Histories of Memories
by Shome Dasgupta
Belle Point Press, 2023
Reviewed by Diane Gottlieb
“Memory can be fickle and can be misleading—either way, however lacking it can be, in its dearth there is a truth that leads to multiple sensations, spanning spectrums of a universe found in a mind,” writes Shome Dasgupta in “In the Shadow of a Bird,” just one of the gorgeous pieces in his collection of shorts called Histories of Memories (Belle Point Press). As a writer of creative nonfiction, I deeply relate to the “fickle” quality of memory Dasgupta describes. Memory truly is a slippery thing. Just as you think you have a grasp on it, it shapeshifts, morphing and blending the boundaries between what one recalls and what one misremembers or imagines. Yet, memory is what we have of our pasts, and the responsibility of making meaning—and beauty—from those scattered shards of remembrance is a responsibility that Dasgupta holds dear.
So how does one find one’s way into the world of memory? For Dasgupta, like for many of us, a rich pathway is music. Throughout the book Dasgupta includes references to bands or songs that are indelibly linked to specific memories. “Listen to Track #10” is one of several such reflections. In the piece, Dasgupta pairs important moments in the life span of a love relationship with specific songs and musical artists that elicit memories of those moments. In the wide variety of musical styles and artists represented in the piece—from Radiohead to Spice Girls—Dasgupta mirrors the various turns relationships can take.
Music is not the only influence Dasgupta pays homage to in this collection. Present also are his brother, parents, other writers, films, and marigolds, hummingbirds, even dead cows along the road. It’s place and time that ignite Dasgupta’s recall in “Excerpts from my Memory,” a hermit crab essay that lists cities and countries, along with the dates he was there. Beneath each, Dasgupta includes a snippet of memory that has stuck. Some are seemingly random remembrances; others are stunning tributes to people he loves. Dasgupta’s reverence for the past and for his elders is incredibly moving. Under the heading “Kolkata India, 2003,” he writes, “My grandfather no longer used his typewriter—he stayed in bed for most of the time. His library was my imagination, and I started using his typewriter just so he could remember the sounds of his own imagination.”
Dasgupta’s generosity thrums on every page. And just as one memory may blend into the next, Dasgupta blends genres and forms in Histories of Memories. He, indeed, spans “spectrums of a universe found in a mind.” Several more traditional short essays sit next to speculative pieces, the ghosts of one visiting the other, as tectonic plates (yes, he writes of tectonic plates!) rumble. The sounds and textures combine and spin to a gorgeous lyrical effect. Fiction, nonfiction, speculative, poetry, prose, prose/poetry—the labels are irrelevant; it is only the music in his words that matter.
Dasgupta is fearless in his approach to difficult topics, yet he is gentle, thoughtful, and wise. Several of the pieces deal with addiction, such as “A Vague Recollection from 111 Liberty Avenue,” which begins with this: “My first night in rehab, I was put in a room with a heroin addict.” This roommate paced and grunted all night in the dark, frightening Dasgupta. Yet, when he learned the next day that the man had jumped the fence and left—even though admittance was voluntary and all patients were free to leave any time they wished—Dasgupta recalls missing him: “I wouldn’t recognize him if we were to cross each other’s paths—I hope every day, that he made it … That’s what recovery is all about—hoping, praying, wishing that we all will make it whether we know each other or not.” As their differences fade, Dasgupta’s wish will remain, always.
Addiction, loss, love, memory. Dasgupta seeks through these essays a deeper understanding of all these. He also yearns for connection. In “Say Hi,” one of the more traditionally structured pieces in the book, Dasgupta explores how he came to writing and why. He speaks to his mission as a creative and to his methods, his rhyme and his reason. The result is a piece filled with both rhyme and reason and with wisdom and grace: “The magical, the solitude, the attempts to reach out and communicate as a way to make some kind of sense or observation of wat is going on around us, whether grounded in reality or in a ghost world … this wonder and waving, the unwound and the wounded, . . . I strive to recreate these spectrums in an attempt to say hi.”
Through the exploration of memory in its many shapes and forms, Dasgupta holds pain and beauty as both separate and inseparable elements of life: “I find myself missing my family’s origins—India, where the dogs of the streets teach us about humility and survival, perhaps, letting us know that there is something holy in the dirt.” There is much that feels holy in this collection, beside and including Dasgupta’s humor, humility, and song. Histories or Memories is a stunning book. Dasgupta’s effort to “say hi” is a gift to his readers, and it is our joy when we ask him to stay awhile.