The lens that we put on to look at the past is invariably rose-colored. This is especially true when we narrate a story or share a memory. By cutting out generic details and embellishing the story, a dash of spice here, a hint of exaggeration there, any scene from the past seems to be the product of a taut screenplay and well-timed dialogue – even the aesthetics seem to be right in place. When reminiscing about a walk on the beach with a loved one, was the sky truly as beautifully azure and serene as we make it out to be? Or were the sands too hot and dirty to walk past to get to the rather crowded part of the shore? Even when we recount messy details, there is a tendency to vivify details with more nobility and positivity than what truly ran in our minds then – was the “sorry” after a nasty (and needless to say, needless) argument with a friend outside a movie theater more perfunctory and obligatory than a deep realization of a mistake that we claim that it was? The truth is, the ‘truth’ really doesn’t matter beyond a point. The scene that plays in our mind’s eye is the scene, well edited and all. The story that rings in our ears is the story, even if coated with the saccharine sweet treats of nostalgia.
In less than two years, I have lost two of my very close family members – my maternal grandma and my aunt. As an only child born and raised in India, I used to be frequently asked by curious extended family members and acquaintances whether I felt bad that I did not have any siblings. At that time, I would laugh it off. My circle of loved ones was small but tightly knit. As a result, I never yearned for a sibling. Since everyone that cared for me (and everyone I cared for) seemed to be within driving distance of where I lived, there was never a question of yearning for anyone. I don’t think I ever said, “I miss you” to anyone simply because I never had to miss anyone. In essence, Chennai was part cauldron, part cocoon.
For the past 20 years, I have lived in the US. While I have enjoyed many personal joys and professional successes, I do find that when I am by myself, doing yoga, running on the treadmill or even driving to work, I have the tendency to dwell on memories from the times when more members of my family were alive. Without getting into the kind of details that I gleefully mocked earlier, I can unhesitatingly say one simple thing – the memories feel nice. I feel less bereft of the departed when I recollect an incidental detail that makes me smile. For a fleeting moment, that detail brings the person to life. Of course, it is only right that the feeling is transient, for it is odious to distance oneself from surface realities as flashbacks take flight.
But what is more enduring is the past that finds a definite shape, form and structure in the present. As I have mentioned time and again, the ultimate tribute to loved ones that have passed on is to find ways to live life in the ways that they would have liked me to. Whenever I find ways to concretize my loving memories of them into actions, little or large, they seem to be brought to life in a manner that is still transient – you don’t need me to tell you that death has a stunning, irreversible finality – but the residual positive effects and vibes seem to last that much longer. This thought, at least to me, applies to important relationships too. The members of my family and circle of friends that I continue to have deep bonds with are the ones where I not only have a long, wonderful history with but also have a strong sense of a shared ‘present’, not just a shared past. The anticipation of new memories that get created on account of being relevant to a set of people is quietly comforting. So comforting that it achieves the impossible task of stacking up to the magnificently tall structures – made up of memory cells – that I have built up in my mind.
I suppose that moderation is vitally important in ensuring that thoughts of the past, positive or negative, do not consume the present. It is imperative to respect and cherish the mutability of the present and future as much as it is to resign to the constancy of the past. That way, images from an earlier time can exist as a well-edited prelude to the scene that is about to unfold. That way, the narrative arc of our lives continues to have all the elements of suspense and surprise that the boon that is life throws at us.