Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category


Forgetting to Remember

Review of Take Me Home – Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself; Jonathan Taylor; Granta Books 2007; pp 274

– Shana Susan Ninan

Having had a senile, Alzheimer’s affected 90-year-old at home, I can very well connect with Jonathan Taylor’s memoir, Take Me Home – Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself. Even before you open the book, the severity and urgency of the disease hits you – on the cover itself is the embossed word ‘Help’, super imposed all over, several times. And after reading about 15 pages into the narrative, Jonathan’s detached pattern of writing captures you. It’s almost as if he’s talking about another family, another father. Not his own! That style of writing grabbed my attention, and stuck through all the way to the end. The incessant pleas, shouts, rants and of course the forgetfulness, is portrayed with a sense of humour, too. Where else can you read brilliantly crafted lines such as these, when his dad thought he was being kidnapped, and had to save himself:

‘Help help!’ My mother stuffs a gobstopper into his mouth. It performs its self-proclaimed function.

We think that’s paranoia over – and I look away: ‘Yes, Dad, honest, we’re taking you to a secret location, cos there are so many millionaires who’re willing to pay a ransom for you.’  …he’s found the handle and opened the car door. He’s even moving his left leg towards the space where the door was, and where now there’s tarmac whizzing underneath.

My mother shrieks. I swear. Helen looks up, tuts and yawns… My father reaches calmly for the seatbelt release, as if getting out on the M6 Junction 11, at 65mph is much like getting out for a picnic.

And there are many more interesting paragraphs that elaborate on the lives of the author and his family members, all revolving around caring for his ailing dad. Jonathan doesn’t bore you with scientific names and data; he weaves the story around actual events, places and people. Taking us to where the action is, describing in the process, how his dad reached the stage he is in, the author’s discoveries regarding his dad’s past, a son’s tireless and patient journey into his dad’s secretive life, and his understanding of his mother’s opinions about the same. Life in the 80’s and 90’s London, and the background of those who’ve migrated from the East also find a strong presence in here.

Since I’ve already read the author’s latest book Entertaining Strangers, released last year, I was pretty familiar with his manner of writing and the humour-filled sentences that vividly bring out the positive. Here’s to a book that’s engrossing, endearing, and definitely engaging.

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Rating: 7.0/10 (3 votes cast)

Chronicling Fort Kochi’s History

Review of Fort Kochi – History and Untold Stories; Tanya Abraham; Ink on Paper; Rs 350; pp 108

– Shana Susan Ninan

Published in 2009, journalist and writer Tanya Abraham’s Fort Kochi – History and Untold Stories chronicles several years of history of this part of the city. Surely a handy guide for locals and tourists alike, it engages us with historical details as well as relevant personal anecdotes and incidents. She has researched well, with first-hand information from her grand uncle K.J. Hercshel, who was a well-known figure in Kerala politics, to put across the history of the town in a story-like manner.

The book is divided into eight major sections. At a time when the city is under the spell of the Muziris Biennale, ‘Kodungallur and Cochin’ takes us back to the time before Christ when Muziris, present day Kodungallur, was a sprawling seaport, which traded with Rome, Israel, Greece, China, Arabia and other areas of the world.

‘Writings and Record on Muziris’ and ‘Flood of 1341 AD and Rise of Cochin’ tells us how Muziris wound to a slow death while Kochi flourished in its new fame. Located at the mouth of the mighty Periyar River, the port was inundated in a flood in 13 AD, was rendered useless. Muziris’ loss was Kochi’s gain, so to say, because Kochi now developed as a major port. All trade moved this side, and the city was the hub of commerce – spices, silk and many other items were traded from here. Abraham quotes several historians and travellers who have visited Kochi and was mesmerised by it. By and by, the city also changed its topography according to the traders and travellers who visited it.

The arrival of the ‘Paradesi’ White Jews to Kodungallur after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem is what Abraham starts with in ‘Fort Cochin in Focus’. The rise of the Jews once they move to Kochi, prominence of Konkanies and Mapillas, and close resemblance of the life of the Mapillas’ to that of those in Arabia are all mentioned here.

‘Portuguese in Cochin: 1498 AD to 1662 AD’ portrays how the Zamorin of Calicut welcomed Vasco da Gama and his crew in 1498 AD, helped them establish trade relations and allowed Pedro Alvares Cabral’s stranded men to continue living in Calicut and to make a life there. Sugar, spices, cotton and jewels were traded from here. The Portuguese gain importance in their allegiance to the Zamorin as well as the raja of Cochin, alternatively, and this helps them to move to base to Cochin, whose influence can still be seen today. Intermarriages and forced conversions to Christianity find space in the book. It is interesting to note that in 1545 the largest library in Asia was located here in Cochin!

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Rating: 8.6/10 (11 votes cast)

Homage to the Maha Amma

Review of Bombay – A City of Sandals; Shänne Sands; Photographs Emily Whitfield-Wicks; Footsteps Press 2012; First Print 1982; pp 192

Poetic travel writing. A smattering of history and culture. People’s lives observed from far and near. Homes and families explored from within and without. All these make up Shänne Sands’s Bombay-A City of Sandals. I didn’t have to move beyond the first few lines of the book to guess that the author must be a poet. And, I was right! A student of English drama and literature, Sands is a poet and writer, now based in the U.K.

