“Memory, I realize, can be an unreliable thing.” —Kazuo Ishiguro
VE BEEN HUNTING FOR A METAPHOR for the last three years. Hunting without much success. What is an apt metaphor for memory loss? A ship unmoored, drifting in a foggy sea? A once-mighty tree, roots too fragile to hold, tottering in the wind? A rock worn down by time, worn down by flood and rain, slowly crumbling?
Why hunt for metaphors, you ask. How can they possibly save a life? Because that is what writers do. We hope metaphors will shore us up against ruin. We hope—against hope—that words will keep us safe when the wolves are at the door.
MY MATERNAL AUNT, my mother’s only sister, turned seventy this year. She remembers this clearly. Unlike other figures—dates and times that slip away from her, seventy stays firmly etched in her memory. Some days, she compares herself to other seventy-year-olds with a wry smile. Sometimes she wonders if a greying celebrity is a peer or a junior.
“How old is Amitabh Bacchhan?” she asks one morning, sipping her tea. “My age??”
It is pleasant outside, benign October weather. Winter’s sting won’t hurt us for another month or so.
“Today is Gandhi Jayanti,” I tell her. “Holiday for me.”
“October 2nd?” A faint line creases her forehead as she dredges up the date from memory.
I am so thrilled she gets the date right. I praise her and beam at her like a proud parent. She may not remember the date a few hours later. She could forget which month this is, which year. She could mistake benign October for freezing December and curse Delhi winters.
But for now, we sip our tea and savour the moment.
If there is one thing the last three years have taught me, it is to be grateful for small mercies.
SHORT-TERM MEMORY refers to information that a person can remember for a short period of time soon after receiving it. A person with short-term memory loss has difficulty remembering pieces of information she just received.
ALL MEMORIES ARE unreliable. All memories are unreliable because we remember things the way we want to, not the way they happened. All of us are unreliable narrators because we cobble together the stories of our lives with our hearts, not our heads. My aunt and her siblings—my mother and uncles—grew up in the red-roofed, sprawling family home in Calicut. In the monsoons, they woke to the beat of rain on the roof. In sweltering summers, they raced each other to the pond in the lush backyard and dived in to cool off. And yet, it is endlessly fascinating to me how they recount significant incidents from their childhood differently. Same incidents, different memories. A regular Malayali Rashomon.
Until three years ago, when my aunt’s memory stopped being her ally, I was an avid listener of their accounts. Now, I see my aunt is saddled with an unfair handicap. Her siblings are free to look back on the past while firmly tethered to the present, but all my aunt is left with are memories of the past. The present is no longer something she can rely on. Like quicksand, it threatens to suck her in. A tricky mirage. A twisted con. So, she sidesteps it, tired of its treachery.
Since her memory started eroding, the past has become the one true thing blazing across her horizon. Pulsing like a beacon, a bright guiding light, it beckons to her from across the years.
A PERSON SUFFERING FROM memory loss may experience confusion and disorientation. She may have trouble with visual and spatial abilities, and may get lost even inside her home. Difficulty with planning and organizing complex tasks, and difficulty with reasoning or problem-solving could also be experienced.
ONE EVENING, WHEN the sun hangs low on the horizon, the expression on my aunt’s face startles me. Seated on a cane chair angled towards the light, she stares into space. Her eyes glaze over. Her face is a blank. She is here, but elsewhere, lost in some winding alley in the past I have no access to. I feel a desperate need to tug at her sleeve, to bring her back to this moment, this fading November dusk.
There is no spell I can cast to bring her back. If I could, I would.
So, I duck indoors and come back to her side with a book in hand. This is an abridged version of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. A book she had gifted me when I was a school kid. I was as hungry for stories then as I am now. And my aunt understood the hunger because she felt it as keenly as I did. We would celebrate childhood victories—good grades, a win in a creative writing competition or a debate at school—with a trip to the local bookstore. The bookseller would spring up from behind the counter and greet us like an old friend, offer milky cups of tea and let us browse the store for as long as we liked.
As a junior lawyer, overworked and underpaid (as junior lawyers are), my aunt must have made plenty of sacrifices at the time to buy me the books I plucked from the shelves with childish glee. She never mentioned the sacrifices involved or expected praise for making them. My love of stories was a source of pure joy to her. She nurtured it with all her heart.
I HAVE STARTED READING out to her from our old favourites these days. The stories remind me of simpler times. And of sunny days when my aunt’s memory was the rock on which the whole clan leaned on. Appointments, birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, court hearing dates—she had them all at her fingertips. She could recite landmark judgements with her eyes closed. Rattle off dates without a second’s pause. It is a cruel irony that my mother who was considered the absent-minded one in the family all this time still has a firm grasp on her memory while my aunt flounders.
