Beneficial Nostalgia Nostos-Algos
By R. Gopalakrishnan, Former Director, Tata Sons
I did not know that the word ‘nostalgia’ was coined in 1688 by Dr Johannes Hofer by combining two Greek words, nostos and algos, meaning homecoming and pain. Nostalgia means ‘pining about the past’ or ‘longing for homecoming.’ As a medical professional, Dr Hofer was describing “a neurological disease of demonic cause” at a Basel conference.
All of us experience nostalgia. Imagine what we would be without it. Nostalgia is why we are convinced that ‘our days’ were so much better than today—our school/college reached the apogee of glory during our days, our city was fabulous, the leadership of their country had principled people. It is sad that there has been a steady decline in the school, college, city and country since then.
But we don’t regard nostalgia as a neurological disease, rather it is an abstract and overwhelming feeling. Thanks to new knowledge, nostalgia has been declared to be a “positive thing, which puts balance into your psychological state, and is a high-order emotional experience.” (For the curious, the studies were by Tim Wildschut and Constantine Sedikedes).
Thank God because as I grow older, I experience more and more nostalgia. One driving source of nostalgia is about where one’s genes came from. At age 45, sitting under a tree at Khali Estate near Nainital, I experienced the urge to know who I am, where I got my genes from and where my gene was headed. I started to write down all that I had been told about the family history, and followed by enquiring about family ancestry and social changes over 200 years. Conversations with elders and referencing books continued for 27 years. In 2013 I managed to script a document, which narrated family story from 1823 till date–the historical and social change as perceived by my ancestors from remote Vilakudi in Thanjavur through six generations into contemporary times.
I had embarked on an egregious journey of personal nostalgia without suffering any “neurological disease”. Who would be interested in my family roots? Rupa Publishers made a book out of it, A Comma in a Sentence. The title signalled that our own life is a mere comma in a much longer sentence. Through its position, an insignificant comma can transform the meaning of a sentence; likewise our life can change the trajectory for our future generations.
Many readers wrote. I mention five strangers, who identified with the story of my ancestry, migration and social change. S Lakshmanan wrote from Wellampitiya in Sri Lanka to say how my story was similar to his own family, which had originated in Madurai area. He was, he said, so touched that he “asked son Niranjan and daughter Maya to read the book.” VK Ram of Mumbai wrote to say that he had identified with the events, based on the stories of his family. He shared with me his family experiences! V. Chandrasekharan, about four years my senior in age, wrote to share that he was born in the same flat where I had grown up in Pratapaditya Road near Kalighat, Calcutta. A senior PTI journalis, RC Rajamani, informed me of his relationship with one Vilakudi Nallan Chakravarty, a resident of my village. Young Santanu Chari brought his 92 year old grandfather to meet me. Guess for what? The grandfather’s aunt, Alamelu, had married into a Vilakudi family around 1905, and could I tell him anything about Alamelu’s family tree? I called my 87 year old aunt who recognised the family of Alamelu. He was very touched to learn whatever she could tell him.
A “Bengali-Tamil Iyengar community” in Gori Bera in Purulia District desired me to visit Gori Bera and be honoured at the village temple. Around 1650, a travelling Iyengar priest stayed at the Gori Bera temple during a pilgrimage. He delivered a stentorian Vedic chant, so the local raja requested his services for the temple. He declined, but offered to send his younger brother. In this manner a small community of Iyengars came to reside in Gori Bera in the 1650s, and became known as Gori Bera Iyengars—they speak a strange Bengali-influenced Tamil, and they even changed their name from Chari or Acharya to Achari.
It is remarkable and emotional that my simple story of nostalgia could connect strangers in so many ways. We must marvel at the human emotion of nostalgia. Thank God that recent research has restored it as a positive emotion. As Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother in 1889, “The little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.”