Where memory speaks

There is something eerily clairvoyant about the grey concrete cuboids laid out in an austere grid across a vast plot in the city of Berlin. It appears as an even plane from above but takes you into a maze on an undulating floor where, at times, you can see above all the cuboids. At other times, they tower over you. Often the lonely walk in the narrow lanes is interjected by an unknown person trying to find the meaning behind the installation and experience. A walk through the grid evokes many a thought. But most importantly it makes you ask, 'Why?'

Berlin's Holocaust Memorial has many a critic. Some say it is a failed design; others may not be able to define its purpose. But it was not intended to appease or provide answers; it was designed to evoke emotions. It is one of the many reminders Germany has built to remind visitors of a scarred past it regrets and to spread harmony and tolerance for coexistence.

One unparalleled virtue every Indian has is forgetfulness. We condemn the lack of civic amenities during floods, or agitate against rape, murder, scams, pollution and so on. But all is forgotten in a matter of months. Every year, in the first week of December we remember the wounds left behind by the aftermath of the felling of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. We talk about it, read about it, and forget about it, slowly, by mid-December, when the cold weather and dense fog across North India start to make the headlines.

Only two kinds of people remember: the ones who suffer and the ones who politicize. The first are left with festering wounds in a society and a system where justice works slowly. The second lot remembers and reminds as and when it suits them. It is important to remember. Our memories guide us in this. Incidents that hurt us remain as memories. But what happens when one has not gone through an experience to remember it later?

Inclusive form

In French, mémoire means an official note or report or a narrative composed from personal experience. A person usually writes a memoir at the end of a career. In it is recorded important events, secrets and fond or incriminating memories. In the case of a nation, a memoir is better built than written.

Almost all the polarizing events that have taken place in India have been associated with a piece of land, or with a town or a village. Events die, but the legends and wounds survive. The latter can be cut open by communities time and again. What is needed is to arrest the essence of such an event in a symbolic built form that would be beyond the realms of religion and politics. It should permit citizens to relive an experience, be aware of the repercussions and figure out things on their own.

So what can this symbolic built form be? It can be a religious structure designed to be based on an all-embracing secular sensibility, which will be welcomed by all communities. It can be a sky-kissing statue of an eminent person that will not stir a political debate or raise an environmentalist question. It can be a public building, such as a school, library, hospital or park, that would serve all equally. It can be named after a deceased politician or a famous person.

Or perhaps it can be a memorial, a figurative built form touching the lines of the ethereal, a space that can capture the essence of a past event and present it to the visitor as an experience without being blunt with images and inscriptions. One that will be able to speak all languages without speaking any, one that will be able to write all texts without writing any, and one that can touch our inner selves.

Of course a nation with a rich tradition of culture and spirituality will be able to understand and appreciate it without having to give it a name. It would look at it as a reminder - a memoir.


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