The last two books I read had only a faint connection. One was historical fiction and the other was a memoir. The first – “A Spoke in the wheel” by Amita Kanekar – is a take on Buddha and his teachings by a monk three hundred years after the Buddha’s death when his teachings have begun their journey into religion, the emperor Asoka being the key catalyst. The second – “City of Djinns” By William Dalrymple is his discovery of Delhi – past and present – in a year that he spent in the city in the early 90s. The connection, as you might have guessed, is historical narrative.
It is natural to think that there is a huge difference in a work of fiction and a more research and experience led memoir, but the point of the post is that with time, it is difficult to establish that. In the book on the Buddha, the monk chronicling his life and teachings is irritated by the supernatural abilities being attributed to him. But we do know that many people believe in it now and even consider him as one among the avatars of Vishnu. On a related note, William Dalrymple delivered a body blow to my notions of the Mahabharata era when his conversation with an archaeologist constituted a distinct possibility that the war was fought with sticks and stones and probably a bit of metal! (the proof being excavations around what is considered one of the earliest versions of Delhi – Indraprastha) I am a huge fan of Hindu mythology and it has fascinated me from as long as I can remember. I truly believed that they had happened in some form, but the archaeologist is clear that most descriptions in the epic would fall under ‘poetic license’!
It made me wonder if there would be any difference between the two books say, a hundred years from now. It is possible they might exchange roles. It is also possible that they both are treated as fiction, or as factual pieces of work. I think all scenarios are possible because at the time of chronicling something, we believe that its factuality would be transmitted across time. And yet, we could debate the Mahabharata’s historical authenticity and Buddha’s superpowers both ways! So think about it, the same thing could happen to the information we store now as well. Thanks to digitisation, more data is being created in this world than ever before and (arguably) every point made has a counterpoint. There are no objective annotations because even the original construction is a product of biases, interpretations, perspectives and so on.
That brings me to legacy, something a lot of us care about. From children to business empires to art to helping others, there are many avenues. However, I think that unless there is documentation, the chances of a legacy lasting beyond a few generations is questionable. For example, Dalrymple finds the last line of direct Mughal descendants and their knowledge of their ancestors is limited to a few generations before them. The futurist in me does fantasise about a global neural network and consciousness that connects all of humanity and has sufficient storage to instantly collect, catalog and annotate all ‘memories’ in as objective a state as possible for later generations to study them.
But meanwhile, even as I dissect my baggage of the past, I am now forced to consider my need for leaving a legacy – something behind that will represent me when I’m gone. After all of the above, how relevant is that need? Isn’t it just a demand made by the ego, a story we create for ourselves? Something to continue the narrative of our lives? We do talk a lot about letting go of the baggage of the past, but isn’t legacy also a baggage? A baggage of our future? If we let go of that, how different would our thoughts and deeds be? Understanding that is probably the key to living in the moment. I could easily twist my favourite cricketer-gentleman’s words for this context- He’s not concerned about his legacy, he’s concerned about what actually makes him come alive in the first place, which is that love of life, the desire to live completely.
until next time, present participant