Remember Me? is a despairing tale told by the actress Shobna Gulati as her beloved mother becomes unwell.
It is written with elegance and empathy by the actress and dancer, whom Lemn Sissay accurately calls ‘the Northern heroine of a nation’.
The courageous and tender memoir discusses the loss of Shobna’s mother to dementia, revealing the horrors of a mind as it unravels.
Shobna is the woman who became a household name by starring in Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies before playing Sunita in Coronation Street.
She is also well-known in the West Midlands, having starred in pantos at the Grand and the Hippodrome as well as many other stage shows across the region.
She is a celebrity who was plagued by phone hackers then brought erudition to TV’s Loose Women; a polymath who was accepted by Cambridge University and is attuned to no fewer than six languages; a campaigner who has sought to raise cultural awareness while also having served as Deputy Lieutenant of Greater Manchester.
She didn’t expect to write Remember Me? Nor, in truth, would she have chosen to.
In another universe, Shobna would wish her mother was still here and that she’d been able to commit to many of the career opportunities she elected to decline in order to provide 24/7 care.
And yet we can only deal the cards that we’re dealt. And Shobna has played her hand with compassion and love.
It’s been a tough year. Shobna’s mother died in 2019.
In March, the actress was told to pack her bags and return home to the North West as Boris Johnson cleared the stage upon which she was performing and sent the nation into lockdown.
She contracted Covid-19 and spent an isolating, distressing period of several months alone.
During that time she contracted pneumonia and Covid-19 symptoms continued to resurface.
All the more remarkable, then, that this woman of such abundant talent and remarkable pedigree should create her defining artistic statement. Shobna has created her finest piece of work, a moving and profoundly engaging story of the love between a mother and daughter, when life has been tumultuous.
Her mother died during last summer. Shobna had been in contact with Alzheimer’s UK and they asked if she would write a blog, to provide succour to others who might be experiencing the same sense of dislocation and loss.
They were particularly interested in her lived experience and reflections on the stigma attached to dementia by members of the South Asian community.
She spoke first to her family, of course, to ensure they did not object.
Words were carefully chosen, sensitivities respected and a story lovingly shared.
The intention was unambiguous: Shobna wanted to help others. Unexpectedly, her blog was read by a man who worked for Octopus, the publishing house, who was moved by her words.
They contacted her and asked if she would write a book. And so began Remember Me?
It is a powerful and affecting journey through loss which charts the slow fraying of fabric as a loved one succumbs to memory loss and ill health.
Just as a cartographer might map an ocean, Shobna skillfully records her mother’s slow disappearance while also reflecting on the impact that has on both her and her immediate family.
It is a beautiful book.
Shobna knew her mother’s story, though didn’t know the detail. Over the years that she cared for her, she began to learn a different person as layers of personality were revealed.
Remember Me?, however, is far from being a misery memoir.
There is pathos, of course, but humour too. Lest we forget, Shobna is a woman who has been making the nation laugh along with her throughout her performing career.
Further, it shines a light on a cultural history, specifically that of people who travelled to Britain from south Asia.
It helpfully tells a multi-generational story that might otherwise be ignored or forgotten.
Writing was deeply challenging. Having committed to telling her story, Shobna became one of the first Britons to contract Covid-19.
“I had Covid-19 while I was writing," she recalls. "I was really feeling devastated. I had just lost mum, I had been on tour and we were heading to the Midlands when the Prime Minister told people not to go to the theatre, so that was also devastating.
"We had a company of young performers, many in their first jobs, and their dreams went up in a puff of smoke.
"Politicians and scientists might have known what was going on but we, the rank and file, knew nothing.”
Confined to her home, Shobna tried to call her doctor, who proved uncontactable.
She was told to dial 111 and five hours later a nurse called. Within an hour, a doctor attended.
“I was seen by a doctor but I was not tested," she adds. "You know, there were no tests. I was really ill. By that time I had secondary pneumonia.
"If it wasn’t for that young doctor, I don’t know what the consequences would have been.”
Shobna had contracted pneumonia but was not allowed into hospital for an X-Ray. The NHS had effectively closed.
She nursed herself back to health over a period of months, frequently sleeping on her stomach so that she could breathe.
“I was in difficulty. I was asking on Twitter whether anybody else had lost their sense of taste and smell? A few months later it was on the list of symptoms. But it wasn’t to start with.
"I was having to lie on my chest each night to try and breathe. All of my loved neighbours and friends rallied. My friends were really there for me.
"Some days I’d feel better, some days I’d feel worse. Some days it would come back with a vengeance.
"I didn’t know if I was infectious. I didn’t go out for months. March, April, May, June then July, I literally didn’t step outside until it was time to record the Audible book.”
Being isolated, however, lent her an even greater understanding of her beloved mother. She became even more in tune with what her mum had experienced.
“I sort of really got in tune with my mum. It was as though she was there. So it made me realise a lot of things about just how isolated she must have felt.
"She was unable to express any of that because of the way her brain was working. Maybe she didn’t have that language anymore.
“I don’t understand the science, I saw it from the perspective of being in the room. I understand why she wanted to travel back in time to get a sense of herself.
"When you shut off the present your mind is able to go to different places.
"My mum was forgetting to eat, drink, shop and do the daily things that we take for granted, like drive.
"She was not remembering how to do the things that we have to do in order to live.”