But then again, loss is not a competition. There is no logic to it.
Seated next to my aunt on the couch, I flip through Tom Sawyer and read out the scene in which Tom outsources his fence-painting chore to the neighbourhood kids. Mark Twain’s words paint vivid pictures under the darkening sky. My aunt smiles and nods, hanging on to every sentence I read, enjoying Tom’s childish pranks, the clever plots he cooks up to get the better of his stern and watchful aunt.
A LOVE OF BOOKS, a love of travel: two traits I have joyfully inherited from my aunt.
She has always been a voracious reader. And a gifted storyteller. She taught me at a very early age that only a dedicated reader can aspire to be a writer. To echo Stephen King, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
Reading transports you to other worlds—inner or outer; gives you glimpses of other lives, opens you up to other ways of being. As does travel. My aunt made the decision to move from Kerala to Delhi when she fell in love with my uncle—an affable Bengali man brought up in Delhi. They were colleagues whentheyfirstmet. AndthatjourneyfromKeralatoDelhiwas a journey of a lifetime for her. She learnt a new language and begantospeakBengalilikeaproaftersettlingdowninCRPark, Delhi’smini-Bengal. She steeledherselfagainst Delhisummers and winters, never complaining about the extremes. Did she miss the sound and fury of the Kerala monsoons? The endless rain and the luscious green sprouting in its wake? Did she long for the company of old friends and familiar haunts? Of course, she did. But she handled her yearning gracefully, devoting her time and energy to her job and her husband and daughters.
Less adventurous family members disapproved of her choice to uproot herself from the seaside town of Calicut to landlocked Delhi. What foolishness, they said, to travel so far. To abandon all that is familiar and try to build a home in an aggressive, alien land (North India!). But my aunt did not pay attention to the naysayers. She was born a traveller, ready to walk new roads, ready to embrace the ups and downs of journeys with gusto.
A PERSON WHO IS losing her short-term memory asks the same questions repeatedly; forgets where she placed her belongings—car keys, reading glasses, mobile phone; forgets recent events or things she saw or read recently; forgets the names of people she met recently.
MY GRANDFATHER WAS an atheist. A rational man who pursued journalism with the passion of a fanatic. Right from their school years, he encouraged his daughters and sons to steer clear of blind faith. They were free to worship god if they felt like it but his motto, which he sounded loud and clear, was the good old Cold War adage: trust but verify, kids. God or mortal, no one deserves blind faith. Born a Hindu, he never set foot inside a temple. But he did attend many interfaith prayer meetings because he had friends from different faiths, most of whom had gone to jail with him when they were students. Hindu, Muslim, and Christian, they had all joined forces to boot the British out of India. As he liked to say, “No god came down from the sky to set us free. We stepped up. Did the dirty work ourselves.”
Since my aunt and her siblings grew up without the crutch of organised religion, no one in the family refers to hardships as “God’s will” and stoically accepts every setback as part of the divine plan. These days, when I see other people taking this route, I wonder if faith—“the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen”—would bring comfort to the family in this time of crisis. Would it be easier if my mother accepted her sister’s fading memory as God’s will? Would my uncles feel better if they believed the divine hand—and the divine hand alone—was pulling the strings and directing this strange and confusing dance?
My aunt lights a nilavilakku (brass lamp) at sunset and places it at the threshold of her home. The daily ritual is reassurance. And her quiet way of acknowledging a higher presence. But it is a far cry from ascribing both motive and opportunity to god, believing that whatever is happening to us is happening because god in his infinite wisdom has willed it. Is unquestioning faith a true source of comfort or just an instance of desperate mortals grasping at straws? I don’t know the answer to that. But what I do know is that faith is a habit that demands complete surrender. Not all of us are cut out for it.
IT’S POSSIBLE THAT your aunt may forget your name or have trouble recognising you at some point of time, says the doctor. A prophecy and a warning, which he issues with a kind smile from behind his desk. He must do it all the time, warn nieces and nephews and sons and daughters about what the future holds. It’s his job and he does it with practised ease. I am grateful for the warning though I have no earthly idea how to deal with this possibility when it turns into hard, cold reality.
SO, WHAT IS an apt metaphor for memory loss? The tide surely, slowly ebbing, never to rise again? The colours leaching out of the rainbow till it becomes a pale shadow of itself? The edges blurring, bleeding, till a person’s once well-defined world ends up a hazy outline?
Anyway, even if I chance upon the right metaphor, would it help to save a life?
The clock on the wall keeps ticking. The clock on the wall is a clown.