Savage Memory

When one is young, life seems infinite. There’s always time to do things in the future, visit one’s grandparents, take your mother out for a movie,  frame that beautiful sepia picture for a loved one-next time, later, soon. We file these things away, like tasks, in some deep recess of our mind. They stay there, largely dormant. They plague us every now and then but we knock them out and keep it for a later date. We hedge our time and comfort. And then life begins to shrink. These memories that are simple, unfussy, become a catalog of passing moments, of things you should have done, when the time was there.

A life of impeccable routine

My grandfather (Papaji, from here on) as I remember him led a quiet life of impeccable routine. He got up, took a bath, took the dog who had been brought home lovingly by his grandchildren, for a walk. He came back, shaved, had a bath, prayed and had his breakfast. It was mostly milk, fruit and rusk. He liked to wear his son’s clothes and would walk to take a bus to Ajmeri Gate where he worked with a local company taking care of their drafting and typing. There were occasions he would drive scooter.

Uprooted from his house in Lahore he crossed over to this side during the tumultuous years of Partition with his family. I rarely asked him about his hardships. He rarely told me about them. Once a man, who had three jobs, one at the Telegraph office and two others in the private sector, he cycled to all three of them. He took to retirement rather reluctantly. In fact he continued going to his workplace at Ajmeri Gate long after the owner indicated that it was time to hang his boots. He kept my mothers financial records painstakingly and life’s savings were so methodically chunked out in fixed deposits and diaries that it would put any financial planner to shame. Life was led by simple means. There wasn’t really time to grieve for what was lost. To me, all this is nearly a blur. He was the loving grandfather who was so thrilled to see me, I secretly carried the pride of being his favourite grandchild.

Perhaps I was.

Who knows?

I never asked him. 

He would wake up at five in the morning and finish his walk in time to see my morning show. His Sunday visits to my hostel during college days were accompanied with bags full of fruits, dry fruits, sweetmeats and a pouch of coins so that whenever I boarded a DTC bus to go to college, the conductor would never trouble me for change. This was in addition to the crisp notes of hundreds and fifty’s that he supplemented my college life with. Of course I never told him that we used to hitch a ride to college.

One day he was an old man

All this passed away rather quickly, in a flash like life is when you are young(er). One day he was an old man, who had to be taken care of. There were catheters, tests, medicines and restrictions. He walked less, got up with difficulty, barely stayed up to sip his tea and tried to convince everyone to get him one more piece of mithai (doctors prohibition). My aunts and mother would wipe the dribble of his shivery chin. He was weak and a shadow of his former self. His skin shriveled up, his face shrunk and his appetite was measly. A picture that I clicked on one of my rare visits has him lying down, covered with a thin sheet, he was arching his neck a little bit to see who the stranger in the room was. The picture caught everything including the pack of adult diapers on a stand above his bed that was to stay there almost till the end. He recognized me and asked me about my children. I didn’t have any, but played along thinking he mistook me for my cousin who had a gorgeous young daughter.

There was weariness in him. It was like a vacuum. It was a malady that had no remedy. He wasn’t sinking but he wasn’t there. There was a stench of old sadness in his room and I still think of that as how old age smells. There would be silences. And nightfall would often end them. Very soon after a familiar routine began. The phone would ring, sometimes in the early hours of the evening.

Anu, call Chunmun.

Who is Chunmun, Papaji?

Our servant, he has to pack our belongings. We are leaving.

Leaving for where, Papaji?

You don’t know anything. Give the phone to your mother.

But Mom doesn’t live here Papaji. She lives in her house.

Where do you live?

In Vasant Kunj, Papaji.

The phone would be slammed dead and then ring again, seconds later.

Do you have Chunmun’s number? I am calling him. He has to pack our belongings. We have to go.

There is no Chunmun, Papaji. We don’t have any servant called Chunmun. 

You don’t have any servant called Chumun.

It went on for a few days, the phone call every hour or so as if they had never occurred before. Conversations of seconds ago were mowed down by recollections of decades ago. It would all go on normally till you were interrupted with a question you just answered a moment ago.

