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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Down memory lane

Why do we remember what we do?

My college days are long past. And unlike some of my friends who have a near-perfect recall of who said what to whom at which party, my recollections of that period are rather hazy and grow more so with every passing day. And yet, there are some things that stick in my memory, popping up ever so often.

I have forgotten practically everything that I was ever taught as part of my History of English Literature course (or whatever it was called; can’t really remember). But one factoid lives on in my memory for reasons that defy comprehension. I can still remember the formidable Miss Chatterjee informing us in her cut-glass accent that the Romans were well-known for building their roads in a straight line. If they came upon a river, they went over it. If they hit the odd mountain, they went under it. But in no circumstances did they deviate from the straight lines they held so dear.

Why were we studying the road-building proclivities of the Romans in Britain? No idea. Did it have any relevance to the study of English literature? Not a clue. All I remember is this little nugget of information. And for some reason, it sticks in my head while other more relevant stuff spills right out.

Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it? Sometimes you can remember what happened 20 years ago more clearly than the events of the last week. Some people remember their childhood perfectly, with each birthday standing out as a milestone. Some, like me, have no clear memory of their pre-school days. Some have a word-perfect recall of every quarrel they’ve ever had with their wives/husbands. Others can’t remember what their boss said to them yesterday.

And no two people, in my experience, ever remember the same thing in quite the same way. Try this for yourself if you don’t believe me. Just share a childhood memory with a sibling or a cousin and I’m pretty sure their recollection of it will differ substantially from yours.

Yes, memory is very subjective. And every one of us has a different way of processing it. Some of us only remember the good bits while others can’t get the bad stuff out of their minds. And then there are those who block every unhappy memory from their conscious brains.

My own memories lay embedded in many things. But of these, smells, songs and clothes are the most important aide-memoires that help me fix a certain moment in time in my head.

The smell of tea leaves always transports me back to my aunt’s tea-garden in Assam, where I spent several idyllic summers as a child. The sight of a crackling bonfire brings back memories of a Shimla vacation with friends. Listening to Abba or the Bee Gees takes me right back to my teens, when afternoon disco parties were all the rage (don’t ask).

Some of my best memories, however, lie within the folds of old clothes as they nestle in the back of my wardrobe. I still treasure the first designer outfit I ever bought – Comme Des Garcons on sale – even though I haven’t worn it in nearly a decade. But I pull it out occasionally, marvel at the fact that I once fitted into that tiny waistline, think back on all the fun I had in it during my misspent youth, and then put it away in the fond hope that I will fit into it another day.

And then, there are the memories associated with people. But while I have had my share of interviewing the rich and the famous, I generally end up remembering the strangest things about them a few years after the event.

In the early 90s, for instance, I spent three days with Shah Rukh Khan and his wife, while working on a cover story for Sunday, the magazine I then worked for. But even though Khan was already a star (though not quite the mega-star he later became) I can’t remember a single detail of the many long conversations I had with him.

The only thing I do remember is sitting at his dining table while Gauri complained loudly to Yash Johar that she couldn’t make any STD calls because Shah Rukh kept blocking the line by entering the wrong code.
Similarly, the only thing I remember about Anil Kapoor is that he conducted our interview with bleach all over his moustache. No, he didn’t offer any explanation for this bizarre behavior and I couldn’t summon up the courage to ask.

Why do these particular details stick in my brain when everything else has been washed out? Go figure.

And then, there’s the traumatic stuff, the sort of thing that never ever leaves you.

I still remember arriving at the Oberoi Grand lobby, the eager rookie reporter all set for the first big interview of her life with culture guru Martand Singh. Ever the gentleman, he was waiting for me in the lobby.

I walked up to him, smiling brightly, when my stiletto-ed feet slid across the granite lobby. I can still hear the screeching sound they made as I crashed right into him at top speed. It’s a good thing that his reflexes were quick enough to catch me when I was still a few inches away and hold me upright or I would have taken us both down.

Needless to say, I don’t remember much of the interview that followed.

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