By Aggam Walia
The other day, my grandmother launched into a passionate tirade against our generation for losing all respect for “Indian culture”. For contrast, she spoke of the times when she was my age, devoted to family values and culture. She marveled about how grandchildren touched their grandparents’ feet, how children made tea for their parents, and so on. The rather long, painfully boring lecture was concluded with a quick explanation of why she supports BJP— they have promised to bring back those times; it’s a party of cultural revivalism.
Without getting into the accuracy of my grandmother’s analysis, I want to draw a parallel between her cultural nostalgia and the nostalgic memories carried around by seniors of a better Ashoka. Of course, in many ways, the parallel is weak. For one, nostalgia about the “good old days” at Ashoka need not translate into right-wing political support. But in principle, the parallel is striking as they both hold the past in high regard and express disappointment at the present.
Many seniors feel that over the years Ashokan spaces have become fragmented and individualized. Earlier, they reminiscence, there was a strong sense of comradeship and belongingness that is rarely seen nowadays. Even the intellectual spaces have become materialistic, they say. People no longer have discourses to further their intellectual pursuits; instead discussions are now foreshadowed by unshakeable beliefs and opinions. Student culture has moved away from having passionate debates on fascinating topics towards being irresponsible and convenience driven.
I don’t want to outright contest these comparisons since I lack the benefit of having seen the Ashoka of the past. At the same time, I would like to remain cautious of such comparisons as we often tend to romanticize the past by overlooking unpleasant memories. What interests me is the relevance of such comparisons and how they affect our future.
When such comparisons are made between the difference in culture, they are almost always followed by a value judgement. I believe that this value judgement is troublesome because it undermines the concept of culture which is fluid and evolutionary. The word ‘culture’ is derived from ‘cultivation’ or something that is growing. Thus, to call the present culture undesirable and to compare it with the past, we are in effect viewing culture as something inert. Of course, with time some good things are lost, and some bad things are gained. However, we should avoid being trapped in nostalgic disappointment. It’s always more useful to view culture as a forward-moving process and not in opposition to the “good old days.” By putting emphasis on a culture’s ability to grow, it becomes easier for us to mold it in a way we desire.
Nostalgia can sometimes create a standard for what is “good culture,” especially when comparisons are made between the now and then. Learning from the past is obviously an important way to improve our present but holding the past as a standard for what’s desirable is a risky thing to do. If the past was as glorious as we remember it to be, something obviously went wrong to bring us here. In other words, nostalgia can sometimes create an illusion of infallibility around the past; thus, to hold something fallible as a standard defeats the purpose of having a standard.
Take for example, the party culture on campus which many feel is reflective of our wavering interest in academics. We are reminded by our seniors that once upon a time the dhaba was bustling with conversations on social construct and Fermat’s theorem. Nowadays, people only look forward to Thursday nights. We should take a moment to ask ourselves why the earlier culture, if at all true, wasn’t able to sustain itself? Is it possible that the now rampant party culture was a response to an overtly academic-driven environment? I’m not suggesting that it is. The point is that things change with time, mostly because they were unable to stay the way they were, for whatever reasons. Our focus should be on retaining and incorporating the things we value in the face of change, instead of trying to resist or oppose change.
It is crucial to address the nostalgic way of thinking because it operates like an eternal cycle. Two years from now, my batchmates would tell the incoming batch how much Ashoka has changed and that too for the worse, and so on. This cycle is extremely unhealthy as it comes with a large dose of negativity. Instead, we should share with freshers our vision for Ashoka and how it can be achieved by working together. We should strive towards a rewarding ideal, and not celebrate a short-lived past. This approach embraces the future and actually encourages people to work for it.
I am not asking us to be complacent about the problems we face on campus. I agree that there are many things that need to change and that dissatisfaction is necessary for cultural progression. However, it is dissatisfaction stemming from nostalgia that bothers me because it has a tendency to trap people in the memories of a rosy past. The present condition should be a sufficient reason for dissatisfaction; the need for comparisons with the past seems unnecessary. I hope we can learn to see nostalgia for what it is— a force withholding us from entering the future.
About the author –
Aggam is a rising second year. His interests include politics, food and random conversations on the meaning of life.