A dementia patient’s poignant return to childhood

I recently watched an Indian movie called The Three of Us, which revolves around a woman named Shelujah. She is in her late 30s, very charming, traditional, and intelligent. She works as a marriage counselor, leading a happy married life with one son studying abroad. Shelujah diligently maintains a diary, documenting even her minor daily chores. Often, she becomes engrossed in her thoughts, even failing to respond when called by her name. Unbeknownst to her colleagues, she’s suffering from early-onset dementia. One day, she resigns from her job, concealing her condition, and receives a warm farewell.

There are days when she forgets to add salt to her cooking. Shelujah attends a friend’s gathering with her husband, Deepanker, where her friend sings a beautiful song. Astonished, she inquires about when her friend started learning music, but her friend irritably responds, “I told you, you tend to forget everything these days.” Deepanker, who knows about her diagnosis, appears worried.

While sitting in a park, observing children at play, an elderly neighbor approaches her, attempting to engage in conversation. Shelujah, however, fails to respond due to her forgotten acquaintance with the neighbor.

One day, she surprises Deepanker by asking him to take a week off from work so they can visit Vengurla, her childhood hometown. Deepanker, taken aback by her revelation, agrees, and she expresses excitement as they travel by train to Vengurla. The peaceful, tranquil atmosphere of her hometown contrasts with the hustle and bustle of Mumbai, where she now resides.

During their visit, Shelujah eagerly samples local cuisine with her husband. When he hums a song, she immediately records it on her phone, seemingly trying to preserve her memories. They visit her old school together, wandering the corridors and reminiscing about high-achievers listed on the boards. She even inquires about Pradeep Kaamat, but a school worker, employed for the past 7 to 8 years, claims not to know anyone by that name. As husband and wife explore the town, it’s apparent that she’s absorbing her old memories through her gaze.

Unexpectedly, she encounters an old friend on the street and recognizes her instantly, filled with joy. Her friend invites them over for tea, where Shelujah revisits her childhood through photographs, recalling each classmate’s name. She attributes their visit to a vacation when asked about it.

Curious about Pradeep Kaamat’s whereabouts, she obtains his address from her friend and pays him a visit. Pradeep is taken aback to see her after so many years and is introduced to her husband as her “childhood friend.” As her husband takes a phone call, she engages in informal conversation with Pradeep, reminiscing about their school days. She proposes visiting their old classroom, touching each bench as if trying to remember her seat.

Pradeep, now happily married with two daughters, loves his wife deeply and shares his past and present with Shelujah, including his childhood friends and first love—Shelujah. He later confides in his wife about Shelujah’s return after all these years and ponders her reason for revisiting Vengurla after twenty-eight years. His wife encourages him to spend time with his friend, understanding the significance of Shelujah’s visit.

Shelujah visits her childhood home and finds it occupied by different people. Despite the changes, she inspects every nook and cranny intently, conversing with the house owner. She notices significant alterations, indicating her clear recollection of the house. Outside, she encounters an old well, the same well where she lost her younger sister during childhood. Pradeep observes her distress and escorts her away, leaving her husband bewildered.

During a lunch at another friend’s house with Pradeep and Deepankur, Shelujah meets a grandmother who remembers even the smallest details of Shelujah’s childhood. Her joy is evident as she listens to these recollections.

Shelujah and Deepanker visit the beach together, while Pradeep composes a poem titled “Udgam” (meaning “Origin”) for the first time in years. His wife praises his poetry, playfully suggesting it’s an ode to his old love, Shelujah. They discuss why Shelujah returned to her origin after so many years.

Shelujah transfers numerous photos to her laptop, worried about losing them or forgetting her password. Her husband questions why she never mentioned her childhood and Pradeep all these years. She explains it was unintentional and that she has returned to rediscover her old self.

At her old music class, she meets her former instructor and is introduced to new students as one of the school’s best students. Watching them dance, she impulsively joins in, remembering every step with tears in her eyes, transported back to her childhood. Pradeep watches her closely, and she, overcome with shyness, hides behind a pillar. On their way back, Pradeep confides in Shelujah about his traumatic childhood, his abusive alcoholic father, and his inner feelings, solidifying their enduring bond.

Pradeep and Deepankur discuss Shelujah, with Deepankur mentioning Shelujah’s late sister, Veenu. Pradeep expresses gratitude for the time spent together. Shelujah visits Pradeep’s wife, where he recites poetry to her. Shelujah recognizes his poetry instantly, even though she’s reading it for the first time. Pradeep’s wife is amazed, and her husband starts feeling jealous of Pradeep. One night, while reading Pradeep’s poetry book, Shelujah’s husband comments that he’s never seen her so happy with him as she is with Pradeep. Shelujah explains that she feels joyful because she’s in her childhood home, reassuring her husband that it doesn’t diminish their happiness together.

One night, Shelujah gets lost in the streets, and Deepankur goes out to find her. For a fleeting moment, she doesn’t recognize him. They visit a carnival with Pradeep, his daughter, and Deepankur. Deepankur informs Pradeep that they’re leaving Vengurla that evening and invites him and his family to visit them in Mumbai. Deepankur also shares Shelujah’s diagnosis of early-onset dementia, explaining her short-term memory loss. Pradeep is shocked, realizing why Shelujah returned to her origin after all these years.

During the carnival, Shelujah expresses her desire to ride the Ferris wheel. Both Pradeep’s daughter and Deepankur decline due to fear, so Pradeep accompanies her. While Shelujah enjoys the ride, Pradeep is filled with fear and mentions that he hasn’t ridden it in a long time. The Ferris wheel briefly stops, and Shelujah wishes for time to freeze at that moment. Pradeep questions why she never returned over the years. She explains that she never had time for herself, reflecting on how people alternate between solitude and crowds in life. Shelujah asks Pradeep about her demeanor during their last carnival visit, as she doesn’t remember anything from that time. Pradeep recalls their friends and even her late sister’s presence. She apologizes for leaving without explanation, and Pradeep thanks her for coming back and remembering him. Both share a heartfelt moment, acknowledging her memory loss. The ride resumes, and Shelujah expresses concern about forgetting their son. Finally, she gathers the courage to say goodbye and returns to Mumbai.

Dementia is a cruel disease, even more so than stage IV cancer, as it robs individuals of their memories and loved ones’ recognition. It strips away family, dreams, goals, and aspirations, leaving patients unable to help themselves. The most painful aspect is knowing that precious memories will fade, and there’s nothing one can do about it.

Damane Zehra is a radiation oncology resident in Pakistan.

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