City City Bang Bang, Columns

Nostalgia as Sanctuary?

The other evening, we spent hours going over old photo albums, savouring moments from the past, both significant and silly. There was something deeply comforting about dwelling on what was- the world felt comprehensible, little things could be taken for granted, and time seemed to have moved on unhindered as we all went through the chronology of our lives. Time was orderly; it obeyed the rules of inevitability. It was reassuring to see things change in a way that felt natural- we grew older, waists thickened, awkward facial hair disappeared, children became millennials. In a locked-down world, it was reassuring to see time behave as it should. 

No wonder nostalgia is having a really good time. Social media is full of photographs from the past- what one looked like at 20 has become a strange sort of homage to the year 2020. The reception that Ramayana and Mahabharata are receiving on our television screens is quite remarkable. While there is no question that these epics have a vital place in the collective imagination of so many, one would have thought that eyes used to today’s production values would be unable to actually watch these serials, but the dated nature of the production seems to be part of the draw of these shows. Interestingly, young and old alike seek the comfort of a shared past, which allows them not only to escape the present, but to do so with cultural confidence. 

Companies are reviving old ads. Old cricket classics- particularly the India- Pakistan matches won by India are getting viewers back to the otherwise forlorn sports channels. Whatsapp group are sending links to collections of old songs, Hindi films from Independence onwards, the collected works of Tintin, MAD magazine and others. Superannuated bands are releasing old concerts. Groups of old friends are reminiscing on Zoom chats, singing songs to each other, drinking virtually in unison. Social media is even more full than usual with 10 albums/books that influenced me kind of posts.

Time feels different now. The present is lived on loop- day blurs into day, and weeks float by, without leaving any tangible residue. For those living in cramped quarters, space too gangs up with time, to create a sense of an unmoving present. Time is in uniform. Streaming sites erase any sense of institutional time; the present is what we choose it to be today. The ever-present and the never-present reside at the same address. What moves are the numbers- days of lockdown, new cases, daily deaths, recoveries, active cases and a whole new library of metrics that give shape to our sense of time. 

For some, a new rhythm has been found, and time has turned liquid. Days disappear into weeks, punctuated only by the latest extension of the lockdown. For others, time has turned rogue. The day feels stretched, nothing happens as it should- minutes misbehave and hours keep swapping clothes with each other. There is too much to do, and time doesn’t move forward, it just becomes a deeper and deeper hole into which effort disappears. 

The future does not exist in any material way. To be sure there will be a tomorrow, but it carries with it no certitudes. While no one could ever foresee the future, we were all pretty clear about the possible shapes it could take. The future is a narrative we are familiar with, even if its contents are always hazy. Technology has an arc, as does economics. We may not all agree on what the consequences of our current actions might yield for the future, but the world was moving forward. The future never disappeared as we took a blind turn, it never dropped off a cliff. Our current sense of the future is marked by a lack of confidence in the shape of its arc. We don’t know what will get reversed, what will die away, what new behaviours will become the norm, what new fears will live in our bones and what new hopes can we realistically aspire towards. 

Everyone is keen to imagine a post-Covid world, as if skipping over the immediate future will help us escape it. This a fantasy, but a necessary one, for we do need some sense of a future, however uncertain it might be. Forecasters, which includes pretty much everyone, speak confidently in countless webinars of the 10 changes we will see in the world, and the 5 things we need to prepare for today. 

No wonder we turn to the past. The past is a given, it feels tangible, it lacks plausible deniability. Shared currencies of experience are a bank of memories that we can agree on. When the other senses turn vaporous, the past tense feels robust and reliable.  We may not be able to convincingly imagine happier times going forward, but we can fall back on the good times we once had. Even ordinary everyday experiences feel special when we look back. Remember the party that we had? The fact that 30 people could meet now feels so special. Or the wedding reception one grumblingly attended. The conference that one participated in. along with a few hundred others. The routine visits to the airport- all of these now come with a tinge of wonder. 

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