[Long personal post. Go away]
Yesterday evening I pulled out my 1990 diary from the dusty old mini-cupboard it’s been in since...well, since December 31, 1990, I should think. It’s the first of my 18 diaries, most of which have entries on every page. The ritual began almost by accident when I was 12 years old. In late 1989 my grandparents, aware of my Mahabharata obsession, ordered a diary for me (I’m not sure about this, but I think it came with a subscription to India Today). It had a graceful cloth binding and a velvety bookmark, and told the story of the epic in very basic, Amar Chitra Katha-like prose and illustrations – the pictures and text took up the top fourth of each page, while the rest of the page was for entries. Initially I thought of it as a nice decorative item (it didn’t work as a book; I already had far more extensive versions of the Mahabharata), but at some point on the night of January 1 it occurred to me that it might be fun to actually write something in it.
And so it began. In my terrible, no-chemist-could-read-this scrawl, I wrote the opening sentence: “Today was the first day of the year, and I was so excited!” The entry went on to mention games of cricket and hide-n-seek played with a long list of neighborhood friends, many of whose faces I can’t even recall today; the buying of audio-cassettes (the soundtracks of “Chandni”, “Mitti aur Sona” and “Khoon Bhari Maang” among them) and books (Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge, an Agatha Christie); and the evening viewing of what I described as “the movies Star Wars parts I and II, and a part of Star Trek IV”. In all, the entry was around 200 words long, written in full sentences, no shorthand, though I misspelt the word “tuitions” (“tutions”).
Soon I was addicted to journal-writing and this was the beginning of a habit that would last 16-and-a-half years. Between January 1, 1990 and June 2006, I wrote an entry every night. It was usually just a log of the day’s events, with maybe a few “deep” thoughts scattered here and there, and the occasional jokey philosophical aside, but it was a very important part of my life, helping me to organise my thoughts, make some sense of the things (however seemingly insignificant) that happened each day. Whenever I went anywhere for an overnight stay, the diary was the first thing I would pack. Friends, especially the ones who weren’t really into reading or writing, would give me amused looks when I took the thing out at the end of a late-night chat session. (I think it was perceived as a girlie thing to do.) Buying a new diary featured at the top of my to-do list in the last week of every December (it wasn’t always a straightforward task because many stationery shops kept only executive diaries where Saturdays and Sundays have to share a page, whereas I needed one that had a generous amount of writing space for each day of the week). None of the post-1990 diaries were as colourful or as good to look at as the Mahabharata one, but that no longer mattered.
A year and a half ago, I finally discontinued the daily writing. The main reason was that I was writing too much anyway (at the time I was doing between 12-18 stories/reviews/columns per month, in addition to a large amount of blogging) and feeling jaded; I had to cut down on something. Also, I had begun to question the usefulness of the diary-writing. Over the years, there were times when it had become a chore – I was doing it not because I had something interesting to write about (or an interesting way in which to write it) but simply because it had to be done. I frequently treated it as something to finish before going to bed – a quarter-page of scribbled lines, dashed off in two or three minutes, which said nothing much more substantial than “Got up at 7. Spent most of the day reading. Went for a walk in the evening” and suchlike. It made sense to stop.
Since then I’ve written only sporadically, the last occasion being a couple of months ago when a dear old friend from post-grad came to Delhi and stayed over for a few days, and I got nostalgic, pulled out my 1998-2000 diaries, went through them, and then sat down and filled a few fresh pages with “Then and Now” musings. (A couple of this blog’s readers will know why those years were so important.) Revisiting those ghosts from the past, I was suddenly glad that I had kept the practice going for so many years. There isn’t much chance of my going through all the old diaries frequently or in great detail (especially with the handwriting being the way it is!), but it’s reassuring to know that I have all these records at hand – to refer to, perhaps, when one has lost track of a date or a sequence of events, or just to open at random and remember something that had slipped completely out of memory. As Salman Rushdie said once, “Writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things – childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves – that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.”
