D for Diaries

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DOn Saturday, 13 February 2016, I read Mahendra Ved’s column in the papers about President Pranab Mukherjee’s colourful memoirs, ‘The Turbulent Years: 1980-96’. He wrote:

It is rare that a serving head of state, anywhere, writes political memoirs giving his own version and perspective of events where he has been an insider-participant.
This is a chronicle for other participants – friends and foes – to take note and students of present-day politics to digest. But he risks being accused of omission and/or commission.
…Mukherjee is not in the league of bloggers and best-sellers. By his own admission, he adopted ‘a conservative approach’, taking care not to touch an official document. He relies solely on his diaries, having added a page in them on each day of his six decades’ public life.
… These are the ifs and buts of history.
…What enhances the readability of Mukherjee’s book is the depiction of perpetual insecurity in which top Indian politicians live.

It’s the word ‘diaries’ that got me thinking. I know many, many people who keep diaries. Indeed, Salman Rushdie keeps a journal.

In my family, my grandmother kept a diary. My mother keeps a diary. And here’s a story about how useful my mother’s diary was in ascertaining the ‘truth’. A few years ago, one morning, when the post arrived, we got a ‘love letter’. This is what my father calls a speeding ticket. The date when we committed this offence was a Friday and somewhere in Butterworth. I was so relieved because it meant that this time, it was different. Usually, I am the one who receives these ‘love letters’ and it’ll be for my car. Since this ‘love letter’ was for Daddy’s car, it was only logical that he was the one who was speeding while driving to Penang.

Later in the evening, my mother whipped one of her old diaries and cross referenced the date Daddy was supposed to be speeding with her entries. Lo and behold, I was driving Daddy’s car. I’ve never heard the end of this and every time we travel, I am reminded of this. I tell you, sat janam (which means 7 lifetimes in Hindi), my mother will remind me about this – that I was speeding in Daddy’s car and because of that we got a ‘love letter’. I blame that wretched diary of hers. If it didn’t exist, we would have gone through life thinking Daddy was speeding and I’d have been spared the regular reminders.

All said and done, I admire people who can keep a diary. I simply can’t. Trust me, I want to. Ever since I was a child, I’ve dreamt of keeping a contemporaneous account of things that happened around me. I had no desire to write down my feelings. What I wanted was to keep my own account of world events. Like when I was in school and Kuwait was invaded. I was deeply amused by my friends’ reactions to all this – we were so far away, in a different continent and they had so much to say and be scared of. I wanted to keep accounts of holidays we went on – like my grandmother’s account of her trips when she was a child.

I even tried to keep a blog, but it’s really very difficult. I get all excited for the first ten entries. Then, slowly, my blog entries become one in 2 days, once a week, monthly, and none at all. So, I’ve practically given up on keeping a diary.

I did some self-analysis and tried to understand my inability to keep a diary and realised that it all centred on one particular incident. I was in my last year of university and staying in the halls of residence. Our rooms were small and many times, our suitcases doubled up as storage. Since we had inspectors and cleaners who came into the rooms, I used keep these suitcases locked so that nothing was stolen.

One of my friends had decided to return to Singapore to begin practice. We started to correspond by snail mail – email was still a new thing and I didn’t have access to a computer at the time. I used to keep all the letters I received in between the pages of this diary which was locked inside my luggage. One day, a person, who shall remain unnamed, was using my room while I was attending lectures. When I came back, I opened my door to find him seated at the writing table. He’d rummaged through my drawers, found the keys to my luggage, opened it, taken the diary out, taken the letters out of the envelopes, read them and made notations next to entries I’d made in the diary. To cut a long story short, I had to answer all sorts of questions and justify every sentence I wrote. From that moment on, I can’t keep a diary.

Even though this is a terrible story, I try to see the good that came of it. And here’s what happened: I’ve now trained my memory to remember everything I read or hear as best as I can. It has held me in good stead. The perfect example is ‘The Banana Leaf Men’. While this novel has so many errors in terms of structure, plot and characterisation, very few people criticised it for dialogue. Many of the conversations did happen exactly as I wrote them.

Do you keep a diary? If so, what’s it for and do you have any stories to tell about/from this diary?

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