#23. nostalgia vs uncertainty
memory is an unreliable narrator
This one was quitee toughhh to write and turned out longer than usual. I have a lot of things to say about nostalgia and uncertainty. I hope that some of it makes sense to you too.
Even on its best days, life is never happening on the shore – it’s always hanging around somewhere mid-sea with a bunch of unanswered questions. How much love do we have left to witness? What new dreams might we dream? What awaits us in the future – grief? wreckage? heartbreak? love? Who knows.
It is only natural then, for nostalgia to appear, fastening our minds to the past, in the midst of all this wretched not-knowing. It is an indulgence like no other – sometimes taking us to the best summer days, and other times, steering back to the darkest hours of our personhood – with no one but memory and its unreliable narration of what happened.
For the record: I’m not a big fan of this indulgence. Don't get me wrong, I’m always first in line for any kind of yearning; Anshu regularly calls me Carrie Bradshaw — the queen of dramatising her life with a pensive and tender, but also largely unnecessary voiceover. I know for a fact that there’s plenty of good that can come out of reminiscing and reliving.
It’s magical, for instance, how every-time it rains, there's this push and pull in my mind of remembering and forgetting. Memory stretches back to another time, another person, another landscape, another life. And without warning, it opens up a museum of moments.
A while back, heavy from all the longing, I ended up googling this cheesy Indian medical soap – something of a childhood obsession in its own right, even though it’s almost embarrassing to admit. I scrolled through its 700+ episodes on hotstar, realising that not only do I remember almost each one frame by frame, but also that most of it was directly ripped off from Grey’s Anatomy. I hit on the play button, expecting to cringe – and yes, it was all kinds of horrible daily soap melodrama – but beyond the cringe, I found this invaluable window, an all-access pass to the very specific experience of being 12 again.
It took me back to the afternoons when Suhasani aunty would pick me up after school. The moment we entered home, my arms firmly interlocked with hers would take off, pick up the TV remote, go to channel number 93 and hungrily consume the cheesy Grey’s rip off.
Through that one longing play button on hotstar, I arrived to the center of a moment that was pouring with joy. I could see myself clearly – afternoon after afternoon, in bombay, on the red sofa, glued to the TV, eating chips and walnut cake while aunty washed her paan leaves and crushed her bitter tobacco.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that there’s all this talk of nostalgia as a pleasant occurrence – and I fully understand why. I’ve felt how pleasurable it can be. But my beef with nostalgia is complicated. I like the idea of forever circling around the growing stash of people we used to be, but I don’t like how manipulative it can feel sometimes. Like a vicious propaganda campaign for the past.
Consider another instance: all through 2020 and some parts of 2021, right after college came to a close and I found myself filled with nostalgia for my final year. A year, which – barring some small joys – was full of hurt and unbecoming, so much so that I’m still only discovering some of the wounds it gave me. There was nothing to pine after, or miss – yet, I caught myself reminiscing more than I would like. My memory kept staging a selective reconstruction of events, neatly erasing off the pain.
Perhaps that is another reason why I like to write things down in a diary and by extension keep the first-hand experience of events intact. The diary then tags along for any tear-jerking trip of yearning the mind decides to take, serving harsh reminders that tarnish the well-rounded, pain-free, plateau of a story that the mind is trying to present. The diary entries are no less than souvenirs and scars — they are not fooled when the mind-train pulls out of the station and arrives at a site of false-truths.
I can’t entirely walk away from the longing of nostalgia. But I know that not all of it is joy and glee – it can be bothersome to know that the mind is more open to experience the familiarity of horrible things instead of the uncertainty and unknown of what lies ahead. Surely, certainty can be appealing – but I’m wondering if it is, after all, a misplaced want.
I keep thinking of a young Mary Oliver, and how she consciously choose the wilderness, the uncertainty. I think of the wonderful-mess that came out of her wandering, and being lost in the woods, of how she once wrote, “Someone I loved once gave me / a box full of darkness. / It took me years to understand / that this, too, was a gift.”
Maybe it is a gift, this dark, daunting and new script of uncertainty. Just think of all the possibility it holds.
Some good things:
Nostalgia Reimagined by Nigel Warburtun
Here’s a comic I made about nostalgia, still roughly agree with it.
Is it too Scary by Eula Biss
Annie Zaidi on truth and how it is sometimes unverifiable.
Thank you for reading.