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Past is Prologue

Updated: Feb 20, 2021

Hassan Tahir Latif

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

The past is an amorphous beast, a sneaky shapeshifter, a trickster. At times it is an irresistible siren call and at others a house of horrors. Invariably, though, the past continues to lure us to its shores and, invariably, we find ourselves helplessly caught in the undertow. In times like these it appears that all our strife against the current is futile and we are then ultimately marooned on its shores, with no escape.

Marine Mimesis by Anushka Rustomji (Indian ink and acrylic on handmade paper), 2020

It is this firm hold of the past over our lives that remains a key interest of mine. Rifling through my journal entries from the last few years, I can easily spot familiar themes: nostalgia, memory, history, a longing for the past. I remember endlessly poring over history books as a child or listening rapturously as my grandparents narrated tales of days gone by. Even now, or perhaps after the year we have gone through I should say, especially now, I find myself as entranced by the past as Owen Wilson’s character in ‘Midnight in Paris’.

Over the years, this obsession with history has evolved; from devouring history books and historical fiction, I have moved on to how memories of our past (collective and personal) are shaped. There is a certain level of manipulation of history in recounting it that fascinates me increasingly. I am on a quest to explore it as exhaustively as I possibly can; literature, art, popular culture, film and even science—I am determined to dive into every representation of the way we remember the past.

Throughout all this, the infallibility of objective truth and the malleability of human memory have intrigued me. So have the more metaphysical concepts of time and the human experience, reality and perception.

Ultimately, I decided to delve into one aspect of this further: the importance, need and methods through which we preserve and record our past. We humans are inherently aware that there will perhaps never be an omniscient understanding of our own histories. In our personal lives we are prone to lapses in memory, susceptible to creating memories that never existed (see the Mandela Effect) and to losing memory altogether. In the grander scheme of things, our collective past has been lost to lack of preservation technologies and even to the whim of dictators. Oh, what would I not give to save the Library of Alexandria from that infernal flame?!

Despite this, we continue to record our histories, from the seemingly mundane entries in a baby book, to histories of entire nations. Since the invention of photography (and then videography), we have taken this more seriously than ever before, ensuring that we immortalise everything from sunsets to first steps to even deaths. I am reminded here of Susan Sontag’s essay, ‘In Plato’s Cave’, in which she says, “Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still revelling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth.” It is this intrinsic feeling of control over our own lives, I believe, that continues to keep us enthralled by continuous rediscovery and rewriting of the past. After all, he who controls the past controls the future.

For the purpose of my Aleph digital fortnights, I will therefore be exploring the recording of the past and the implications of that on our memories. Moreover, I will also be looking at our need to archive as much of the present as possible, in order for there to be a record of our current past in the future.

During the course of this year I will be speaking to writers, archivists, poets and storytellers about how they preserve the past and why they do so. If this excites you, I request you to follow along, as we learn more about why we are borne ceaselessly into the past and why, oftentimes, we refuse to row against this current.


About the featured artist: Anushka Rustomji (b. Karachi, 1989) is an artist and educator. She graduated from the National College of Arts in Lahore with a BFA in 2012. Rustomji's work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, including exhibitions that culminated out of an artist residency she participated in Leipzig, Germany. She currently lives and works in Karachi.

Her practice is influenced by themes of art history and erasure, in reference to colonisation and diasporas. Her visual vocabulary is informed by ancient Eastern imagery, texts and traditions. She utilises the symbolism in texts and myths to form veiled visual narratives conveying ideas of creation, survival and transcendence. Through such imagery she interrogates cultural and historical connotations, but ultimately leaves the interpretation of meaning up to the viewer.

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