Take the 1990 diary, which I had a lot of fun going through. Reading it, I discovered many surprising things about my younger self, including that I appear to have had a healthy irreverence towards the gods long before I could call myself a non-believer (possibly before I even knew it was an option at all) or articulate serious thoughts about religious faith. In the illustration of the scene where Duryodhana and his men try to capture Krishna, who then reveals his cosmic self to them, I’ve scrawled all over the page: a giant Krishna is standing there with miniature versions of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva contained within him, and I’ve added a speech-bubble that says, “Will you silly asses get off my chest?” (I know, it isn’t sublimely witty, but what the heck, I was 12 and couldn’t even spell “tuitions”. Though I did come second in a school Spelling Bee that year, and the ten-rupee note that was my share of the Rs 500 prize divided among our batch was preserved in the diary's pages, 18 years old but still crisp.)
1990 was also the last full year of my childhood obsession with Bollywood. (It was in mid-1991 that I became sated with Hindi films and began looking elsewhere for my entertainment – more on that in this post.) But what a magnificent obsession it was! It’s common knowledge today that some of the crappiest Hindi movies ever were made in the late 1980s, but I have very fond memories of most of them; for some reason, nothing makes me more nostalgic than thinking about the early Salman Khan films that followed Maine Pyar Kiya (Baaghi, Sanam Bewafa, Pathar ke Phool, all of whose soundtracks I loved), though I wouldn’t want to see any of them again today, and though I wasn’t a Salman Khan fan at the time. (I used to look down on my friend Amit, who was.) In the 2-3 years leading up to and including 1990, I watched nearly everything, rushing to the nearby video library every Friday afternoon for prints of the latest release. (One randomly picked Friday entry gushes: “Din Dahade, Gunahon ka Devta and Solah Satrah have all released today!” Does even Great Bong remember those films?) I also indiscriminately bought audio-cassettes of any movie with a halfway-decent (or halfway-terrible) soundtrack, and the diary carefully records all this. In between all the cheerfully plagiarised badness, there were of course gems like the Lekin soundtrack (“Yaara Seeli Seeli”, “Kesariya Balma”), which for some reason I still associate with the taste of the Cadbury “silky” chocolates that were briefly available in those days.
Kittu, our cat of eight years (who plays a supporting role in this old post about my other cat Sandy), first came into our lives in early 1990, cannily usurping the house a few weeks after my mother began feeding him on the stairs outside; throughout my diary that year, I refer to him simply as Cat. Going to the local magazine library for mum in the evenings was a daily feature, and each of those visits is chronicled as if it were a matter of national importance (“Went to the library and picked up the latest Society”, “Got a Showtime today”). Then there are references to nighttime TV serials (“Gaurav” and “Noopur”) that I have almost no recollection of today. (I remember B R Chopra’s Mahabharata, of course, which I enjoyed but also regularly scoffed at for getting things “wrong” and for its many descents into melodrama.)
In the October 9 entry, I describe being sent on some errands by our class teacher – which meant walking from the St Columba’s middle school building to the senior school building – and finding out later that night that a 14-year-old Delhi schoolgirl had been forcibly immolated within her school premises during the Mandal Commission protests. (This made my own jaunt earlier that day seem very heroic and fraught with danger.) I must have read Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat and Three Men on the Bummel in the second half of 1990, because for a few weeks around that time each diary entry is headlined by a brief summary of the day’s highlights, written (or so I must have imagined) in the humorous style of the chapter-heads in Jerome’s books. (November 8: PM goes missing [a reference to V P Singh’s resignation the previous night], 4 marks cut from test, of Gagan’s digestion problems, cat scratches and a bad bus ride.)
I can go on, but I’ll stop here – just realised that I still haven’t bought my 2008 diary. Am strongly motivated to do it now. Also, a couple of resolutions: to get back to journal-writing, not daily but at least once every 2-3 weeks; and to go through my other old diaries, beginning with the 1991 one. Who knows what dastardly things I’ll discover about my life and times.