Part-memoir, part-travel is what I’d call her book, published first in 1982. Yes, there are some things that, seen through the eyes of the Indian living in India, seem to be condescending in the book. But we can’t really blame the westerners for using that tone in literature – especially because some events, rituals and cultural norms are beyond their understanding. Even something as normal as seeing scores of cows on roadsides and streets, for us, is unnerving for a westerner who’s not used to it. Apart from that, this book is one of the best travel books I’ve read.

In a manner only a poet could, Sands recreates Bombay in our eyes and minds by using sensory, visual and audio words, helping the image to stay, much after you’ve finished the book.

Saris twirl past old, narrow streets. Streets alive with cockroaches and huge black rats that procreate themselves almost as fast as the swarming flies around the heaps of stale dung, left in odd corners. …After the rains, when the streets are still moist, images of Ganesa made of clay and brightly painted are paraded through the streets. It is a laughing, happy festival and the Great Mother still sprouts fresh green grass from the red earth.

Sands captures the lives of people from across castes, religions and ethnicity. People who were born in Bombay and those who made it their home much late in life. She talks about the lively Hindu festivals, ornate Muslim palaces, Parsi houses and cuisine, Anglo Indian men and women, Jesuit priests, tribal women, fakirs and monks, village folk, prostitutes, dabha-wallahs, street urchins, and more. Her first wedding to a rich Parsi, and then her travel by ship to U.K. and back, and then another wedding in Bombay… all make for great reading. There are so many details that come through in her work that even people who’ve been living in Bombay for years will be surprised to come across.

Once more the fishing dhows with bright red sails dot the Arabian Sea like sea flowering poinsettias… city of marigold, city of sunsets, of servants’ gossip and annual rains. Of paan eating and betel nut spitting peoples… of reclaimed muddy islands, of funeral pyres, and glossy expensive hotels.

The author is truly enchanted with Bombay, with India, and promises to return to the loving embrace of the Great Amma.

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Rating: 10.0/10 (4 votes cast)

Grooming a Politician

Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family; Condoleezza Rice; Crown Archetype October 2010; hardcover, pp 333

– Susan Thomas

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talked about concerted cultivation and the Rice family is a solid example of this type of upbringing, i.e. parents who painstakingly raise their children to be successful members of society.

Extraordinary, Ordinary People is a poignant and touching story of Dr Condoleezza Rice’s childhood and family. Born in racially segregated Alabama, Dr Rice takes the reader on a very personal journey of her upbringing and her loving and religious parents who were determined to help their only child succeed in every aspect of life. From a premature attempt to school their daughter at the age of three, the Rices teach valuable lessons of perseverance and focus in athletics, music, education, regular church attendance and most importantly strong values to guide and inspire oneself and others.

The book is a candid, emotive memoir of a highly admired woman who overcame obstacles with fierce determination and a passion for international politics.

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Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

Of Jungles and Jails

Review of Kerala’s Naxalbari – Ajitha: Memoirs of a Young Revolutionary; Translated by Sanju Ramachandran; Srishti Publishers 2008; Rs 195; pp 287

– Shana Susan Ninan

K. Ajitha, Kerala’s Naxal Movement’s poster woman, was brought into the forefront of the revolution happening in Kerala’s jungles and hunted by the media, starting with parading her with the “dacoits” who attacked a police station in Pulpally, in 1968. This class XII girl didn’t look back. This is her story of how she grew in the revolutionary movement, her life as an educator in the rank and files, her close working and friendship with Comrade Varghese.

Through eye-opening chapters in her book, she takes us through her life and that of the movement’s to tell us about her initiation into it by her revolutionary parents, the Pulpally Revolt, martyrdoms of many comrades, their lives in police custody, political responses of then ruling Communist party, murder of Comrade Varghese, the Emergency and tortures of those times, her freedom from jail and life after that.

This memoir is as much about Ajitha’s life as a revolutionary in the jungles of north Kerala as it is about her life in the various jails across the state. Starting with the wardens eating up a lion’s share of the jail rations to how inhuman the authorities can be, these incidents open our heart to yet some more truths. She reflects many stories that bring to light the painfully atrocious goings-on in the women’s section of the jails she’s been in. This particular one is shattering to even contemplate. I am sure, for Ajitha, witnessing it was even worse:

The jail doctors too were an irresponsible lot. …once, a woman went into labour at midnight. The wardens were informed, but they rained such abuses on the poor woman that she got scared out of her wits. Her baby had come out partially even before the wardens decided to take a look at her. She sat in a corner pushing the baby back. After a while the baby died… who gives a damn about a prostitute and her bastard? No court would want to punish those jailers who killed the infant.

Ajitha isn’t shy to point out that even the glorified revolutionary movement was flawed in some places. The most visible being the gender bias and the objectification of women. In her later years, in 1993 to be exact, she declared she was no longer a member of the Naxalbari movement and that she is a confirmed feminist, a Marxian feminist. She now works for the liberation of women, operating and organisation from Calicut in northern Kerala, Anweshi.

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Rating: 9.6/10 (5 votes cast)