Memory, Narrative and Radical Politics in South Asia

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A narrative is an arrangement of memory – personal or impersonal in relation to the narrating individual. As an arrangement of memory, that a narrative betrays attitudes to past goes without saying. What is also true is that it betrays the attitude towards the present and future.

The selection of memory and its valuation within the narrative reveals on the one hand, the desire for retaining something of the past and on the other, a desire for changing something of the past. These two desires that drive the narrativising are contingent upon the nature of future desired. Seen thus, a narrative may be said to hanker after the bygones in a nostalgic manner or to want a violent revision of things so as the past is not repeated. In our reading of the narratives we might be able to distinguish between these two forms of desires. Now, when we see a narrative as a desire image, the question to ask would be about the nature of the memory.

On this issue, two kinds of politics may be easily noticed. One may be seen in narratives belonging to feminist, dalit, queer and such literary categories. The other may be seen in what is usually called the ‘mainstream’. In the former one hardly ever comes across a hankering for the past, except a particular type among them that recreate originary myths. In the latter category, we often come across nostalgia of an implicit or explicit kind. The former belongs to the genre of future-generation (in the sense of generating, producing the future), the latter to the past-regeneration. I mean to say, that feminist, dalit, queer and such narratives usually project a desire for change not only of the present (that may be common across these two types), but a rejection of the past too. In the mainstream narratives though the desire for changing the present may be found, it is likely that the alternative is seen in what was. Thus, these are two opposite tendencies: searching for a future of the present creation, and searching for a future that is a recreation of the past.     

In assessing the radicality of ‘mainstream’ narratives, we may examine its structure of memory to determine what tendency towards future is contained therein. A ‘mainstream’ narrative that calls for future-generation as against past re-generation, I think is radical as against the one that seeks to re-create past in the future.

This framework might be relevant in studying South Asian narratives, given the specific nature of its oppressive social structure. The past and the continuing oppressive apparatus of brahminical patriarchy in
South Asia renders memory being valued differently for the different social groups. In this context, the future-generation possesses greater significance than past re-creation. The politics of recovery is especially problematic in the South Asian context and its difference with the radical politics of future-generation is linked to the way past is approached.

Note that what I am trying to say here is purely speculative. I am aware that it is foolish to make such sweeping generalizations. It is better to make the kind of statements I have made here with reference to particular texts and also refer to particular discourses of past. However, I am only trying to think of a framework within which I can study how memory is approached in narratives in two distinct ways, and how their politics would be different.   

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