Imperfections of Memory
Can memory be absolute in any way? When we claim something has happened in our past, or when we try and recount an incident or a person from our past, how much do we actually remember and how much are we reconstructing or manufacturing from fragments from our memory? Is it possible at all to have a pure memory of something? How much imperfection can a memory contain within itself before it stops being a memory and turns itself into a piece of imagined past? Do we manipulate bits of what we remember to satisfy ourselves?
What follows is a memory which haunts me time and again over the years because of the imperfect nature and multiplicity of my remembrance of it.
I was in my eighth standard. Or was it ninth? I must have been 13 or 14, this was sometime around 1997-98. I was cycling over, like I would daily, from my father’s house to Swasti at around 6.00 am on a foggy and chilly December morning. I crossed the old man, like I would daily, halfway down 9th lane, Prabhat Road. Our eyes met.
Now, why was I up at six in the morning cycling around on the streets at such a time and weather in the first place?
It had been around five years since my parents had split, or, in other words, my mother had gone back to live in her parents’ house, taking me and my brother along. Curiously though, the distance between both the houses was only about a little less than half a kilometer. Seven minutes of walk, three minutes on cycle, a little less than two on a Scooter. My grandmother’s house, an old bungalow called ‘Swasti’, which had housed, at different points over the years, anything ranging from eighteen to eight people from the joint extended family had become ‘my home’. My father’s house and Swasti were both about 250 meter either side of Karnatak High School on Ketkar Road. After the parents split, my father would repetitively insist on me shifting back to ‘our’ house. “This is your house”. This was periodical. This would generally start a month before a unit test or terminal. Although “You will come here with all your belongings the day your exam finishes” was a periodical diktat, I would never move completely. After several permutations of how the non-school hours in my days would be arranged between the two houses had been played out, by this time, it was decided that I would head to ‘our’ house at 8 pm to sleep. He used to run a students’ hostel on the top floor of the house, which had an iron door on the outside that would be locked at 10 pm every night and then opened a little before 6 am. I would be woken up at 5.45 am to run upstairs with the key and unlock the iron door. I would then hop on my bicycle and pedal over back to Swasti to get ready for school. This would become my set routine for many years to come.
So, yes, foggy December morning. The drill – I get woken up at 5.45, run upstairs, open the door, change. I head out on my cycle. Within a minute I am taking the turn into 9th lane from Ketkar road. It’s freezing cold. That’s when I see him, at about halfway into the lane, as I do every morning, ambling forward in the other direction. It’s quite unreal, this crossing each other every single day, at this ethereal early morning hour, hardly anybody else out on the streets. He is very old, meek. I am to realise only later that the only reason we inevitably cross each other on that 100 metre stretch is because he is so aged, so timid and weak, that it takes him a good ten to fifteen minutes to cover that much distance, providing me with a window of time wide enough to catch sight of him at some point during my ride through the lane. He works as a night watchman at one of the houses in the lane, the shift ends at six. I wonder how much further he must walk beyond our lane and how he manages. As I ride past him, he stops momentarily. There is a brief eye contact, like every day. Something about that eye contact unsettles me. It is as if there is something simmering inside, something that he is itching to say, but doesn’t. I look at him. Dirty old shirt, worn pyjama. A small cloth carry bag propped over one shoulder. Handkerchief tied sideways around his face to cover his ears. He doesn’t even have a sweater on, or does he? I don’t remember now. I would now like to believe he does. I catch a glimpse of his feet. He never has any chappals on, not even basic rubber slippers, let alone shoes. His feet have thickened and broadened by the chapping, cracking and years of toil. It is the middle of winter, it must be unbearably numbing, this walking over hard, rough tarmac without any footwear on. I ride past without stopping. Today, my stomach turns on the inside trying to get over this image.
This early morning ordeal repeats itself, daily. I am unsure how many times, and for how long. Every day, he will stop in his tracks when I pass him. I will catch a glimpse of his worn out feet. I will be shaken momentarily, and then forget about it and continue with my life, every single day.
