Remembering and Forgetting: Collective Memory – Angel Maria Varghese

A poster on trauma and collective memory by Angel Maria Varghese showing three photographs including people travelling on foot in a barren area, an old domed structure, and a spiritual man with a woman and another man

What are collective memories of the past and how are they remembered? A. Assmann has argued that collective memories must be defined in terms of the function they play in society.

“Just as autobiographical memories are individually held memories that bear on the identity of an individual, collective memories are widely held memories of community members that bear on the collective identity of the community (A. Assmann, 1999, as cited in Hirst, W & Manier, D, 2008).”

Narratives are a way of remembering and perhaps even immortalizing the memory of historical consciousness. Doshi seems to understand this, as her text traces the memories of significant collective memories of the India-Pakistan partition as well as the socio-politically charged events of the Babri Majid demolition. However, another significant memory, that of (Shri Rajneesh’s) Osho’s rise to fame depicted from the perspective of a young Antara, does not necessarily classify as Indian collective memory. Rather, it is a shared or collected memory. This is because, according to Assman, “if a memory is widely held by members of a community, but has little meaning for the community, then it should be treated as a ‘‘shared’’ or ‘‘collected memory’’, but not a ‘‘collective memory’’ (Hirst, W & Manier, D, 2008).

The events of the India-Pakistan partition are remembered through the voices of Antara, the grandchild, and the memories of the grandmother, Nani Gauri in the book. She recounts it as such:

“ There are no birth records of when my grandmother was born because most children in the refugee camp died before their mundans, when babies have their heads ritually shaven. Her husband invented the date of birth for her passport.

But when Nani tells the story of her life, she starts at the very beginning:

“The midwives are screaming in Multani and they use a dirty cloth to wipe the fluid from her body. She’s hungry and crying, searching frantically for her mother’s breast, so anaemic that they name her Gauri, the fair one. I ask her how she can be sure she remembers when the rest of us can barely piece together anything of our childhoods. Nani scoffs. She says couldn’t understand unless I had been there. Partition was a different time. Things happened then that never happened again.”(71).

In J. Assmann’s (1995) words, Gauri is representative of a generation that “transmits” memories to another generation (here, Antara) through communication, and communicative memories have something of the character of ‘‘everyday memories’’ that individuals, not collectivities, hold. (as cited in Hirst, W & Manier, D, 2008, 185).

Another historical memory that is re-visited in the text is that of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh on 6 December 1992 by the Vishva Hindu Parishad. The incident has been the subject of a lengthy socio-political dispute, and Doshi narrates instances from the aftermath of the demolition in the book through the character of Reza Pine. The events shape a part of Pine’s backstory:

“In 1992, Reza Pine, a young photojournalist, travelled to Ayodhya in northern India to witness the demolition of the mosque and the rallies to celebrate Rama’s birthplace. Upon his return to Bombay, violence erupted in the streets of his city, and all was alight with flames. Bottles thrown into windows, shopkeepers terrorized, women beaten, raped, and children forced to watch. Hindus killing Muslims, Muslims killing Hindus, unleashing a savagery that was dormant the day before, awoken with inflammatory words. Communal violence was easy to dig up. The foundations had been laid by history. Reza saw how easy it was to kindle the kernels of fear, how the fear could be patted down but would eventually find another food source. He met the men, the individuals who made up the mob. They wore their colours with pride and, standing side by side, admired the artistry of their violence.” and “The rioting calmed after a few days. There were pieces to pick up. In Bombay, bodies were burned, the evidence slowly interred. Life resumed its normal pulse, and the process of forgetting began immediately.” (184).

Yet another significant event that Doshi remembers through her text is a fictionalised account of life at the Osho ashram. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, later known as Osho was an Indian godman, mystic, and founder of the Rajneesh movement. In Doshi’s book, Tara leaves her marital home and husband to live in an ashram and follow a guru. This, Doshi says is inspired by stories of her own mother’s family who were early followers of Osho:

“In the ashram, some people wept like overwrought children when they saw Baba while others sobbed silently. There was a lady whose skin looked like milk curdling in tea, and she fell to her knees, shaking, as he passed by” and “In the ashram, Baba’s voice was soft yet barrelling, and I always looked away when I heard it. He spoke about desire and joy- he said he would teach us how to know both together. I never understood how to achieve this, but as I sat watching the meditations every day, which always began in silence and ended in frenzy, I found there was a life in being a spectator instead of a participant. Each evening, as the followers broke out into cacophony and flailing, releasing whatever animals had been captive within, letting them escape into the vortex of the pyramid, I collected my various feelings, about Ma, the ashram, and moments that made up my day” (105).

The narrative voice belongs to a child who is caught up in a different adult world, trying to make sense of her life. All her observations are coloured by a desire to belong, to be a child.

It might be argued that by writing about and remembering about these historical events, Doshi, like others before her, may have transformed these memories into an ‘‘objectivized culture’ (Assmann, 1995, p. 130). Means, that these memories are now located outside the individual, as objects in the world and are maintained through what Assmann called ‘figures of memory’ or what Nora (1996) has referred to as lieux de memoire (sites of memory) owing to the fact that it is in the text (cultural formation), and discussed and engaged within academic settings (cultural formations). (Nora, 1996, as cited in Hirst, W & Manier, D, 2008).

  1. Assmann, J., & Czaplicka, J. (1995). Collective Memory and Cultural Identity. New German Critique, 65, 125–133.
  2. Doshi, Avni (2019). The Girl in White Cotton. Fourth Estate-Harper Collins Publishers
  3. William Hirst & David Manier (2008) Towards a psychology of collective memory, Memory, 16:3, 183-200, DOI: 10.1080/09658210701811912
  4. Interview with Avni Doshi. (2022). Retrieved from
  5. Wikipedia contributors. (2022, August 23). Demolition of the Babri Masjid. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from
  6. Wikipedia contributors. (2022, August 29). Rajneesh. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 06:44, August 31, 2022, from