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  Opinion   Columnists  15 Jul 2023  Shreya Sen-Handley | Been there, done that, got The T-shirt

Shreya Sen-Handley | Been there, done that, got The T-shirt

Shreya Sen-Handley is the author of the award-winning 'Memoirs of My Body', short story collection 'Strange', and new travelogue 'Handle With Care', and a columnist and playwright. Her Twitter and Insta handle is @shreyasenhan.
Published : Jul 16, 2023, 12:30 am IST
Updated : Jul 16, 2023, 12:30 am IST

Will everything in my future be a version of something that’s already happened?

The author, in the company of her ginger-haired husband at the Birmingham concert of her favourite singer, wearing the T-shirt for it. (Photo by arrangement)
 The author, in the company of her ginger-haired husband at the Birmingham concert of her favourite singer, wearing the T-shirt for it. (Photo by arrangement)

The tide of natural disasters, pandemics, and social anarchy of the last few years has been a shock to us all. But there’s been a different shock to my system that’s grown insistent over time. And unlike the tremors we’re all reeling from, this has been mostly delightful. I call it the shock of recognition, and it’s pretty much taken over my life.

More and more, as they grow, I encounter myself in my children, but the persistence with which it happens doesn’t make the jolt any less forceful. Last summer was the first time it really caught my eye, as I flicked through family holiday photos on the island of Jersey in the English Channel. I spotted a snap of me, striking a pose in the stern of a boat, of which I had absolutely no recollection. For a split-second I worried that my memory had deteriorated beyond redemption, only to realise that it wasn’t my picture at all that I was examining, but one of my rapidly-changing, now-teenage daughter!

In my mind’s eye, my daughter is still a child, and I look like I did a few years ago, before my newfound diabetes piled on the pounds. As a result, when I happen upon my daughter’s new avatar, so strikingly similar to my previous self, I am fleetingly befuddled by it; am I looking at a doppelganger or a mirror image? How can I be standing here and over there as well? That she borrows liberally from my wardrobe, and not always with my permission, only strengthens these surreal impressions.

That shock of recognition isn’t always as heartwarming, however. At a rousing Bruce Springsteen concert in Birmingham last month, I was struck by a horrible thought — that the man I’d idolised for 40 years had begun to look like my late Dadu! I don’t mean grandfatherly in general; none of us are getting any younger. I mean actually like my Dadu, with the same full head of silver hair and patrician facial features.

In the past, debating the evolutionary scientific premise that humans opt for partners who most resemble themselves (or their parents), I’ve laughed it off with a “Do I have a ginger beard, quill-sharp nose, and rosy skin like my husband?”

The fact, therefore, that a man I adore (Bruce) had metamorphosed into another beloved fella (Dadu) shook me up a little. Had that always been the appeal, I asked myself with horror. But then, I searched the net (strictly for research, ahem) and was reassured by the many gorgeous photos of Springsteen in his youth, where he looked more like himself and less like my Dadu (also handsome but disparately so). That the concert was amazing reminded me as well that I’d always loved his passionate music as much as his appearance.

Yet, there’s no denying how frequently these days I spot familiar features on a stranger’s face, and speculate whether it’s a trick of the light, a kink in my brain, or a measure of my time on this planet. Dining out with my husband recently, I pointed to a friend of my youth at a nearby table, perfectly aware that he couldn’t be the man he so closely resembled. I knew from Facebook that my old friend no longer had the rippling hair, muscles, or enthusiasm for what was obviously a blind date, of our dead ringer of a neighbour.

Are there, I ruminated, only so many faces that get recycled again and again? In my nearly 50 years, have I seen every possible visage there is to see in this world, with each new face now a mere regurgitation?

Nor is this persistent feeling of déja vu only about people. A lifelong travel buff, recent trips have reminded me of other fabulous forays. Krakow in Poland last week, brought to mind Berlin, Zurich, even Paris, but was no less memorable for it. Similarly, fresh flavours today recall childhood favourites, and snatches of songs and scents can transport me to the beloved haunts of yesterday. Even stray moments can feel like a reliving, frame by splendid frame.

So, will everything in my future be a version of something that’s already happened? Am I trapped in the eighties movie, Groundhog Day? Or, experiencing a commonplace, yet unpublicised, phenomenon amongst the middle-aged?

Of course, if the good in our lives feel great even when familiar, there can’t be too many new terrors to fear either, only adaptations of what’s come before. The coronavirus pandemic was only original to those (admittedly, the majority) who hadn’t lived through other plagues, such as the Spanish Flu in the last century. Nor is the swing to the right around the world a surprise to those who’ve retained the lessons of history. But isn’t that a relief? That we can plan for impending calamities, because they’ve already done the rounds?

Most of all, what’s not to love in having what I’ve always cherished returned to me in contemporary packaging? What’s not to prize in the plentiful comfort of the well-worn? Preloved it’s called, in sync with our thoughtful new world, and life-affirming, rather than the opposite, in its thousand-fold increase. Nor is freshness lost; this constant ‘been there, done that, got the t-shirt’ sensation is itself a challenge to untangle and embrace.

Déja vu needn’t be déja blue after all, but déja WOOHOO!

Tags: coronavirus pandemic, ageing, middle age