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Of time, memory, and nostalgia

“How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.”

― William C. Faulkner

My relationship with time is weird. I am never fully present in the moment. I am either longing for the past or planning about the future. Staying at home during the Pandemic forced me to reconnect with aspects of my childhood that I had forgotten about. Every day I would unearth something that would instantly transport me to my childhood. A period where I wasn’t troubled by existential questions about my life or career. Trivial things, like an old skirt buried under the bed, a diary stuffed in the farthest corner of my shelf, or a photograph that brought me face-to-face with my five-year-old self, all reminded me of happier, carefree days. Sometimes I’d hear a song on the radio, and would instantly be reminded of the time when I had first come across it; listening to it on my aunt’s bulky radio while she folded the laundry in her room. These tangible things became my memory Horcruxes. They teleported me to different eras and made me relive moments of my life that I had forgotten about. Sometimes these memories would resurface and surprise me. I was shocked at my mind’s ability to bring back memories that I didn't know existed. I loved encountering things that triggered my memory. This nostalgia became my best friend and provided me with solace, as well as an escape. I could easily slip out of this life and occupy the liminal space between the past and the present.

Nostalgia is a bittersweet feeling. It warms your heart but leaves you longing for a lost time. In the late 17th century, Johannes Hofer, a medical student, noticed an unknown illness affecting the Swiss mercenaries who were serving abroad. Hofer noticed that these soldiers suffered from fatigue, indigestion, irregular heartbeat, and high fever: they longed for their homeland. Hofer termed this condition Nostalgia. The word nostalgia is a hybrid of two Greek words “Nostos” meaning homecoming, and “Algo” for pain/longing. Initially, nostalgia was considered a particularly Swiss condition. But once migration became a common phenomenon, it was discovered that nostalgia affected everyone who was dislocated from their home. Eventually, the understanding of nostalgia evolved. Its meaning extended from homesickness to a general yearning for the past. It began to be understood as a poignant and pleasant experience rather than a neurological disease.

The pandemic made it impossible for me to physically travel anywhere. But I could easily board the nostalgia train and mentally travel back in time. This time travel made me explore and understand myself better. Research has shown that being nostalgic has its benefits. Clay Routlege mentions in his book titled ‘Nostalgia’, that we revisit the past to “right the ship.” This was very true for me. I used nostalgia to gain perspective, get some control over my life, and evaluate my growth. I re-read my old diary from tenth grade and came across the goals I had set for myself. I could easily imagine myself as an ambitious sixteen-year-old, sitting on the bed and filling page after page with my dreams and goals. After reading that diary, I was surprised to find that instead of feeling sad or demotivated, I felt invigorated and elated. Reading my thoughts from five years ago gave me perspective and instilled in me a sense of purpose. I felt extremely proud of myself and what I had accomplished. That diary has now become a treasure for me. I flip through it whenever I feel sad or frustrated. Revisiting my old diary accounts filled me with warmth; I could reimagine myself sneakily writing about my feelings and anxieties instead of paying attention in math class. Even though those feelings sounded trivial to me as a twenty-year-old, I still felt protective of my sixteen-year-old self. So much so that I just wanted to comfort her and give her a warm hug. Reading that diary made me realize that things which seem difficult now, won’t be as scary later. When I’ll look at my twenty-year-old self some ten years into the future, I will only be proud and happy of the journey I have completed. My problems will eventually solve, and I won’t always be anxious or scared about the next big leap.

Compressed between the flimsy pages of my diary were pictures from my childhood. When I discovered them hiding in my diary I immediately rushed to my mother and asked her whether she remembered the day they were clicked. I was curious to know what had happened that day. Even though I had a faint memory of the moment, I still didn’t know the rest of the details. I knew it was taken when all of my cousins and aunts had gathered at my maternal grandmother’s place during the summer vacations. I was wearing a lovely pink summer dress in that picture. I asked my mother about the whereabouts of the dress because I felt strangely possessive about it. She laughed at me and said “Where do you think it is? You grew up so I gave the dress to your cousin.” Her dismissive attitude made me angry. It felt like I had lost an important part of my life. Later, I realized that I had begun to associate that dress with the summer vacations I used to spend at my grandmother’s house. It became representative of the joyful summer days spent eating ice cream without any worry. That dress was symbolic of my childhood and the blissful ignorance that comes with it. I felt a soft pang in my chest. I longed to relive those days, where all of us would sleep on the terrace under the starry sky, comfortably embraced by the cool wind.

It’s hard to describe the feelings nostalgia invokes, but you can’t miss it when you have it. Maybe an old Bollywood song playing faintly in the background transports you to another era. Or Google pulls out a picture from “5 years ago” and you instantly remember all the details from that day, and let yourself slip back in time. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion that is hard to ignore. Krystine Batcho, a nostalgia expert in conversation with the American Psychological Association (APA) remarks that "During difficult times, attention to our past can strengthen us by reminding us of how we survived challenges, loss, injury, failure, or misfortune in the past," Dr. Batcho told the APA. "When we are sad or discouraged, it can be uplifting to remember that we are still the person who had been happy, strong, and productive."

Nostalgia invokes deep and personal feelings in all of us. It makes us reminisce about our past, but also provides us with a chance to introspect and view things from a different perspective. The transience of time becomes more obvious when you think about the past, and realize how quickly time passes. You realize how precious time is, and how rich your life has been. The oft-quoted (cheesy) phrase “We didn’t know we were making memories, we just thought we were having fun” turns into a shockingly hilarious fact. It makes us realize that what seems irrelevant now might become one of our most cherished memory in the future.


This Night Owl Original has been authored by Chinmayee Babbal. Chinmayee is a student of English Literature at St. Stephen’s College. A hoarder of books, poetry, and music, she is an avid reader and an occasional writer.


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