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Memory games of Generation X

Memorising has always been an integral part of Indian culture, whatever beginnings you would like to ascribe to it. Right from their school, days, Indian children are encouraged to mug up verbatim answers to questions, entire tracts of prose or poetry prescribed in the syllabi, commit to memory even the political and physical maps, not only of India, but also of the South Asian subcontinent, as well as that of the Asian, American and European continents. (Africa, naturally, is still neglected.) Indian children ritually win the international ‘Spelling Bee’ contests, which has now become one of their flagship turfs of victory over fellow American students, as the latter, more often than not, look flabbergasted and gob smacked when faced with a formidable Indian counterpart, who can spell autochthonous, appoggiatura or chiaroscurist as if s/he were spelling out cat, bat or mat.

While nuts and cod liver oil have long been prescribed as techniques to improve our memory, the latest instrument in the arsenal of such mnemonic enhancement are the slew of digital apps that promise to increase focus and concentration of the students. Such ‘brain teaser tests’ are downloaded on the smartphones or personal computers of the students, sometimes for free, but often for a small fee, and the kids get a score after taking the tests.

Since the Vedic times, when recitation of entire epics was conducted everyday at the gurukul, a practice that saved
Rgveda
in toto before it was textualised, Indians, and especially Hindus and Buddhists, have placed a huge symbolic importance on the ability to commit to memory words and thus preserve chunks of literature and culture that depended on such forms of informal oral transmission. Tibetan monks, like ancient Hindu sages, are known to gradually amass a gargantuan amount of textual material, such as mantras,
sutras, shlokas
and recite them on demand as a playful memory exercise. Ability to remember is so hallowed in our tradition that Indian diplomats typically pride themselves in giving virtuoso recitations of extracts from Will Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Macbeth or Othello or endless stanzas from Wordsworth, Robert Frost or Tennyson. However, innovative ideas such as the ‘memory app’ marry the age-old tradition of recitation with cutting edge digital technology, thus giving Indian memory games a brand new twist.
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