Sheila Kumar’s book Kith And Kin narrates the saga of a once-powerful blue-blooded clan

“Kith And Kin is not based on any family — no family has that many dysfunctional people” — a very succinct description of Sheila Kumar’s new book by the author herself.

The cosy Cha Bar at Oxford Book Store was witness to the launch of her anthology of short stories recently. Noted author and playwright Shreekumar Varma did the honours, while journalist and former dean of studies, Asian College of Journalism, Bindu Bhaskar engaged the author in a conversation about the book, the stories, the characters and, of course, her inspiration.

Departing from the tried-and-tested formula of protagonists, antagonists, heroes, heroines and villains, Sheila narrates the saga of a once-powerful blue-blooded clan through the eyes of its various members.

A “non-resident mallu” and an Army wife whose “heart belongs to Chennai”, her inspiration for the Melekats came from her knowledge of the various matriarchal Nair clans of Malabar. Melekat Ammini Amma, the matriarch and erstwhile ‘White Rose’ of the town, and the ancestral home of the Melekats, Mon Repos, are literally the twin bulwarks on which each story hinges. Straying spouses, lonely uncles, manic-depressive mothers-in-law, aimless young men, groom-hunting young women — all make an appearance in 19 tranche de vie stories.

“The Melekats were just clamouring to be written about,” smiles the author in between book signings. “With apologies to Tolkein, I wanted a ring to bind them all.”

It took her seven months to write, longer to find a publisher. “I refused to change the format of the saga to a novel instead of short stories,” she explained.

A poignant tale

Of all the stories, ‘On The Bench’ seemed to be a clear favourite, closely followed by ‘Colours’. The former narrates the poignant tale of an “intensely lonely” old man while the latter recounts the several attempts of a young girl embarking on her search for a suitable boy. Every story has a different lead character, giving the reader a fresh new perspective of the complexities of the dynamics within the family.

It is, however, interesting to note that despite Melekat Ammini Amma being the proverbial anchor of the saga — even making an appearance in a few narratives — there is not a single story from her perspective.

We get plenty of insight into her character though — a fabled beauty, a brave matriarch, an able manager of finances, egos and lives, and, as her brother rather uncharitably puts it, an ice queen.

The characters speak English, with a smattering of Malayalam words thrown in. A glossary at the end of every story takes care of the translation, while one at the beginning of the book describes each character that meanders through “in direct relation to Ammini Amma”.

Penning the chronicles of a clan spanning four generations is not easy, but Sheila accomplishes the task with aplomb.

From reminiscing about the good old days to facing the dilemma of selling off their heritage piece by piece, the family goes through it all.

Spoiler alert —while the very same characters who introduce us to the Melekats bring us to the last chapter, a twist at the end makes for a startling climax. “The family had been disintegrating for too long, it was time for them to read the writing on the wall, time to let go,” she explains.

A narrative of change

Sometimes witty, sometimes poignant, sometimes funny, sometimes downright maudlin, Kith And Kin is not just the saga of a family — it is a narrative of change. Change in tradition, in lives, in culture, in society, in people and in the way they think, but not in the way they feel.

(Kith And Kin -Sheila Kumar, (Rupa Publishers, Rs. 250) is on sale at leading bookstores in the city)