“Time” is one of the main themes in Marcel Proust's novel In Search of Lost Time. The narrator thinks all memories of his youth have been permanently lost. And then one day, while dipping a piece of madeleine cake into a cup of tea his mother had made him, the memory of his happy childhood days in Combray came unexpectedly flooding back to him. He realized that they had been released by the taste and smell of the tea and madeleine crumbs which had reminded him of the cakes his aunt Léonie used to make for him as a child.
I breathe through a tracheostomy and I rarely have anything through my mouth so taste and smell do not stimulate any memories for me. (It is not that I have lost my sense of smell. I breathe through a tracheotomy so very little air and hence very few odour molecules pass through my nose. An odour has to be particularly strong for it to register.) My Proustian moments come when I read a book. A passage in a book will remind me of some incident in the distant past which might lead to another memory and yet another . . . And as Macbeth said, “My dull brain was wrought / With things forgotten.”
In Wanting, Luis Burgis writes about hearing what he calls 'Fulfilment Stories' - stories about times in your life when you took an action that ended up being deeply fulfilling. According to him, a Fulfilment story has three essential elements: 1. You took some concrete action and you were the main protagonist, 2. You believe you did well for an achievement that matters to you. 3. Your action brought you a deep sense of fulfilment, maybe even joy and just thinking about it brings some of it back.
The first incident happened when I was in high school when a cousin had come to Jamshedpur to stay for a while. Once, we were practicing our catching skills with a tennis ball in a room inside the house. The play was proceeding sedately along expected lines when suddenly . . . (Chekov writes in Death of a Government Clerk that 'very often in stories you come upon this word “suddenly,” and this is all very proper, since authors must always concern themselves with the unexpectedness of life.)
Suddenly, my cousin threw the ball somewhat off target and to our misfortune, it hit a clock behind me. The glass on the face of the clock shattered into million pieces with an unseemly noise accentuating our horrified silence. My cousin was very worried about how to break the news to his uncle (my father) when he returned from the office. This was surprising for me because my father was a mild mannered person who was not likely to fly into a rage and shout at us.
Looking at the worried expression on my cousin's face and listening to his fears, I told him that I will tell my father that I had thrown the ball that had inadvertently hit the clock. 'Really?', he asked with a look of disbelief. I assured him that I would. When my father came home in the evening, I took the blame for the broken clock as I had promised. As I had expected, nothing much happened, with my father expressing some disapproval and telling me to be more careful in future. My cousin was relieved and I soon forgot about the incident.
Years later, about a year after my stroke, the cousin visited me. During the visit, he mentioed the incident which was the first time I recalled the incident after the day it had occurred and I felt happy about it. It was an insignificant incident for me but it must have meant something for him if he still remembered it after almost two decades.
The second incident occurred when I was in Bajaj Auto Ltd. which was my first job. When I got my first salary, I sent some money separately to both my grandparents. (I will be writing only about my maternal grandparents since my father was an orphan and I don't know anything about the authors of his existence.) I don't know why I did it because both lived in the same house, my grandfather had always looked after financial matters and my grandmother was perfectly happy with this arrangement. It must have been a spontaneous action and I promptly forgot all about it.
After a few months, I got admission in IIMA, resigned from my job and served the mandatory one-month notice period. After this, there were two weeks to go before joining IIMA and I decided to go to Palakkad, Kerala where my mother and sister were staying along with my grandparents. I had to travel by bus for an hour from Palakkad Junction to reach my village. I reached the bus stop near my house at my usual time of around eight in the morning.
There was a short walk from the bus stop to my house. On the way a relative called out to me, 'Grandmother died.' Huh?
- 'Whose grandmother?'
- 'Your grandmother.'
This came as a shock. For a moment I did not know what to say. I had had no knowledge of any ailment or accident. Then what had happened? I hurried home. My mother and an aunt came out to receive me and from the looks on their faces I knew that what I had heard was true. (Anyway this was not a matter about which somebody will make jokes. Perhaps I was hoping unconsciously that it would be one.) Soon after, when we (my mother, sister, grandfather, an aunt and myself) were settled in a room, I was told what had happened.
My grandmother had complained of stomach pain and was taken to a hospital in Coimbatore. After examination, the doctors said that they had to perform an operation. During the procedure, they found that she had stomach cancer which had spread to many organs. She had never complained of any pain so nobody had known anything about this. The doctors tried desperately to retrieve the situation but their struggles were in vain and she died on the operating table. Everybody was stunned by what had happened. I had not been informed because everybody knew that I had given notice and couldn't take leave and anyway I will be home in a week.
Then my mother told me about the money order that I had sent to my grandmother some months ago, something I had forgotten about. (Those days, one way to send money was by using a money order which was sent through the postal system.) It seemed that nobody had ever sent any money to her. My grandfather looked after financial matters and my grandmother was content to look after the kitchen. When my grandmother heard her name called out by the postman, she was surprised.
When the postman told her that one Suresh had sent her money, she swelled with pride. She had to sign in order to get the money which was the first time in her life that she had been asked to sign anywhere. She practised her signature gravely for some time and then put her signature at the required place feeling very important. She then took the money and kept it carefully among some clothes in her cupboard. She never spent any of the money but periodically, she would look at it with great joy.
The story overwhelmed me. What had been an insignificant act that I had forgotten about soon had now become the best act of my life. Both the above acts were ones I had initially thought were minor but later assumed significance. They often remind me of the last stanza of Wordsworth's poem Daffodils:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.