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Thoughts, words, memories: ‘Mayurakshi’ and dementia

By Nishi Pulugurtha

An old man, an octogenarian, living in a big house in Kolkata; his company, a housekeeper, who has come from an agency; and a man servant, who has been with the family for years. His only son, who lives and works abroad, comes home as the old man faces health problems. The son reaches home, enquires about his father and, on being told that the old man is in the verandah, goes to meet him. The old man has dozed off on his chair with a folded newspaper in his right hand and his glasses in his left. The son looks at him, takes the newspaper and glasses, and keeps them on the table. He then kneels down in front of his father and gently touches his hand. This disturbs the father’s sleep. He opens his eyes, looks at his son, and asks him when he came. There is a pause at which the son goes on to talk about the weather in Kolkata and says it is hotter than it is in Delhi. The father asks what the weather is in Lucknow. The son is taken aback; he has not come from Lucknow. A little later, we are told that as a young boy, the son played a Ranji Trophy match in Lucknow, a match his team had lost. The old father suddenly goes into pointing out the flaw in that match that the son had played, although the conversation was about something else.

For someone who has been a caregiver to a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for over seven years now, this is an all familiar scenario: jumps in thought, in time periods, in memory, muddling up facts and events. As I sit watching the Bengali film Mayurakshi: The Stream Within (2017) in the multiplex, I cannot but feel the similarity. Here is an old man who has begun to show signs of dementia.

It is not as if the father lives only in the past. He looks at his son and asks him why he has a beard. He never sported a beard earlier, we are told. He decides to shave it off, but then stops from doing it, as the old man has stopped referring to it. His father’s doctor tells him that the old man’s near memory was playing up; he remembered older things much more vividly. Anyone dealing with a loved one with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease knows this fact for sure. One of the first signs is the failure of memory, which begins with small lapses here and there, lapses so small and insignificant that they are ignored and overlooked as signs of age catching up. We have a couple of such reactions in the film, where characters say that the father was getting old and such things may and can happen. The doctor refers to depression, loneliness, stress, neurological issues, and dementia as possible causes. The word dementia is used just once in the film. Every other time when the old man’s problem is alluded to, it is referred to as a neurological problem. Here is a film that presents, quite realistically, the state of someone who has dementia and how a family comes to terms with it. The family struggles to learn to deal with someone who is behaving so very different from the way he used to behave earlier. It also depicts the changes in behaviour and personality that have come about in a loved one.

Sushobhon Roychowdhury, we are told, was a brilliant mind, a professor of history, an extremely well-read man, who writes, suddenly in the midst of a conversation, lines with a small stone found in the flower pot on the wall, lines which he knows were written by Gladstone. But he is not interested in books now. Television does not interest him any longer; he loved watching cricket matches, which he now finds no interest in. The housekeeper tells us that he holds a book, looks at it, and then is no longer interested in it. He wants his son to stop subscribing to newspapers, as there is nothing but reports of violence in them. The only thing that he still seems to enjoy are the songs playing on FM radio that the housekeeper puts on for him. There is a blank look, a gaze on his face, as he seems lost, out of place. Words fail him; he begins to say something and falters. Even before he can try to figure out what they might be, we have someone else saying things to him.

In what could be a wonderful film that talks about dementia, the problems associated with it, and the troubles that concern a caregiver, Mayurakshi misses the mark. It misses it not in the portrayal of someone in whom dementia is slowly setting it or in the depiction of the changes that become apparent in the person or in the way people around him react to it or in the way people try to find ways and means of dealing with it. It misses the mark in that it does not refer with greater emphasis to the condition clearly and categorically. Except for just a mention of ‘dementia’, almost in passing, almost labelling it as a neurological problem, there is no stress laid on the name and condition of dementia. At a time when instances of dementia are increasing, where there is no cure for it, creating an awareness about it is of paramount importance.

Soumitra Chatterjee, as Sushobhon Roychowdhury, brilliantly portrays the characteristics, the emotions, that look, that many caregivers would be so very familiar with, that sense of feeling lost in a familiar surrounding, of looking for someone, of caring for his son, of worrying about his son, forgetting what kind of work his son did for a living, of faltering at words, of saying that he does not remember – almost each and everything reminded me of my mother in the early stages of the most dreaded form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease. The reluctance to eat, the irritability, the glancing through books, the loss of interest in things, her waiting for me when it was time for me to return for work, her concern for me, that concern and longing for loved ones, her forgetting the time and day, her jumbling up of years, and those streaks of ‘normalcy’ that was clear many times – it is all very familiar. I could not but applaud the director for doing his research on dementia wonderfully and presenting a character suffering from it.

‘Dementia’ is an umbrella term used for referring to brain disorders that affect memory, thinking, and behaviour. Early symptoms of dementia are memory loss, difficultly in doing ordinary, familiar tasks, problems communicating, and immense changes in personality.  Symptoms usually develop slowly and worsen with the passing of time. They become severe so as to interfere with daily tasks. There is no cure for dementia and certainly none for Alzheimer’s.

