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A reformer’s childhood: Review of ‘Shyamchi Aai’ by Sane Guruji, trs Shanta Gokhale

Shyamchi Aaihas been a Marathi classic for the last 86 years, as famous as its author, Maharashtra’s beloved freedom fighter and social reformer, Sane Guruji. Most Marathi-speaking children must have read this book at home or in school. Puffin’s translation of Sane Guruji’s autobiography is the fourth English version of the classic. With Shanta Gokhale as the translator, it’s no surprise that it reads like it was originally written in English.

Mother figure

The book transports you to an enchanting world, where nature is part of life, where rushing streams have feelings, and tiger sightings are routine during night-time bullock-cart rides through the forest. There are achingly beautiful dusk scenes: the tinkling of cowbells, the strains of a cowherd’s flute and, always, a stream flowing in the distance.

This is not an imaginary world. The book is about the author’s childhood in Palgad village in Konkan, which later became famous as Sane Guruji’s birthplace. One wonders whether it is still as beautiful.

A reformer’s childhood: Review of ‘Shyamchi Aai’ by Sane Guruji, trs Shanta Gokhale

While the book is a reflection of the rural Konkan Brahmin lifestyle, at its core is the relationship between Shyam and his mother, a woman both deeply traditional and fiercely independent. For Shyam, she is no less than god. Whatever he is, he attributes to her. She teaches him to do what is right, be it helping her in her endless household chores or performing her rituals for her, even if it means braving ridicule.

Brutal honesty

The bond between Shyam and his mother is sometimes unbelievable. Which child tells his mother things like: “Are you disappointed in me?’’ or “When I see the love in your eyes, I feel strengthened”? The book is replete with such tear-filled conversations between mother and son. In her translator’s note, Gokhale writes that she had to underplay Shyam’s tears and use language less sentimental than Sane Guruji’s, keeping today’s young readers in mind.

How will the 10-12-year-old of today react to Shyamchi Aai? While today’s young reader may wonder why a treat is equated to “getting to drink lemon syrup every night”, the small, everyday events of Shyam’s childhood are relatable: the complex relationship between close schoolmates; the longing for home which must assail every teenage hostelite; the value of a father’s praise and the fear of his anger; the brief visits of a married sister. Shyam’s brutal honesty about his own childish wrongdoings will also echo with young readers.

But what will a child of today make of some of the customs that marked the life of a poor village Brahmin more than a century ago? Some of these may still endure in India’s villages. Shyam recounts his family practising untouchability. His mother says social pressure forces her to do so, and Shyam reflects sadly on a country that has neither love nor pity. But where is the same angry condemnation of untouchability that there is of dowry, or of the suffering brought about by class differences?

Endless preparations for pujas take up hours of Shyam’s childhood. While these entail joyous interactions with nature — collecting different varieties of leaves and flowers — there is again no questioning of the rituals by the grown-up Shyam.

This is noteworthy, because it was Sane Guruji who led the campaign that resulted in the ancient Pandharpur temple opening its doors to Scheduled Castes. Indeed, Sane Guruji’s life was among the primary inspirations for Maharashtra’s Socialist stalwarts.

However, it is for the overall story of a childhood spent in the lap of nature, nurtured by a compassionate woman who was not just the archetypal self-sacrificing housewife but also a fount of wisdom, that parents must make their children read this book today.

Shyamchi Aai; Sane Guruji, trs Shanta Gokhale, Puffin, ₹250

The writer is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist.

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 7:25:39 PM |

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