Remember to remember

Remember to remember

We live in the Golden Age for nostalgia-mongers. So keep collecting your future memories

By Indrajit Hazra (Last Laugh)

Published: Fri 14 Mar 2014, 2:26 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 10:52 PM

The other weekend, a seven-year-old friend of mine was watching TV in our house. Her father and I are old school friends who’ve known each other since we were her age. As I dropped by in the next room to see how my younger friend was doing with her TV lunch, she told me to sit down and watch a pivotal scene in the movie she was seeing, with her.

“It’s the best of all the Jurassic Parks. None of the other films beats this first one,” she said, not moving her eyes away from the screen as a very fat man, waddling through the pelting rain, gets ready to become fast food by a Steven Spielberg-approved Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Her comment wasn’t ‘This is my favourite Jurassic Park movie’ but ‘This is the best Jurassic Park movie’. And she had said it with an audible sigh that betrayed the fact that in her life of seven-and-a-half years, she was already fondly reminiscing moments from her past. It was not totally off the script that outside in the other room, her father and I, two 42-year-old geezers, had been talking about how grand it would be, with the advent of e-cigarettes, for the good old days to return when people could smoke in restaurants and inside planes.

Nostalgia is a strange, sweet narcotic. At its worst, it runs the risk of cutting people off from the present, especially people with a past that’s more interesting or successful than what they’re doing now. Retired public personalities — especially those with sell-by-date occupations like in sports, modelling or acting — are particularly prone to recounting glory days and are regularly tapped for their nostalgia value in memoirs and documentaries.

But at its best, nostalgia is not so much about ‘Oh, how glorious were those days’ as about ‘Remember where we were when that happened?’ Remembering a ‘shared’ event, song, trip or memory makes our personal histories more like History, rather than just things that happened on our way to Now.

Being nostalgic, however, is also a solitary activity, with the solidity of something that actually happened that day-dreaming can’t ever dream to have. Homer, with all his characters going off for years to war and then taking additional years to come back (if they did come back), was quite generous with the word ‘nostos’, or ‘homecoming’, using it not only to describe heroes like Odysseus coming back home but also to describe their longing to come back home. The second half of the word came from ‘algos’, or ‘ache’, and the compound word ‘nostalgia’ — aching to come home — was invented by a Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer in 1688.

Hofer’s notion of nostalgia was a painful condition he was investigating in his dissertation. This was more focused on ‘homesickness’ as Hofer described Swiss mercenaries fighting in foreign lands and missing the Alpine landscapes of their homes. These soldiers showed symptoms that included fainting, high fever, indigestion and stomach pain. Our modern notion of nostalgia, thankfully, is far less painful and some forms of ‘missing our past’ can be ameliorated by taking recourse to technology — listening to sound and visual recordings from ‘the old days’, sharing old photos on social media sites, and using other tools for ‘happy remembering’.

The business of nostalgia is also booming. You must have noticed how ‘Classic rock’, till a few days (read: decades) ago, was a classification of popular music that had in its cupboard songs of a particular kind from the 60s and 70s. Now music that was being made in the 90s — the stuff I was hearing the other day on MTV — has also become ‘Classic rock’!

The truth is that we live in a golden age for nostalgia-mongers. Whether it’s re-digging out new editions of ‘old’ Tintin comics or buying a DVD set of — sorry, downloading — the complete episodes of Fawlty Towers or Hum Log, going to 80s-themed restaurants, YouTubing 90s TV shows like Friends, and giving in to school reunions, a middle-aged generation has the interest and ability to store collective memories and share them (for a price, of course).

There will be a point when my capacity for remembering things will stop. This is not because my brain will have run out of disc space, but because the gap between the time of ‘collecting’ things to remember and that of remembering them will shrink. So instead of resisting nostalgia, I’ve decided to tastefully embrace whatever I have and hope to ‘store’ for ‘replaying’; later.

My young friend will also one day happily recall what a great time ‘those days’ were. And I bet she’ll get hold of the special 50th anniversary box set of Jurassic Park when it’s out in 2043, when she’s 37. When I’ll have much more to remember as a 72-year-old than I do today.

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