Book of memories

Book of memories

Memories — good and bad, fond and bitter. We all possess them and nurture them, recalling the sunnier ones to colour our lives, while at the same time relegating the sadder ones to the dark corners of the mind. It is this unique assortment of memories that helps us navigate through the journey of life, notes Jahnavi Barua

People collect things. It is perhaps in the nature of man and woman to gather things around themselves. Different things, admittedly; some amass precious objects that are often hidden away from the light of day and are brought out carefully to be savoured alone: paintings, antique textiles, priceless pieces of jewellery, watches, jewelled pens, porcelain, even cars.

Others collect more mundane objects, although equally valuable in their fond eyes: books, postcards, stamps, pieces of coloured glass, lengths of string. Then there are those who carefully hold onto personal items that have come their way such as letters, greeting cards, photographs, a lock of hair from their newborn, the first tooth that was shed by the same infant, the wedding saree faded and gossamer fragile, but still beloved, and a lovingly preserved flower from that same event. A very few people, a small minority, seem to collect nothing at all, content to live life with the bare essentials needed to sustain the business of day to day living. The first category of people acquire their priceless objects of desire for the pure hedonistic pleasure of possessing a beautiful thing, but the others are involved in a curiously common process, in the creation of something they may be completely unaware of: the construction of a memory.

Every little item, every knick-knack collected and carefully preserved, is deeply significant of a memory indelibly linked with it. A book bought and read not only allows the reader the exhilaration of losing herself in a different, distant reality for a while, but also forever imparts to her the memory of other, more insidious happenings around: the year the book was bought, the time of year it was read in, the trees that were blooming then, the quality of sunlight on those days, a word said to her by a child in that period. A certain state of heart is what the reader is seamlessly transported to by merely picking up the book in her hands years later. Postcards, stamps, cheap coloured glass bowls need no explanation; they carry with them memories of a holiday spent with loved ones under a welcoming sun; they evoke memories of meals shared under the stars, sights gawked at arm in arm, they overwhelm one with the warm flood of happiness. As for personal memorabilia, letters, photographs, locks of hair — they are the custodians of the deepest memories, ones too intimate to even bear thinking about sometimes, ones that form the bedrock of the heart and the mind.

And what of the people who seemingly collect nothing? Do they live without any memories at all? The truth is even they, as a result of merely being, acquire a concretion of memories around themselves much like a second skin. A memory is so much more than a book, a photograph or a beloved piece of fabric; these articles are only the physical manifestations of memories, but a memory is such an intangible thing. It can be summoned up by so many unexpected stimuli that by merely existing, by just breathing we conjure them up. Sensory stimuli are evocative of the most profound memories hidden in the folds of the human mind.

A whiff of a familiar fragrance can melt away the years in a split second; the aroma of a favourite dish cooked by one’s mother in childhood, the unforgettably lush fragrance of a gardenia in bloom on a warm summer night, the faded scent of a perfume used by a loved one can swell the heart with long-forgotten emotion. Certain colours of the sky set ablaze by the setting sun, the bright yellow of laburnum against a blindingly blue summer sky, the particular red of a saree can, at once, carry one away on the wings of cherished memories: they bring to mind memories of a picnic spent with family on the silver sands of a river, thoughts of love under a summer sun, or conjure up the face of one’s favourite aunt dressed in her trademark red. Smells, colours, touch and, most profoundly, music affects the mind in powerful ways. The broken strand of a beloved melody, the words of a song listened to again and again in childhood can uplift one in a way few things can. Thoughts of a different time race through the mind, the heart beats to a different drum for that brief period when the familiar cadences of the song resound in the air.

Map of life

A book of memories is then what human beings create in the course of their lives, a book filled with memories specific to each individual, with snapshots of childhood, scraps of stories from adolescence, with the still-fluttering quiver of emotion held carefully in its precious pages, emotions that are held in much the same way in hearts that with time have not grown any older, and have become only just a little wiser. This unique assortment of memories is the landscape of that individual’s mind, it is the map that he or she uses to navigate through this journey of life. What is then this elusive entity called a memory? Many have sought to explain it, scientists, poets, writers, rationalists and dreamers, but the exact definition of a memory eludes all.

Neuroscientists know this much: that several areas of the brain are involved in the formation of a memory such as the frontal and parietal lobes in short-term memory, and the hippocampus, the amygdala and the striatum in the formation of long-term memory. The process of formation of a memory has three stages: first, the encoding stage when visual, olfactory, acoustic, tactile and other stimuli are received and processed and registered by the human brain; this then leads to a process of storage where neuronal networks fire in distinct patterns forming engrams that form the complex matrix of memory storage; finally, memories are retrieved or recalled, thus completing the entire cycle of the creation of a memory. This all sounds logical and simple, but it does not explain everything about memories, for instance, why certain memories are imprinted so clearly and not others.

