Her book Kith and Kin begins in a house in south Malabar, but Sheila Kumar hasn’t spent all her life in Kerala; her father was in the Army, and so she has lived all over the country. So while Mon Repos – the ancestral home in Kerala – is a very real presence through the 19 short stories in the book, its characters are scattered across the country. Kith And Kin (Rupa Publications, Rs. 250) a collection of short stories set in the fictional Melekat family, was released by writer Anita Nair at The Oxford Bookstore recently in the city.
The nomadic nature of her early years helped her as a writer, Sheila said. She spent “almost no time” in Kerala growing up, but visited the State once or twice a year as research for the book. “I’m one of those non-resident ‘mallus’,” she laughed.
The book, written over seven months in 2009, has short episodes that usually follow a single member of the large Melekat family (the volume of characters is large enough to warrant a reference sheet at the start of the book). She initially had just disparate stories, but decided to introduce a common thread – and that was how the concept of the Melekat clan arose.
The family is headed by matriarch Ammini Amma; the rest of the characters are “literally, in relationship to her.” Some of these include her daughter Padmini, a long-suffering wife nicknamed ‘Poor Padmini’, and the matriarch’s Norman Mailer-quoting granddaughter Suvarna. A particularly stirring character is Ammini Amma’s aging, lonely brother Raman, for whom a courtyard bench is the last symbol of certainty. Raman is alone in the “indignities of old age” – incontinence, forgetfulness, insecurity.
At least three stories in the book have similar themes, Sheila said, attributing this to Kerala’s large greying population. “There is always the attendant geriatric depression and loneliness. And in the Melekat family the elders aren’t short of money; it’s the other problems,” she explained.
The early stories are marked by a hypnotic chain of characters; someone mentioned in passing in the first story is the second story’s narrator, and so on. This web-weaving must have taken some planning. “Not really. People wander through the stories – that was a bit deliberate,” said Sheila, explaining that she didn’t necessarily plan the family tree and each character’s movements. Given the interconnected nature of the setting and characters, why short stories, and not a novel? “I felt they had a point to make, they made it, and moved on. They needed to be told in a diffused manner, without one central narrator.”
The characters in Kith And Kin, on the whole,are English speakers, but the book is itself peppered with Malayalam words, with some stories even carrying a glossary for words such as ‘naasham’. Sheila explained that she refused to italicise the words within the text, and that done carefully, a glossary needn’t be intrusive.
Kith And Kin