One morning in 1995 Tara Bariana walked out of his house in Walsall and didn’t stop walking until he had reached the village in the Punjab where he was born and grew up. Ten thousand miles in 19 months is a lot of footwork. What made him do it?
‘I came here in 1960 with my mother and two sisters,’ he told Clare Balding in Ramblings (Saturday), her Radio 4 programme dedicated to those who love nothing better than to tramp for miles with no other objective in mind than the reassuring pleasure of putting one foot in front of the other. ‘But I’ve never forgotten my childhood; those early years in the village.’ He had been back to India two or three times, but always by plane. Flying between his two homes, so far apart, so very different, always left him with a question. What lies between the West Midlands and the Punjab? ‘There was always a darkness in my mind between here and there,’ he said. ‘The void.’
Bariana wanted to know what it was like in between, and realised this meant crossing the terrain, not flying over it. To reconcile the gulf between his early home and where he lives now, to bring those two parts of his life together, he needed to witness how people change as you travel through (not over) Europe and into Asia, across the border of France and into Italy, then Greece, Turkey and Iran. ‘From Turkey onwards it changes,’ he said. ‘It becomes more Indian as you go.’
Balding talked to Bariana, his son and grandchildren as they walked through the dense woodland of Cannock Chase just north of Birmingham. How did he prepare for such an amazingly long trek? He trained for three years, walking from his home and into the wood, often between the hours of midnight and 3 a.m., because it was the only time he could spare from running his ice-cream-van business. Then he decided, early in 1995, that it was time to set off, only to realise that he would be sleeping in a strange place every single night. How would he cope with that? To find out, he walked from John o’Groats to Land’s End ‘as a checker’. It took him 61 days and gave him the confidence to set off for Southampton, where he took the ferry to Cherbourg and straight on to Lahore.
How many maps did you take with you? asked Balding, ever practical. Just one for each country, said Bariana. They were very small-scale and merely told him the general direction in which to go. Walking across the desert wilderness of Quetta he watched two men approaching from a distance, knowing they were carrying AK47s. At the time he was walking with Abdul, who had a donkey. The men were after the donkey. One of them approached; he had ‘a pretty aggressive expression’. But somehow, Bariana doesn’t know quite why (or rather would not say), they decided to give up and legged it.
He made it sound so easy, so matter-of-fact. I wish Balding had taken him on a much longer walk so we could have heard more about his adventures, and understood how he accomplished something so extraordinary. ‘That void really used to bug me,’ he told Balding. ‘But I’ve got rid of that. I’m satisfied with life.’
Trying to reconcile bits of your life that don’t match up is not easy. It’s even harder once the memory begins to go. But a new project in Holland has come up with a radical approach to sufferers from memory loss. In Tuesday’s It’s My Story on Radio 4, Kim Normanton took us to the Hogewey Dementia Village, just outside Amsterdam. There’s a café, a supermarket, a hairdresser and a pub as well as the 23 houses for the residents and their carers. Nothing unusual about that, except that the houses are all done up in the style of the 1940s and 1950s. The tea cups are old-fashioned, there are grandfather clocks and china dolls, old biscuit tins and skipping ropes. All these ‘props’ are carefully placed to bring back memories, which in turn helps the residents to remember the words they need to describe them and become again, if only for a moment, the person they once were.
But how ethical is it to pretend that this is the real world? asked Normanton. To create a Truman Show world of make-believe? ‘It’s not a façade,’ insisted the director. ‘The houses are real houses and it’s their home. At the supermarket they can buy potatoes, take them home, peel them, cook them and eat them.’ This helped one woman to start talking about her mother and how they used to cook together.
‘The biggest problem with dementia is the lack of narrative,’ says Dr Catherine Loveday, a specialist in memory and how it works. ‘It’s like being suspended in space without the context or means to support you.’ She’s packing her own memory case, as an insurance policy against old age; items that will trigger connections in her worn-out neural pathways.
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