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Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Hard Day's Life

Not Linear but Disruptive

My Dad died, a victim of Alzheimer’s as did his Dad before that. Both lived well into their 90s. I have wondered all these years if the same thing would happen to me. I’m not sure I am condemned to Alzheimer’s; what I do know is I keep meticulous records about everything that happens in my life. I am a journalist and a journalism teacher, so I have notes…some old-style, on pen and paper, though increasingly on laptops and phones.

But that’s a digression. What I want to share is a concern that Alzheimer’s is a little understood condition. I refuse to call it a disease because there is simply no treatment. My intuitive grasp of the condition is it means you have no shared memories and therefore no friends or relatives. As such, the Alzheimer’s patient is denied nostalgia.

I am a huge fan of nostalgia and my life has been spent tracking and befriending people I knew as a child and beyond. So the initial rush was fine…we met or conversed on email and various other social media platforms…and I, for one, was delighted. In many cases, we even had several occasions to meet personally. Then reality set in…after the initial rush, the connect fizzled. Nostalgia is like a third-world currency…it fades soon enough.

After all these years, when I made it a mission to get in touch with old friends, I have come to realize a drink and dinner is great fun with people from the past…there is really nothing beyond that. So you share the old school tie, the shared neighborhood and the pranks and some old stories that can be told once, maybe twice. Beyond that, there is no connect…everyone has their own lives

So fine, nostalgia can only go far. But it’s made me think…when I was born in Surat, then lived on Juhu Beach, Warden Road, Byculla Bridge, Ahmadabad, Baroda, Athens, Cincinnati, Chicago and then finally Delhi…all these lives I have tried to understand as seamless…a temporal progression…as in the history books we were taught in schools. Perhaps they weren't.

I now have come to understand that continuum is simply a timeline construct put on our lives. Fact is in Surat, Bombay, Ahmadabad, Baroda, Athens, Cincinnati, Chicago, I lived in different worlds. Increasingly, I am beginning to challenge the connective geometry of space and time. In the end, these phases of my life may not be a natural progression. These experiences are not unified in a single historical narrative; that life may be an agglomerate of experiences that have nothing to do with each other and that you are the only common factor.

Changes that take place in a human life, both internally and externally, are huge. I. for one, seem to have nothing in common with the four-year-old growing up on Juhu Beach. As such, our lives are really not a smooth progression from birth to death.

Not to get too esoteric, the point I want to make is all of us have disjointed lives, especially those who have the chance for mobility. I can remember going to a village in Gujarat with my friend from Chicago. What was most interesting he met a friend in the bazaar, who ran a kiosk and offered us a free Coke. This is someone he grew up with; my friend went on to become an influential doctor in Chicago but his buddy, like his family before him, still ran a small shop…the past (my friend’s) running into the present (his friend’s); different as night and day; today and yesterday.

I am no philosopher but I am increasingly convinced that work needs to be done to question, if not challenge, the assumption that individual lives are a serial progression from birth to death. My life from the 1950s onward has changed so dramatically, it takes old songs, movies and photographs to make it hold together.

The idea that it is a single life, a single person that journeys from birth to death is worth questioning. The links between the various phases are man-made; there is continuity in empirical terms. Just looking at my own experiences, I can see that a linear framework does not adequately describe my life.

In the decades I have lived on this planet, I have seen changes from where I wrote on a slate with chalk to a holder dipped in ink to a fountain pen to a ballpoint pen to a typewriter to a computer to a phone; from 78 rpm records on a crank-operated record player to an Ipod; from copious “hard copy” files to cloud storage.  The changes are disruptive in the sense they presaged completely new ways of doing things.

Disruptive defines, in my mind, the new understanding of my life. Everything changes…you can say it was thus in the 1950s, 1960s et al. Aside of my own memories, I find no connect between the guy who ran around on the beach and the guy who shivered in the Chicago cold and the guy who now battles life in Delhi.