One of these days, as one does, we come across a relic. It is a relic that feels alienating precisely because it is not our past. It is a past that we have not lived through. We cannot look back. This is the past of our grandparents, at best. For many of us who were born away from the urban centres, even that is a stretch. The imagination does not go that far, I want to say. To make up for imagination one does not possess, one must have the archival tonic. This became my way of understanding this past some years ago.
Today, as a part of my research on Indian poetry and magazines, I came across the archives of the Quest magazine. Looking at this magazine archive from the 1950s-1970s, this odd feeling came upon me. Indian Oil advertises Gauhati Refinery in 1960s. First public sector refinery built with Romanian assistance (because the Eastern Bloc was a thing). Among 173 rupee Agfa cameras with rangefinders that were sold only in Delhi, Calcutta and Madras, and Indian Airlines fares from Bombay to Colombo (daily!), is this news of hope of a refinery in Assam.
Did the readers of this magazine know where Assam was? Did they even know where Gauhati was? Would they know now? It is not just the odd juxtaposition of the Assamese refinery and the metropolitan spaces but the sheer distance that one sees from this moment of hope.
Names will change: Gauhati will become Guwahati, Madras Chennai. People will burn themselves in Assam in the name of this oil. All of that is a mere decade away. But in 1960s, it is still a different world. People can still cling on to some sort of hope that I cannot imagine inhabiting in 2020.