When you can't forget anything

Updated: Aug 13, 2019, 07:48 IST | C Y Gopinath

Their condition is called hyperthymesia. And, it seems, some of the most famous, successful people around us have it

When you can't forget anything
Hyperthymesia is a condition characterised by superior autobiographical memory where a person recalls personal experiences and events in his or her life in vivid, minute detail. Representation pic/Getty Images

C Y GopinathI have trouble remembering the exact word I want to say," said my friend Indroneil Chatterjee to me. "Could this be a sign of Alzheimer's disease?"

Others around recalled similar lapses — walking into a room and being unable to remember why; calling a friend to say something important only to go blank when the call connected; remembering something you wanted to say and then feeling it slip away.

We live in a time of disappearing memories: the self-deleting images of SnapChat; forgotten appointments and birthdays; statin-induced memory loss; a creeping global epidemic of Alzheimer's. Even news seems temporary, subject to change and falsification as facts morph and evolve depending on who's saying them.

I have watched beloved elders staring blankly into nothing, their eyes vacant because their brains were vacant. Memory had left the room. So it's a good question: why do some people have such stunningly detailed recall?

Few, it seems, recall events exactly as they happened. For most of us, our memories are fanciful reconstructions of whatever we think happened, sanitised through filters of cultural preferences and confirmation bias. Reality has nothing to do with it.

This is why I am amazed every time I hear of those few blessed — or cursed — with razor-sharp, granular recollection of long-gone moments. This is not eidetic, or photographic, memory; it is not emotional memory, cued by a fragrance or a photograph. It has a name: hyperthymesia, a condition characterised by superior autobiographical memory where a person recalls personal experiences and events in his or her life in vivid, minute detail.

And I can't help but notice that very powerful, successful people seem to have this ability.

Big B, who is famously said to remember every director who rejected him before he reached stardom, is probably hyperthymesic. When I was 20, working for JS magazine in Calcutta, my editor, Desmond Doig, received an offer from a little-known actor called Amitabh Bachchan whose first movie, Anand, had just been released.

On his invitation, I was assigned to dog him around Bollywood's studios for three days, listening and observing. A pleasing three-part series on Bollywood emerged from the exercise. Bachchan was in them but was not the main subject.

Fifteen years later, studio-hopping with a gang from the erstwhile Movie magazine in search of juicy Bollywood gossip, I found myself on a set where Bachchan, now a legend, had finished a shot with Zeenat Aman and was slowly walking back to his dressing room down a gangway lined by a 500-strong crowd with me hidden in it. I remember that it was rather dimly lit.

He walked past me — and stopped, turned around and peered in my direction. Then slowly walked right up to me, frowning, trying to remember who I was. Then he did. "You know," he said, "I didn't care so much for those three articles you wrote."

My friend and restaurateur Anjan Chatterjee, the man behind Mainland China, Oh! Calcutta and a string of other award-winning restaurants, has a similarly prodigious memory. His gift is automatic, effortless and, for a businessman, extremely useful since it includes numbers, interest rates, terms and conditions discussed and commitments made. It gives Anjan a formidable bullshit detector.

One day, his colleagues Indroneil and Gopu were in the thick of a heated debate while Anjan snored nearby. The goose-pimples came when Anjan woke up and rebutted specific points from their conversation — which he had apparently heard while deeply asleep.

Scientists know that we listen while sleeping, which explains why certain words or an imminent threat awaken us. Tests show that people respond when awake to words that were played to them while they were asleep. But Anjan may be the front-runner of those who don't just listen while they sleep but remember every word later when awake.

Urmila Zutshi, a Kashmiri at a time when Kashmir is suddenly on everyone's mind, told me the story of another Kashmiri woman with an elephantine memory: Indira Gandhi, India's second-longest serving prime minister and arguably, the most feared. Urmila met the young Mrs G first in the late 1960s, when, as the wife of a Navy officer, she would be the honorary Kashmiri at Navy gatherings that Mrs Gandhi attended. Urmila remembers a restless, charismatic woman.

The pen Urmila gave her for signing an autograph was dry. "Your pen doesn't work," said Mrs G impatiently, throwing it away.

About ten years later, in 1978, Urmila met Mrs Gandhi once more, this time in the train to Delhi which she took after a day in jail. There was no sign that Mrs G even remembered Urmila till she asked for an autograph, again — and the pen didn't work, again.

"You still don't have a pen that works," said Mrs Gandhi.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com

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