Thursday, May 21, 2009

What were you doing on May the 21st, 1991?

We were on our way to Mangalore in a bus, Ma and I. We took the bus from Bombay like we always did. The western ghats are tricky, and hence a bunch of buses usually left together. Somewhere near or after Belgaum, our bus slowed down, and then stopped - we couldn't figure the confusion was, nobody told us, just some hints about one of the buses being caught up/delayed and hence this one had to wait. We reached in the morning. Amidst the noise and chaos of the reunion, someone screamed for us to shut up when we heard the heard the words "Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated" on the radio.

What we didn't know was that my uncle was traveling from Bombay on the same day, and on the bus behind and was the one that was caught and torched by rioteers (?), because the news of the assassination had spread by then. It tumbled into a ditch. He reached home 11-12 hours late.

Over the next few days, Doordarshan stopped the broadcast of all their "entertainment" programmes, and it was one of those occasions when noone complained. The entire family, led by my grandmother, wept in front of the TV, openly, as Sonia Gandhi hid behind her giant sunglasses and Priyanka looked suitably in control. Everyone made guesses about the future of the elections and the family.

18 years later, the memories of that time have hit adulthood and some of the details have been lost, but the bus ride the chill in the spine, the ambiance, the lull afterwards, I have never quite forgotten. Since then TV or not, I remember, albeit quietly, every year.

Recently, I was quite surprised when a friend asked me the same question in the midst of much rave-talk about his big backpacking trip to India in '91. It was surprising only because he is not Indian, though he is sufficiently brown on the inside. We swapped the reconstructed bits from our memory, that evening. "Where were you?", "What were you doing?"


Needless to say, everyone misunderstood me when I asked the question today. I wasn't campaigning for any political party, or saying that Rajiv Gandhi was the greatest PM India has ever had, or trying to bring up Bofors or gaping holes in his policy. I have little or no personal interest in the matter. It has little to do with recent death of Prabhakaran.

I was merely experimenting on whether people retroactively attach importance to ordinary goings on in the wake of a "big event". I was also trying to verify whether Rajiv Gandhi's death can be considered one of those "big events" for someone my age, or was it just me who remembers everything so vividly.

I have a substantially accurate memory of time leading to that event. And I wondered if many people could accurately reconstruct the mundane goings-on of a day because something seemingly big has happened. It was a study of how the brain captures memories of a Black Swan event.

It struck me when someone (Oprah, was it?) said about the day Obama won "It is one of those things where you'll tell the future generations - What were you doing that day when Obama won?"

I do believe that ordinariness of a day gets magnified because of a big event, and you retrofit the events leading to the point when the news was broken to you. I was skipping about in the corridor, doing my math, playing hopscotch - when I got the news. Some remember more details (from the start of the day), some less (five minutes before the event). Almost everyone remembers the location. It's almost as if people correlate the ordinariness of the time before to the degree of shock/joy/any-other-emotion experienced.

Right after the event, everything perhaps moves in a sort of slow motion. If the event was the cause for the succeeding chain of non-routine events in an otherwise normal day, for instance, riots, then even the normal circumstances during that day become a part of the memory, even if it's only to connect the dots, the high points, and one remembers every bit of a that train ride in excruciating detail.

Agreed, the importance of the event is subjective, it comes from the buildup, the months preceding, the media, the charisma yada yada. Someone in a small kampong in Malaysia is perhaps not that greatly affected by 9/11. But due to his charisma, or the general Kennedy-esque tragedies that have are attached to the family, Rajiv Gandhi's death seems to have had a great impact on quite a few people of our generation (except you, youth icon Manu). I think the previous generation was impacted by Indira Gandhi's assassination the same way.

So, yes, tell me, what other such events can you remember in this detail? Describe.

1 comment:

Arunima said...

I came to know the news first thing in the morning at around 5 when a classmate called me up saying her uncle had called the night before from chennai. After that we were hooked to the T.V.

One other event was a plane crash in Manipur on the 16th Aug, 91. We lost two powerful politicians from the state and lot of intellectuals as all the passengers died. It was the birthday of one of my friends too and we got the news during the celebration.