The measure of a storyteller’s success lies in her ability to hold her audience’s attention. What’s the best way to captivate the reader? Make it immediate, direct and clear, if not simple.
Himanjali Sankar, having taught English at the University of Indianapolis in the US, and now an editor with a publishing house in India, knows her craft, and uses it to great effect in telling the story of three generations of a Bengali family, through the viewpoints of a submissive wife-mother and a rebellious daughter.
Mrs C Remembers (Published by Pan Macmillan India, Pages 193, Price Rs 299) is a delightful read. Sankar, who has earlier written two books for children, knows the importance of getting it right from the beginning. With that opening sentence of Mrs Chatterjee where she opens her heart and candidly admits that “It is not that I have never imagined my mother-in-law’s death” Sankar takes her reader into a maelstrom of jealousy, intrigue, love and hatred. Having said that, one has to concede that Sankar’s central occupation is the relentless anxieties of Indian women. Mrs Anita Chatterjee, wife to one of Kolkata’s most successful men, and her unconventional, rebellious daughter, who marries a ‘cultured’ Muslim after a failed marriage owing to her husband’s incestuous relationship with his mother, appears in alternate chapters to let us know about their intense, personal accounts.
While reading Mrs C Remembers I had often wondered about the wisdom of the title used here. Why not a better, catchy title? Why such a drab invitation to the reader which seemingly fails to tell anything at all. But then later it emerges that there could not have been a better title to capture the travails of a dementia patient who valiantly strives to retain her hold over her failing memory. The same trick works for the almonds strewn over the yellow back cover of the book. Agatha Christie and her depth of scientific knowledge about poison come into play as a recipe for a climax.
Be that as it may, Mrs C remembers quite a few things. The anti-Sikh riots in 1984, the television screening of the Aparna Sen movie Paroma
that discusses the self-discovery of a middle-class Bengali woman, the Naxalbari movement, and the anti-Muslim riots in 2002. Bringing in factual anecdotes is in vogue now and Sankar does not shy away. She drags Umar Khalid and Kanhaiya Kumar in to pepper family conversations and livens up intolerance debate by portraying an otherwise model husband as a Muslim-hating Hindutva ideologue. Sankar also takes a look at the evolving nature of matrimony in India—between Hindu and Muslim, Bengali and South Indian—without taking sides.
But Sankar is at her best in gazing upon her palm, which is illustrated by this perceptive paragraph that has Anita Chatterjee considering her daughter Sohini’s decision to convert to Islam in order to marry her Muslim boyfriend after realizing that she is pregnant at 40.
Savour this: “When the children were small, I used to so look forward to them growing up and becoming independent, almost the same way I looked forward to my in-laws dying. And when the in-laws died I was too tired to rejoice. Their absence didn’t liberate me the way I had expected it to. Same with the children. Changing soiled diapers was easier than dealing with the invisible weight of emotional shit that the children give us and will probably continue to till the day we leave this world.”
Don’t say how true.