How to preserve the story of your life

This Indian Life by Shoba Narayan:

In the digital overload of photos, status updates and emails, where are the real milestones of your journey?

BRUNCH Updated: Jun 22, 2019 23:54 IST

Shoba Narayan

Shoba Narayan
Hindustan Times

column,This Indian Life,documenting vacations

How do you preserve the narrative arc of your life? How do you remember the key milestones, the joys and sorrows in between? Do you just use photos – shared albums documenting vacations, college graduations, weddings, or birthdays? Or keep a digital journal to record your thoughts? Do you write emails or letters announcing a job change to friends and relatives? How about the year that went by?

Some people compose year-end greetings as a way of recollecting and reviewing their successes and failures. They send these by email to friends or post them on Facebook on New Year’s day. Are you one of those rare species that actually sends letters or greeting cards to your grandmother to wish her a happy birthday or to mark milestones? How do you keep track of your life? How do you document its key moments?

The other day, my husband and I were cleaning out my mother-in-law’s apartment. We came across handwritten letters on yellowing pieces of paper. If you are a millennial, you may not even know what this means. A son announcing to his parents that he wants to join the IAS. A handwritten announcement made on a blue ‘inland’ letter under the guise of seeking blessings.

“Dear Ma and Baba. Well and wish to hear the same. Today, I cleared the IAS exams. With your blessings, I wish to join the civil service and serve my country.”

Parents entreating the son to “settle down” in another letter with an enclosed photo of a bashful girl who will end up as his bride. Telegrams announcing births, deaths and everything in between. “Padma delivered a baby girl. Mother and baby safe.” How magnificently succinct is this message!

These days, technology has thrown up so many creative ways of announcing events. You tell your friends that you got drunk at a party by sending them a Snapchat story of you looking glaze-eyed and tipsy. You announce that you got engaged with the carefully choreographed photograph on Instagram of the groom on one knee and the bride in ecstasy, in the middle of a photogenic desert or glacier with the solitary white tent nearby. You announce that you got into a prestigious university by posting a Facebook update with the overtly coy heading “Ashoka Class of 2020.” You tell family that you are pregnant by sending an ultrasound photograph, or calling them on FaceTime or WhatsApp video.

The problem with all these methods is that they are copious, and therefore hard to record or retrieve. How will you find that one cute photograph of your child taking his first step, amidst the 41,304 photos currently on your phone or cloud account. The ease of digital communication allows for over-communication. It allows you to indulge in the human capacity for emotional diarrhoea with a slew of emojis, back-and-forth exclamation points, and overused cliches like “awesome,” or “Wow.”

So then what? Discovering these inland letters that were preserved for 40 years made me realise that I need to create some version of them in the digital world. Each week, hundreds of photos pass through my screen. I now have figured out that I need to not just send a “thumbs up” emoji back and forget about them. I need to choose a few of them to put into a separate folder called “Milestones.” The trick is to resist the temptation to over-add photos. Instead be ruthless. Think of it as being the equivalent of those letters you sent home. If a photo or a journal entry passes those criteria, it goes into the “Milestone” folder. The beauty is that I can create separate folders for kids, parents, spouse, siblings and close friends. I can then make a master milestone folder of our collective lives.

It seems like an ambitious project and a lot of work, but really it is about twisting your head a certain way. It is about viewing every digital photograph or email or note through one lens: will it stand the test of time? Put another way, when your sister sends you photographs of your niece’s wedding, ask yourself this question as you scroll through the 546 photos in that shared album: which one of these will I (or we) want to see after 40 years? Which one of these represents the time we live in? Because the beauty of those inland letters is not just the momentous announcements they contain – “we are buying our first home,” but also the mundane things that you forget – about how people lived then. “Today, I played the cassette tape that you sent with the Binaca Geet Mala. It helped me get through the nausea of the first trimester.” Now, if you are a teenager reading this, do you know what a cassette tape is? Or for that matter, do you know what Binaca Geet Mala is?

(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents and other unique facets of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)

This Indian Life appears every fortnight

From HT Brunch, June 23, 2019

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