A book that dabbles with memories and memoirs is bound to be incredibly personal, very revealing, and possibly hard to identify with. Family Fables is all but the last — it fleshes out conflicted characters in conflict with each other. In the process, it becomes a charming, if tangled, web of first-person narrative that nevertheless appeals as a one-time read, because it is about the real worries of real people.
Vrinda Nabar turns from the wider scope of her previous book, Caste as Woman, to look within her own family — surfacing issues that dictated the behaviour of her mother and grandmothers, set in pre- and post-Independence India. She writes, “Partition [also] became a kind of lakshmana-rekha for Ai, a geographical and temporal dividing line that separated the woman she had believed could fly from the conflicted person she slowly transformed into, seeming to conform but with her suppressed dreams intact till the very end.”
Reading the lines and between them, I recall the troubling verse of Langston Hughes: “What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?/ Or fester like a sore….” Hughes ends by asking, “Or does it explode?” That explosion is the starting point for Nabar’s excursion into memory and consciousness, using her mother’s journal as a portal for time travel. As Nabar writes of a seemingly idyllic childhood in 1950s’ India, brewing in the shadows is a tempest of suppressed anxieties and perceived inadequacies that would soon break down her mother’s mental equilibrium.
Simply read as a “memoir of mothers and more” (as the cover describes it), the book is not remarkable — a daughter reconstructs and understands her mother (“Ai”, as I too decide to call her) through the latter’s journal. Daughters writing about mothers can be tricky business, and objectivity is usually the first casualty. However, Nabar successfully sees Ai as an individual, never falling into the trap of judging or defending her own mother.
The book’s greater appeal lies beyond the daughter-mother lens in something inextricable from its mission yet independently important — the very act of remembering and chronicling the past, applauding and learning from the actions of others that shape our present. The journal touches on, and indirectly explains, the culture of silence created by the untimely death of her own father, the early widowhood her mother endured while rejecting its social symbols, and how that silence defines and complicates the family and its inter-relationships ever after. Nabar writes that her own and her sister’s lives and freedoms have been shaped by the constraints her mother and grandmothers had to – or tried to – overcome.
Ai told Nabar that her widowed mother, helpless to enforce her will using anything but emotional blackmail, would sometimes threaten suicide. Nabar wonders “what it must have done to Ai … to see her mother like that”. What it did was create a bright individual who sacrificed her dreams for gratitude and duty, and who wrote years later, in a defeated letter to her husband, “I should not have dreamt so much….”
We see Ai, young and fatherless, grow up to be a promising surgeon working in Lahore (she even makes a day trip with girlfriends to the Jallianwala Bagh!). She becomes a wonderful doctor who eventually yields to the pressures of marriage and motherhood. Slipping through the cracks of Ai’s words is also a picture of Nabar’s father — a unique man for his times, who supports his wife’s will to work, teaches his daughters the Gayatri Mantra (not out of piety but to treat them as equals), defying patriarchal norms that prevent women from knowing the scriptures. And yet he cannot fathom Ai’s desire to retain her maiden name after marriage.
Threading these various realities together is the Anne Frank-like narrative of Ai as a young woman, struggling to be greater than her human self. Awestruck on seeing Mahatma Gandhi, she recalls, “…when I am inclined to be irritated, the whole scene dashes in front of my eye’s view and makes me feel what a puny creature I am.”
Nabar’s attempt to reconstruct this world leads to a deliberately unstructured narrative flow that, while simulating the haphazard nature of memory itself, creates an unsettling back and forth — oscillating between insight and detail. This comes across in the alternating past and present tenses — pinpricks to any editor’s sensibilities. The book begins with an unnecessary caveat: explaining why Nabar annotates certain cultural concepts and references. A book so intensely personal requires no excuse or justification.
Though a memoir, the book will engage readers. It prompts me to wonder about stories I will never know. It makes me wish I had asked my grandfather – who was expelled from university for his revolutionary activities – what passions ruled those fiery times. It reminds me of my grandmother whispering about human skeletons begging at doors for starch during the Bengal famine. This book will push readers to muse over stories untold and people misunderstood, all because of questions unasked. It makes a case for remembering, of neither suppressing nor forgetting, so as to confront the past and move beyond old mistakes and outdated ideas.
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