The Memory Keepers

Image: Leela Venugopal, We All Wait for the Rain


Drip, drip, drip. This is life now. The eerie stillness. The bottomless sorrow. The paralyzing numbness. The quiet acceptance. Time stills, life slows. This is how it is playing out. The apocalypse has been unlike any eventuality imagined over the ages by countless artists, scientists, and philosophers. Hardly any of the wailing sirens, thundering explosions, traffic jams, angry throngs, murderous stampedes, enraged cries for accountability, or political revolutions. Nothing much like that has happened. Instead, life is draining away slowly, the planet has been withering slowly: not with a bang, but in plaintive whimpers.

We are the ninnaivars, the memory keepers. A small group of us remain, surviving the slow death of the planet. Well before the apocalypse, we formed our collective in response to the growing calls for decolonizing knowledge. While historians, archivists, and museum curators usually focus on the past, our primary concern is the present and the futures it portends. Because of our attention to the everyday, the mundane, the banal, we sense the pulse of the moment. For us, 2020 bluntly announced the beginning of the end.

Of the many countries in the world where public opinion was divorced from reality, India has proven the most instructive, an exemplar of the complex, contradictory, and contentious endgames of a world in freefall. When our collective began, India was a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic; within a few decades, it had mutated into akhand bharat, a “unified” Hindu nation whose increasingly autocratic state machinery of which secured that unity through repression and eventual eradication of all non-Hindu communities. Leading up to 2020, this Hindu rashtra had consolidated federal power for eight years without a modicum of regret or qualm, in significant and modish moves, in what emerged as an infinitely modifiable nation. Embracing an essentialized Hinduness or Hindutva as the basis of being Indian, it promoted Hindu supremacy—in the everyday harassment of religious minorities and eventually in their disenfranchisement through new laws and the loss of constitutional rights. Hindu nationalists framed their claims for the nation in civilizational terms. For them, Vedic civilization was the original civilization, the ultimate source of all “true” knowledge, and the Hindu people were the original people. The nationalists’ power rested on nostalgia, on reveling in the imagined glory days of an ancient Vedic civilization. This propaganda worked spectacularly, with a rising and influential middle-class spearheading the revival of Hindu pride across the globe.

It is in this context that the virus, SARS-CoV-2 arrived. First in small, isolated events, and then in massive waves. This virus was by no means the first in the world. For centuries before there were warnings of localized infections which turned into epidemics and pandemics.  While vast numbers suffered and died, the world moved on. For example, historians have detailed accounts of the Spanish Flu of 1917, the black plague, the bubonic plague. In recent times, we have seen outbreaks of HIV, H1N1, Ebola, the original SARS, and MERS. They too passed. Not much was done. Some countries learned, but many nations ignored the clear warnings. Then came the pandemic of COVID-19. Zillions were infected, millions died, countless suffered. It got the world’s attention.

In our view, SARS-CoV-2 emerged as a pandemic not because it had genocidal intentions, but because of the conditions that some humans had created—increased colonization of the wild that opened new pathways for microbes into human worlds, the existence of globalization hubs for goods and people that transmitted the virus everywhere, unequal and impoverished health systems that rendered the virus lethal to many, deep inequality, with heartless rich that let their fellow citizens die, authoritarian governments that obscured the ugly truths, the empowerment of a global elite that hoarded cures and medicines. The powerful focused on eradicating the virus, yet continued with the exploitative systems that had enabled the pandemic.

It could have been otherwise. Instead of this singular focus on globality, this preoccupation with human affairs isolated and privileged within the Earth’s integral system, the world could have embraced “planetarity,” a paradigm that rests on the fundamental inseparability of human and non-human domains. Planetarity presents the possibility of a relational ethic by reconfiguring “our world” into a collective whole, indeed into more-than-human worlds. It points to a mode of living-in-common that recognizes and respects the crucial agencies of animals and plants, landscapes and elements. As a life affirming philosophy, planetarity might have helped recast the planet in new visions of the conceptual, material, spatial, chemical, and spiritual. What if the virus was not rendered the enemy, as short-term, human-centric public health strategies dictated? What if it were to be accepted as a fellow planetary traveler over the long haul? But this was not to be. Humanity waged a futile battle with the virus. The rest is, indeed, history.

