Sunday, December 13, 2009

A tribute to parenthood



By Rajesh Singh

Author: Ved Mehta
Publisher: Roli Books
Price: Rs 295

Author: Ved Mehta
Publisher: Roli Books
Price: Rs 375

Giving a straight account of one’s family members does not always make for interesting reading unless there is something scandalous to offer. Most stories of middle class protagonists sound similar, even if they are of the rags to riches type or beset with tantalising twists and turns that life provides. So often, authors running short of imagination fall back on the family narrative genre, hoping their fame will rub off on such books and make them acceptable to the readers. Quite a few of them have succeeded but perhaps more have failed to impact. Ved Mehta has pulled it off with his rather linear approach to profiling his parents, in two separate books.

The success is partly due to the author’s own credentials, but it is not only that. The biographical portraits shine because they are a window not just to the lives of otherwise ordinary though resourceful and strong parents but also to the society they lived in. While the backdrop of the British Raj in which events unfold adds a sense of history to the narration, nuances of a traditional middle class family in Punjab and its clashes and assimilation with the ‘stiff upper lip’ provide the drama that is so essential to readability. Despite their compactness and single-minded focus to the two protagonists — father and mother of the author — the twin books excel in creating for the reader a world that is both sentimental and practical. For the uninitiated, they are indeed a guide to rural India, though a bit mushy.

For the author the books are surely a tribute to his parents and a way, as he says, “to revisit” the world they (the books) describe and the ways of an “ancient Hindu family.” Mehta does not aspire to lofty designs; besides devotion to parents he is on a nostalgic trip. But that does not deter him from creating in an unobtrusive manner a world that we all wish to know better. The underlying simplicity and innocence are the strengths of the books, and make the author as much admirable a human being as his parents.

Amolak Ram (Daddyji) and Shanti Devi Mehra (Mamaji) were poles apart and became husband and wife through a not very transparent procedure. The author tells us how his father was made to believe that his prospective bride spoke fluent English and was well-versed in the ways of upper middle class living to which he aspired. Amolak, after all, was a successful man, foreign-returned with degrees to boot and needed a life partner who could adjust not just to him but to the society he moved — and later would in a higher one. Those were the days when one fell in love with photographs since there was little or no interaction between would-be partners before the nuptials. Mamaji was a beauty in her prime and there was no reason for Amolak to feel unhappy. He was in fact on cloud nine.

Her beauty was undeniable and so was her poise and grace, but Amolak learned after the marriage that his wife had only an elementary understanding of English. He had been clearly misled. He could have thrown a tantrum or remained cut off from the bride. But, true to his character and upbringing, he did neither. Instead, he accepted her with love and affection and took it upon himself to educate her on the nuances of the language. In due course of time he gave up, but that did nothing to sour relations. In time to come, they brought up their children with care and concern, instilling in them values that remained a life-time.

The author talks of values of a joint family. He narrates how first his grandfather laboured to ensure that not only his sons but immediate family members got the best education he could afford, and how later his father too followed in the footsteps, often making sacrifices so that his brothers got the crucial breaks. The emphasis on education — a constant in middle class families — remained throughout the two generations.

With the extended family being so important, it is little wonder that the author devotes considerable attention to the members. In fact, right in the beginning of the book, he provides an elaborate family tree with roots dating back to the 19th century and evolving into the present.

There are innumerable instances of Amolak’s resourcefulness — the way he set up a meeting with an influential British to secure admission to a college abroad, for instance. And there are occasions when the pull of the family and its teaching brought young Amolak home from abroad. Like, when he gave up an opportunity to settle down with a lucrative medical career in England. He told his benefactor, “I am honoured. But I must go home and share what I’ve learned here. My mother used to say, ‘to one who shares food it is sugar; to one who eats alone it is a toad.’”

There is a moving narration of how helpless Daddyji felt on seeing his little child — the author — go blind due to a meningitis attack. He cursed himself, a medical professional, for failure to respond appropriately and in time.

With lives of the parents so closely intertwined, the author agrees that the tribute to his mother, Mamaji has material that would necessarily overlap the first book. If the father was matter-of-fact and practical, the mother had the feel and touch that only mothers can. Mehta’s blindness must have broken her heart, but the courage that she displayed in raising him up, making him believe that he could “see” is unique.

One of the most endearing parts of the book is the reproduction of some of the letters that Amolak wrote to his wife from Montgomery — a name that she found difficulty in pronouncing and took to referring to it as “that place”, an oblique manner much like that she adopted when talking of her husband as “he” or “him.” (Even today in several Hindu families the woman does not take her husband’s name.) They oozed with love, beginning with “dearest” and ending with “many kisses.”

The strength of an undivided Hindu family, the splendour of an undivided Punjab and the spirit of mankind — you have it all in the two books. Besides, of course, the skills of Ved Mehta.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Demystifying The Taj Mahal creator


Shah Jahan: The Rise and Fall of the Mughal Emperor
By Fergus Nicoll
Penguin Viking

Rajesh Singh

For most of us, Shah Jahan is the guy who built the Taj Mahal, that unsurpassably beautiful monument of love. So, the Mughal ruler enjoys a rather romantic image. The halo around him gets stronger in the knowledge that he spent his last years entirely heart-broken, incarcerated by his ruthless son in a fort overlooking the historic mausoleum. In fact, he is one ruler in the lineage besides Akbar who enjoys general goodwill, unlike Babur and Aurangzeb who are objects of hate. What the film Mughal e Azam did to the Salim-Anarkali love legend, the Taj Mahal achieved for the Shah Jahan-Mumtaz pair. In the hearts and minds of most Indians, fed by sanitized versions of history in schools and colleges, Shah Jahan has been a tender-hearted, liberal and greatly wronged against ruler.

But now we have journalist and author Fergus Nicoll, who demolishes the carefully sustained myth and exposes the Emperor for what he was: a murderous schemer who spared none that threatened or had the potential to threaten his march to the throne. He even played power games with his father, revolting against him. As fate would have it, he did to his father what his son Aurangzeb was to later do to him, only with greater brutality.

But Nicoll is not biased against Shah Jahan, who is the primary character of his eponymously titled book. He presents a remarkable account of the palace intrigues that were the order the day in the Mughal era, and none who wished to survive it could afford to be less than scheming, shrewd and at times merciless. Thus, if Shah Jahan demonstrated guile and crookedness, it may not have been an inherent character trait – one can give him the benefit of doubt – but it certainly was meant to secure his position as the future king in the midst of other demanding applicants. As Nicoll shows, smooth transition of power was never automatically guaranteed to the heir; he had to earn it, often through bloody tussles. Shah Jahan’s father did, Shah Jahan did, and his son did.

If the book is a fascinating account of the rise and subsequent fall of one of the most enigmatic Mughal rulers, it also effectively takes the reader into the Mughal court, its rituals, the ways of sycophants and court poets, the constant switches of allegiance, the opulence of the rulers and those they favoured including queens and mistresses, the logistics of managing an empire and the many battles with adversaries within and outside the kingdom.

The author tells us how, in a span of 32 years as the Emperor, Khurram – for that was Shah Jahan’s real name – came to epitomize both depravity and sublime love. Having admitted that “many of the conventional wisdoms have had to be revisited,” after he went through contemporary documents and correspondences of the Mughal Empire with others, especially the neighbouring Persian kingdom, Nicoll ends up with a highly readable account. One wishes our history books had more of such stuff and style – `History’ as a subject would not be so boring then!