As I grow older, there are three things I can’t remember. I can’t remember names. I can’t remember faces. And … I can’t remember what the third thing is! That’s two out of three – a pass mark. But those who fail to make the grade are not those who can’t remember these or other [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

The dire ‘right’ to remember wrong


As I grow older, there are three things I can’t remember. I can’t remember names. I can’t remember faces. And … I can’t remember what the third thing is! That’s two out of three – a pass mark. But those who fail to make the grade are not those who can’t remember these or other things, but those who choose to remember events and happenings wrongly. Our recent history is littered with such poor, perverse, and pointedly partisan reminiscences.

In their classic (and comic) history of the British Isles, 1066 And All That, English writers W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman essay the insightful observation that “history is not what happened, but what you can remember”. This is true for individuals as well as for institutions, for goons on the rampage as much as for governments. How each one of them or us remembers – or, more to the point, chooses to remember – our past and theirs, provides a vital impetus to all our present and future patterns of behaviour.

The past is prologue, as Shakespeare had his character Antonio observe in The Tempest. Our personal and national history is predicated on our joint understanding and interpretation of our island’s racial memory. The truth is that a lot of what passes for or is construed as ‘history’ is based on the individual and institutional interpretations of the memories of people, groups of people, and people-groups.

Such memories can be positive, negative, or neutral (they are rarely neutral). They are often positive – as when our island-race’s recent memory of winning the Cricket World Cup in 1996 can fill us with a sense of achievement, accomplishment, and acknowledgment at the hands of outsiders. They are more often than not (and more often than is desirable) negative; filling us with feelings of fear, failure, or frustration – as in the more distant but still dominant memories of 1983… This is variously remembered and archived as a civil riot; a pogrom; or even our local holocaust – depending on whose emotions are being recollected in tranquillity, or recalled with a total absence of serenity.

So, memories clearly influence one’s view of oneself and the circumstances and situations that one is faced with at the moment. These perceptions of the past are ground in a crucible of ideology and/or irritation at the ‘Other’ to shape our attitudes, our behaviours, our actions in the present. They make the future tense. And rob the present of its sense of being a gift in terms of mutual time and space for us and the other to occupy in peace, and at peace with each other.

Quite often, many of us – too many of us – seem to choose to remember realities in our mutual past in a particular light to justify our actions in the present. Those who perceive themselves to have been victims of some hate or another in the years gone by are almost bound by some ineluctable force to become the aggressors of the present. Those who see others as being perpetrators of some violence or injustice in the present might seek vengeance or evoke the ethos of vigilantism in the near future. It is a vicious cycle when generation after generation – or in-groups among hated out-groups or putative resident aliens – remember their shared history wrongly or with motives driven by agendas rather than obeisance to the truth of things as they are or were.

In his deeply moving and often painful analysis of the Yugoslavian genocide of the late last century, Miroslav Volf suggests a slew of reasons why and how we as human beings tend to see the ‘Other’ (the ethnic other, the religious other, etc.) as an enemy. One is that we generalise attitudes, behaviours, and characteristics of a few – and extend that ethos to their families, their friends, their fictitious races, and not so fancied religions. In the Balkan Peninsula, as much as in a nameless island republic, these tendencies usually sow the seeds of destruction that have grave consequences for generations and even centuries.

It is time, then, for our island race to start remembering its recent and not-so-recent history rightly. We need to ask ourselves some hard questions, even if we tend to be tender-minded islanders who prefer to live and let live and leave the tough questions unasked. In the wake of recent violent happenings, we need to ask these:

Do the quirks and quiddity of those who are different from us justify discrimination against them as a distinct cultural entity in our ethnic plurality? Does the egregious violence and hate speech of a few passionate but misguided souls warrant hatred against the whole community they ostensibly represent? Can we turn a blind eye to the injustices committed in the name of nationalism, patriotism, and a plethora of other isms; and hope that they will soon be things of the past – hopefully never to be repeated? Shall our conscious decision to remember right help now in the non-existent national reconciliation process? Or will it only provoke more tensions, stresses, and upheavals because – being human – it is not possible for memories to be neutral?

Someone recently suggested that the need of the hour is honest reflection which examines all sides of the burning issues at hand. This can perhaps help to sow the seeds, which may bear the flower of reconciliation, rather than the rotten fruit of ethno-religious chauvinism. The same young person admitted that such honest reflection is not easy. He said it required determination to do and courage in perseverance. That is because one runs the risk of being portrayed as a ‘traitor’ by one’s own people for not taking the ‘side’ of one’s ‘race’ or religion. Though to do so – or not to do so – run the equal risks of engendering division, discrimination, derision, destruction.

Finally, I remembered what the third thing was. As I grow older, I can’t remember the wrongs that people did to me. For that kind of amnesia, I am truly grateful. Now I have to work intentionally towards such forgetfulness. Even as we as a nation look back to June 15 – and beyond it to 1915 – and also forward to July 23 (and back to its genesis), our wish and prayer for and plea would do well to be for such a gift of amnesia. Rather that than a raging inferno all over again.

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