Unreliable Skunks

Art by Gentileschi Judith
Art by Gentileschi Judith
Art by Gentileschi Judith

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.


  1. Same applies to reviewers of movies, music and sports. Nothing gets on my nerves like a couple of coat clad commentators/movie reviewers dismiss a substantial piece to create sensation. Friends and I tried creating a short movie and we know how tough it is,made me respect the directors and producers more.

    1. Right, Arun. Untold blood and sweat, even tears, are shed giving birth to a work of art. Unless it is truly trite a work it is mortifying to see it trashed for sensation or malice. I respect your feelings. Wish you the best!

  2. Hi Umashankar, Terrific post (particularly since chronological memory is a major issue for me) and terrific writing! Running around like usual on a Saturday, but I will be back! Have a great weekend. Best, John

    1. Hi John! Memory will play tricks with most of us, some are more graceful than others in admission. Thanks for the compliment; wish a great weekend to you too!

  3. Well, sir, I know you must be receiving many comments applauding your writing style, yet I would not mind adding one more: true, your style is commendable, and more importantly, you have a fantastic vocabulary.

    1. My dear Ramu, I simply try to say what I feel like saying, never giving a thought to style or vocabulary. I am thrilled you like it so: Many thanks to you!

  4. Amazing Uma!!

    ‘what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed’ – how true is that?

    Loved the passage you narrated at the end!!

    while reading your post i was wondering if i read your posts for a return visit or because i love ‘one grain amongst the storm.’ Guess, i know the answer.

    rockstar you are!!

    1. Well, Deb, that is astonishingly true! Thanks Julian Barnes for that. Some have attributed the Booker that his book The Sense of an Ending won to an attempt to compensate him for lifetime accomplishment.

      The Song of Achilles is full of lyrical pieces. And You are welcome each and every time you grace this blog. Many thanks to you for making me a rockstar -my favourite is Bruce Springsteen! 😉

  5. Hullo US,
    Loved Barnes’ descriptive snippetts; evocative pieces of life. (I’m so impressed with the amount of reading material you seem to get through.)

    Regarding memory: I guess most of us take notes. In the past I’ve admired those whose seem to have photographic recall too.

    But yes, these day’s I too seem more reflective; having come to the conclusion that it’s not so much the facts we recall, so much as the imagery they promote in our heads & hearts.

    & that takes me back to Barnes.
    Nice piece US.
    Cheers, ic

    1. Ian, I am passionate about reading and writing but maybe I read more for want of alternative opportunities! Given a chance I’d love to indulge in travelling and photography but the costs and time involved make it prohibitive. So I travel around and shoot in books!

      Barnes there has pinned it perfectly. As for those blessed with photographic recall, I am sure they too have a filter of some size installed in their skull. Total Recall belongs to the realms of science fiction and maybe one day it will become true.

      Many thanks for your bright words!

  6. Ah! You have no idea how I envy the people you have quoted as well as you for being able to capture these kaleidoscopic methods of the mind so aptly in words as to make the reader recollect such of his own moments of haphazard recollection. I am hamstrung by my linear attitude to writing and do not find myself able to portray that state of mind.

    And what an evocative metaphor about the readers having mansions of rock while the authors live in candyfloss castles! Reminds me of that quote “He who has made no mistakes has attempted nothing” 🙂

    1. Relax, Suresh, and revel in the kaleidoscope! No attitude, linear or haphazard, changes the colour of the sky, so soar away! I’m glad you liked the metaphor and that is an apt quote.

  7. A pleasure to read this terrific post on a lazy Sunday. There’s a lot to chew, regurgitate and learn for readers like me who wish they had had concentrated more on Literature.

    1. The pleasure is mine, Alka! And the classes surely initiate you in arts and disciplines but rarely unleash the ocean. Literature is out there, waiting to be found!

  8. I am awed by the closing line. It so easy to trash someone’s labour and also gives me a unique surge to look at my humble works with new found admiration. Call them mediocre, but they have born out of my imagination, my ‘labour of love’.

    You are terrific at choosing words, reading your piece is an exhilarating experience, always!

    1. Meenakshi, self-flagellation will lead one nowhere. That said, one should be one’s own severest critic, and the filter should be applied before one’s ‘labour of love’ is released to the world at large. We all know there are folks who instead of shooting at the fruit spray bullets in the entire orchard. If the author has been honest about his or her own labours, there is no reason to be worried about the hounds out there.

      Thanks for your kind words, and cheers!