None of this should surprise us. It was already a broken planet. The fragile health of millions mirrored the fragility of planetary life with a devasted ecological system, a dysfunctional political system, chasmic inequality, and fractured societies. Like India, many parts of the world had come to be ruled by charismatic despots. Each used histories of colonialism and slavery to rouse a public who claimed the mantle of the “rightful natives.” Metaphors of belonging gripped public discourse and shaped exclusionary, even genocidal politics. Leaders in former colonial metropoles promised a return to the glory days of Empire. Settler colonists aggressively embraced the language of the securitization of the land, which they had seized from its original inhabitants, to keep out new immigrants. Belonging is about imagination, and the white settlers crowned themselves natives. In the post-colonies, leaders often fetishized a precolonial past to establish civilizational ascendancy. In India, many leaders invoked a glorious Hindu history going back to ancient Vedic times, framing Muslims and Christians as violent intruders, claiming the Taj Mahal originated as Tejo Mahalaya, a Shiva temple later usurped by the Mughals, and fomenting a politics of injury, whose lifespring was a newly bolstered victimhood of India’s Hindu majority. Planetarity warns us about the primacy of origin stories and attunes us to the importance of evolving histories and ecologies.

Metaphors abounded in truth claims. Waves of information and misinformation chased each other in the endless circuits of news and gossip networks. The binaries of real and fake captivated the world. Whose knowledge? Whose facts? Whose truths? To explain the unfolding global phenomenon, we use the metaphor of the truthbox—a set of universally accepted philosophies, truths, facts, logics, rules, and guidelines that emerged after the Age of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. By the twenty-first century, the truthbox had firmly planted itself as the ultimate arbiter of truth. But as memory keepers, we are custodians of all memories, of human and more-than-human worlds. To us, the truthbox represents the transformation of power into knowledge, rationalizing centuries of colonialism, enslavement, and human exceptionalism, celebrating resource extraction, extolling privatization and the closure of the commons. In short, the box valorized ideologies that favored the goals of the capitalist class over those of labor. In retrospect, this was no simple tale of nations against nations; even as populist rhetoric pitted Chinese workers against American, colluders with substantial assets banded together as a global class of the uber-rich and powerful. The rabid nationalism in each nation obscured the consolidation of a global power elite. Ironically, nationalisms proliferated even while global elites prospered.

Those of us who lived in India experienced firsthand the devastations wrought by truthbox regimes. The ruling bloc put together its own Hindutva truthbox, heralding ancient Vedic knowledge structures as the precursor to modern day science. They coopted and appropriated Western science and indigenous and decolonial sciences and medicine as Vedic knowledges. These knowledges were then commodified and corporatized. Thus, the powerful retained their power, albeit with a patina of Hindutva. Policies continued to favor the rich and caste elites, promoting private enterprise, while disinvesting in government’s social role. Colonial teleology morphed into postcolonial teleology, and then into a Hindutva teleology, all grounded in the same structures of power.

As the pandemic swept the country, we watched the government use authoritarian decrees, anodyne platitudes, misinformation, and sheer mendacity to manage an increasingly frustrated, panicked, and impoverished nation. What emerged was truly remarkable. Death tolls spiked, hospitals overflowed, and supplies were exhausted. How did the wisdom from the Hindutva truthbox play out? The All India Hindu Mahasabha gathered to promote the drinking of “gaumutra,” cow urine, as a prophylactic. New Hindu deities, like the Corona Mata and Corona Devi, emerged to glorify pandemic religiosity. During times when the government could not provide life-saving medicines or oxygen, the government’s own ministries issued advisories advocating dubious prevention measures and antidotes such as cow urine, cow dung, ginger, turmeric, meditation, and breathing techniques. Leaders encouraged prayer, reciting sacred chants, singing religious songs, banging on plates, lighting lamps—all ostensibly to dispel the virus.

How, you might ask, did the elites get away with it? Data was willfully obfuscated—ignored, deleted, manipulated. The salve of Vedic pride was applied liberally to soothe the festering wounds of the pandemic; of course, it could not arrest the death toll. With time, vaccines emerged. Again, the rich, within and across nations, hoarded the vaccines while pocketing the huge profits. As each wave of the pandemic subsided, there was jubilation. No official mourning of the dead, no collective reflection on what went wrong. No change in worldly vision. Politicians declared victory and went back to business as usual. Rather than invest in the fragile and failing infrastructures of health and environment, everyday life went back to the pursuit of profit and growth.

