May 04, 2005

Watch for the memories

What's happening with two other bloggers -- whom I won't name here -- reminded me of something I wrote some years ago. Modified slightly, here it is.


There's little to do but watch this man. He has had trouble hearing for years. His sight has been weak for years too. He has never been any more than skinny, but over the last year he has become achingly frail. He shuffles slowly from bedroom to dining table to bathroom -- more stooped, I can see it, every day. His speech is slurred and hard to understand. In turn, he finds it difficult to hear what we say, difficult to comprehend what he does hear. His mind wanders. Conversation, his great joy, has largely dwindled to shouts and gestures.

I sit and watch him, and I cannot brush away the questions that come. What's it all for? What is this long life if it leads to this pitiful state? What is the grand purpose towards which he must suffer this indignity, this loss of sense after sense until he is walled in senselessly, no hope of escape?

At 90, he has had a long life, many friends, fond memories. Many of the friends are gone, but the memories remain. He has told us the stories many times over. But they never cease to delight, both us as we listen and him as he tells them.

The time they tied a goat to their college teacher's desk. "One's as good as the other", someone wrote on the board. The livid teacher demanded that the goat be removed. Nobody volunteered. Eventually, a friend offered to bring the college gardener to do the job. Once out, naturally he ran off to play cricket. He was not seen in class till the next day, complete with garbled story about how the gardener had gone to watch cricket at a nearby field, he pursued him there, one thing led to another ... The goat remained, oblivious as goats are.

In their cozy neighbourhood in Girgaum, they once caught a chicken thief in the act. Seized, he had to be punished. A trusting soul vowed to administer penal action: told the thief to kneel at one end of a long lane while he walked deliberately to the other. From there, he was going to charge down the lane and deliver a running kick on the thieving, waiting, behind. Somehow, only the trusting soul was surprised when he turned around to find the behind had vanished. With it, the thief.

I don't know how often I heard these mad tales from him, madder for being so true. Many more where those came from, each crazier than the last. He always relished the telling, the detail, the intricate hand and face gestures that embellished them. Each time, we would guffaw together, wiping the tears from our eyes. So the evening passed. Then his eyes would mist over and he'd say quietly: "Those were such good times!" And we knew: it was time to clear up the dinner paraphernalia, time to go.

But that was all before the stroke. In minutes, he lost his speech and the use of his right hand. Bu somehow we assumed, as we did after his earlier major surgery, that he would be up and about soon. Even at 90. Just a matter of time, we thought. He has shown resilience and health before, why any different now?

Weeks later, we understood that the story-telling was, given the difficulty he now had in making himself understood, a thing of the past. Like the good health too. Like a drizzle that starts light but has soon soaked you to the bone, the problems began. He was bleeding one morning. Two days later, he fell heavily in his bedroom, spraining his wrist. One evening, he was utterly, frighteningly disoriented, for a while as if the blueprint of his life had gone opaque gray. Another time, he could not swallow his food. And through it all, he got thinner, weaker.

So it went. One by one, inexorably, the different parts of his body began shutting down. Occasional improvements, yes, but they were all determinedly temporary.

So I sit and watch him, and the questions come again. What has convinced us that long life is something to wish for? Do we live long to live like this man does? Would I wish his condition on anyone? Is this what life comes to? Really, what's it all for?

Questions, questions, but few answers. Perhaps because there aren't any that satisfy, perhaps because "what's it all for?" is a question without answers. It is not pleasant to see him decline as he has; but surely there is no vital reason he must be this way. I tell myself: this is just another of those things we learn to accept as life goes on. Nothing easy about it, yes, but nothing profound about it either.

He remembers the stories. Sometimes, sometimes, he tries to tell us one; especially when his condition shows some improvement. Even if it takes a long time, he keeps at it, repeating himself until we follow, that toothy grin spreading across his face as the tale spins on.

The goat, the thief, the toothy grin.

There's something heartbreakingly heartwarming about watching him. I sit here and do just that, and I think, finally: all right, this is not what it's for, but perhaps this is where it comes to. Perhaps this is the way we must look at it. Friends, family, memories, to surround you as sunset nears. To remind you: "Those were good times."

And all right, I can accept that.


Anonymous said...

Is this post about 'stories'? your interest in narratives? :) have emailed you on that

Anonymous said...

simply superb...
my grandfather is at that stage right hard for us to see him so weak and frail...he was an active man even at the age of 87 and now he's almost confined to his bed...
ur post reminds me of him...especially the toothy smile and the oft-repeated stories...

Anonymous said...

Irritation reigned when they were alive and now that they are gone every little word (uttered twice) matters so much. They all come together to form memories.

Dada passed away last year at the age of 96 in Ahmedabad. There's this one thing I clearly remember about him. He loved drinking tea. He drank innumerable cups. Whenever we had as guest at home, he would tell them:

Saala Bada Chor Che
(Everyone here is a thief)

They don't even give me tea. Look, look at this cup, they give me empty cups (This is just after he drank a whole mug of it)

Such incidents are so heartwarming.
Your post encapsulated that ...