On time and ghosts of memory
Théodore Rousseau’s famous painting ‘The Forest in Winter at Sunset’ is a horrific image of beauty and death. The metaphor of exile and solitude in the painting is remarkable because of the way it captures the evening light that filters in through the denuded branches. Winter evenings evoke in our minds a sense of ephemerality and decadence because of the way the light sinks. It is that hour when the mind is caught in an aimless stupor that triggers in us the most profound reflections on our solitude and mortality. It is also, as Woolf would say, ‘time to roll up the crumpled skin of the day, with its arguments and its impressions and its anger and its laughter’, the hour of endless forgetting.
Winter, with its visceral languor and light, produces in us the ineffable horror and calmness of being, when the mind is faced with the most impossible of contradictions. When the dusk has left us with a contagious sense of melancholy and boredom, and you have comfortably settled under the rug with a mug of coffee and a paperback, the endless possibilities of action begin to play out in the mind. Your nose pressed against the window-pane, the glass wet from your breath reveals a rare miracle of light. Down in the street below, the lamps produce a region of pale clustered light and smog turning hoary at the edges, visible through the wet glass that at the same time throws back at you a deformed spectre of your self. This double image catches you at a moment of unpreparedness and awakens in the memory a sequence of images. The stranger you met at the matinee, her puckered lips as she smiled with an air of condescension trying to gauge you … The parties you have been to where you found yourself in a room full of strangers in a space of casual intimacy and discomfort, the atmosphere electric as what filtered into your vision through the flamboyant giggles and conversation was the indulgent movement of lips and limbs.
Time and memory are the dominant tropes that run through Madhavi S. Mahadevan’s collection of short stories entitled Doppelgänger. The stories constantly seem to interrogate the extent to which the impetuosity of time transforms human consciousness. To what extent is reality framed by our distinct subjectivities and how does the way we understand or interpret the world change with age? Mahadevan explores through her stories the meaning of displacement in time and the psychological upheaval of characters trying to deal with the transformation. The difficulty to accept such a transformation often leads to a double image of the self, not unlike the reflection on the glass while one stares at the street outside. How difficult is it for any individual to accept that the person s/he knew and loved a long time ago has changed a lot with time? Do you love that person in spite of the change and if not, how do you deal with the rebellion of memory?
Mahadevan’s stories deal with themes of solitude, alienation and the banality of urban experience. The dynamics of memory is a recurrent, underlying subject as the past, seemingly dead and actively denied, haunts the consciousness. Such hauntings explore the impossibility and pain of denial which has, as always, a troubled relationship with our lived realities. The inability to accept the changing self often leads to a crisis of identity leading to delusional experiences. It is the pain of not being able to recognise the self – when looking back at the mirror of the past, what smiles back at you, quite absurdly perhaps, is a stranger. The stories are brilliant in highlighting the absences that quietly dominate our everyday experiences and make up the self. What happens when the spoken word, the repressed memory or the dead lover – signs of repressed absences – project their desire across time? Is that desire validated by memory a mere ghost rendered meaningful by solitude? Are places, objects and incidents of the everyday haunted by memories? What happens when incidences, intensely personal and forgotten, repeat themselves uncannily across time as if they have a memory and consciousness of their own? Reality then becomes phantasmagorical, the ghosts inseparable from the present, and endless forgetting becomes a ritual of its own. You plunge yourself into a moment which is falling endlessly through time and memory into the visceral laughter of the unseen.