"Some stuff evaporates so fast, like water sprinkled on a hot dosaikkal. I think I should make short notes, so I can remember," Mrs Pankajam writes in one of her entries.

Meera Rajagopalan the author of The Eminently Forgettable Life of Mrs PankajamMeera Rajagopalan/ photo by: Dinesh Jaikumar
Features Books Monday, June 28, 2021 - 10:14

The Eminently Forgettable Life of Mrs Pankajam may be the book’s title but the story of Mrs Pankajam is anything but “eminently forgettable”. She stays a little longer with you, and although her memory has been fading, you remember a few of her quips and become a keeper of her secrets. Written by Chennai-based Meera Rajagopalan, the book published by Hachette India in April this year, is in the form of Pankajam’s diary entries, a practice recommended by her doctor. 

While she tries to keep up with her failing memory and her daughters’ changing lives, Pankajam is also assailed by ghosts from her past. With a sardonic sense of humour, Pankajam takes stock of all that’s going on around her. But as someone who’s adept at repressing feelings and processing change at her own pace, what is really going on in her head? Is what she puts down on paper the whole truth, we wonder. It is this very idea that writer Meera wanted to experiment with. “I began working on it in a diary format from the very beginning but I’ve also asked myself, are we really honest in a diary? Writing a diary is a conscious act, what do you choose to present? It is, I think, all about what we choose to remember, and what we want to present. Here, the book is all about how she chooses to present it. Especially compounded by the fact that the person has memory loss,” Meera tells TNM.

As if aware of this contradiction, Pankajam writes in one of her entries, “I might not write on the road, so this might be it for a while. I’m sure I’ll have a lot of things to share once I’m back. At least whatever I do remember. Some stuff evaporates so fast, like water sprinkled on a hot dosaikkal. I think I should make short notes, so I can remember. I’m sure there will be tons of pictures that Srini will take. If not, there is always creativity. For if you can’t remember, what’s really the difference between fantasy and reality?”

Meera’s writing comes from a place of self-consciousness. “Growing up, I had the habit of writing in a diary but I only did so when something significant happened,” she shares and continues with a laugh, “While working on it I did go back to some of my entries from when I was in school and it was quite amusing for me to read them today.” Did she add a little of herself to Pankajam? “A lot of readers have told me that reading the book felt a lot like talking to me. I didn't realise a 60-year-old woman would remind them of me,” she chuckles. “But it’s true that the people we know find a way into our characters. My sister said a lot of it is like our mother. I did not model her on anyone but she’s definitely a composite of people I know.”

Meera goes on to talk about how her husband’s aunt, who had advanced memory loss, was a starting point to this story. “The story is not based on her but just on how memory plays a part in what you are. What does memory loss mean? Does it mean you’re lost? That was the idea I had in mind. Subsequently, my mother-in-law started experiencing a bit of memory loss and seeing it first hand gave me a chance to observe closely,” she says. Meera wrote this book towards the end of 2016, the year of the Chennai floods and these diary entries are between April 2014 and December 2015. The idea was to submit it to a writers' critique group and the first draft was done within a couple of months. 

A close web of characters forms Pankajam's world. Her husband Srini, her brother-in-law Sekar, her daughters Pari (Parineeta) and Viswa (Viswapriya), her ex-son-in-law Siva, and her grandchildren Neha and Neel. But her world is slightly ruffled with the appearance of Radha, her daughter’s partner who goes on to become her wife, and then there’s the haunting memory of a long lost dear friend Ammini. “The main plot of the book is that of a middle-aged woman coming out as a  lesbian,” Meera begins, “And I did speak to a few parents whose children identify as either gay or lesbian. I knew that I might not be able to write about a lesbian woman’s story and so, the story largely is of Pankajam and Srini coming to terms with it based on where they come from.” 

“Pankajam feels she’s more well-read but it also seems like she’s brushing it under the carpet. She’s a lot more silent than Srini who’s got more questions. We’ve seen people doing that, Justice Anand Venkatesh is an example. It's not necessarily true that parents don't understand [about sexuality]] and both parents may not react the same way either,” Meera explains. What makes Pankajam’s entries interesting is how a woman, who has perfected the art of deliberately suppressing her own emotions for years, comes to terms with the idea of self-questioning and confrontation. She is not unaware of this side to herself either. “Left with no idea of who I am, and in the face of a memory that is crumbling like a Cello bucket left in the hot sun, I will soon be adrift in the deep sea. Questions are the gateway to discovering yourself,” Pankajam notes. 

And strikingly, she’s got profound observations in life too. “After all, home is where you toil and sweat, suffer heartbreaks and tragedies. ‘Picturesque’ is a place you drive by in an AC vehicle, or alight at for a few minutes and click quick photos. It’s a place where you never have to cook, where no one cares whether you have your period or not, a place where you don’t have to look people in the eye,” this entry for instance comes to mind. She can be caustic if need be — “I’ll say it on behalf of all the grandmothers who never felt it: not all grandmothers can play with kids for hours. Some of us are different. While we’re at it, this too: not all of us are happy about being babysitters; your kids’ poop is not brown gold; and your life decisions should not automatically take precedence over mine.” — and at the same time unintentionally funny — “The girls are now calling me to shop for jeans. Me, who has only ever worn bottom-open clothes since forever?” or “‘Potpourri,’ Mrs Verma said, when I remarked on the fragrance in the house. ‘No, thanks. We had something on the flight,’ I said.”

The Eminently Forgettable Life of Mrs Pankajam is all that and a little more. It is also coming to terms with death and the morbid reality of it. To share a little of what the author said, “I lost my mother eight years ago and mortality is always on one's mind. The death of a parent always makes you feel like you’re suddenly exposed to the elements, like the umbrella above your head was snatched off. I was not writing this as a way of facing my fears but I did feel it once I was done with it.” 

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