One of the most common early symptoms of the disease is difficulty in remembering recent events, what is referred to as short term memory loss, for example, what they have eaten for breakfast (the doctor in the film refers to this), whether they had a bath or not, whether they ate or not, whether they read the newspaper or not, whether they went out or not, and the like. Much of the old memory remains – for instance, they may remember things they did as a child, people from the distant past. However, they may confuse places, people, and events and mix up time periods. Hence, even the old memory may not always be accurate. The father in the film forgets that his wife is dead and speaks as if she is around. He forgets the fact that she had been hospitalized for three months and refers to her dislike for hospitals, and at times confuses the year of her death. All this surprises the son. Those of us who have a loved one suffering from dementia would be all too familiar with this scenario.

As the disease progresses, symptoms include problems with language – like repeating things over and over again, forgetting words, saying the wrong word at the wrong time, and forgetting to talk completely. Disorientation, wandering off, and getting lost even in the most familiar of surroundings – like sitting at home and then saying to family members that they want to go home – are common. Mood swings are frequent – they may be happy a moment and then cry for something, and then become composed again. In the film, the father and son walk into a café. As they sit down, the old man looks at a young couple and tells his son how situations remind him of a music score at times. He begins to play a make-believe violin and sings the tune, completely oblivious of the place they are in. The son is embarrassed by this and stops the father, who then makes a motion as if he were putting the violin aside. This draws laughter in the multiplex, reminding us that the audience are unaware of the condition and what it entails.

Sushobhon Roychowdhury is admitted to a hospital for tests to be done to him. But the final diagnosis is not very clearly stated. It is almost always referred to as a neurological problem. The doctor refers to depression which is often present in those who have dementia but the two are never related in the film. There are delicate moments in the film, like the son applying talcum powder to the father with the father sitting patiently, lifting his head as the son asks him to. Noticing his father’s shirt button put wrongly, the son undoes it and then buttons his shirt. These are all too familiar scenarios in families, who have been dealing with the disease. The parent becomes a child; roles are reversed.

The man servant in the film asks in a matter of fact manner if the old man is going mad, if he is going to start shouting and screaming, if he is going to beat the servant and run out wildly. This is once again a very common question that one who has a loved one suffering from it is asked. The film brings pertinent issues and questions to the fore. Incontinence sets in; one needs help at home at night, too. The son agrees to keep an attendant at night for his father, but then says that this is only a temporary arrangement. We know that it cannot be a temporary arrangement. As the condition progresses, the loved one will need all the more care and supervision. At times, family members run into problems regarding engaging help at home, as costs rise drastically. Financial requirements rise and domestic problems rise, too. Care givers often have a great difficulty in arranging for help at home because of familial opposition and pressure.

The title of the film refers to the river Mayurakshi that is normally calm but becomes turbulent during the rains. There are associations to the stream of thought and memory. The name also is that of Sushobhon Roychowdhury’s erstwhile student, someone he wanted his son to get married to, someone he had always believed would be an ideal mate for his now lonely son, coping with two failed marriages. In spite of all the ravages wrought by dementia, the parent still thinks of the son. He may be a changed person, he may no longer be what he was earlier, but he is still the same father, who always is concerned about his son.

Atanu Ghosh brilliantly presents the condition, the dilemma, the struggles, and the problems of one who has dementia and of a family coming to terms with it. The son goes back to his work, to the US and the father remains in Kolkata. The film ends on a positive note with the father taking up colours and drawing a window through which his son could see light. Only one who has seen a loved one with dementia and Alzheimer’s knows that the going will get more difficult with each passing day, that each day will bring up new challenges and problems, that one could never be prepared to deal with issues, that it is all about taking each day as it comes, about creating an environment where in spite of all the difficulties, life moves on. A little smile, a small gesture, a reaction, however muted it can be, a touch and a hug can make a difference. The journey goes on and the stream flows.

Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor, Department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College, Kolkata. She is an academic with varied interests and writes on travel, too. Twitter: @nishipulu


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2 Responses to “Thoughts, words, memories: ‘Mayurakshi’ and dementia”

  1. Ratnottama Sengupta

    Dr Nishi Pulu has loved the theme, the portrayal, the performance – and yet not satisfied. “Why is it green?” She seems to say. “Why not stark blue? Or plain yellow?” Why does it not go on and on directly about Dementia or Alzheimer’s? Instead it weaves a tale of contemporary lives that exists at so many stages – the father and the son being the two prominent pillars of the story. But, as any artist would vouch, blue and yellow come together to give us green – a third colour complete in itself.
    And, maybe, the director wanted to give us that totality of contemporary reality where the son – again, brilliantly portrayed by Prosenjit.- is as much of a protagonist as the evocative father otherwise revered as Soumitra Chatterjee!

  2. parwatisingari

    beautifully written you are at one hand tempting me to see the movie, it is also scaring me, as I do not want to face the shift from being the child to being the care giver.


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