And then, one day I discover that in one of the several shoe racks in the joint family dwellings of Swasti, there are a couple of pairs of shoes which no one seems to have been using for a long time. Voila! I know what I am going to do with them! Having said that, I don’t actually do anything about the matter for several days after this.
Then, one morning, not too long after my discovery, I turn into the lane as usual and catch sight of the man ambling down my way, very slowly. Something comes over me, and this time, as I am about to pass him, I press my brakes and slow down. He is taken aback- the pattern’s broken. The eye contact is a much more sustained one today, there’s premonition of something to happen. I stop, right next to him. I ask him, “Do you want shoes to wear?” – “Huh?” He exclaims. I repeat, “I have a spare pair, do you want them? It’s cold, you shouldn’t be walking on such a course surface in this cold barefoot”. He processes this for a beat, he hasn’t expected this. “Theeke”, he says after a pause. Or probably just nods, I don’t remember. “I will give you the shoes,” I say. He nods and I take off.
Now, the tricky bit. Several versions of what happened after that brief encounter play out in my mind as I try and recollect it, and that irks me no end
Either, I reach Swasti moments after our conversation, I stand my bicycle. I head inside, I take the pair of shoes, I head back out, hop back on the cycle, pedal over back to the man, who has inched only a few more feet further than where we’d talked. I give him the shoes, he gladly accepts them. I return home with a sense of satisfaction. I see him wearing those shoes in the days to come.
Or, for several days after this encounter, I continue passing him each morning and I do not give him the shoes, I don’t recollect why. There is perhaps the fear of getting scolded. Or in my own juvenile way, I am shy of someone catching sight of me doing this with such a man. What if they don’t fit him? What if someone else from his family (does he have one?) snatches them away from him and use them themselves?’ Maybe I am just unable to gather the courage. He continues looking at me expectedly, each time we pass each other, and I, trying to shun away my trepidation and guilt, avoid the eye contact and just glide past each time, in complete denial of the brief encounter that had taken place between us and my promise to him. But then, one day, guilt has the better of me, and I do end up returning with shoes one morning and handing them over to him, buying myself some Samaritan satisfaction.
Or, and this is the alternative that haunts me the most, I never actually end up giving him the shoes at all. Ever. ‘Why did I get into this in the first place? There are so many like him all around us, what’s with one barefoot person?’ I never actually gather the humility or the courage to do the deed. And I carry the guilt inside me to this day, a guilt that pops its head up now and then and renders me bereft of the feeling of closure.
It is hazy. I don’t have a recollection of how long he continued as a night watchman in that house or how long he lived after that. I don’t remember when I stopped seeing him anymore. Maybe I did give him the shoes, maybe I didn’t. Maybe someone else did, out of sympathy, which was meant to be mine. Maybe he never got to use any footwear. Did the old man even exist? Did he actually walk down the street and cross me every morning? Should it matter now?
I continued growing up, dividing my time between the two houses, an arrangement that would allow me to gather, what now seem like interesting experiences, some sublimated through the passage of time, others still distinctly vivid. The image of that old, meek, barefoot man on those foggy winter mornings stays, sometimes projecting my own expectation for sympathy for my fractured childhood, at other times, alternatively counter-positioning itself as metaphor reminding me of the privileges I had, and still do.
This is what memory does to us, or we to it, or of it, as it were. They become stories we’ve created for ourselves, blending imagination with semi-remembered facts- hazy, distorted, half true glimpses into our own past. We don’t remember all that we witnessed, and sometimes, we even create what we never did. Irrespective of whether memories are fond or disturbing, they are convenient manifestations of our brain meant to give us pleasure or pain. We look at our memories through our own subjective filters, drawing interpretations and inferences which we feel apt as reinforcements to our ideologies and belief systems at that point in time.