If you were to visit your younger self, at any moment from your past, would you choose a happy one or the one where you were grieving?
As someone fascinated by the past, not just as a historian, but in general, as a human being functioning each day, every day, on the reminiscences of the past, reading Time Shelter by Bulgarian author, Georgi Gospodinov (translated in English by Angela Rodel), has been a treat full of questions for me to sit down and think about, so far. While I’ve only reached the halfway point of the book, I wish to share my reading journey, and the things that I was reminded of, while reading, in this blog piece. In doing so, I hope to explore some thought-provoking questions that have come up in the book thus far. So, join me as I offer a spoiler-free perspective on the book—a perspective that’s more about how I’ve engaged with it than a review of the book itself.
About the Book: Time Shelter
“The time is coming when more and more people will want to hide in the cave of the past, to turn back. And not for happy reasons, by the way. We need to be ready with the bomb shelter of the past. Call it the time shelter, if you will.”
Time Shelter is a fictional account of an experiment by a geriatric psychiatrist, that leads to the building of a ‘clinic of the past’, where people who have lost their memory due to Dementia or Alzheimer’s could come and revisit the decades that they last remember. This clinic comprises intricately crafted rooms, each mirroring a specific historical decade. The narrator plays a role in helping the doctor procure a range of items essential for outfitting these facilities. These items encompass everything from wall calendars, posters, typewriters, and radios to even cigarettes and chocolates. No expense is spared in reconstructing a semblance of the past that aligns with the patients’ memories—a “protected past.”
1. Obsession with the Past
“Where does this personal obsession with the past come from? Why does it pull me in, like a well I have leaned over?...What is left there, that I didn’t manage to take? What’s waiting there, in the cave of that past? Could I beg for just one trip back?”
I started keeping a diary back in sixth grade. Not to fancy it up as “journaling,” my diary game was super strict and chronologically, on point. I’d sit down like it was some daily ritual and jot down every little thing that happened during the day, giving details about how a certain thing made me feel. Emotionally heavy, those entries would include my successes, my failures, my relations with people around me, my fantasies, my so-called discoveries, new things that I learned, my likes/dislikes, my obsessions—basically, the whole shebang.
As if, while penning down those moments, I was making sure that the future me who will come back to read them should know exactly what I was thinking at that moment.
Who will I be if not for the memories sheltered in those pages of my diary? I wonder sometimes. Where will I go, to look for myself, if not for this past? But also, what happens to this past once I am no longer able to identify with it?
Gospodinov, asks, in a similar vain:
“Where do all those heaps of personal past go? Does someone buy them, collect them, throw them away?...Where do all those familiar and unfinished stories go, those severed connections that still bleed, all those dumped lovers; Does the past disintegrate, or does it remain practically unchanged like plastic bags, slowly and deeply poisoning everything around itself? Shouldn’t there be factories for recycling the past somewhere? Can you make anything else out of past besides past? Could it be recycled in reverse into some kind of future, albeit secondhand?”
2. How does Memory work?
Memory works in funny ways, for most of us. When a person forgets us and our existence in their lives, what do we do with their leftover memories? Who are we if the people who know us, forget us? What of us will remain that day?
“If we are not in someone else’s memory, do we even exist at all?”
From among loads of references that exist in cinematic history about a person’s loss of memory, one that comes to my mind while I write this, is Tehzeeb’s character (played by Vidya Balan) in Nikkhil Advani's Salaam-E-Ishq (2007). After a major accident, she suffers from a partial memory loss, due to which she forgets Ashutosh (played by John Abraham), the person she fell in love with, and got married to. Despite all his efforts to help her remember him, he eventually had to bow down to her memory loss, and begin his life’s journey with her in a new way.
“For those who have lost their memories...the present is a foreign country, while the past is their homeland. The only thing we can do is create a space that is in sync with their internal time.”
While sometimes we struggle with remembering certain things, sometimes we also struggle with the fact that we remember things more than how much we want to. There are pockets in our brains that store unwanted information, and send across the nostalgia signals right when they know we shouldn’t be thinking about a certain thing that happened in the past. In psychological terms, these signals would be called “triggers”.
In a more specific context, this could be applied to people who intentionally try to escape the painful past, so as to continue living a more meaningful life. Remember the song someone dedicated to you with utmost love, before your relations went downhill with them? Does listening to that song trigger a nostalgia you avoid going back to? Yeah, thought so.
In Time Shelter, Georgi Gospodinov puts forward a more brutal version of this forced amnesia:
“Should we awaken fear, the memory of fear?...Fear is one of the strongest triggers of the memory...in order to survive there, in a new place, you had to cut off the past and to throw it to the dogs. To be merciless toward the past. Because the past itself is merciless.”
3. The Imagined Past
Our memories are not always precise and accurate recordings of past events. There are memories that we cook ourselves inside our brains, about things that may or may not have actually happened. Our brains engage in a process where they fill in gaps in our memory with imagined or reconstructed details. These details might be based on our desires, emotions, or even external influences such as stories we’ve heard from others.
“The past is not just that which happened to you. Sometimes it is that which you just imagined.”
It’s a shelter we create for ourselves, in a past that our brains like to have a control over—a place where our memories can exist in a way that makes sense to us.
Our memories are not just passive recordings of the past; they are active constructions that our brains continuously update and revise. It reminds us that our perception of reality is not always objective, and what we remember as “the past” is often a blend of what actually happened and what we’ve imagined or reconstructed to fit our narrative. This blending of reality and imagination throws light on the complex nature of human memory.
4. Emotions and Memory
“Never, ever visit a place you left as a child after a long absence. It has been replaced, emptied of time, abandoned, ghostly. There. Is. Nothing. There.”
Let me go back to the question I asked at the beginning of this piece. If you were to visit your younger self, at any moment from your past, would you choose a happy one or the one where you were grieving?
The science of memory as attached to our emotions has been explored by Pixar’s Inside Out (2015) like none other. Mostly set inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley as she moves to a new town, the movie uses five emotions as characters with distinct personalities: Joy, Fear, Disgust, Anger and Sadness, to illustrate how emotions influence our memories.
Read more about this, here: How 'Inside Out' Explains The Science Of Memory
5. History and Memory
“When does the everyday become history?”
While History with a capital ‘H’ has mostly been written by the powerful, it is the everyday, mundane things in the lives of common people that makes history rather interesting. Nothing screams “subjective” about “memory” more than the fact that the existence of humans has always depended on the ways they have allowed themselves to be remembered by.
While documenting the history of partition survivors, Urvashi Butalia in The Other Side of Silence, drew upon interviews, memoirs, and other personal stories to construct a narrative of the partition that centred on the experiences of ordinary people rather than just the dominant political figures. In doing so, she posed an important question: “How do we know this event except through the ways in which it has been handed down to us: through fiction, memoirs, testimonies, through memories, individual and collective…” However, at the same time, she highlighted the issues that lie beneath the very ‘memory’ that helps us reconstruct the past. Memory, she argued, is not ever ‘pure’ or ‘unmediated’. A lot of it depends on who remembers, when, with whom, to whom, and how.
It certainly gives me a thrill to know that human thought and ways of existing probably did not differ much from what they are now. This is one of the reasons why engaging with primary sources is a fun-filled experience—an experience not only open to interpretation but an experience “sheltered in time” that one can ponder upon and maybe learn a few lessons from.
As I continue reading Time Shelter, I will be posting more updates about it, on my Instagram account @bookishruti. What questions about ‘memory’ do you think about the most? Do let me know!
Happy reading :)