In The Gene, Pulitzer winner Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote of his father’s battle with dementia. Here, Mukherjee’s sister, author Ranu Bhattacharyya, recounts how their father learnt to fight his memory loss by recalling and telling his stories in new ways.
The summer he turned 82, my father lost his stories. He was still vibrant, garrulous and energetic, and initially none of us noticed that his anecdotes were getting repetitive, that he was forgetting names and places, that he was confusing times and references. A man of many narratives, we listened to his oft-repeated tales, sometimes with feigned patience and sometimes with visible impatience. Hadn’t we heard it all before?
Till the day the stories stopped. The words dried out. The memories disappeared. The change happened so gradually that its final suddenness took us, his immediate family by complete surprise. And when the stories dried up, the energy seemed to drain away from his soul. This loss of energy was immediately and visibly apparent as this was one trait, above all others that characterised my father.
A child of Partition, Baba had left his native Barisal in present-day Bangladesh, on the eve of this momentous event in 1947, at the age of 14. My grandmother, widowed since the birth of my father, her youngest son, decided to leave their sprawling homestead with extensive farming lands and immigrate to the yet-to be formed republic of India, along with her four other sons. She had managed her family, which included a very large extended network of relatives, almost single-handedly for the past 14 years and when she took this radical decision of uprooting them all, it seems few questioned her choice.
Thus, family lore tells us, she liquidated some of her assets, packed her immediate family and necessary belongings onto a steamer and sailed into the teeming, seething city of Calcutta to set up a new life. Undoubtedly, this transition must have been a feat of tremendous courage and fortitude barely touched upon in that brief sentence but as she never spoke of her previous life thereafter, those stories are lost forever.
That summer it seemed I was in danger of losing Baba’s stories forever too.
Baba’s journey seemed to be the stuff of celluloid. When they moved to Calcutta, the family was cut off from the only source of their income – the one that derived from land – and they had to rely on the savings that my grandmother had carefully managed to hoard. However with only one son employed, the pressure on these savings soon started to be felt. To these pressures were also added the needs of the waves of refugee relatives who arrived on their doorstep, some fleeing the violence unleashed as the borders were drawn, some deciding at this late date to throw in their lot with the new nation of India.
Of course nobody could be turned away and very soon the rooms they leased in Hayat Ali Khan Lane, close to Sealdah station, was bulging at the seams. When my brother and I visited that house with my father years later, it seemed impossible that one family, let alone many others had lived here, studied here, been married from and set up homes here. Yet from that house, Baba completed his schooling and went on to complete an engineering degree.
Brilliant and blessed with a striking presence, he worked his way through some engineering assignments with the Indian army before beginning to work for a well-established Japanese firm in Delhi. He was extremely successful in his chosen career, significantly more so than his older siblings whose families he supported throughout his life.
What made Baba’s journey significantly different from similar journeys of other children of Partition was the extraordinary largesse of spirit his passage had forged. In the space of a few years, the young man who lacked the two-rupee difference needed to enter the college of his choice became the mentor and benefactor of countless others in need.
A seminal rupture in the subcontinent, Partition had wrecked havoc among countless families, uprooted and flung far and wide without any recourse. Baba often became that recourse – his contribution making a significant difference to families struggling to survive with some degree of dignity. It seemed his experience of early loss and deprivation had in a strangely converse way, endowed him with a generosity of soul that I have yet to encounter in another person.
“Monta boro koro, monta boro koro,” was his constant advice to my brother and me. The Bengali word “mon” doesn’t just mean mind – it encompasses the idea of the heart and soul as well. Therefore translated, his counsel would mean “Enlarge your mind, heart and soul”.
It was thus shocking to see this extraordinary man with the mind, heart and soul of a Colossus shorn of his spirit. A succession of falls, each one more serious than the last had reduced his stride to a shuffle, his booming voice to a hesitant murmur, his supreme confidence to questioning confusion.
In an effort to revive his flagging interest, I urged him to start writing down stories from his life. “Let that be your gift to your grandchildren,” I told him.
I bought him a notebook and with great flourish announced his assignment. Within a few days, Baba called me to say he’d completed his task. Surprised and pleased at this unexpected burst of his old energy, I opened the notebook with anticipation. Written in his characteristic calligraphic cursive, I found a few pages of text, the story of his life, briefly and neatly summed up.
To my dismay, with each sweep of his pen, he’d swept past life-changing events, reducing these to stilted phrases such as “I’d be failing in my duty if I didn’t mention…”! Where was my Baba in these stories – the man of the many narratives? No, no, these were not the stories I’d wanted.
A few years before that summer, we had visited my father’s ancestral village, Dehergati in Bangladesh. Situated in Barisal, a land awash with water bodies – ponds, lakes, canals and rivers – the village had morphed beyond recognition in the past few decades, its contours shifting and reshaping themselves as water and land jostled for primacy. Using forgotten landmarks and forgotten names, we had finally arrived at the family’s old homestead.
I have a clear vision of Baba from that time – limned in the falling winter light, bounding across narrow paths between deep water-filled trenches, sure-footed and confident in his way forward, scenting home in an almost primeval way the closer we came. “Look, here stood the house with its wooden beams – the first in the village!” “And see, here is the pukur – you’ll find our name etched near the third step from the bottom.”
Gazing across the motley crowd that had started following us by this time, I see him edging towards a frail old man. A moment passes and then the years fall way, boundaries disappear and a little sob of emotion gets caught in my throat as two playmates rediscover each other with a simply asked question, “Didn’t you play haddudu with me?” Those were the stories I wanted for my children, for my brother’s children. The stories of the first double-storeyed house in the village, the pukur with the slippery steps and the haddudu in the fields.
