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Thursday, March 18, 2010


One could gather up anything and everything, with wit and acumen, out of a positive need to collect all objects connecting us to our most beloved, every aspect of their being, and even in the absense of a house, a proper museum, the poetry of our collection would be home enough for its objects.

- from The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk

Maybe the words struck me because for the last three months, I have been trying to sort out cartons of memorabilia, stored in the corners of thirty-five rooms, and fit them into three cupboards and three trunks I've been given. Newspapers that carried reports on my favourite sports teams, stories scribbled in my schoolbooks when I was working on math problems simultaneously, a baby bed my little brother had once fit into, sun hats my middle brother and I had picked up when I was six, bills, posters, letters, fanmail, newspaper articles I had written, my degree certificates and marksheets, birthday cards, photographs, bookmarks I had made, brazen letters I had penned, doodlings I had worked on, supervised by my favourite aunt, gifts she had given me as a child, clothes my mother had stitched for me, the first pair of running shoes I had bought with my own money, my favourite fountain pen, toothbrushes and chess coins I'd played with as a child...all, alarmingly mixed up. Most, unearthed when I was looking for the clown my aunt gave me, the pen stand my brother bought me, some photographs I suspect have been stolen by a kleptomaniac former-friend and a notebook containing Salman Rushdie's autograph.

As I look at each of these pieces of my life, recalling the moments when they were the present and not memories, and arrange the diaries I've kept for the last twelve years, fitting in the slices of the compartments of time that have made me who I am, I wonder why I'm keeping these things. We are all Collectors of Memories, Curators of the Mueums that are Our Lives. In his book, Orhan Pamuk draws a distinction between the Proud Collectors and the Bashful Collectors. I suppose I'm the second. My diaries are tell-all conversations between me and my conscience, and I have no intention of letting anyone into them. Why, then, do we collect our own memories, drawing no distinction between what is important and what is not, filling in sporadic dots of an incomplete thread through our lives? Why do I have yearbooks from college, which I resented and blocked out from memory?

Are these souvenirs of an innocence we long to go back to? Do they remain in our lives to remind us of emotions long left behind - pleasure, happiness, indifference, distaste? Does some part of us not want to let go of the bad times, as much as it wants to cling on to the good? A lot of these physical manifestations of my memories were eaten away in termite attacks. Strangely, a bag full of handouts, pamphlets, posters, tickets and other trinkets from my days with a theatre group that I fell out with over money, was eaten away. Does something in nature want us to let go of the unpleasant? In throwing out the memories of the fragments we have dismissed from our lives, do we parallelly, in Sherlock Holmesian style, recover some important museum piece?

When I couldn't find something despite "looking everywhere", I decided to do this. Out went a grammatically incorrect declaration of love, presented to me on Elliot's Beach, to my abject horror, a few years ago. Out went a tacky diary with hearts all over it, that I couldn't bring myself to look at since it had been given to me, as my only Valentine's Day gift in history. Out went a painfully boring letter my mother and I had laughed over, detailing a (hopefully former) stalker's adventures at a relative's house in Australia. Out went pieces of chart paper, asking me to vote for three girls who were standing for Student's Union posts in my forgettable undergrad college. Out went a misspelt note from a classmate who was something the convent girls called "Chrisma" in a Christmas game.

Having finished the book a few hours ago, days after I began my cleaning-out operations, I think I know what spurred on the admittedly illogical belief that an unimportant memory cast out implies an important memory brought back. The fear that, like the Istanbullus Pamuk speaks of, my house could become a rubbish den of memories, stacked one on top of the other, in which nothing can be found. And so, to my mother's relief, I will continue weeding out the unnecessary in my personal Museum.


The subtext of The Museum of Innocence echoes the undertones of Pamuk's writing in general. The Sick Man of Europe vs. the Prince of Asia - a Turkey stuck between the Republic and the Ottoman, between the Sorbonne-educated and the pashas, between the intellectual, European aspirations of the populace and the personal, moral values they strive to shed. How important is virginity? What are people's pretences about it? How much does society matter? The nouveau riche, the old families who have lost their fortune, the poor cousins who want to be inducted into society and the bindings of class are themes that are familiar to everyone in a developing country, eager to lose all its traditional hang-ups in its aspiration to modernity, only to recreate cheap imitations of heritage in a bid to preserve the old.


If you have patience, and put yourself in God's hands, there is no heart you cannot win, no fortress you cannot capture - isn't that so?

- from The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk

In interviews in 2007, Orhan Pamuk said the book would explore the question "What is love?" How does it feel to suddenly meet The One when one has decided to settle down to an exemplary life, a convenient one? In the book, Kemal Bey describes every shade of emotion  he goes through in trying to balance his love and life, in trying to understand his attachment to the two women he is cheating on, in choosing one path only to regret it, ruining lives in the process, and because he let go of one crucial moment, revisiting it over the next eight years, trying to scramble back on a path he realised he wanted only when the other turned out to be a dead end.

It makes me wonder whether, when one gets what one wanted all one's life, the pain of waiting for it is sweetened in memory. Is love like a job application or a creative skills contest, when the anxiety of waiting for the results morphs, in our minds, into the anticipation of joy when news of victory comes through? Does one tire of waiting, to the point where s/he doesn't want the person s/he has been waiting for, when the person is finally ready? Is love all about telling oneself to be patient, while waiting? Can the mistakes of a few moments, the separation of a few months, cause eight years of pain, of working towards a way to be together even after reunion?

Maybe Orhan Pamuk's skill lies in that, even while speaking from one point of view, he manages to make one pity and resent everyone in the story. One sees where Kemal, his fiancee Sibel, his lover Fusun, her mother Nesibe and his mother Vecihe Hanim, are coming from. Things they do seem fair and unfair. You sympathise with them, while empathising with the other side.


Would the book, excruciatingly slow as it is in parts, inducing disbelief in the Pamuk-lover that it was indeed Orhan Bey who wrote this, prompting him or her to perhaps blame the translator, have been finishable had it been written by a less-renowned writer? Or maybe it is Orhan Bey's inimitable style, which finds fluidity even in translation, and even in the specificity of the first person singular, reminds Everyman and Everywoman of his or her own story, that makes it enjoyable in retrospective, if not in reading itself.


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