Memory is Savage

Memory, they say works in a rather capricious way. There is no chronology. It’s like a meteor, a starburst. Here for a moment and then gone, in a flash. So he remembered his days of shifting from one house to the other, yet forgot he had been living in this house now, painstakingly built with his son, for decades now. Partial dementia, short term memory loss, old age, there were so many ways to explain his condition, yet I often wonder how he remembered my ten digit mobile number yet forgot that I was now married and lived away from my parents. I watched his lips move as he tried to capture the thoughts that drifted through his mind like speeding vehicles.

Life’s trump card is unpredictability. So silent in the day, the night would bring with it shouting, anger and perhaps frustration. His phrases, a chaotic jumble of words spoke of men, fire, construction material, abuses, shadows, of men waiting on the side. It was a jigsaw where all the pieces had been scattered over and over again. All we realized that it was something to do with his past, of those bloody days of Partition and of a life of homelessness and being a refugee. The tape had been rewound and was stuck there now.

There is a thing doctors say about senile dementia that after a while the extreme happens, patients no longer remember their closest relatives. Thankfully that never happened in Papaji’s case. He just fell silent and more silent.

It takes a lot of work though to silence the already silent. They come in your dreams; they nag your conscience, they nibble away. There are so many voices that have echoed in my head since the day I got cryptic four word SMS.

“He is no more”.

“God, I was going to see him this weekend. God, why didn’t I go last weekend, or before that, or much before that.”

“ I knew it was all a lie. I always had something very important to do.”

Time works on us and it works on our memories of those closest to us, those we love dearly. And it’s imperative to keep those memories alive, alive as true. I had often spoken of the possibility of my grandfather meeting a friend Rahul Pandita who was then working on his memoir of having to leave his home in Kashmir, exiled from his land, his country. He later titled that book, “Our Moon Has Blood Clots”.  Those days Papaji was going through his spurts of recollection, of remembering home and building houses. We often spoke about how the two could meet and perhaps talk of home. I wasn’t sure if my grand father would open up to a stranger, but who knows, perhaps home or homelessness bound them. One came to his country; the other was exiled in his country.

The more important need of the book, Rahul said was to bring the truth out. 

“Dent the discourse, that had been dominated by one aspect of violence and had chosen to wipe off another'”, he often said

To me though, it’s a work of witness, a book of defiance, of loss, of that definite void that feels like an amputated leg, of home, of memories and why we must strive to remember, more and more.

Often at the end of our conversations that started and ended with the idea of home, I was tempted to say,“ I understand, I know how you feel”, but I knew my words felt flat even to me. I had no clue how he felt. Or what homelessness could feel like. As a family we had shifted so many houses on account of my fathers job as an Army officer yet my idea of home was intact. In every government accommodation, in every city that his posting took us to, my mother set up a home in a jiffy. Wooden boxes painted with my fathers name, unit and IC No became sofas and places to sit. A few utensils plucked out from a wooden trunk became a kitchen and we always managed to sleep sound, on a floor or on uncomfortable beds. Home is something else, I have begun to understand. It certainly isn’t made of brick and mortar.

“I have no home, only images”, Rahul writes in his book.

“ The exile is permanent. I am uprooted in my mind.”

Ever since I have read his book I have been assailed by memories, memories of my grandfather, his last days, his rage, his heartbreaking overmedicated health, his isolation and how he kept memories of the violence he had seen, the homelessness he felt at times, the images of his life then, secure in some undamaged portion of his brain. I have tormented myself for not seeing him earlier, for not remembering more, for not asking him more, for not saying more.

In the introduction to Primo Levi’s book, Moments of Reprieve, Michael Ignatieff says,  

“In the face of the holocaust, Levi simply remembered every face, every name, every story he could, and like a chemist refining the ore of human grace from the dross of cruelty and terror, reminded us that to care about living human beings is to care for them in all their singularity, their astounding differences and to remember them, with the tenacity of love, when they are gone.”

Memory is savage. It becomes even more so if you don’t care to remember.


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