On memory and metaphors in Remembering Kurdi|Gaurav Haloi

Gaurav Haloi

Saumyananda Sahi’s documentary Remembering Kurdi begins with an intertitle:

hiraeth (n.) a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.

Kurdi, a village in the Sanguem taluka of Goa, was the home of 550 families. In the 1960s, the state government proposed a plan of constructing a dam to increase the availability of water for irrigation and drinking. The price to be paid was the submergence of Kurdi under the Salaulim river. Construction started in 1976 and the residents of the village were displaced and resettled.

Decades later, the bond between Kurdi and its now relocated inhabitants is deeper and stronger than before. When the ruins of Kurdi resurface every year during the summer months of May and June, its erstwhile residents make an annual pilgrimage to it. They pray to the Gods, feast, and share memories of the place. They say that when they left Kurdi, the Gods didn’t come with them, instead the Gods stayed back and sank with the land.

Remembering Kurdi documents the time around this annual pilgrimage. Sahi films conversations about life in Kurdi, feelings on leaving their homes, rituals – religious and communal – that were followed then and are followed now, and the stories of caste and feudal injustice being told. The people remember everything as if all of it happened yesterday. They harbour no ill will towards the government or the river and there’s a certain warmth about these people when they talk about Kurdi. Through their words, emotions, and actions, the film attempts to recreate a place and time that doesn’t exist in reality.

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Gurucharan Kurdikar grew up in Kurdi and he still has vivid memories of the village. Venisha Fernandes was born after her family left Kurdi and she grew up on stories from this village. There is a sweetly poignant scene in the movie, maybe when they meet for the first time, where they excitedly tell each other about how much Kurdi means to them. The film starts with a shot of Venisha and ends with one of Gurucharan, and in between, both of them interact with the villagers and ask them questions about Kurdi. Abhijit Patil is a photojournalist from another state who also interacts with the villagers; he is the outsider in this story and his journey with the place and its people reflect the audience’s journey with the film.

Sahi, who mostly shoots his own films, once said that while filming, he covers his head with a black cloth and he doesn’t say “roll” and “cut”, so that the persons don’t even know when the camera is rolling and when it is not. In this way, he allows the camera to be ordinary – to be a part of the environment and to belong to that place. There are moments in Remembering Kurdi that make you emotional and you don’t even realise where the emotions crept up from; these are raw moments of profound sincerity and honesty that are rarely captured on camera.

Kurdi, as a physical entity, exists only in mounds of land here and there and Sahi would film that for long periods of time, as if the village is still alive and people are moving around and doing their chores. This is Sahi’s way of honouring the memories of the people. The relocation has been difficult for them; even though they were compensated with agricultural land and housing, there are some things in this world that can never be replaced, home being one of them.

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Early in the film, we see an image of the Old Portuguese Road, leading from Curpem to Kurdi, meandering along mounds of submerged land that has resurfaced. There comes a point when the road ends and water begins. That image is the reason why Saumyananda Sahi made this film. That image itself is a striking allegory for human memory. Much like how Kurdi is submerged under water, its memory, for the now relocated inhabitants, is drowned in emotions of a profound longing for it. Much like how a sight or a sound or a smell triggers memory many years later, the mere mention of the word “Kurdi” evolves into a shared recollection of the ethos and pathos of their lives when Kurdi was functioning and alive. Much like how Kurdi would partly resurface for a short period in the summer months, these stories and their emotions would emerge briefly within the storyteller and then they would be passed in the most ordinary of ways, a nutshell, to the listener because of two possible reasons. One, words would fall short of conveying what they had then and what they feel now. Two, if they hold onto them longer, they will start tearing up.

The film is free flowing and spontaneous, slightly impulsive at times, and lacking a dramatic structure, quite akin to human memory. Sahi is aware of the allegory that Kurdi is and of the universality of the act of remembering one’s home. There are plenty of visual metaphors within the film that refer to the theme of the film, hiraeth – a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a deep emotional state of nostalgia or melancholic longing for an absent something or someone. These metaphors function in different ways. Sometimes it is analogous to how memory functions.  Sometimes it reveals how emotions are associated with the past and how they manifest in humans. Sometimes it is a metaphor of loss and of the act of remembering.

There is a particular sequence in the film in which a shadow paddles through the river in the dark and a patch of light shifts across the ruins of Kurdi. It is a self-referential metaphor, the shadow is searching for a home that is ruined or that doesn’t exist. The waterway is the hallway of memory and the ruins along the banks are specific events of the past. Light doesn’t stabilize on a particular ruin because these are ruins; they have changed shapes and taken on a different meaning, hence the shadow can’t distinguish them. Since there is no land to tether the events to, every event, be it happy or sad, pleasant or horrifying, festive or solitary, come with the shared feeling of loss and nostalgia.

This sequence has its complementary sequence in the later part of the film when Gurucharan and his father are searching for old lamps that were once used in Kurdi but has lost significance over time. They sift through quite a few lamps before they find one that’s working. The quiet joy in their face speaks volumes about how important the quest for that one working lamp was.  It is the same joy Guru’s mother feels when she finds that they can still see the house well when she finally visits Kurdi after many years. I believe that finding the lamp is, in some ways, a solace to the shadow, who was searching for his home in the earlier sequence.

“My eyes water up like a bath.”

“Even though my legs couldn’t reach there, my eyes did.”

Guru’s mother says these when she is shown footage of Guru and his father visiting their home, which has resurfaced. There is a cut from their old home to Guru’s mother in the present home – she is sitting on a chair and talking to the camera. This gives the impression that she is watching Guru and his father as both of them are rediscovering their old home. Even though we know that both the actions aren’t happening at the same time, the cut makes sense to us in some inexplicable way. The camera is made conspicuous in this sequence when it snaps a picture of Guru and his father on the steps of their old house. After the photo is snapped, both of them get up to leave and then Guru’s mother gets up from the chair and leaves, hiding her tears from the camera. This cut reveals how our emotions about the past manifest in us. Guru’s mother saw her husband and child together in their old home after 30 years and there were tears in her eyes. If it were a mere footage of her old home without her husband and son, maybe she wouldn’t have teared up. Maybe. Maybe that’s how memory works. It resurfaces when we see something familiar from long ago. The resurfaced memory manifested into an intense longing for the past. The conspicuousness of the camera is important because here it is the window into the past. The window exists but what you are seeing in it doesn’t. The cut itself becomes the trigger for the memory.

Another interesting visual metaphor in the film occurs when Abhijit (the outsider) goes to meet this man in Bombay, who then recollects about his childhood days spent in Kurdi. As he is recollecting, we see cars coming and going through an aquarium, so the streets blend in with water and the fishes appear to be swimming in this blend, much like the land of Kurdi above which fishes swim now.  Earlier in the film we also saw that fishermen live in the ruins of the old police station now. The police looked after Kurdi when it wasn’t submerged. The fishermen look after it now.

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There is a shot of a burial plot bounded by stones and it is filled with water.  Venisha visits the graves of her ancestors. When Kurdi submerged, the cemeteries submerged too. Death of ones’ ancestors became physically linked to the death of Kurdi. To find ones’ roots, one could only walk along the Curpem road to the point when the road gives away to water. To go beyond that point, one had to remember. Remembering ancestors became remembering Kurdi. Finding where you belong became finding Kurdi. In this manner, Kurdi slowly evolved into an allegory of human history, identity, and memory.

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The author had the pleasure of watching this documentary during a special screening at BITS Pilani, Goa Campus on 26 August 2016.

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