No spin zone: The unbearable lightness of life - Anjum Niaz - Sunday, March 06, 2011

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Much of literature is memorialisation
— Joyce Carol Oates

If you’re from the digital generation, one of those ‘social network’ geeks chained to your mini-machines, addicted to instant messaging, Twitter and Facebook, don’t bother to read any further. Carry on with your iPods and iPads.

Call it cognitive entanglement. A memorialisation of life reflected in literature, according to Oates, a prolific writer. It’s an intimate love affair with the past that is not over. It never will be. We are all time travellers who carry bitter sweet memories stuffed in a bulging bag. Like carpet baggers, nay the nostalgia junkies, we lug around stuff in the head and the house as we hurtle through life, from one experience to another.

Philosopher Will Durant whose Story of Philosophy provoked people into understanding the value of philosophy and his Story of Civilisation in eleven volumes is for one to hear out in today’s wild jungle of terror, death and injustice. Where evil is rewarded and good shunned. The Pulitzer Prize winner says: When life tries us, or friendship slips away, or perhaps our children leave us for their own haunts and homes, we shall come and sit at the table with Shakespeare and Goethe, and laugh at the world with Rabelais, and see its autumn loveliness with John Keats. For these are friends who give us only their best and always await our call. When we have walked with them a while, and listened humbly to their speech, we shall be cured of our infirmities and know the peace that comes of understanding.

Books, then, are our balm. Hold on to them. Don’t throw them away even if they have withered with age. Or the pages turned yellow with time. Or their corners folded into dog-ears with usage. If you don’t have space to store them, tuck them under your bed. They will radiate wisdom wherever they are.

In Alone Together, an MIT professor writes of damage done by technology paid in “frayed nerves and lost reading hours and broken attention.” The medium does matter. A reviewer writing on the book says: “As a technology, a book focuses our attention, isolates us from the myriad distractions that fill our everyday lives. A networked computer does precisely the opposite. It is designed to scatter our attention… Knowing that the depth of our thought is tied directly to the intensity of our attentiveness, it’s hard not to conclude that as we adapt to the intellectual environment of the Net our thinking becomes shallower.”

Recently while talking about old books at a leisurely lunch, two friends tell me how they came upon “priceless treasures” at home and abroad. “I went to a deserted church in Spain and found stack loads of dust covered manuscripts on Islam, written in Arabic. The caretaker told me that this was junk. I could help myself to what I wanted. On return to Pakistan I wrote to my government as well as to other Muslim countries to acquire this treasure. None bothered to respond.”

Another friend talks of an old newspaper office on The Mall in Lahore whose archives contain books that have a story to tell, “But there are no takers!” Another narrates the story of Field Marshall Auchinleck, former C-in-C pre-partition India, whose personal book collection contained a large number of priceless volumes relating to the subcontinent. He had never married and after his death there were no takers. The British ambassador offered them to Pakistan. Our mission wrote to the Foreign Office suggesting that this offer be taken up immediately. They got no reply!

What about old newspapers? I pull out a trunk bought by the family in London during the 1954 cricket tour of Pakistan to England. In it are newspapers and clippings as old as the trunk itself, even older. A journal called Republic written in red, lies waiting to be picked up, has a life-size portrait with this caption below: “Major General Sikandar (sic) Mirza, first president Islamic Republic of Pakistan.” The banner tells us its date as March 23 1956, Annas 4 per copy, vol. 1, No 1, Editor Khalil Sheikh.

Mirza is the same gentleman who two years later is banished for life to England. I remember people saying that they saw Mirza on the pavements of London soliciting business for the Indian restaurant called Veera Swami where he worked to earn a living! Half a century later the rules of the game have not changed; lifestyles may have. Those who ruled Pakistan inevitably end up in London, be it Mirza, Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, Asif Zardari or Musharraf. Others die in incarceration (Ayub, Yahya) or are killed (Bhutto, Zia).

Not only literature but politics is memorialisation. But the ruler of day never cares to think beyond his own chair that he is busy warming, dreaming mindlessly of power forever. Here’s another caveat: don’t name places after rulers who are alive. They have feet of clay. When they fall, they bite the dust. Libyan President Qadhafi is alive but may soon go under. He’s killing his own people! Does the Lahore stadium deserve to carry his name? Get rid of it fast!

Our British masters deserted India when things got too hot for them. Down came Queen Victoria’s statue on The Mall in Lahore. I still have in my ‘memory trunk’ several handwritten letters by English administrators with “India postage of King George costing 9 paisa” each. What to do with them? Gymkhana Club, called Montgomery Hall, in Lahore had portraits of its past English presidents. When the British high commissioner was asked if his country had any need of them, pat came his reply: “No.”

Ah those family handwritten notes over half a century old! Some who wrote to you are dead and gone. But their letters speak out. The bond is there, unbroken and chained to you. I have many letters written by a little girl to her grandmother. She has lost both her parents in an accident. Should I return them to the writer, now in her 50s? This is the message I get back: “Nature is that perfect balance where everyone wins, no one loses… as for the letters it seems like another lifetime. I am sure most of the memories of those moments are bitter sad and that of feeling cheated by none other than destiny. The letters will bring out the precocious eight-year-old even more forcibly since she still lives within me. But I guess one has to eventually face the phantoms and demons that reside within us. So please send the letters.”

I decide to destroy them.

Our contraptions may shape our consciousness, but it is our consciousness that makes our credos, and we mostly live by those, says the New Yorker.

I couldn’t agree more.

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