Where do memories go when they get really, really old? What happens when they’re almost forgotten? I wonder about these things sometimes. Especially when a random memory throbs back to life, out of the blue, for no apparent reason. Sometimes even without a real trigger. On a still and noiseless Sunday afternoon, as the tired day leaned towards sunset, I suddenly remembered that aching feeling of a summer holiday coming to a close. I don’t know what brought it on, but there it was. In my face, large as life and waiting to be dealt with — that dull drowsiness of not wanting to let go of the blissfully listless two months gone by. When we’d do everything in our power to stretch it just a wee bit longer. When after all the preparations for the new term at school were done — uniform ironed and put out, socks dried and placed with shoes, crisp and shiny freshly wrapped notebooks packed into an all too heavy backpack, pencils sharpened, shower done, night clothes on — we’d still want to stay up. Participate in adult conversation. Watch a little more TV. Tempt fate a little. Just anything to keep the day from coming to a horrid end. Such an intangible feeling but such a vivid memory, that.
In moments of unfathomable elation, I suddenly remember the day I finished my Math board exam. That oppressively hot May day, my birthday of all days, sitting cooped up on the examination hall, with an 80 year old man writing the same paper next to me. My palms were clammy, my face was hot, my throat tight, but my eyes danced around restlessly. I remember going through the entire paper once, quicker than I ought to have. And then, with a patience of a dozen wise men, I went over the damn thing again. And again. Twice over. Just to make sure I had 50 guaranteed marks. That’s all I wanted. To pass. And when I was relatively sure of that, I dug my pen into the corner of the papers, tied them up with the starchy piece of twine, literally threw them on the examiners desk and bolted out the door. In that moment, I remember being amazed how a years worth of tension evaporated into thin air. And all I felt was elation. At the thought of never having to do a Math exam ever, ever again.
We had this creepy Psychology teacher in college that our seniors always warned us about. Don’t ever go into his office alone. If he ticks you off and calls you in, take someone with you! I don’t know if it was all the hype or if there was some truth to what they said, but I remember feeling palpably uncomfortable if he got too close for comfort. Like when he walked up and down the aisles of benches, and we’d be packed four students to a row. I dreaded being the one in the corner, because it meant smelling his sanitized robes, feeling my hair stand as he brushed by and never knowing what he is looking at once he has crossed me. One day, I was busy texting under the desk as he walked by. I swiftly shoved the phone into my bag, lying at my feet, and when it elicited no response I breathed a sigh of relief. Phew, he didn’t see it. The next moment I felt a cold palm on the back of my neck. His palm, on my neck, separated only by my ponytail. I remember immediately tensing up. My fists clenched, my teeth tight. I remember feeling ashamed for being found guilty, but also extremely afraid of having to go to his office alone.
Do you remember? How you felt when you got your first period? I do. My mother and I had had the talk a long time before, and deep down I was almost excitedly anticipating the arrival of the bloody mess so I could get to do all the lady-like things, like pack a pad away in an envelope and tuck it at the back of my bag, be tired and lazy for three whole days in a month, and feel generally grown up. Like a lady and all that. But nothing prepared me enough, for its actual arrival. The moment when I slipped down my undies to pee, completely unaware of the horror that awaited me. I distinctly remember jumping out of my skin with a loud gasp, and feeling my heart pound so hard, like it could have cracked through my ribcage. There was that moment of shock and despair, but mostly just plain, unbridled fear at seeing something that didn’t belong where it was seen. What on earth was that muddy blot doing on the inside of my undies?! It took a whole five minutes of silent panic, heart thrashing around inside my chest, before it dawned on me. I was a lady now. And then the tears, oh how they flowed. Hot streams of an inexplicable anger mixed with helplessness, gushed down my face. I still don’t know why I cried, but I distinctly remember feeling a knot in my stomach and a twinge in my temples, a funny ache and a terrible feeling of knowing that nothing would ever be the same again.
While we’re on the topic of things changing for good, another memory that creeps up on me when I am not looking, is the moment the morning after we were married. When the frenzied three day big fat Indian wedding and way too much every for one person had finally died down, I remember the moment when the reality had struck. I am married now. The night before was a long and tiring one. Our never-ending line of guests queuing up to come greet us lasted a whole four hours. The husband and I had patiently greeted them, our fake smiles plastered on our faces. It’s just that doing it with two halogen lamps in my face, while standing on 4 inch heels was harder than I had imagined. When it was over, at 1 am. I was too tired to eat. I remember playing with my food, pecking a little here and a little there and finally giving up. Around me people were buzzing with energy, but all I wanted to do was curl up and sleep. Our friends would have none of that, so they accompanied us into our room and I suddenly decided to tank up on red wine. Empty stomach. Extreme fatigue. Bad idea. The last of the friends exited our room at 4.30 am, and finally I decided I wanted to collapse into the extra pouffy hotel bed and make love to it. While the husband snored away next to me. Having been there and done that many times before, I didn’t, in the least bit, feel married. But the next morning, with the husband dashing off to collect his new passport so we could honeymoon in peace, I remember waking up alone in mountain of white sheets and covers. I remember pottering around and wondering what happens next. I remember thinking, maybe I should take off and go home, VC can join me there. And that’s when it hit me. I would never go back home the same way again. I’d be joining VC in his home. It was like my world had exploded and imploded all at once. Of course, I cried. The bitter, snot-filled, uncontrollable sobbing that could only be allayed by room service breakfast. I remember the mini pots of jam, and trying to focus through teary eyes, to see what flavours I had. Jam, is what it took to make me stop, eventually.
I used to be the one with the pachydermal memory for useless things. I still am, for the most part. You can count on me to remember the most inane details of an event from a eons ago. Long after everyone has dusted away the residual tattered memories, packed them away into the bottomless pit of their minds, I’m usually the one that pipes up with a nugget of information about the event gone by, that most likely nobody ever noticed. So much so that they think I’m making things up. But of late, a strange thing has happening. Entire chunks of my life seem to have vaporised, creating large gaps hanging in thin air. Gaps, where stacks of memories were once available. At arm’s length. All I had to do was reach into my very own bottomless pit of memories, and it was all there at my disposal. Now, I have to jog my memory, really shake it up, piece things back together, go backwards in time and even then sometimes I’m not sure. Worse, there’s usually someone pointing out the detail that I apparently now have no memory of.
What makes memories linger? What makes some of them stay, fresh as ever, like it happened just the other day? And why do they suddenly spring forth to life? Why do we remember some things and forget others?
Where do memories go when they get really, really old? What sorcery is it, that sometimes scoops them right out of the very place they have occupied for years on end? And when they leave, where do they find themselves? Do they hang around waiting to be appropriated by an idle mind? And if so, is it possible then, that a forgotten memory can find its place in my own mind once again?