Not all memories from a person’s life are retained as vividly as the others, and so all memories do not have the same impact or significance for the individual. Sometimes, the happier memories are retained more accurately and are brought to surface again and again as compared to darker, sadder ones, and this is perhaps understandable for the happy ones deliver pleasure and a human being looks to pleasure as instinctively as a flower head turns its face to sunlight.

Happy memories, sad ones, memories of laughter and others of darker hidden away emotions. We all possess them and nurture them, recalling the sunnier ones to colour our lives with that familiar, yet much anticipated pleasure, while at the same time relegating the sadder ones to the dark corners of the mind.

The joy of sharing

A memory clearly is saturated with immense power as is seen from the behaviour it elicits in people. The more positive ones have a long-lasting beneficial impact; one pulls out pictures of happy days in childhood, sharing them with people in present lives — spouses, partners, children, work colleagues, friends — exclaiming over them tenderly, laughing sometimes, handing them back and forth so that the joy that emanates from them is shared generously.

The hearts that memory touches fill up with a good feeling, a certain warmth that nourishes the human spirit. Low moods instantly lift with the exchange of such memories and positivity is infused into human spirit and behaviour. In the more permanent formation of personality, such positive memories play a naturally positive role: individuals blessed with a multitude of happy experiences in the course of their lives acquire happier memories that then infuse the spirit of that individual with a certain spirit.

Naturally then, such individuals are more relaxed, confident and resilient than others. Psychologists explain this process in many complicated ways, all of which are equally sound and scientific, but it does not require too much thought to realise that a good experience and the memory of that can heal powerfully, not just transiently elevate mood or spirits, but also permanently forge a sunny personality.

On the other side, the darker memories too assert themselves powerfully in the human mind. Some memories are, in fact, so grim, so violent, that they are secreted away in the hidden areas of the mind, rarely surfacing, never being acknowledged. Yet, they mould their possessors in many subversive ways: the inheritors of such memories often have a seam of unnamed grief running through them; they are sad too quickly, they are fragile, they do not have the reassurance and confidence that others around them effortlessly possess. And in some such cases, the repressed memories are expressed in the form they were delivered in: in acts of violence, meanness, dark acts that attempt to strike back at the world around them. Every person has his or her own share of memories of grief and sadness, they ambush one on vulnerable days and they deliver their share of darkness, but every individual does rise up above them to regain their equilibrium. The legacy such memories leave is a cautionary one, where a person armed with the memory of grief or unpleasantness deliberately strives to avoid such experiences. This too is a marker on the map of life, these memories too help the individual in travelling the path of life.

The book of memories thus serves the individual in many ways: as a guide to traverse life, as a mood elevator, as a strand binding people who share the same memory together, as a means of holding onto all that was good and cherished in one’s past life. An unexpected thought then comes into play. Can this book be constructed, at least partially? Having understood the nature of memory, knowing the immense power a memory wields, acknowledging humbly that most memories are accidentally derived, can one also create a legacy of positive memories that would then nourish one through bleaker times in the future? With a certain delicate insight and with extraordinary effort, this too may be possible.

Memories for a lifetime

With attention to detail, and more easily, by sharing with loved ones a memory can be created. The process is simple and shares the basis of the physiological process that creates memory in the human brain. A certain sight, colour or piece of music, even the dress worn by a loved one — a wife or child — on a special day can be exclaimed upon and pointed out. This leaves a mark, an imprint on the minds of the individuals that have shared it. With retrieving this information now and then, with discussing it and enjoying it, the imprint becomes stronger. Over the years, the memory grows in significance, it evokes a distinct memory of the occasion it took birth in, and it is then handed down to others, to succeeding generations, as a legend. How beautiful your mother looked on her fortieth birthday in that sindhoor red saree, a father could tell his son and that image of a radiant mother clad in a red silk is then savoured by the son and handed over in turn to his daughter.

Consider the young couple in love: they could pass by a sunset utterly oblivious to the dramatic scene around them, or they could stop, arm in arm, and take note of the evening sky stained by colours of sinking sun, the crimsons and peaches and purples, colouring their memory of that evening with happiness forever.

Thus are memories created; happy, radiant ones that nourish the soul and spirit in hard times. Forever and always, that is what memories promise and that is what draws us to them like bees to nectar. The promise of never forgetting a life even as it draws inexorably to a close.

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