One of the hardest things about a loved one inflicted with dementia is that because all the memories have gradually disappeared, the person is left with no ability to assess risk or rewards. It makes them angry, jumpy and always terrified. Even mundane events like cutting of nails or baths may cause tremendous anxiety.
Eventually as caregivers we forget that this person was once a genius scientist, a gentle father, a loving grandfather with a treasure trove of stories from an encyclopaedic knowledge of world mythologies. The disease shrinks the person into a cowering, stunted being with little or no memories that would connect them to other humans, the planet.
Memories are critically important to our very survival. Every skill we have learnt is dependent on our learnt remembrance of when to use them. There are individual memories, like once we learnt how to ride a bicycle we never forgot how, the safety of your mother’s lap; the shared memories of school friends playing four corners in the corridor when you’ve been punished together for not doing your homework; never being able to forget 6th December 1992 because of the look on Junaid’s face, you may have a different memory of that day. But that event is etched in all our collective memories.
Memories connect us to our family, the extended society, the country, humanity at large. They don’t just exist to teach, they help us feel. Every single sentient and non-sentient being on this planet remembers. Even the chalk that you use to write on the blackboard holds within it dreams of when it swam freely in the ocean.
Sometimes memories are so vast a single human or even millions cannot be trusted with retaining it. And so we humans write books, paint pictures, build museums and memorials that serve as a repository of our memories. Memories of selfless service, great kindnesses, sorrows, joys, evocations that are so important that long after the people who witnessed those events have passed, the future generations will be able to remember and learn.
There is a way to erase memories. We delete images, burn books, demolish monuments, extinguish flames that were supposed to burn eternally to honour courage and bravery.There is an enormous Rain tree on the main road near my home. In the building of the metro station they have concretised the base around the tree. The tree trunk is being gradually cut off from its roots. The tree is dying.
When we destroy memories, we cut ourselves away from our roots, what connects us to our land. Our humanity is drained from us. We grow weaker. We come unhinged in mass dementia, reduced to an angry blubbering mob ever afraid of its shadow, with no roots or connections to a greater past, to people who came before us, who showed the way, who gave us hope. We pave the way for a hard edged monochromatic world very different from a syncretic land of mergings and confluences.
When I was a young child, my older sister came home with a star on a painting she had made at school. Because she didn’t think she was a good artist, that star made her ecstatic, even my parents who were not easily impressed were thrilled for her. That night, I, who was supposed to be the family artist, tore my sister’s drawing to shreds and threw it into the bin. Oh how my sister wept the next day when she couldn’t find her drawing. My heart still aches at that memory. Many years later when I apologised to her for my stupid cruelty, she didn’t remember. Neither the drawing, nor the joy, nor the sorrow.
Memories are fragile, they fade, they can be extinguished. We need to protect them, good ones and bad ones. Ones that celebrate life and ones that mourn loss. It doesn’t matter if we weren’t the makers of those memories. They still are our heritage and we cannot allow them to be destroyed wilfully by people who act like petulant, delinquent children.