On forgetting

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a forgetful person. I’ve forgotten names of people I’ve met, birthdays, important deadlines, overdue library books, and bills that I should’ve paid. Sometimes, I’ve even forgotten to eat meals.  In my life, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time searching for things like my glasses, wallet, keys, phone, and important documents, simply because I couldn’t remember where I last placed them. Sometimes, in searching for recently lost items, I have rediscovered forgotten objects like old photographs, unsent letters, yellowing receipts, pressed leaves, and loose shirt-buttons. In general, though my tendency through life has been to lose more things than I end up rediscovering.

It was Kazi Nazrul Islam who wrote that nothing in this great world was ever truly lost. I have thought about this often, from a rather literal point-of-view. I have conceded that the earth’s atmosphere and gravity do serve the purpose of keeping most of the contents of the planet confined to it. Chances are everything I’ve forgotten or lost in my life is still here on this planet. What confounds me is that no matter how many socks, pens or printouts of tickets I have, I’m always short. Where do my missing things go?

Of course, the obvious answer is that the planet is appreciably large, and I would do better to try to pay more attention to things I need to remember in the first place. That is good advice perhaps, but easier said than done. I wouldn’t call myself universally inattentive or absent-minded. After all, that depends on the frame of reference, and my mind is always somewhere. The problem is that it is usually somewhere else.

It doesn’t help either that any given moment that are so many things jostling for attention. Let’s face it: the flipside of the problem of forgetfulness is that there are simply too many things to remember. There are too many words, songs, cultural references, and interacting inanimate-objects trying to imprint themselves on my brain. In the course of a single day, I’m conversing in two or three languages- a situation not at all uncommon among immigrants. My father never had calendar reminders ringing in his pocket, in part, because he never had a cell-phone. My grandfather never had revolving credit-card bills, because he never borrowed money from a bank. In fact, he would’ve been lucky to get a newspaper delivered to his doorstep every day during the rainy season. Contrast that with me: I know instantaneously what is going on in every corner of the world. I have the power of millions of websites at my fingertips. And although, I am a novice at identifying stars in the night sky, every hour I am awake of every day, I know the time.

Left to our devices, we would all fall back on our devices. While waiting, walking, or traveling, people these days are doing multiple things at once- and often doing them all badly. It is rare that anyone has a quiet meal these days: because of social media there is a heterogeneous, often anonymous “audience” beyond the physical room. For someone like me who is functionally distracted, or in other words, interested in too many things at once, this can be problematic. Often when I should be paying attention to what I should remember, I’m reading emails, text-messages, status-updates, and tweets. These distractions all add up. When you are trying to concentrate, the audible alerts on phones are like mosquito bites. Just the other day I started to make a list of things I needed to get done, but then someone texted a link with football statistics, and I promptly stopped. In fact, I forgot where I kept the list, so the first item on any new list I would draft would need to be “find list of to-do items.”

Up in my head is a huge, disorganized warehouse of random bits of information. Most of my education was in India, where we memorized aphorisms of Chanakya, poems of Wordsworth, dates of the Battles of Panipat, floral formulas for various angiospermic plants, and how to manufacture steel using the Bessemer process. Add to all that everything that you need to know to be able to fit in to a modern society and participate in casual conversation: you have to know the songs, the TV shows, the movies, and the names of the faces you see on the news. Over time, it all adds up!

In the last few decades, research elucidating how memories form, consolidate, and decay in the brain has accelerated. Scientists have also been successful in implanting false memories in the brains of laboratory mice. But men are not mice. As much as I’d like to, I can’t actual spring-clean my brain: much of the stuff that I exposed myself to really does stick in the crevasses and cracks up there. Clearly, forgetting some things would be beneficial. Maybe, that will be possible in the future. Right now, the ability to selectively erase memories is restricted to the realm of science fiction.

What is possible is for deeply hidden memories once thought to be forgotten to resurface. Marcel Proust wrote in an inspired passage about how tasting a madeleine brought back instantaneously memories of his aunt and her home – “taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

I know how powerful smell can be as a trigger of memories. If I had to distill winters spent in India to one sensory experience it would be the smell of mustard oil. Just one whiff brought me back to my home, massaging pungent mustard oil getting ready to take a bath. I could hear the clanging of a metal pail of lukewarm water. I could feel the pleasant afternoon sun on the verandah.

Maybe there is a less literal explanation of what Nazrul Islam meant by nothing ever being lost. Perhaps, the problem of forgetting isn’t so much of losing, as it is of not finding the right key to unlock memories that were never lost in the first place.


This is a slightly edited version of an essay I wrote for Dukool.