(FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE PIONEER, DECEMBER 13, 2009)
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.