Shobna has always written. At one stage, she planned to write a novel – and, given the quality of Remember Me? let us hope that she still eventually does, for she is a wordsmith of considerable prowess.
She didn’t then, however, because there was too much to do.
The luxury of time was something she did not have, though on occasions, she’d write and store documents on an old computer.
“In my old computer I’d written swathes and swathes of stuff. I knew that it was in there. I went to that computer.
"The funny thing was that I couldn’t remember the password. Eventually I did. Then I was faced by all this stuff. Then I found what I’d written and I’d painted these pictures.
"That was the time for those pictures to be brought to life. My mum’s memories were vivid and my memories were vivid. It was like a colouring book.
"There were outlines and I just coloured it all in. The reader then feels as though they are in that world. It wasn’t a memoir – this happened, this happened and this happened. I wanted everybody to come on the journey with us.”
Remember Me? reads like a novel. The reader senses how it might have felt to be confined within those four walls as Shobna cared for her mother.
The period since, however, has been challenging.
The sunlit uplands that the nation was promised at election time in 2019 have been conspicuous by their absence and Shobna now finds herself in a profession that Chancellor Rishi Sunak believes is unviable.
As theatres close and TV studios commission infrequent work, it is the hardest time to be a performer since the Second World War.
“The powers that be think we’re not viable,” she laughs, dismissively. “But to be a creative, you have an inordinate amount of skill.
"It’s translatable, of course, but it would be lovely to continue to make art, wouldn’t it? Society can’t exist without culture, we know that.
"We know what happens in a world where culture doesn’t exist, we’ve been there not so long ago, we’ve fought world wars on account of that.
"I don’t understand how we can be in that position where a group of people in power says we’re not worthwhile.
"What then happens to our world when the recognition of culture is taken away? Sometimes, I look out of the window and I just kind of don’t know what’s happening out there any more. There’s no solid ground.”
Shobna has navigated a path through worse. Her phone was hacked by a national newspaper reporter, a story recounted with devastating insight in Remember Me?
While Shobna was watched by millions as a star of Coronation Street, her private life was in turmoil as her privacy became invaded.
“People’s desire to know me, the person, was too hard. It was too hard for me to marry. That kind of invasion of privacy into my real world was too hard.
"I had a breakdown then because it was too much. I didn’t know where the invasion was coming from, either, that was really hard to deal with.
"Also, when you’re in a world where you’re the first person to step into that world, it’s quite hard to explain that. It’s quite tiring to keep having to explain.”
In Remember Me? Shobna is frequently asking questions. She is a constant enquirer.
She asks how much we know ourselves, for instance, and as each chapter unfolds she sets out her answer.
It was a technique she learned in school, where two helpful English teachers provided inspiration.
One of those teachers wrote to her after reading Remember Me?. She told Shobna: “The book is very well written. I wasn’t reading it with a red pen in my hand.”
With the inability to perform, Shobna inhabited a different creative space; that of a writer. While she was caring for her mother, she frequently wrote poems. They were vignettes, pictures of a life.
She’d extract the detail from whatever new situation in which she found herself and commit it the the page.
“Early in the morning, I’d wake up and write," she adds. "Mum would be asleep then. If I’d done everything then it would be fine to have the mornings to write, until she woke.
"I’d always find a little gap. Then I’d really push myself to write. It was kind of a form of therapy. If anything was niggling at me I’d just write it down.
"I’ve taken that into the book a little bit. It’s been really therapeutic to write and share those experiences.
"We can keep the conversation going and start to tackle these issues so people don’t feel so alone.
"I know Alzheimer is not an identikit illness, I know everyone has a vast experience of it, but in my book I really wanted to reach out.”
Most of all, Remember Me? is a love letter from one exceptional mother to another.
Shobna’s love for her son, Akshay Gulati, shines through on the page, as does the maternal love between Shobna and her mother.
I tell her rather than a novel, I think of her book as an extended love letter.
There is momentary silence. Shobna asks for a moment. There are tears before we resume. I ask myself whether that ought to be included here. And I conclude it should.
Because the tenderness that courses through the veins of Remember Me? is pure and authentic.
Shobna’s story is so powerful precisely because it is so relatable. There is neither artifice nor ornamentation.
Told in simple language and written as beautifully and compellingly as the brilliantly written memoirs of Alan Johnson, her book moved this interviewer to tears.
There is no shame in them, perhaps the opposite. They are a sign of strength.
Of course, Shobna’s relationship with her mother was not straightforward.
There were numerous times when her mother stuck her neck out to protect her daughter, just as her daughter did likewise at the end.
Shobna wraps up by reflecting on the way her mother was taught at college, where she was instructed to be a good wife and mother, a good home-maker who became the glue that bound.
“She was so informed by that experience. She held to that," she concludes.
"There were values that she learned and she drew on that guidance. But beyond that, she knew what was right and wrong.
"Even when someone broke the rules, she knew to find a way through her own belief system to live a purer truth. That’s what she did and I think that’s so extraordinary.
"We just hear about all the fighting, all the time everyone wants to talk about confrontation, the fall out – yes, my life is full of that.
"But that’s not what I want to bring home. The take away isn't that. The take away is something much deeper.”
Indeed it is. The takeaway is a story of sacrifice and loss, of forgiveness and redemption, of laughter and happiness amid the floom.
But most of all, it is a story of love.
Remember Me? is out now, published by Octopus.