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Why Memory Matters through Abhishek Parui’s new book

The new interdisciplinary book brings to light how culture and the literary are enjoined in an intractable dance with memory

Julie Banerjee Mehta | Published 02.06.22, 02:19 AM

A regular conversation on the loss of memory and its profound effect on an ageing population is urgent and necessary. A new interdisciplinary book by Avishek Parui brings to light how culture and the literary are enjoined in an intractable dance with memory. A report released by the United Nations Population Fund and HelpAge India suggests that the number of elderly persons is expected to grow to 173 million by 2026.

I came to Memory Studies through my mother, a renowned anaesthetist, diagnosed for dementia, some years ago. Avishek Parui’s inventive new book Culture and the Literary: Matter, Metaphor Memory, is the most recent work that has whetted my somewhat incurable obsession with how memory is central in our construction of the self.

Five years before my father, her medical school sweetheart died, my mother forgot him. I was there when the moment seized us as a family. I was spending that summer researching at the National Library in Calcutta , on a break from teaching Postcolonial and World Literature at the University of Toronto. I witnessed her transformation from a first class medical specialist to an irrational patient of dementia, ready to throw the “imposter”, my father whom she suddenly could not recognise, out of the house. There began our bizarre journey as a family,  learning about memory. And losing it. Ten thousand miles away, in Toronto, my partner and I saw our lives change from happy, adventurous travellers to Ontario’s expansive lake country on week ends , to obsessive seekers of knowledge on dementia at Toronto’s many teaching hospitals. Every spare hour was spent in either attending seminars or reading reports on the clinical work that was being done on why we forget. And how can we arrest the process of loss.

As I learnt from our innumerable forays into Memory Studies Centres in Toronto, neuroscientists now agree that memory isn’t just a “thing” that occurs in your brain. You can’t just will a memory into existence, you have to form it. Neuroscientists tell us that our brains have a variety of processes – many of which we’re still learning about – that define how and why memories are stored and how they are recalled. It is now starting to emerge that when you forget something, you aren’t actually bad at remembering things, rather it’s just your brain reorganizing so it can focus on more important things. There are leading theories that your brain stores everything that ever happened to you in memory, it just only forms neuropathways to the memories that it deems important.

It is in this context that I find Parui’s inventive approach to the intersection between the construction of identity on the scaffolding of unstable memory most interesting. He states in his introduction that “…this book examines fiction as a production, as well as a play between reality and possibility, whereby historical and collective memory are mediated through phenomenal frames (literature) and affective objects.” Parui explains clearly what affect means, so both the academic and non-academic reader is clued in. Invoking the formidable scholar Sara Ahmed, Parui explains affect in his study, as “something that sticks moves, sustains and preserves the connection between ideas, values and objects.”

Author Avishek Parui, a Bengali from the multicultural riverside town of Howrah, went on to Presidency College, before completing his doctoral degree at Durham University in the UK. Urbane and articulate, with a deep understanding of interdisciplinary research, he straddles many worlds in academia and lives a dream many young, upwardly mobile scholars might envy. He works at IIT Madras as an assistant professor in English and is principal investigator at the Centre for Memory Studies, an interdisciplinary research center founded under the MHRD’s Institute of Eminence (IoE) scheme in 2021. In the same year, he and his team founded the Indian Network for Memory Studies (INMS), the first national network for memory studies in Asia under the aegis of the International Memory Studies Association (MSA).

Parui posits that, “Memory studies is more relevant than ever today with our connective networks across the deathless digital designs where we inhabit with our immersive smartphones and social sites. Here is a world of information and endless memory where images and information never die. Perhaps now, more than ever, we need to turn to and uphold what makes us uniquely human, imagination, and study how that shapes what we remember, how we remember, and what we often choose to forget.”

Primarily an acclaimed academic study, Culture and the Literary is enormously accessible. Though grounded in theory, it is to his credit that the author makes the most complex ideas from Jacques Derrida to Arjun Appadurai, Marcel Proust speak to writers and their works, both extensively and intensively. Thus, for general readers and book lovers who are looking for a refreshing unpackaging of the works of Joseph Conrad, George Orwell, Milan Kundera, Ian McEwan and Franz Fanon, and many more, Parui’s exhaustive content and compelling writing style are alluring baits. The formidable work of 224 pages is neatly organised into four richly endowed chapters: Culture, Identity and Colonial Identity, Culture; History, Memory and Forgetting; Culture, Consumption and Technology; Race, Medicine, Matter and Metaphor, as well as a memorable conclusion where references to pop culture giants like Tom Cruise, and sports legends like Roger Federer arrest the attention of readers across ponds and puddles.

Parui says: “Memory is the story the brain tells to the self to make sense of what happened, what is around, and what may emerge. Memory is thus enacted by ancient buildings as well as by breadcrumbs, stored in the complex neural nets in the brain as well as in the stories we never cease to tell. Perhaps that is what makes literature and fiction, that liminal play between reality and possibility, between what did and does happen and what may have happened, such a powerful and moving medium of memory-representation, which also is an act of anticipation. Culture and the Literary: Matter, Metaphor, Memory is a small but hopefully sincere step in that direction.”

In referring to Nobel laureate Alice Munro’s fiction, academic Ajay Heble at Guelph University seems to agree with Parui, and  maintains that stories “promote and undo reality at one and the same time; they tease us with expectations of accuracy, objectivity, truth, and linguistic transparency, only to show us that events which pose as accurate, objective, true, and transparent are fictions of self-knowledge, narratives constructed by a narrating figure whose authorial subjectivity can no longer go unquestioned.”

Looking to the past implies a recognition of the fluctuation of the sense of identity. The slippages, ellipses, lapses are all a part of the constant processes of construction and deconstruction that transform the multiple selves we each inhabit. And the significance of art lies not in grasping reality, as my dementia-affected mother’s sizable collection of abstract art establishes (which is subjective and transformative) but in escaping subjectivity through art, thus transcending the individual to reach the universal.

Julie Banerjee Mehta is an author of Dance of Life and co-author of the bestselling biography Strongman: The Extraordinary Life of Hun Sen. She has a PhD in English and South Asian Studies from the University of Toronto, where she taught World Literature and Postcolonial Literature for many years. She currently lives in  Kolkata and teaches Masters English at Loreto College.

Last updated on 02.06.22, 02:19 AM
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