But they had found a worthy adversary in the virus. The wily creature adapted. New and more lethal viruses emerged. Humans, in a perpetually adversarial mode with the virus, were now losing the battle. All this while the planet was burning and the air and water were being polluted. A few weeks into the first national lockdown, the visibility of the distant mountains from North Indian cities and the return of peacocks, deer, and monkeys to the concrete jungles only served as a wistful reminder of what had been lost. Across the globe, such pictures circulated, many of them hoaxes playing on our wishful imaginations. Centuries of exploitation could never be solved by two weeks of humans off the helm. At first there were no vaccines or protective masks available. But even when they were, some refused. While the unmasked and the unvaccinated died, stock markets soared largely on wings of the internet economy, and the wealthy multiplied their net worth. The rich built bio-secure homes. But the poisons seeped in, the contagion invaded their safe spaces.

The unfolding of COVID-19 was not the cause but the symptom of planetary collapse. Named after Greek letters, the proliferating virus emerged as a poignant metaphor for the fast-tracked decline of the planet. Starting with the alpha, and subsequently delta, beta, lambda, mu, omicron (and their subvariants), the virus mutated into ever newer versions. And then, we cycled past the omega, and into the alpha omega. This absolute manifestation of viral power—it was the stuff of theology, it was prophesy turned eschatology.



We are the ninnaivars, the memory keepers. Along with a few other planetary creatures, some of us survived the apocalypse. Memories haunt us. They haunt us not only for the dead, but for those still living. We began our own story telling traditions, playfully at first, and then in earnest. Memory is filtered through trauma, through culture, through power, through carelessness. Memory, we realized, is not enough, we need the power of re-memory. Memories that are always processed through prisms of power. A continual re-narration of planetary history, our commitment to be accountable and pay respect to all who have been excluded, excised, and evicted.

History has taught us that memory is never simply about the past. Memory is never static. It is made and remade in endless cycles. We understand the failure of the human species as one of hubris, the conceit of human exceptionalism. In our new planetary life, nature is not about sterile landscapes, but teeming ecologies, necessitating new lexica, new epistemologies, new methodologies, new futures.

The ninnaivars want to make the world anew. Rather than the enemy, to us the virus is a fellow traveler in planetary life. All planetary forms deserve respect and agency. We learned from other creatures, from inanimate beings. For example, bats host a myriad of viruses without ever getting sick. How? We learned from them, and we incorporated this into our bio-cultures. With time we developed sophisticated technologies grounded not in any conceit of human superiority, but in humility, respect, and ethical engagement. This is not to homogenize life. We do not anthropomorphize planetary life and project human emotions and morality onto them. Neither do we claim human exceptionalism. All creatures have their own affective and agentic lives, their own ecological entanglements—we understand them in their own terms, not ours. The motto “Unity in Diversity,” which once inspired India’s democratic project, has proven inadequate because of its anthropocentrism and its identitarian thrust. Diversity must accept difference if we are to coinhabit the planet.

Pandemics turn unmanageable when we isolate and obsess about one virus as the enemy. Planetarity compels us to understand the virus in its complex naturecultural contexts. During an outbreak, we reorganize ourselves. We build community not through genetic affinities, but through social, engaging, prudent, and joyful living. We encourage dissent because it makes us stronger. We revel in the rich histories of not only India, but of a syncretic, coexisting South Asia, and a pluriverse planet. The apocalypse taught us that division and inequality forge fractious times, paranoid politics, and authoritarian regimes.

The future we firmly believe is not foretold. Seven-year-old Leela Venugopal’s evocative art captures it all. The bunny, like us all, has been ensnared by the coronavirus-as-sun. Yet the clouds, even though dark, bring hope, foretold by the promise of rain by a beautiful rainbow. Her landscape brings hope of torrential rain that will wash away the oppression of all our masked lives. Perhaps we will be free soon, from the missteps and the fraught histories that ushered in the sorrows of the virus. But as Leela, insists, hope is within reach. We can grasp the living tendrils of time to reweave the world, mindful of their deep, abiding, and rooted histories. The living tendrils root us to the earth and carry us to the sun, to a world of possibilities in the past, present, and futures. After all, for us, the ninnaivars, memories are never only of the past, never ossified into truthboxes, but a reflexive act of re-memory each time. We remember that we are, all of us, always lapsed amnesiacs.

Banu Subramaniam

Banu Subramaniam is a professor of women, gender, sexuality studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She engages the feminist studies of science in the practices of experimental biology and is the author of Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism (University of Washington Press, 2019). Banu’s current work focuses on decolonizing botany and the relationship of science and religious nationalism in India.