The quicksand of memory swallows events and emotions without discrimination and with little regurgitation. Mundane or sublime, profound or plebian, the mind absorbs them all and converts them into the nebulous construct that we call memory. Some events, however, have the capacity to freeze time and magnify memory, turning into an endless action replay that ends only with senility or death. The birth of a child, the death of a parent, personal peaks and global catastrophes are all examples. Most people remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when Indira Gandhi was assassinated or when the Berlin Wall fell.
Long shadow: The 9/11 attacks marked the start of a decade in which terrorism in the name of religion would keep haunting the world. Doug Kanter / AFP
This past decade, a few such disasters have caused our collective memories to freeze with shock. Most people in Phuket or Indonesia, I would wager, remember exactly where they were when the tsunami struck. Ditto for the Chinese when the Sichuan earth shook in 2008. Some events have an undue impact on certain sections or sectors. The abrupt collapse of Lehman Brothers one day shocked Wall Street and heralded the recession. The Satyam scandal shocked the Indian business establishment. But there are shocks that haemorrhage money and those that haemorrhage blood. Do you remember what you were doing when Ramalinga Raju sent out his tiger-by-the-tail email? Probably not. Do you remember where you were on the night of 26/11? Probably yes.
A lot of the events that freeze memory are regional. The fall of Saddam Hussein for the Iraqi people, election night in Hyde Park for Chicagoans, the havoc caused by the junta for the Myanmarese, all loomed large and got vivid play in the imagination of a nation or region but were blips in the nightly news elsewhere. However, one event qualifies as a global memory freeze, catapulting through our collective consciousness and turning into the defining moment of the last decade: the fall of the twin towers.
On the morning of 11 September 2001, I was at the Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. Seven months pregnant, I arrived sans breakfast for a tour of the hospital’s birthing wing. Except that no one was paying me any attention. They all seemed glued to the television. Suddenly, announcements of “stat” erupted. Stretchers and wheelchairs were wheeled into lifts. Sirens howled. It was just another New York morning, I thought. But why were the usually attentive nurses being so rude? They wouldn’t even acknowledge my presence.
“Excuse me,” I said in that plaintive voice that pregnant women develop. “I am here for the maternity tour.”
Finally, a nurse looked up, frowning and preoccupied. “No tour today, lady. A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.”
The sentence sounded comical. Only later, as the twin towers crumbled into rubble, did the world grasp the chilling scale of the attacks that changed geopolitics forever and marked the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in all its gory effulgence. Thus began the decade and it culminated with those nine young myrmidons who arrived in the stealth of night and began their senseless rampage at Mumbai’s most beloved landmarks.
This has been a depressing decade. No getting away from that. Terrorist attacks, global warming, tsunami, anthrax, hurricanes, Taliban, Saddam, Slobodan, the list goes on. This is the decade that brought terrorism into the everyday lexicon. Today, tragically, even seven-year-olds can comprehend terrorism even if they don’t understand the religious fundamentalism that drives it. The age of innocence is gone and the kalyug that Hindu mythologies speak about is here.
Right or wrong, this is the age of Islamic fundamentalism. The jihadis’ pyrrhic victories have changed politics and perception. My friend, Ameena, who grew up in London and lives in New York, says the worst part of the last decade for people like her is that being a “good Muslim” is viewed as an oxymoron. How to raise a Muslim child in a milieu that views Muslims as a threat, if not terrorists, is something she grapples with on a daily basis.
Geography defines history. It is hard to think of Florida without ruminating on the many wacko incidents that this state has spawned, ranging from a recount of the election that took Dubya to the White House to the hubris and sleaze that took Tiger Woods out of his own house. For India, the most volatile region this past decade has got to be Gujarat, with its double-digit growth and polarizing chief minister. The state that gave us Gandhi (who has never seemed more relevant than at times like this) has also suffered a devastating earthquake in the last decade, and Godhra.
There are other less weighty global trends. Foam, as one chef put it, is a has-been. Molecular gastronomy was born of the largesse of booming economies and allowed chefs the luxury of turning into scientists. In today’s recessionary times, it will die. Chefs will no longer turn the kitchen into a laboratory. Instead, they will have to give us comfort food to salve hurting egos and empty purses. Design trends point to functionality. It is no longer enough for a product to be merely pretty or clever. In the coming years, as people downsize, they will want gadgets and accessories that multitask. Japanese minimalism and Italian style will marry into old-fashioned efficiency. Vampires and Swedish crime fiction will take us away. Indians will take over global music, even camouflaged as Jay Sean, whose song Down topped the charts everywhere. Sculpture will finally have its day—or decade—in the art scene. Fashion will fight to make itself relevant through eco-sensitive design and textiles. The age of excess is thankfully over. Gordon Gekko was wrong. Greed is not good. It is also over. So over.
Shoba Narayan wonders if climate scientists will be the new Masters of the Universe.