created prison of nostalgia can stunt our thinking and vision. Albums, autograph books, school yearbooks and mementoes get damaged or lost as the years go by. In this never-ending rat-race, the pressures of deadlines, cut-throat competition, soaring inflation and plunging sales graphs all take their toll. We can’t afford to let ourselves be embalmed in old memories. In the course of moving houses, I’ve lost that book inscribed by a long-lost friend. Tears fill my eyes because I cannot find those dainty sandesh moulds my late aunt used to shape mouth-watering Bengali sweets. Physical symbols of our most precious memories fade away with the passage of time, leaving us emotionally orphaned. I try to convince myself that indulging in nostalgia for what cannot be retained, will make me as obsolete as the defunct past. Instead of mourning the lost sweet moulds, I hope to replicate some of my aunt’s gracious, forgiving attitude. I feel that would be her best memorial.
Dipping into nostalgic memories is a lovely way to soothe and revitalize our souls. But we must take care to dwell just long enough, and not lose ourselves in nostalgia. Our focus should be to use that fresh energy and insight to face today’s challenges with renewed vigour.
This was published in Sunday Herald