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Premchand and a bunch of keys

The new year is off to a good start with two great reviews of The Book of Indian Essays by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra:

"The names here are very good, and their work is delightful. The subjects dealt with are varied..." C. P. Surendran in Hindustan Times

"You find within the purview of the anthology the sparkle of academic intellect alongside humour, personal opinions and reflections that engage both the critical eye as well as a non-academic audience" Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury in Scroll

The book is like a jar of sweets with many different flavours. If you put your hand in, you pull out something delightful and different each time. Here is an extract from Sara Rai's ON NOT WRITING in which she writes -- with great eloquence -- about finding a voice, language, and subject. About this essay, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra says:

"Coming, on her mother’s side, from a feudal Shia Muslim background, similar to Hosain’s, Sara Rai’s Hindi is laced with Urdu words, but her reading is mainly in English, the language in which she has the first stirrings of what she writes. But then it gets more complex. While she is a bilingual writer, there is always more than one language pressing down on the one that she’s doing her writing in. Out of this linguistic confusion, or linguistic richness, comes the title of her essay, “On Not Writing”.

Our family had a certain linguistic pride. I knew that Premchand was famous, but I had not at the time realised the extent of his popularity. In the Hindi class at St Mary’s Convent School, where I studied in Allahabad, the teacher would point me out to the other children when we came to the Premchand story, and everyone would turn to look at me. These were moments I dreaded from the beginning of term. And they were only the beginning.

The fact of Premchand, that I was his granddaughter, followed me everywhere. Everyone had a story to tell about their personal engagement with his fiction – the shopkeeper who said she went with a candle to dusty bookracks overhung with cobwebs in a dark and neglected village library in Bihar to find his books; the long-time cook in my father’s Delhi house who wept over Premchand’s story “Alagyojha” (Divided Hearths) which he read between cooking meals; the cyclist whom my family and I met at a wayside tea stall in Gopiganj, where we had stopped while driving to Varanasi, who recited whole passages from a favourite story. The list was long, for there was practically no one who had not read something by him that had moved them. However, it was this very ubiquity, the reverence and love that he inspired in people, that made of him something too large for me to comprehend in the early years of my life. It led also to the strange feeling that, without having read him and just by being related to him, I had somehow inhaled his writing. The reading happened much later . . .

But as things stood, I spent years searching for the writer in me who was nowhere to be seen. It was like having a starcrossed lover. The writer and I could never meet. I would look at the shape of my hands to see if they looked like a writer’s. I stared into my eyes in the mirror, wondering if they would reveal to me the writer that I was convinced I was, though there was little evidence to support the idea. When my father asked me to write down his words about Katherine Mansfield, one of my Hindi short-story collections had already been published. But that was where my writing aspirations seemed to have ended. I had not written a thing in months. And here was my father, asking me to do something more than just writing those words down. Something too large for me to grasp, something that I kept trying to escape from and that kept escaping from me, slipping through my fingers like glittering particles of mica. I wanted to hold on to it even as I wanted to flee from it.

My flight from the act of writing fiction went on for years. I could not face it; I thought that writing was all about not writing. After my father died, I wrote in my story “Biyabaan Mein” (In the Wilderness) about the struggle of writing fiction:

“I try to write. I want to focus my attention on writing. But my mind is empty like the sky that stretches in front of me. Sometimes groups of broken sentences, indistinct faces, the rags of days long past move across my mind in a procession. I am unable to grasp the forms and mould them into something that is whole. The images fly away into the sky like birds.”

It took me a long time to realise that the process of writing begins much before one has put anything down, that one has, so to speak, always been writing. It was while chasing butterflies in the garden as a child or watching a tortoise-shell cat slink away into a dark alley that the writing was taking place. Like an invisible letter written with lime juice that only shows up when a hot iron is put to it, the impressions that have been written on to the memory all the while that life is being lived are revealed in the catalysing moment when pen meets paper. The city buried underground and long forgotten about is chanced upon, and not without a shock of surprise.

And so it was that, years after the house of my childhood had slipped into oblivion, I found myself writing: “Suddenly there was an army of mice in the house. Signs of their presence could be found in all the rooms, and especially in the storeroom. The scraps of nibbled paper, the pieces of roti, the mouse droppings inside the cupboards, under the chairs and behind the black iron trunk, were evidence of their being around.”

When I wrote those words, the colour of the light from that buried time, the clinking sound of the bunch of keys that my mother carried tucked into her sari, the whole breathing quality of the house as it was then, came back to me as though the past could never quite be past.



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