The book is a delight to read when Nabar is not pushing her feminist agenda. Zerin Anklesaria
The defining event of Vrinda Nabar’s growing years was her mother’s breakdown when she was 13. Starting her book with this traumatic experience the author moves back in time to recreate the lives of three generations of women in her family, her two grandmothers, her mother Ai, and partly her own.
The narrative is loosely strung, interspersed with associations and lengthy extracts from letters exchanged between her parents over a lifetime, jottings, and her mother’s journal covering 10 crucial years. Constantly reverting to the breakdown, she tries to understand why a woman who had everything going for her, the enduring love of a good man, children who exceeded her expectations, a career of her own and servants to handle domestic chores, should have gone over the edge.
Undoubtedly there were tensions in Ai’s girlhood. Losing her father when she was still a child, an event no one was ever allowed to mention; the emotional ups and downs of her ties with her much-loved mother and brother; the uncertainty of her relationship with the man she loved; all these were troubling. Later she studied medicine when she would have preferred literature, and then, when World War II broke out, she had to return from Edinburgh without her F.R.C.S. degree. As a young bride she struggled to win the love and acceptance of her in-laws but there were always whispers about her inadequacies, and later their relationship was embittered beyond redemption.
One would have thought that after she married and moved into her own home in Bombay she would be at peace with herself. She opened a clinic with full support from her family but felt conflicted between the pulls of motherhood and a career, and after practising for some time eventually gave it up.
All in all, Ai appears to have been more privileged than most women of her time, not a very convincing emblem of feminine victimhood. The struggle between self-assertion and conformity was there, but no more than for most of us, men included. Her hypersensitivity aggravated by menopausal mood-swings seem the more likely causes of her lapse from sanity, especially since she recovered within a few months.
Similarly, one wonders whether Aji, her mother-in-law, was unfortunate, as the author implies, in being married to a widower with a son. Her husband was a liberal who fought caste inequality all his life and was a faithful and affectionate family man. A good catch one would think, especially since he was the most important person in the village and she was highly respected, a queen in her little world. The case of Sundiamma, Ai’s mother, was entirely different. Here was a strong-willed woman hardened by circumstances to face up to the humiliations heaped upon her as a widow. She stoutly resisted what she could, refusing, for instance to tonsure her head, and accepting the rest without complaint. When her husband joined the army she was just 19, and for the rest of her life she was a single mother living on her own in Bombay on his pension.
What this meant in terms of sexual and material deprivation and loneliness can hardly be imagined. The family of three was soon joined by the four children of Sundiamma’s sister who was in poor health. They stayed on through school and college, taking her hospitality gratis as she cooked and slaved for seven people year after year in her two-room flat.
She had her failings, expecting eternal loyalty from her son and resorting to emotional blackmail to impose her will on her daughter. Still, she was a remarkable woman by any standard, a true feminist icon. Entirely self-taught she was forever reading. Well-versed in bhakti poetry, she regaled her grand-daughter with bedtime stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and introduced her to Jane Austen and Tolstoy. Fluent in Marathi, Kannada, English and Telugu she was learning Bengali when she passed away at 78.
When Nabar is not pushing her feminist agenda, the book is a delight to read. Going beyond mere biography she uses her imagination and eye for telling detail to recreate the life and times of her protagonists; and what exciting times they were! There were the horrors of Jallianwala Bagh and the upheaval it caused in the psyche of a nation yearning for freedom; and later the Non-violent Movement and the Dandi March. To express their solidarity with the Mahatma, Sundiamma and her teenaged daughter led a group of women down to Bombay’s Chowpatty Beach where they filled jars with water, distilling it at home to make salt. Soon Gandhiji became their neighbour at Mani Bhavan.
It takes courage to open the lives of a loved family to scrutiny. Nabar does it with honesty and fair-mindedness, not hesitating to admit her own shortcomings, her impatience with her widowed mother and her family’s neglect of Aji who lived with them but was totally ignored. It could have been an enriching relationship she realised, the day Aji died.
No one wears a halo, not even her father Anna, a model of devotion and forbearance but so over-protective of Ai that her self-esteem was undermined. From being a capable woman managing home, career and finances, she was diminished to a point where she was incapable of cashing cheques or paying bills.
Living, well-rounded characters people these pages. Strong-minded Sundiamma contrasts with Ai’s emotional fragility and the unobtrusiveness of Aji, while a host of brothers, wives, cousins, are individualised with anecdotal touches. There is Aji’s husband at the village fair publicly exposing a troublesome tenant who pretended to be possessed by the goddess; and Ai’s well-to-do cousins living off her mother yet condescending towards her family.
And then there is Madhavkaka, an eccentric bachelor, Anna’s cousin and a favourite with his children. He could waggle his ears and mimic just about anybody, and would sing his own compositions accompanying himself on the mandolin, hoping to sell the rights someday and make his millions. Here is a delightful vignette just a page long, but when you finish reading the book you remember Madhavkaka.
You remember places too, particularly Kamshet, where the family spent their holidays during their charmed childhood, staying in a cottage with a mango tree outside the window, the fragrance of its blossoms filling the air. At night the mogras bloomed, gleaming white in the moonlight. There was the river where Anna taught the children swimming and the “bhoot bungla”, deserted and derelict, with a chickoo tree loaded with fruit that no one dared to pluck.
Nabar’s skills are essentially novelistic, so (just a suggestion) why doesn’t she try her hand at fiction, with a male protagonist perhaps?