Saturday, March 4, 2006

Tricks memory plays

KHUSHWANT SINGHSOME people have a good memory; others are forgetful. I know of quite a few who make their living by their good memories: Shakuntala Devi who is faster than a computer in calculating cube-roots; a Kashmiri Pandit lady telephone operator who knew names, addresses and telephone numbers of everyone in Srinagar and now of Jammu. On the stage in London I saw one man who could do the same about every subscriber in the metropolis. It is a God-given gift and has little bearing on creativity. There are people who know the Koran by heart and are known as Hafiz; Zakir Naik in TV quotes chapter and verse of everything he cites. So does Kripaluji Maharaj.

My friend Satinder had an excellent memory for names, dates and events as well as for Urdu poetry. So had Lala Kishen Lal of Rajdoot Hotel. Nani Palkhiwala’s budget speeches were full of facts, figures and quotations; he never had any notes and kept audiences spell bound. Dr Karan Singh has a multi-lingual memory: Sanskrit and English. Inder Malhotra has an exclusively political memory; he never goes wrong about national events. Most phenomenal is 93-year old Zohra Sehgal who can recite Urdu poetry by the hour without a scrap of paper in her hand; so can the not-so-old Saeed Naqvi.

I used to pride myself for having a good memory. I could reel off English and Urdu poetry by the yard and rarely consulted a telephone directory before ringing up an acquaintance. My memory has aged. I continue to quote Urdu couplets in my articles without checking with the originals. I am often pulled up by discerning readers and have to apologise.

There are a few exercises I can suggest to jog one’s memory. I think tackling Crossword puzzles every morning helps. I start with The Hindustan Times (five minutes), go on to The Tribune (ten minutes), The Indian Express (twenty minutes),The Hindu (half-an-hour), The Statesman (taken from The Times, London) usually defeats me. My favourite memory game was to recall lines of poetry I mugged up in my younger days when I was on all-night flights to London or back. I used to start with Shakespeare:

"Under the greenwood tree/who loves to lie with me

And turn his merry notes/ Unto the sweet birds throat

Come hither/ Here he will find no enemy

but winter and rough weather."

I would go on to some sonnets and passages from his plays. My favourite was Alfred Noyes’s: "I shall go down to the seas again/The open seas and sky/ and all I ask for is a star to steer me by." etc. I had to repeat the first verse over and over again till the second and third came back to me. At times I would recall the Sikh morning prayer Japji which I once knew by heart and translated into English. All I got the hymns in the right order. And there were Allama Iqbal’s poems which I also know by heart and had translated. By the time I had gone over my repertoire, the fasten belts sign was switched on.

A good memory is a great asset, a poor memory a handicap: Loss of memory is living death.

Mathews of Malayala Manorama

Perhaps the most prosperous and influential Christian of India today is K.M. Mathews, Editor-proprietor of Malayala Manorama publications in Malayalam and English. Besides his publishing ventures, the family own a bank and extensive farmland growing paddy, coconut and coffee.

The family had its ups and downs. His father was a wealthy landowner who owned the Travancore and Quilon Bank and Malayala Manorama. He fell foul of the Diwan of Travancore Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyer who confiscated the bank, banned Malayala Manorama and put his father in jail. This was September 9, 1938. The family was brought to ruin. After Independence it was able to rebuild its fortunes and put Malayala Manorma on the top of the list of the most widely read newspapers of the country.

The credit for this return to prosperity and esteem goes largely to K.M. Mathew, the seventh son of K.C. Mammen Mappillai.

I had the privilege of enjoying Mathew’s hospitality. He had persuaded me to write a regular column for his The Week. Then he realised I did not know enough about Kerala to be able to communicate with his largely South Indian readership. He invited me and my wife to spend a few days travelling up and down in the state, see the sites and meet people. The first evening he invited us to dine with him in his home in Kottayam. That was the first time I met his wife Annamma.

She was an attractive middle-aged woman of many talents: music, writing and cooking being her passions. She kept a gracious home and gave us a memorable Keralite feast all cooked by her. She was the author of several books on cookery.

I learnt something about Syrian Christians. They have many denominations with separate churches. Unlike some Christians elsewhere in India, they have not lost any of their Indianness in their style of living or speech.

Like others, they wear the whitest of white mundoos and shirts, have oil baths and speak English with a Malayali accent, have arranged marriages and live in close-knit joint families. During our leisurely visit we saw a baffling variety of Hindu temples and spent a morning with Amrita Anand Mayee Ma at her island ashram; both my wife and I received many kisses as a blessing. Kerala is greener than any other state linked by waterways lined by coconut palms. There is good reason for its inhabitants to believe in God’s own country.

Annamma died three years ago. She had lived 61 years in matrimonial bliss with her husband and children. He has put his memories of her together in an illustrated book Annamana — Mrs K.M. Mathew: A Book of Memories (Penguin). Though Mathew owns many journals and describes himself as Editor-in-Chief, his first venture into book-writing proves that though he has talent for discovering writing skills in other people (he has many first-raters on his staff), he is not much a writer himself.