Stories were my particular stock in trade. I’d nurtured an early passion for storytelling and story writing into a teaching career focussed on literacy. I used specific strategies to build a writing habit in my students, centred on the belief that we all have stores to tell. As the children became confident and joyful storytellers, their acquisition of benchmarked literacy skills outstripped that of their peers.
Could I use these same strategies to draw the forgotten stories from Baba? Would these forgotten stories in turn help him reconstruct a sense of self?
Eager to find out, I resigned from my teaching position and embarked on this new project. Out came the notebook again but this time instead of asking him to write, I asked him to draw. “I can’t draw!” he exclaimed but once he realised I was willing to draught for him as long as he was willing to direct my hand, his being too shaky by then, he became quite interested in this novel idea.
So what did we draw? We first drew a map of his rural homestead, his hand hovering over mine as he tried to give me precise directions, often becoming impatient with my lack of understanding. “No, no, the Chakrabortys lived to our right, not our left!” – even as his voice rose in frowning frustration, I secretly revelled in the spark of his old volatile spirit. Little by little the map spilled over the pages and then the stories started tumbling out.
Here from this corner window, Shejda, his older brother had jumped out to escape his angry mother after he’d come back too late from an evening of innocent revelry; this was the vast packed mud courtyard in front of the house that Thakuma, my grandmother decorated with graceful arabesques of alpana before every festival; there, hidden behind the line of drawn palms was the third pukur, the one meant for bathing, where Baba had learnt to swim, almost before he learned to take his first step.
From the house Baba would walk to his school every day. So we drew that path too, peopled with friends and acquaintances who lived along its edges, stories hidden at every twist and turn. The school itself needed a story-map of its own as adventures there were many. Following his now increasingly precise instructions, I drew maps of the village centre and the village haat where he was allowed to haggle for his favourite vegetables on account of being the pampered youngest in the family.
Even as I drew his maps and scribed his stories, I struggled to keep apace with references to people and places I’d never heard before. That led to another side project of trying to build a family tree, going back several generations on both his maternal and paternal side. Once the family tree was drawn up in the notebook, he remembered little stories about each member and insisted I write those down as well.
We worked on these story-maps and stories for one year.
I’d derived the idea of the story-map from Ralph Fletcher, whose evocative recounting of childhood memories in Marshfield Dreams remains a beloved favourite. I had adapted and used this strategy extensively with my students to spark their interest in writing small personal stories from their life. Writing these “small moment” stories as Lucy Calkins describes it was part of a larger strategy of creating a writing culture in our classroom. What I had forgotten somewhere along the way was the incredible importance of the stories themselves. Stories made us who we are – stories made us visible. Stories created our identities as we grew – stories propped us up when we fell.
That year with my father was also the year of innumerable visits to doctors – the neurologist, the neuro-psychiatrist, the therapist. Baba, with flashes of his wily street-smart intelligence soon figured out that there were certain standard questions each of these practitioners would ask. Slyly with seeming casualness, he would practise the answers on the way to these visits.
What is your name? Which year is it? Count backwards from 100, subtracting 7? “100…93…86…60?…50?…7?” I remember Baba’s voice petering out as as he looked around helplessly, distraught and unbelieving at the desertion of his erstwhile sharp mathematical brain. These visits left Baba drained and confused. On the way home, he would retreat into sullen silence. A man of tremendous stature and dignity, the endless questions which he couldn’t answer robbed him of his sense of self.
The next day, I’d hesitantly pull out the notebook and we would attempt to restore this self back. But here, there were no intrusive questions. Here was the story-map guiding his way and narrating his “small moment” stories, he was the one in control.
In Salman Rushdie’s allegorical fantasy, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the hero Haroun lives with his father Rashid Khalifa, a gifted storyteller in a city so sad that it has forgotten its name. By a stroke of misfortune, Haroun’s father loses his special gift and Haroun discovers this is because Rashid’s Story Stream has been ordered to be turned off by a Process Too Complicated To Explain or P2C2E.
In an attempt to turn the Stream back again, Haroun travels to the Sea of Stories and discovers a further sinister plot by the arch nemesis of stories, the tyrant Khatam Shud (literally “completely finished”, “over and done with”) who has started poisoning the Sea of Stories with the intention of plugging the actual Story Source at its bottom. Of course in the tradition of all epic tales, Haroun, our intrepid hero, along with his many companions foils this devilish plot.
When they return victorious to their city, they find the people have shed their glum sadness, rejoicing in the rediscovery of the city’s name – Kahani, meaning Story. My father’s increasingly disjointed mind, his increasingly fragmented memories remains a P2C2E even today.
What we realised however was that his increasing bouts of silence meant that his “story stream” was in danger of being plugged.
A year after our adventures with the notebook, we were back in the hospital for what would eventually be our last stay. Another disastrous fall had leached every last bit of energy from Baba’s embattled body; his exhausted mind had sunk into an extended silence. He had not spoken for days. “Maayer kole joba hoye othna phoote mon” – “May my heart bloom like a flower at my mother’s feet”. As the notes of this devotional song playing on the TV wafted over the room, I noticed Baba’s lips form the words.
Picking up his hand, scarred and bruised from the endless search for veins for transfusions, we gently tapped out the rhythm while singing silently together. “When Mukunda Das sang this song, his voice carried over the entire village,” I remarked, picking up a conversational thread from the notebook. “And we huddled on the second floor balcony late at night and listened,” he responded. “His voice made us forget the cold”. And with those softly whispered words, we were back afloat on the Sea of Stories. The dreaded silence had been vanquished. Khatam Shud had not won after all.
Ranu Bhattacharyya is the author of The Castle in the Classroom: Story as a Springboard for Early Literacy.