Every day, my brother gives a piece of Amul milk chocolate to my dad after dinner. My dad thoroughly enjoys eating. Then he smiles gleefully, childlike. A few minutes later, he does not remember eating it.
My dad will be turning 91 this year. His memory has been fading gradually over the last ten years. His vocabulary has become limited. Recently, his ability to communicate has considerably diminished. He doesn’t remember much about himself or his life. Most of his life is a blank slate to him. Oftentimes, we need to tell him that he used to like a certain thing, or he had visited some place, or someone was his close friend.
However, some very old memories from childhood are very strong. He can sing an entire song from “Meera,” a movie from 1945. “Last in, first out” is the best way to explain it.
When he was in his eighties, he started experiencing memory loss. The list of things that overwhelmed him began to grow. The maddening city traffic, the proliferation of vehicles in cities, mandatory seat belts, remote controls, online banking, the Internet, ATMs and cellphones confused him.
Now he has reached a point at which he needs help with his daily activities. Our focus has been trying to get the right kind of care he needs. When I spend time with him or talk to him on a video call, I see the person he is now. This stirs up a strong need to hark back to something that reminds me of the kind of person he once was.
When we came to this country three decades ago, international telephone calls used to cost an arm and a leg. We used to write blue aerogram letters to our parents, punctuating those with a short once-a-month phone call.
My dad belonged to a generation that took letter writing seriously. He always allotted some quiet time to compose his thoughts and write his letters. He did not like to be disturbed during that time. I’ve rarely seen any strikethrough texts in his letters. His handwriting was beautiful, which made his letters a pleasure to read.
I have a small pile of letters saved from those days. I wish I had saved all the letters. Who would have thought that we’d stop writing letters? And those missives would be replaced by Whatsapp and text messages, emails and Facetime? It’s great to have these face-to-face chats. But rereading Whatsapp messages and emails do not have the same effect of reading an old handwritten letter. Letters feel more personal and have a character.
Occasionally I reach into this pile of old blue aerogrammes and envelopes with stickers that read “BY AIRMAIL, PAR AVION.” I would re-read those letters.
Recently I picked up a letter written by my parents in 1996, after their visit to the US. A part of the letter was directly addressed to my son, who was six years old then. In his letter, my dad had listed ten movie songs and asked my son if he still remembered those songs. In the part addressed to me, he had mentioned that listening to those songs reminded him of my son.
Ilyaraja and AR Rahman
The letter brought back memories of the long road trips we took with my parents. My son would sit in the back seat with them. Those days, we used to play mixtapes of the latest hits of Ilayaraja and A. R. Rahman on our trips. My father and my son, who both love music, used to enjoy singing along.
My dad had also drawn a picture of the two of them sitting on either side of the “Snakes and ladders board game,” before ending the letter with love and kisses. I remember vividly how those board games used to go. My son would insist on my dad moving a piece to a particular square in Checkers. He assured his grandfather that he would not capture that piece. My dad would do as he was told, only to watch his pieces being captured. My son won all the games they played. It made him very happy, which made my dad ecstatic.
Reflecting on those days, I believe his grandchildren will have sweet memories of how my dad cherished them, even though he doesn’t remember them now.