Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Memories : shredded and retrieved

I am sitting at the moment surrounded by newspaper cuttings and articles. All pertaining to me. And my childhood. Carefully collected, but now , handling tends to cause a disconnect in the molecules that hold it all together.

I came across this plastic bag on my recent visit to my parents' empty house. Eerily empty, not of just humans, but even paper memorabilia.

Very atypical.

After my mother's passing away , my father lived for 6 years, till the age of 89 years. Except for the last few months of his life, he never had a problem of how to occupy his time. He read voraciously, wrote prodigiously.

One of my most abiding memories is that of my father and his cupboards full of books and files; the growing cost of books meant it was more of the latter. Files full of cuttings, reference articles, notes, copies of stuff , pictures; all this in several languages. He conducted a continuous verbose correspondence with various socially dedicated organizations, and authors and publishers. On his visits to me, his favourite hobby was to rummage around in our collection of books.

Somewhere in the last few years of his life, his intellectual activities, (the ones that we could see, that is), reduced. My sense of wonder in observing the workings of his brain led to this blog.

Towards the last few months , when he was still mobile, he went through the various papers in all the various cupboards. Our household help who has been with us for 60 years, tells me of the extreme zeal with which my father proceeded to simply remove and destroy, anything, that spelled paper. A pair of scissors was a permanent fixture, and slowly, a host of cupboards started falling empty.

This also coincided with the period in which he became slightly delusional, forgot people, got angry very fast, was adamant about imaginary things, and often got confused about household and personal things he had done all his life.

Some call this a dementia of the Alzheimer's type. Some just call it old age dementia. It gave a new meaning to the phrase "out of sight, out of mind". Those of us that he saw often, he remembered. On my every visit to him, I would see gaping cupboards, newly empty shelves, waste baskets brimming with paper cut to pieces. You asked him about it, and he either feigned complete ignorance or indifference , or gave you a big piece of his agitated mind, saying this should have been done ages ago.

They say , some parts of your brain just quietly reduce efficiency and stop functioning, as you go deep into old age. Alzheimer's patients have a well documented obsession with cutting up paper.

But the brain efficiency is not an absolute thing. Its all about observing things, and the brains ability to receive body signals or messages, and maybe, sometimes, do a bit of learning from it. Which probably explains , why those of us who continued to appear in his environment frequently, made an impression somewhere in the neuronic jungle, and smart links were maintained that lit up his synapses, as recognition dawned in his mind, whenever we met. Those who he did not see frequently, were either not in his database, or more likely, they were there, but the links were, as they say, corrupted.

This state of affairs worsened. The last 3 months he was completely bedridden. The delusions increased, adamancy reached new heights, language skills got limited.

One of my most traumatic memories, is walking through an empty house a day after his death, trying to occupy my time (between attending condolence visits), searching for his papers, looking for old letters, searching for something that would simulate a virtual personality in the house; the strange thing was, he had got rid of all his books, files, and even family photographs. There was nothing to clutch and work on.

And now this plastic bag that I came across on my recent visit.

Its a file of clippings.

Poems I wrote as a child, laboriously rhyming the words. Articles written by me, in children's
magazines in marathi, about various travels we undertook with our parents , when young. Letters written by teachers and school principals, after some decent success in school leaving exams. Indulgent communications from favourite aunts and uncles after seeing their niece do so well in some competitive exam. Mature articles I wrote, as an adult , in various publications in English and Marathi , about graduate studies and life in the US ,in an age (1969-71), where it was so uncommon, there was no one standing ahead of me when I went to get my US visa ! I had taken my father to Disneyland when he came to visit me at the university there, and the file even had a caricature of me done by the artists there, which I had completely forgotten about.

How did these papers survive? How did papers relating to a slew of unrelated activities get thrown together ? When did he find these ? How come they escaped the scissors ? Why did he leave these things for me , when during his lifetime, I never knew that someone was archiving these ?

They say the brain is the machine that manages, but what makes the "mind" is the the effect the rest of the biology of the body has on the brain. Its a question of parts of the body sending messages and the brain being geared with a perfectly configured cell "receiver " for these messages.

They say your limbic brain in hardwired. Your emotions, intuitive reactions, remain hardwired , tempered by age.

What changes in the learning.

Its just something that makes you wonder about the Maker of the human body.

It could be intelligent cell division and energizing of the various body parts while in the womb, while protein messengers flash around triggering a hormone here , another protein there, starting and finishing things.

Its simpler to think of Someone Up There, who guided my father into unilaterally preserving these things , while the rest of it lay in shreds all about him........


  1. A small tiny bit of first hand experience when I say this - some memories are indelibe and often earned...
    A parent's pride , a child's longing for a parent gone by for instance ...

    Brilliant thread of posts.

    Thank you.

    Regards and the best
    as always

  2. sfx,

    Thank you. Being almost the sole caretaker of a parent, and seeing a life, that you took for granted, slowly asymptotically slide to an end, makes you a learner all over again. Sometimes you express yourself blogging. I did that starting a couple of months before he passed away. Now Scientific American says it is "therapeutic"!



    Maybe its true.

  3. Its not dissimilar when the life suddenly goes away ...without giving one an opportunity to be a caretaker...

    I think i know what you mean by the "sometimes" you express yourself bit ... Its only sometimes... most such experiences are way beyond words.

    As you say about the therapeutic bit, Maybe its true. The only real therapy though, is time and even that ....

  4. sfx,

    I did experience the "suddenness" too, when i lost my mother earlier. As you rightly say, the only therapy , at the end of the day, is time...

    But whenever you have some free time, have a look at :



  5. Dear Aunty,
    Reading this post after a long time... Sunday morning.. woke up before everyone else.. catching up on stuff... thought I'd read your blog.
    Very touching. You know, maybe I should call you up sometime. I am debating a lot these days on moving back to India or staying in US. While most questions seem to say that perhaps US is better, when it comes to spending time with my parents, that thought alone is enough to tilt the see-saw towards India.


  6. You are most welcome, Milind. (I went through a similar dilemma in 1972 in the US. Turns out that your final decision will not have anything to do with your job/your prospects/the good life/remunerations/further education etc etc. You will just end up deciding unilaterally, and follow it up with action. ). Do call.

  7. Very nicely put. Thank you for sharing.