My grandmother’s diary was so not like Bridget Jones’. When my grandfather died, leaving her a widow at the age of 37, she began writing. A small, slender, self-effacing woman, her life centered around her children and her grandchildren. By then, I—her first grandchild—had already been born and when my sister came along a couple of years later, the event was duly recorded in her diary.
Her writing was not about analyzing her inner angst but was outward focused, on us and on the daily occurrences at home. She did not wallow in her pain or anxieties; there was too much to do. Much later, when she travelled to Canada, the United States, and Brazil to visit her now grown children, she wrote also of her travels and the fascinating things she saw. When she visited New York City, she stayed with a relative. “I loved showing her around,” he said. “She was interested in everything she saw and later that evening when she wrote in her diary, she would ask me questions to get the details right.”
People write diaries for different reasons. The fundamental one is that it makes the writer feel good. Its therapeutic benefits have even been scientifically proven. A study done at UCLA by psychologist Mathew Lieberman showed that writing a diary is emotionally calming and furthermore, writing by hand has more effect than typing it out.
Writing a diary can also be used to vent feelings that are not sharable with others—at least not at that point in time. Later, it can knowingly or unknowingly inform others about an individual, event, or time. Anne Frank’s is a famous example. What began as an ordinary and secretive personal diary of a young girl has now come to represent a poignant story of Jewish persecution during the Nazi era that is read world-wide.
And over time, the reasons themselves can evolve. My father-in-law has been writing a diary for years. Initially it was to nostalgically reminisce about the past. Now, at the age of 85 and with his memory fading, it is to remind himself of the past and of himself. If he can’t remember what he did yesterday, he looks in his diary.
Today, with the Internet, what used to be a largely private pursuit has become a public activity. Searching under “writing a diary” brings up 158 million results. An About.com webpage tells you why you should write a diary. WikiHow explains how to write a diary. YouTube offers an animated film on the topic. Answers.yahoo.com debates whether writing a diary is good or bad. Wikipedia differentiates between a diary (written daily) and a journal (does not have to be regular).
Yesterday’s diary may be today’s blog, and yet the two are very different. A diary is personal, secretive, and a unique window to our real selves—one we do not usually show the world.
As Amadeu do Prado wrote in his journal in the film Night Train to Lisbon, “The way I looked and appeared … I had never been that way for a single minute of my life.” As Otto Frank said after reading his daughter’s diary, “It was quite a different Anna I had known as my daughter.” On the other hand, a blog is a shoutout to the world and presents the image we wish others to have of us. Even today, Anne Frank would have written a diary, whereas Bridget Jones—like Carrie Bradshaw of Sex in the City—would definitely have gone for a blog.
When my daughter was born, I began writing a diary for her, full of details of her early years that she would not remember herself but may hopefully enjoy knowing about when she’s older: where we lived, what we did, and most importantly what she did. It may give her an insight into her own personality and, if she has children of her own, into theirs. It may show her how much she has changed. And when she’s much older or going through a difficult time in her life, she can read through it and know how immensely loved she was.
During the last few years, now that she’s old enough to have and make her own memories, it has become more of a journal where I write down my thoughts on her birthdays. I’d like to give it to her in person, when she turns 18, just before she goes away to college. Only thing is, I wonder if it will get lost among the piles of other books she always has lying around her.
I also began such a diary for my son, but he died before he was four years old of an inoperable brain tumor. I doubt he needs a diary anymore to inform or remind him; I feel he already knows its contents and much more besides. Even so, I hope to one day give him his diary, in person too, along with a big hug.
My grandmother did not write for an audience; she wrote for herself. Or perhaps she wrote for my grandfather. For her, writing a diary was not a temporary activity to pass the time or tide over a bad patch. It was a part of her quotidian life. Towards the end, she would fill up the remainder of a page with the words “Narayana, Narayana, Narayana, …,” her call to God. She wrote in her diary every day until she went into the hospital, where she died soon thereafter.
My grandmother wrote in the Tamil words she spoke at home, but using the Malayalam script she had learnt at school. I can’t read Malayalam so her words are still a mystery to me—and maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be, with a diary.
Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is a writer and editor, based in New Delhi.