A story of unsettled lives, narrated with warmth, wit and charm.
My Family and Other Saints,Kirin Narayan, HarperCollins, Rs. 295.
Kirin Narayan’s latest book is, rightly speaking, not a me-moir but a we-moir as she says, being a family saga. Bombay is their home, and they make frequent trips to Nasik where her father owns ancestral properties and her formidable grandmother, Ba, rules over her own little kingdom.
The title intentionally recalls Gerald Durrell’s classic, My Family and Other Animals, for, both books feature “eccentric families living at the crossroads of cultures and hosting lots of guests”. Their unsettled lives, with the unexpected always lurking round the corner, are described with wit and charm. But whereas Durrell’s reverses are comical, Narayan’s story is essentially one of tragic change and loss, lightened by her ready sense of humour and a sharp eye for odd characters and events. The immediacy of her style is her greatest asset. Everything seems to have happened only yesterday, and one cannot imagine that little Kirin, constantly having her leg pulled by her adored older brother, is now 50 years old!
The youthful dreams of Maw, her American mother, and Paw, her Gujarati father, have dissolved all too soon under the strain of divergent interests and unfulfilled responsibilities. Ever since Kirin can remember, the tension between them was an insidious presence. Three of the five children who were closest to each other brightened their lives with their dog and numerous cats, and immersed themselves in books, art and music.
Rahoul, six years older than Kirin and her guide and mentor, was other-worldly from childhood, fashioning gods from driftwood, shells, bones or discarded tins found on Juhu beach, their home. There was an inner radiance in him, a restless spirit constantly experimenting “with turning limits into frontiers”. The book begins when, at age 15, he drops out of school to search for a guru, leading the way for the rest of the family excepting sceptical Paw, who drowns his frustrations in the glinting amber of alcohol. It ends when Rahoul dies of AIDS-related complications, a pathetic wreck, blind, emaciated and too weak to stand. Maw and Paw are at his bedside. Paw directs that his big toes be tied together. “It keeps the spirit from wandering”, he says. And so these two, bitterly separated for years, come together in shared sorrow for a last gesture of love to their eldest son.
The author’s poetic sensibility imbues this incident with deep emotive significance, and there are others. Kirin remembers a faraway time when she, the baby of the family, was taught how to walk. Rahoul would stand facing her and swing her up by her hands so that her tiny feet rested on his big ones. He would then walk backward propelling her forward, and this becomes a symbol of their separate destinies.
As a child she follows in his footsteps, visiting ashrams and gurus along with her mother, and bowing before Lakshmi, Ganesh, Patane Devi and a host of other deities. But as she excels at her studies and settles down to a successful future in America, he is fated to move in the opposite direction. Taking to drugs and frequenting gay bars, he is lost beyond recall before his 32nd birthday.
But all is not darkness in this story of a dysfunctional family. There is never a dull moment in their lives, for gregarious Maw keeps open house, and, being artistic herself , is visited by musicians, film makers, Americans passing through; while Rahoul brings in hordes of beatniks, hippies, would-be poets and gurus who often stayed over.
Narayan has a gift for drawing character vignettes in a few deft strokes. There are the swamis — Agram Bagram (topsy- turvy) swami who feeds poor children on recipes concocted from the offerings of his devotees, Cupboard Swami, so-called because that was where he slept, and Rahoul’s favourite Swami Prabhavananda, a tiny, rotund figure with a baby face who never stops smiling. Trained as a civil engineer he had a coveted job with a multinational, but gave it up when he was just 26 to search for a guru. Yet he is never stuffy or preachy, playing cards and carom with the children and giggling unashamedly. Sunny-tempered, always encouraging, “It’s goo-oo-ood”, he would say of their youthful endeavours.
The real heroine
The unintended heroine of the book is Maw, the eternal survivor. As her husband, irreversibly alcoholic, sells the extensive family properties in Nasik, then the Juhu bungalow and the neighbouring one inherited from her mother, she is left impoverished and homeless. With only Kirin to look after, she becomes an art teacher in a boarding school where they can be together, and later joins an ashram. Finally she establishes one of her own in the Kangra foothills. As she moves from one disaster to another her indomitable spirit remains undiminished.
When Kirin calls from America to tell her she is writing her family memoir, Maw is thrilled. “It’s goo-oo-ood”, she warbles across continents and oceans, recalling their beloved Swamiji, now gone, like Rahoul, beyond the grave. In reviewing this book one can only echo her words: “It’s goo-oo-ood”, very good indeed.