Dementia doesn’t care if you are a parent of a pauper, a prince or a celebrity. Actress, Shobna Gulati witnessed this first hand when her mum, Asha, was diagnosed with vascular dementia.
In this deeply moving yet humorous memoir, a daughter sets out to reclaim her mother’s past after her death, and in turn, discovers a huge amount about herself and their relationship. What ensues is a story of cultural assimilation, identity and familial shame.
I first met Shobna and her mum in 2016 at a restaurant opening in Manchester city centre. The restaurant was called, Asha’s, owned by Bollywood singing legend and Shobna’s mum’s namesake, Asha Bhosle. I remember Shobna’s mum being surrounded by her daughter’s celebrity friends and recall thinking how regal she seemed. Years later, reading Shobna’s book, I found out the event was mentioned and sadly, later that same evening her mum’s demeanour changed into a confrontational one towards Shobna…these little signs, like in many families we hope they just go away. Sadly, the signs knitted together, and Shobna’s mum was diagnosed with vascular dementia in 2017. This crossword loving, theatre going, meticulous recycler; and fabulous cook with her fastidious ways was disappearing in front of the family’s eyes.
Shobna and her siblings set up a Mum Care WhatsApp group, and alongside her family, it wasn’t long before Shobna began to focus her life around caring for her mother and eventually moved into her mum’s house to provide that care.
Shobna’s father Kulbhushan was a doctor, her parents arrived in the UK from India in the 1960’s, where he joined the NHS. The move was a return to the UK for Shobna’s mother, Asha, who was born in Southport in 1940.
Shobna grew up in Oldham in the 1960’s in Greater Manchester, the third daughter to be born and with no male child in the family. In her book, Shobna relays the feeling of “barely masked disappointment ….not only was I not a boy, but I was also a handful – I was a ‘ ro bachche’ (a cry baby) – I was always whining!” The fourth and last child born to the Gulati’s was a boy – Rajesh – which means ‘ruler’ or ‘god of the kings.’ Shobna recounts: “He was their miracle child.”
Songs from Abba abounded in the car on journeys as family weekends trips around the country were enjoyed. Asha, although an avid listener to Radio Four’s Today programme, she also adored watching Coronation Street, from where she soaked up and found her love of northern culture and humour. While Asha was quiet, compared to her husband, who was a very sociable man, they worked well together, and both became well-known and respected within the area and belonged to many doctors, business, charity and community organisations. She describes them both as being very socially responsible, progressive, her dad particularly, as an advocate of assimilation, they were among the first post-Empire children to properly settle in England.
Shobna was an active child and loved nothing more than swimming and singing in the choir with her brother, or attending her dance, including South Indian classical dance and drama lessons, whilst her two sisters were also artistic, and they were in a pop band … Shobna says: “Our family home’s name of ‘Geetanjali’ was displayed on a beautifully handwritten-style sign outside, it meant ‘house of song’ my mother and father loved music and the arts. We were basically the Indian Von Trapp family.”
Sorrow struck the family when, while on a trip to India, Kulbhushan died in his sleep; he was 49-years-old . Shobna was just 18 and on the brink of a new life at university, she had been expected to go to Cambridge, but her grades suffered, and she stayed nearer home and took up a place at Manchester University, a new life opened up to Shobna and she took the opportunity to grasp all that the freedom of student life had to offer.
On graduating, Shobna pursued her dancing career. Back in the UK Shobna met her future husband at a family wedding. A sigh of relief from the wider family. The marriage faltered quickly and even after trying a stint of life together in Paris, it was obvious that a divorce was imminent. Shobna packed up her belongings and drove back from Paris, she didn’t tell her family and with nowhere to go, her car became her home, she worked during the day and slept in her car at night. Eventually friends helped her get her life back together and soon she met the man who would be the father of her child.
The relationship didn’t last and pregnant, Shobna returned home to the north of England where she was met by her mother. “I will never forget seeing mother’s face when I met her off the train – it was complete disappointment – I felt her shame and horror so powerfully.”
Over the months and years that followed Shobna’s son Akshay was born and Asha was there to support mother and son. When Akshay was three-years-old, Shobna became part of Victoria’s Wood’s team on a new sitcom, called ‘Dinnerladies.’ When the series ended, Shobna joined the cast of Coronation Street in 2001 as Sunita Alahan. It was her mum’s favourite TV programme – she was beyond proud. Now as I watch the soap in which Shobna appeared for so many years, I am minded that Shobna was able to give her on screen daughter the name Asha, after her mother.
The relationship between mother and daughter is a multi-faceted and complicated one at best. In many ways it seems even more heart-breaking that just as Shobna and her mum had reached a new plateau in their connection, the silent thief of dementia began to slowly take her mother away. “I was fortunate,” says Shobna, “that I had the opportunity, albeit sometimes very difficult, to care for her.”
Many of my own female friends have shared their complex emotions with me on having to move back into their childhood homes, and this is something that Shobna did because, like my friends, she wanted to be there for her mother. The role reversal begins, it’s exhausting and sometimes in the midst of it all there is humour, a moment when the light shines on the past and mum is mum again for a moment, telling you off, like she used to do.
There are many ‘Mum’ quotes in the book that certainly made me smile. “You mean you went to the chemist with that hair Shobna? – All this time, drinking coffee? Why go out for coffee shoffie when you can make it at home?”
Like many carers Shobna was stripped of her identity, and at times lost control of her own life as she became seamlessly part of helping her mother hold on to hers.
Some say it is a privilege to care for a parent in their final years, it is also the most heart rendering twilight and when the person has gone what is left of the carer? Shobna says: “When someone dies, I wonder, are the memories about the person we try so hard to cling on to, or are they actually more about the person remembering? The chasm between life and death seems so narrow, especially when your strongest link to the world, the woman who gave you life itself, falls away.”
When Shobna began clearing her mum’s house, she found bags of press cuttings that Asha had kept, following Shobna’s career avidly and secretly. “Just like Mum catalogued my life, I want to catalogue hers,” says Shobna and she does this so beautifully in her book, capturing the powerful emotions that these memories hold, secrets they had collectively buried and the role of shame in both her own life and in the concealment of her mother’s dementia.
As Shobna reflects: “For it’s not what you forget, it’s what you remember.”
Remember Me?: Discovering My Mother as She Lost Her Memory by Shobna Gulati is published by Octopus Publishing Group