Review of Sara Rai’s Raw Umber — A Memoir: Remembrance of a lost world

Sara Rai’s memoir of a family of writers including Premchand is also a chronicle of the syncretic 1960s

Updated - March 24, 2023 12:23 pm IST

Published - March 24, 2023 09:03 am IST

Sara Rai.

Sara Rai. | Photo Credit: Sohail Akbar

If landscape is the archive of memory, then writer, translator and editor Sara Rai goes back to her homes, the cities she lived in and to her family of writers for this lyrical memoir, Raw Umber, which has long been in the making in her own words. Her admission that she felt as if she had always been writing it doesn’t come as a surprise, for she had many stories to tell besides her own.

While the figure of her grandfather, Premchand, ‘The Ancestor in the Cupboard’, loomed over her childhood, others in her family, grandmother, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, were all writers and, in her mind, she saw them insisting that they be written about too. In doing this, she brings alive an eclectic and syncretic past, showing readers a world — and a time — lost forever.

Narrated through essays, Rai’s luminiscent touch is evident from the first one, ‘Palimpsest’, in which the boundary between memory and imagination blurs as she goes around her family home in Allahabad. Many of the people who lived in it are no longer around, but “absent, they are still palpable”. Each part and object has become a part of her and she doesn’t want to let go of anything — threadbare fabric, rusty biscuit tins holding loose clattering buttons or old watches that stopped long ago. She remembers the “gentle, self-contained world... located in the schizophrenic sixties”: a lot was going on two decades after Independence, when the country was beginning to realise that the euphoria was not going to last.

Palpable in absence

Premchand, she writes, was the “unbelievable” figure in the family cupboard: “The air of our house was permeated with my grandfather’s presence — his life of commitment to the underdog, his willingness for personal sacrifice for the larger good and his ideals.” Her grandmother, Shivrani Devi, whom Premchand referred to as yoddhastree or warrior woman, and who outlived her husband by 40 years, narrated incidents from his life. One of them was about a mail-runner, Kazaki, whose life inspired Premchand to write a story about him. A photograph of her grandfather, with a hole in his left shoe, adorned the walls — satirist Harishankar Parsai had written about it in his essay, ‘Premchand ke Phate Joote’ (Premchand’s Torn Shoes).

The two reflective essays on her father, Sripat Rai, who ran Saraswati Press and ensured his father Premchand’s stories and that of other Hindu/Urdu writers stay in circulation, provide a glimpse into a complex personality, moulded by the towering individuals in his life, love and loss, as also the social and emotional milieu. He listened to Rabindrasangeet, took to painting late in his life, ordering tubes of paint, Raw Umber, Scarlet Lake, Cobalt Blue, from abroad — “a man of nomadic creative impulses.”

Growing up in an extraordinary family of letters — her mother, Zahra Rai, and aunt Moghal Mahmood both wrote stories in Urdu and were published in Hindi — Sara Rai could have chosen to write this memoir in Hindi (as her novels and short stories). She picked English because it came naturally to her, as most of her reading was in that language, and had helped create her literary sensibility.

Now, please someone translate this beautiful book into Hindi and other languages. The icing on the tale is the four stories she includes in the appendix, by her mother, aunt, grandmother, and Premchand, of course.

Raw Umber: A Memoir; Sara Rai, Westland Books, ₹699.

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