On the face of it, it’s the simplest thing to do: remembering what happened yesterday. It’s almost as essential as breathing — we simply couldn’t function if we didn’t remember. But if I move memory’s projector backwards, beyond yesterday, back by ten, even twenty years, I encounter more than one version of the authorized film that is supposed to be my private record of the past.
And what happens when others join me in the exercise, extend memory to a collective remembrance of the public past' How do we multiply minds and projectors and memories by a nice healthy number and still come up with a viable version of the past' This question became insistent as I walked down Bernauer Strasse one cool October morning in Berlin. Bernauer Street at one time marked the city outskirts. After World War II, the Allies organized their occupation on the basis of Greater Berlin’s district borders, as they had existed in 1920. The buildings on the eastern side of Bernauer Strasse went to the Soviet sector. The pavement, however, lay in the other district and became part of West Berlin. The front of one house in Kreuzberg was in the East; the back in the West. (Manto and his Toba Tek Singh live in the unlikeliest of places.) And when the wall was built in 1961, Bernauer Strasse became one of the settings for dramatic attempts to cross the newly erected “border.”
Today, there is a memorial site area located here. There are crosses between the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag. There are the ubiquitous stalls peddling history to tourists; one of the eye-catchers being sold is a mug priced at seven euros. The mug shows Brezhnev and Honecker in a passionate embrace, eyes closed, lips on lips. Below the image is the question, “Will we survive this fatal kiss'” There is also an excellent exhibition centre nearby, complete with dramatic foot-age from the early days of the wall: people jump out of windows to the other side of the street, or the other si- de of the border-in-the-making, while barricades of police chase them back.
How do you remember the Berlin Wall and the different things it meant to people on each side of this internal border' And should it be remembered — formally memorialized — at all' Like the Germans, we know that remembering the past is fraught with anxiety about whose memory (and whose motive for appropriating the past) will take over. And, of course, it’s not just a wall or a mosque or whatever; a structure is always more than literal brick and mortar. Moreover, it exists among other structures — in a context of monuments and memorials from different points in the past. In Berlin for instance, the public chronicler has not only to deal with the divided times of West Germany and the GDR, but also with the Nazi times; and below that layer of memory, the times of the Kaiser, preceded by those of the Prussian king. The familiar dilemma raises its teasing head, challenging us to reconcile the memories of too many times, and too many models of the monuments — official memories — that should be rebuilt, pulled down or constructed afresh.
One reaction to the problem is the “no monument” lobby. In some ways, this does make sense. People should look toward the future without the burden of a painful or an unwieldy past; what has happened is over and done with, and the ugliness of the past, its images of terror or hatred or division, are over once and for all. There are also the legitimate fears of a historical Disneyland trivializing the past, as a collective way to remember is constructed. Think, for example, of the Jagmohan model. Imagine shopping arcades around Ayodhya, the site disputed in terms of remembrance, reclaimed through the experience of video-game machines playing their versions of the Ramayana.
But if the memorial issue is sidestepped, there is another danger. Becoming an accomplice in the great conspiracy of silence that holds back the recounting of public experiences, however painful or ridden with ambiguous meanings. The features of such a conspiracy are familiar to us — whether it is the case of the Partition, or Gujarat, or upper-caste atrocities, or Nazi terror. How can you fail to acknowledge the real struggle in individual and collective memory, churning images, words and structures to make our history understandable for the present'
So there is some consensus that the past needs to be made useful for the present. I suspect that the dominant voice in the memorializing exercise begins with this simple cautionary objective. But the formal line also has other compulsions. It has to be driven by a formal need for reconciliation, or at least by a public gesture in that direction. It’s not possible, for instance, to make the exact location of Hitler’s “last” bunker public knowledge. The tourist guides may claim they know the secret of its exact location (so you can come to terms with Hitler in your own private way — a Danish journalist I met told me he felt better after he pissed on the spot). But this is a site that cannot be used as a literal memorial site: there is the inevitable danger of the Neo-Nazis perverting the cautionary tale to a symbol of Nazi resurgence.
Then there is the multiplicity of memories: I saw a rather dilapidated-looking building in what was East Berlin that turned out to be the former palace of the Republic, also called the Palace of the People. But what appeared to me as an ugly building obviously meant something to the people from the former GDR. Even young people spoke of their memories of being awed by the palace, or of having fond memories of the place. At the very least, it was an inescapable prop in their lives as citizens. Later, there was a scandal about the asbestos used in the building, and the dismantling of the palace began for practical reasons. Post-reunification, the revivalist lobby entered the fray. They want the palace to be replaced with more familiarly palatial structure; specifically, the Berlin Castle of the Kaiser, and before 1871, the Prussian king. So how do you construct something that will accommodate plural memories, different vantage points of the past, to create what the German historian, Gabriele Camphausen, calls a “site of silent explanation and remembrance”'
It is clear that there is no one formula for either remembrance or commemoration. And this is not just true for a concept or actual structure; it is also true for the mode of memorializing. Art is often thought of as the obvious mode to institutionalize a public memory. But artistic interpretation has to survive the attentions of two inspectors. One is the inspector with a didactic approach who mistrusts the ability of art to do justice to the public memory exercise. This distrust is apparent in the recent case of the memorial for the murdered Jews in Europe. The second policeman is a figure familiar to us at home. He wields a censoring lathi; and he also wants to give myth a bad name as we recollect our combined pasts.