  9. Actually i believe in upholding diplomacy when it comes to crafting reviews . The downsides need to be pointed out , but then , outright crticism amounts to blasphemy , if i may term it so , for a work of art can be churned out only by a gifted person . Constructive criticism can help a lot if conveyed in the right manner ( a thin coating of butter would do me real good ! ) . Evocative piece of writing by you as always 🙂

    1. There is no contending your approach; it’s fine as the word goes. I had gratutious, motivated and malicious shelling in mind. Many thanks for the compliment.

  10. Our memories are unreliable but your word pictures gave them an ephemeral form and a presence – almost like a hand reaching out to “fill out the gaps with snippets pilfered from dreams and fantasy.” Lovely.

  11. I loved the passage from The Song Of Achilles.
    Sometimes the memories are such a far cry from the present that we wonder if they were actually a dream. Did we imagine our past?

  12. Ha, ‘The Sense of an Ending’. I almost sprained my neck at the end of the book , was nodding throughout, each sentence is a veritable treasure, one of my most favorite ones.
    As for memory, it is sometimes fleeting, sometimes vivid and somehow the childhood ones are more clear than the adolescent or young ones. Could it be because one’s mind was more open and receptive at that age?
    Lovely post, and as always, I am in awe of your style, it is indeed a pleasure to read you!

    1. Well, the last page of The Sense of an Ending dispatched me back to the first page and I read it all over again. And that was not the last. Many have reported the same happening to them but I must say it is a personal phenomenon. The book has had its detractors too, and unsurprisingly, many of these have been unsuccessful authors.

      Childhood is almost often free of clutter. Barring probably the destitute, it is a time when the business of life is still to grip the mind. I also feel that some of my vividest memories pertain to childhood.

      Thanks for your kind words.

  13. USP, thank you for sharing with us these very beautifully crafted lines that your memory treasures. I can see why they have come to hold such an important place in your mind. Ah! the pictures these words create!

    Would you be surprised if I told you that some stories you write and some scenes you sketch have gotten imprinted in my mind? 🙂

      1. I really meant that.
        Just keep writing. 🙂 Some of think ‘fine bread’ comes out of this oven called One Grain Amongst the Storm.

  14. This is indeed such a lovely narration. I loved the way you have juxtaposed the passages from the books and your memories. Its an interesting thought about why we like the characters who we like, it gives us insights into ourselves as people, isn’t it.

    1. That is so true, Moonstone. Even though a great book will appeal to most and is enjoyed by many, certain genres will enthrall some people more than others. And, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘A man is known by the books he reads’.

      That said, I love to read a mind-boggling range of books. So, at best, you can say I am crazy!

      Thanks a ton!

        1. That was a fine read. Although I have a rather expansive range, there are certain authors I wouldn’t be caught dead with! In case you are curious about that list the author has provided, here is how I fared:

          1. I failed to impress him!
          2. I managed to intimidate him by 60% (3 out of 5).
          3. I failed to make him nervous!
          4. I laughed with him 20% of the time (1 out of 5).
          5. He couldn’t laugh at me.
          6. That sneaking out calling the fuzz: NADA!

          1. That’s a good summary ! You sure do read ! I am inspired to read more..honestly there was a time when I used to think I read, but now…I don’t know what to think 😀

  15. You have such a wonderful way with words. Your book reviews are some of the most thoughtful and well-balanced I have ever read. And you do have such a wide reading range – well done!

    1. Thank you, Marina! Those kind words will keep me going for long!

      Also, I never tire of quoting Hemingway, “Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can.”

  16. I guess its the case with most folks who retain part of the events. Isn’t that what we call memories? I should think not all things will be considered memorable. There maybe an incident, some party which we may retain with startling detail while others fade in and fade out resulting in a hazy picture. I sometimes think its better this way. Else, we may would remember a lot of negatives accumulated over time.

    1. Memories that strike us the hardest for pain or pleasure leave the deepest impressions. If I were to recall the last twenty years gone by, certain moments or chain of events would stand out with remarkable clarity while others would simply refuse to surface. That does not mean, however, that we have lost them forever. They remain embedded in the interminable tunnels of memory and spring up a surprise once in a while, triggered by a familiar sight, smell or sound.

  17. Very nicely illustrated post. The way you narrated the train journey and the books you read is very reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes’ attention to minute details.

  18. Reading these posts is such a wonderful way of knowing about all that is happening in the world of literature out there! I wish to review your book one day with equal elan and incisiveness!!


    1. Amit, the post is hardly the panorama you mention; it’s rather just a peek through a sliver in the doors. As for the book, how I wish!

  19. Interesting post indeed that can trigger a plethora of thoughts in different direction. The range of disparate comments on your posts are a tribute to the richness of your writing that can mean different things to different people.

    1. TF, the post is a reflection on how well meaning authors get ridiculed out of spite, jealously or sensationalism.

      Memory is one wily cojurer.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: