A Book of Memories

Keeping a journal or diary with notes, clippings and photos is more real than what you can store on your phone

Shoba Narayan
Hindustan Times

What object would you pick up if your house was burning down? I thought it would be my smartphone, but these days a new contender has sprung up in the form of a tattered book.

On my mother-in-law’s desk lies a yellowed, fraying book that is held together by Sellotape, band-aids, rubber bands, and a lot of love. It has a yellow cover made of what looks like an old calendar. It is nominally called her “sloka book,” or prayer book, but really, it is a repository of her life. She picks up this book every day and spends an hour reading from it. When she travels abroad, it is one of the last things she packs. Each of the pages addresses different aspects of her life and interests.

Are you one of those sentimentalists who preserves your child’s umbilical cord in a plastic wrap?

Many of the pages have handwritten prayers: mantras for wealth, health and grandchildren. The Hanuman Chalisa. Some Sanskrit slokas. Prayers written beside a handwritten date: 7 Jan 1982. Was someone gravelly ill then? She doesn’t remember.

Interspersed with the prayers are advice columns clipped out from newspapers, recipes, obituaries for dead friends, random phone numbers, horoscopes of nephews who need to be married, visiting cards belonging to say, one Mr Ratan Singh who worked in the telecom arm of a now-defunct company. Why did she keep it? Was he a Very Important Person (VIP) at some point?

There are recipes galore – for sweet corn soup and salted caramel pudding that rarely make their way into our vegetarian kitchen. Why did she clip them out? To impress her new husband with anglicised stylish dishes? Later pages contain recipes that were more practical for a new mother: an “oma-kuzhambu” recipe made with ground carom (ajwain) seeds spiced with tamarind and sambar powder to reduce gas and improve digestion. Why did she choose this somewhat archaic Tanjore recipe? A few pages later comes the answer in the form of a cut-out ad for Woodwards Gripe Water to help colicky babies. Most intriguing of all is the recipe for “jackfruit chicken,” to resemble the “kathal ki sabzi” popular in the North.

In the film The Bridges of Madison County (1995), two siblings go through the belongings of their deceased mother and discover that she had a four-day affair with a visiting photographer. Played by Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, the film asks an intriguing question: how much do we truly know about our parents’ lives and choices? Do we know the people they loved and lost? Or their adolescent crushes? Do we know their desire to be stylish and sexy like Blanche DuBois in the play A Streetcar Named Desire? Do we know them before they became Mummy or Nani or Ma? What are the selves they left behind? What are the selves they concealed under layers of talcum powder and coconut oil?

In my mother-in-law’s case, it is hard to say. She was a very attractive young woman who was a famous debater in college. How many hearts did she break? What were her secrets?

In the corner of one page in her tattered book is the handwritten name S. Prasad with the number 23657834. My mother-in-law doesn’t remember who Prasad is. If she does, she is not saying. Was he a colleague, classmate or a visiting photographer? For some time, I considered calling every STD code followed by the number to see which man answered on the other end. Then I learned that Karnataka alone has 1087 different STD codes. Prasad shall be the mystery man who made his way into her diary.

Swiping through a phone doesn’t have the visceral immediacy of a real life photograph

Saddest of all in the book are the obituary clippings of say, Dr Leela Pai or Mr Deepak Jain. These people, she remembers. They are colleagues, friends, beloved relatives, whose gravelly newspaper photo is stuck amidst lists of grocery items for festival days and more recent graduation photos of her grandson and granddaughter: young unlined faces with full confident smiles in a formal graduation gown. Untouched by age; untouched by the vicissitudes of life.

Do you keep a scrapbook or a box with your children’s drawings? Are you one of those sentimentalists who preserves your child’s umbilical cord in plastic wrap? Do you keep your daughter’s every sunrise made with yellow and red crayons? Do you keep your son’s poems?

I don’t: unsentimental fool that I am. My reservoir of memories is mostly my phone. But every day, when

I watch my mother-in-law’s hands caress the book that means so much to her, I wonder if I am doing it all wrong. Perhaps in 2019, I ought to start a journal-cum-scrapbook-cum-diary. Perhaps I ought to stick photos of kids, parents, siblings and friends: the rich relationships that nourish my life. Swiping through a camera may be efficient but it doesn’t have the visceral immediacy of a real life recipe or photograph. After all, that is why the online world is called “virtual.”

It looks like it is real, but really, it isn’t.

(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents, an integral part 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

BRUNCH Updated: Dec 08, 2018 21:41 IST

Shoba Narayan

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