10 June 2007

Remembering

One of the most critical (literary) devices for the émigré author is the act of remembering. For, much of the content of immigrant writing is derived from memories… from material dug up from the author’s past and, perhaps, personal experience. Not all of it is literal, of course. An author’s keen observation plays an important part in recording facts and human behaviour, and then fictionalising them.

For instance, it’s unlikely that J M Coetzee had lost his leg in a bicycle accident to have written ‘Slow Man’; or that, Amitav Ghosh had waded through the swamps of the Sundarbans to chase river dolphins in West Bengal, India, to have written ‘The Hungry Tide’. But, using metaphors – in these cases, the inability to adjust (or re-adjust) to a new life after a loss or displacement or when fate deals a blow – émigré authors have a tendency to lure themselves into creating fiction based on personal experiences from, and memories of, their past.

Of course, most authors of fiction use similar devices, but the émigré author’s story has a haunting connection with the real past. Much of it is personal. Sometimes, it is difficult to separate the real from the fictional.

When the weaver of such émigré fiction is also a talented film director, then the stories seem more real. They take on a more solid hue, playing on the screens before us in words and pictures. One such film director, and a favourite of mine, who has adapted many of his films from his own émigré material is Atom Egoyan.

An Armenian-Canadian, Egoyan’s greatest achievement is his film ‘The Sweet Hereafter’ – a tale of adjustment (or re-adjustment) of lives when a bus-load of school children die in a road accident, soon followed by the arrival of a lawyer trying to compensate their loss with money… forcing them to remember their past lives, their loss and their grief.

While Nicole, the girl permanently crippled from the bus accident in ‘The Sweet Hereafter’, refuses to give in to the destructive forces of the lawsuit and changes the course of the lives of everyone in the film, Paul Rayment, J M Coetzee’s protagonist in ‘Slow Man’, crippled from the bicycle accident at the beginning of the novel, refuses to change the course of his life and live in its sorrow.

Such is the power of remembering, and Egoyan’s later film ‘Ararat’ thrives on it. ‘Ararat’ deals directly with the loss of a homeland and an identity that result from a historical and a political event – the Armenian Genocide, when the Turkish government overran the Armenians in 1915-18, killing one and a half million Armenians. But, that’s not all.

‘Ararat’ also deals with the coming to terms with this loss at a distant future (the present), where generations of émigré Armenians are trying to adjust (or re-adjust) to a new life in a new country. Egoyan seems to say that Armenians (like himself) cannot help but remember their past, with generations of Armenians intricately connected with it, weaving in this aspect of Armenian life through multiple characters and multiple layers in this complex film.

In ‘The Hungry Tide’, Amitav Ghosh presents a similar scenario, but in a far complex manner. He presents three generations of Bengalis from different walks of life, interconnected through their past and their Bengali identity, subtly touching upon an event from Bengal’s history – an uprising by homeless Bangladeshi refugees in Morichjhapi in the Sundarbans which was overrun by the West Bengal government in 1979, killing hundreds of Bangladeshi refugees.

While the significance of the historical event is central to Egoyan’s film, in Ghosh’s novel it is only incidental. But both, film and novel, raises a moral question of how we deal with history and our personal remembrances of it. Egoyan is unable to provide an answer to this question. Ghosh simply doesn’t offer one. So, we are left to form our own conclusions.

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