Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Adventures in Semantics: Part 2

I'd once started a story this way:

What’s the difference between flashback and memory? I’d always thought the two were different. Memory is confused, subjective, changeable. A flashback, surely, is definitive and exact, a useful device to explain the past to the present. But today, I’m not so sure.

Today, again I'm not so sure. Check this headline out, and the story that follows. I'd say the headline itself is pretty misleading: 'Flashback of a Rape Accused'?

Is this Anand Jon's flashback? Is Manu Joseph, the person who has written this article, in mysterious sympathy with Jon so much so that he can call himself the rape accused? Can anyone have a flashback about anyone else, or would the reconstruction of events depend on who is doing the talking?

Even setting aside the TOI's inability to construct accurate headlines, the article itself throws up some interesting issues. Joseph recalls a time when Anand John (as he was known then) walked the corridors of Loyola College, Madras, in torn jeans and chains around his wrists. "His jeans were almost always torn around the knees (the Jesuit priests would later angrily offer to darn them)," Joseph says, and you're inclined to believe him; it is just the sort of thing Jesuits might do: deliver a scold wrapped up in a shaming device.

But the most interesting thing about the article is the clear and subjective placement of the camera, as it were. You watch Anand Jon from the sidelines as he makes his way down dark and cool corridors; you watch him while you lean out from the upper floors and you see a 'comet's tail' of 'hormonal' girls following him everywhere he goes but you can't hear what Jon said that makes them giggle; you get a bird's eye view of Jon sprawled all over the bonnet of a car, and you have a clear idea of the layout, so you know by just how much proximity to the Principal's office increases the shock of the transgression.

In other words, a flashback does not belong to an objective narrator. It is as subjective, confused and changeable as memory and what you see depends entirely on whose flashback it is.


I'm tempted to talk about Rashomon. The reason is that, as in that film, Joseph's article is a tale, and a conscious reconstruction of events. It is one person's version of some rather confusing jumble of events a long time ago. It is memory.

I think of flashback as something that cannot help but be exact. As with film itself, the details and sequence of events, once recorded, cannot be changed. Interpretations can change, people can change, but they cannot help but reproduce the same flashback in the same way, every time.

So a young lad walks down a corridor with torn jeans and long hair. As he walks, people fall silent. If he is wearing blue jeans, they will always have to be blue. If there were six girls, there will always be six girls. In this there can be no room for error. Every one of the people looking out from open classrooms and walking down the corridor in the opposite direction, perhaps meeting the young lad's eye as they pass, will see the same thing, in the same order, in spite of themselves.

Is that even possible? Or can flashback only ever be a device? Have we suspended our disbelief to such an extent that we are persuaded by the exactness of an image?

What do you think?

TOI story via Sonia

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