‘Real Danger of myth becoming memory’: Keki N Daruwalla

Lively scholarly discussion on poetry as memory held at
 ongoing Vak: The Raza Biennale of Indian Poetry

New Delhi, April 8: Contending that a “little amnesia” would help the contemporary shake off the shackles of the past, iconic litterateur Keki N Daruwalla said today that poetry was an important counterweight against the canonisation of myth as memory.

“The danger of myth becoming scripture and memory, as something to be remembered as having lived or occurred is something we must all be wary of. This sort of co-option – the darker side of memory – is linked to nostalgia. A little amnesia would benefit us all,” said Daruwalla, sparking a lively discussion at a scholarly conversation session here.

He linked the conflation of myth with historical and racial anger and distrust. “The healing touch against simplification and rewriting of history would come with the realisation that memory is also an investigation, not something inscribed in stone. Unless we forget, we will be always slaves to the kind of historic memory and philosophy people are thrusting on us,” Daruwalla said.

The intellectual panel, titled ‘Poetry as Memory’, was held at Triveni Kala Sangam as part of the ongoing Vak: The Raza Biennale of Indian Poetry. The three-day Biennale is being organised by the Raza Foundation – set up by the late master artist Sayed Haider Raza and helmed by eminent Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi, the Managing Trustee. 

Setting the stage for the discussion, Vajpeyi said, “Today, all kinds of memories are being manufactured, erased, or suppressed. There is a kind of amnesia prevalent today. Poetry is a jar of memory, reminding and rehabilitating memory.


Vajpeyi moderated the discussion, which saw impassioned rebuttal arguments from noted social scientist Shiv Visvanathan and celebrated Gujarati poet-playwright Sitanshu Yashaschandra – one of the 45 participating poets at the Biennale.


Bringing his influential ‘cognitive justice’ model to bear on the conversation, Visvanathan suggested that “myth was not false memory, but an alternate way of constructing science”. While poets were brilliant when it comes to memory as biography and history, he argued, “they fail when standing up to theory of collective memory”.

“Before the gulag and concentration camps, poetry falters. It has not created a language, poetics, or great epic to transcend the pathos inherent to such constructs. Poetry hasn't broken the myth of Stalin and the many smaller Stalins that have come after. It has failed to answer whether poetry is possible after the camp,” Visvanathan said.


Countering Daruwala on the problem of ‘forgetting’, he said, “While history that haunts us destroys memory, it was only memory that allowed one to see man as many – as sociological poets like Jorge Luis Borges and Octavio Paz do.”


Meanwhile, Yashaschandra rejected the idea that memory and myth existed in polar binaries. Noting that the present state of discourse in India was either “masochistic or sadistic” (either apologetic or vengeful about Indian history), he posited instead the idea of using memory as a gateway.


“Indian poetics understands that memory, like literature, gives you space for and elasticity of interpretation. Indian literature traditionally used memory as metaphor. Like literature, memory should be permitted to cheat us and play with us,” Yashaschandra said.


The way forward, he suggested, was to “use the dynamism and momentum of the past that has been brought into the present to create a pathway to the future”.





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