A massive storm is approaching the East Coast this holiday season. It’s going to bring rain and snow and strong winds. Outside my window, broad daylight already looks like night. It’s like someone has wiped the window panes with a thin layer of gray, translucent paint. Everything looks more drab and ominous than usual.
The water of the river looks muddy, the sharp, gray, city skyline has its sharp edges smudged against an even grayer sky. The world has lost colour. The creams and yellows of surrounding buildings, ponchos and umbrellas look off white and ashen in the reduced light.
I know what it must feel like outside.
The cold drizzle is like a thousand sharp, metal needle points on the skin. The wind, when it blows along the wind corridors in the city slices away sensation from the face, ears and nose ruthlessly. Existence becomes about scurrying from shelter to shelter of hiding behind one glass door to another or one subterranean subway passage to the next.
Such cold storms in the city rarely have positive associations for me. Yet, this is the storm which is raging outside right now squeezing out whatever little daylight was portioned out to this part of the year in this part of the world for the cold, winter months.
Now, consider a storm in the city from my past. Kalbaishakhi in Calcutta as opposed to this winter storm in New York.
A very different climate, a very different metropolitan landscape, but a city and storm all the same.
At first, the heat provides a mental contrast. The air is heavy with the summer heat, the concrete is sizzling, the street dogs are panting under staircases and every leaf on every sparse tree is wilting. It’s still and ominous until there is a sudden change in the air.
The harsh sun is blocked by welcome gray clouds. The dazzling white concrete and the the scorching yellow sunlight is mellowed. The heaviness of the air is replaced by a drop in temperature and a refreshing cool breeze. The souls caged in hot apartments and crowded buses are released from torture as the first huge, soft, warm, yet cooling drops of rain fall and grow into a torrent. They wash every bit of dusty leaf on the rare trees on the concrete pavements into their green best and even the drains sing with gurgling, fresh water.
That’s what nostalgia does.
It frees up every muddy city street from dirt and every rain-clogged drain with love of the past while it turns every pristine snow of the present into a muddy, boot-trampled city slush.
In my experience, there are two kinds of people. Ones that savour moments from the past through memories they create through nostalgia and ones that privilege the present over the past. Sometimes, that process of privileging the present is done emphatically enough to warrant a name which would be the antonym of nostalgia (but my cursory search online tells me that no such satisfactory antonym exists. I think describing this anti-nostalgic sentiment, when it doth protest too much, would require a completely new post.)
So what is nostalgia? It is the constant passing through doorways of the present into doorways of the past for what is like the present but is not here. It is sitting in a park missing a park which is so much like this park but isn’t this one because it’s not here. It is the constant relational placement of memories of the past with the sense experiences of the present, too new to create pleasantly old memories, and yet strong enough to pry open the doorways to the past. It is the constant confusion of place and time, longing for a place from the past which is just like this one, existing right out of reach, imagining life in a different place where the mind drowns in sweet forgetfulness when it’s really life not in a different place but in a different time in the past.
Nostalgia works in creating memories through writing. Nostalgia is vivid. Nostalgia is beautiful. Nostalgia incites strong, yet pleasant emotions. Nostalgia, immersed in a pool of feeling, avoids conflicts. It describes what is distanced and not here. The mind can be selective, the creative imagination can gloss over and rearrange memories as it wants. Even the most immediate rancour of the past can be smoothed over by the sweetness of nostalgia.
Nostalgia in writing is enticing. It beckons. It captivates. It makes that which we want to keep alive live forever.
Yet, life escapes nostalgia. Nostalgia is dangerous. It does not challenge. It takes away depth. It reduces reality and conflict to beautiful vignettes that are more akin to death than life. Nostalgia preserves but nostalgia also kills and then preserves what it has killed into neat little frames in the scrapbooks of our memories.