Having entered a phase of life where I tend to reflect more in retrospect than in prospect, it has dawned upon me why I’ve been in love with the character of Sherlock Holmes all these years. More than his prescient and incisive intelligence, I have been in awe of the acuity, precision and expanse of his memories. For someone like me whose past is all a collage in grayscale with the odd contour in colour, I would give my frontal lobe to have a brain like his. No wonder I get seized by the much-maligned ‘unreliable narrators’ of fiction that come my way.
Beginning to read Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, I was struck by the potent explosiveness of the very first lines.
“I remember in no particular order:
– A shiny inner wrist;
– steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;
– gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;
– bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.
This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”
It is remarkable how slivers of life manifest themselves in bookmarks, pointing to a joy, a sorrow, a smile, a tear, a surprise, a wrath and a fear. A scant mosaic is all that is left of the moments that petered down that irreversible gutter of time. But mind is an industrious, insidious record keeper. It may fill out the gaps with the confetti of wound up parties, with snippets pilfered from dreams and fantasy.
One of the earliest memories of my childhood is that of a journey by train in company of my father. Looking out of the window, I was amazed by the trees, fields and houses rushing away at great speed, opposite to us. Strangely, the trees farther away seemed to be moving along with us. The locomotive spewed gray-black smoke that went up to mix with the clouds. One of my eyes caught a coal particle and started troubling me. That is the most that I can remember and that leaves us a few questions. There were more passengers in the coach because the chattering was constant. But how many were they, the travelers in the coach? Did any one of them other than father try to remove the coal out of my eye? Were there other children too? When did we take the return journey? Could it be that we never took a return journey and rest of the family joined us later in the new city? Press me hard and the mind starts fabricating answers.
And that is not the only fragmented reminiscence. The time I tried to snatch a boiled egg from a pigtailed classmate, the time I tried to deliver a love letter to a girl, or the time I was involved in a high speed road crash.
In one of Haruki Murakami’s memorable stories, a man meets his childhood love in his jazz bar after more than twenty years. He is a married man now and loves his family. But the lady returns sporadically, often when rain is falling, and they sit together in the bar for long and the musicians play ‘Star-crossed Lovers’. Overpowered by their passion, they drive away to the man’s holiday home in the mountains one night. There they play a record that they had loved to listen together as children, again and again. After a couple of days the man wakes up to find that the lady has vanished and so has the record. The man is distraught with grief but is also consumed by doubts if the lover had ever returned in his life.
Early in The Song of Achilles, a modernistic rendition of Iliad by Madeline Miller, I ran into this beautiful passage:
“Beyond this, I remember little more than scattered images from my life then: my father frowning on his throne, a cunning toy horse I loved, my mother on the beach, her eyes turned towards the Aegean. In this last memory, I am skipping stones for her, plink, plink, plink, across the skin of the sea. She seems to like the way the ripples look, dispersing back to glass. Or perhaps it is the sea itself she likes. At her temple a starburst of white gleams like bone, the scar from the time her father hit her with the hilt of a sword. Her toes poke up from the sand where she has buried them, and I am careful not to disturb them as I search for rocks. I choose one and fling it out, glad to be good at this. It is the only memory I have of my mother and so golden that I am sure I have made it up.”
Go ahead, then! Trash Julian Barnes, Haruki Murakami and Madeline Miller for penning down ‘average’ books. Theirs is a glasshouse. Readers have mansions of rock. If you are an author though, mind your candy floss castle.