Over the past decade, in fiction and autobiography, South Asian women have begun to explore the stories of their pasts in an efflorescence of writings. Among others, Mrinal Pande, Manju Kapur and Suguna Iyer have accomplished this through the medium of fiction, while Sara Suleri, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Mira Kamdar stand out for their memoirs. This proliferation has to do, in part at least, with such authors’ complex historical situation. Tied to the Subcontinent, either by birth or ancestry, many South Asian women, particularly those of the middle class, have moved so far beyond traditional gender roles that their present-day ‘liberation’ and achievement lies in sharp contrast with the lives of struggle and confinement led by their mothers and grandmothers. This produces not only the lived contradictions of their lives but also the burden of an intimate knowledge of a past through the lives of the women they have known and loved, women from whom they have derived their beings, no less. It is this situation that provokes their search for understanding, both of the self and of history.
Parita Mukta’s memoir derives, at one level, from the wish we have all known at some point in our lives to ask: In what way am I a part of history? Indeed, am I, obscure, alone, driven along by circumstances, of any consequence in the larger movement of forces? It is in the intricate weave of individual lives with the community’s, the precise placement of human beings within larger events, the acute sense of the shaping of people’s everyday choices by historical forces – without leeching their lives of agency – that the rich narrative texture of this book is produced.
But Shards of Memory is, as well, the work of a historian, though it wears the marks of that affiliation lightly. Parita Mukta’s emphasis on family, on women in the family, and on a genealogy that is traced via the female line (Mukta is her grandmother’s given name), means that it is also, specifically, a feminist history. And indeed Mukta belongs to a notable company of feminist historians of India who have expended considerable scholarly energy on recovering the lives of women. She owes an equal debt to contemporary British feminist historians on the left such as Carolyn Steedman, for whom autobiography is an intricately wrought product of social (class) history and psychoanalytically inflected understanding of gender relations within the family.
Work of this kind performs not only the necessary and never wholly-achieved task of ‘adding women’ to the historical account, but produces a paradigm shift in historiography by re-evaluating the criteria for what counts in the historical record. Thus the ordinary, whether describing events or people, achieves significance because the gendered perspective is, if arguably, necessarily personal, subjective, representative and inclusive. Generically, family histories occupy the terrain of the novel, and methodologically they mine myth and folk-tale as productively as they do the archives.
A tale of the ordinary Now, a quick summary of this particular ‘ordinary’ story. The four parts of the memoir are focussed on four individuals: Ba, the author’s paternal grandmother; Harshad, her father; Rajni, her uncle; and Sonpari, her daughter. Thus, this is the story of four generations (the last part includes the account of Mukta’s own life). Beginning in the 1920s, when her grandparents arrived in Nairobi from Kathiawar in Gujarat to start their married life together, the narrative takes in events momentous and small, the defining one being her grandfather’s death in 1948, leaving Ba a widow at the age of 33 with nine children to support, the youngest six months old, the eldest still in school. It then traces the slow trickle of the family to Britain through the 1960s and 1970s, and ends with the present, the generation of Ba’s grandchildren, dispersed in many parts of the world. Mukta’s daughter, now 12, is partly British by birth and culture. Mukta herself was an active participant in the turbulent struggles of race and gender politics in Thatcherite Britain (one of the founders of Southall Black Sisters), moving away from the political scene in the mid-1980s out of sheer heartsickness. It was at that juncture that she entered the career of historical research and writing.
Mukta makes her family’s ordinariness – a description and judgement that she frequently reiterates – serve several functions. One is that of truth-telling, a simple objectivity that is made to prevail over any desire to boast. The blazoning of success is a temptation that family narratives, particularly of the immigrant variety, are prone to. The men in Mukta’s family followed ordinary professions with either ordinary success or outright failure – her father was a clerk in the Kenyan railways, her uncle Rajni owned a pharmacy in Britain which ended bankrupt – the women remained tied to domesticity. But a different and larger purpose is also served in recording the family’s unexceptional qualities, which is to insist on the fact of survival: its survival as a family for over 70 years, in the course of which its members have dispersed over four continents; but also sheer survival, especially in the early years, the overcoming of starvation over seven years on a diet of bhakhri (“thick, crumbly chapatti”, in the glossary). Hunger is the very leitmotif of this book, a topic to which we will have to return to, in order to do justice to its extraordinary forcefulness. Thus, success has been displaced in the telling of these life-stories because survival is the primary and more urgent account to render.
There is more at stake here, though: Mukta’s is a family that made an ethical choice of living as they did. Their principle is one that Mukta, quoting Stuart Hall, states as follows: Do not go out and eat this world. Hall’s impassioned plea, made at a conference on children’s education that the author attended, is recalled in an epiphanic moment in this book, a moment of “acute and intense recognition”. Hall’s words called attention to the “profligate use of both human beings and material resources” which Mukta views as a “central feature of history since the Columbian expansion”. This is how the principle links to hunger, the focus of the second part of this book.
It is the author’s conviction that hunger leaves its indelible psychic imprint, whether as principle (her grandmother’s austerity) or as pathology (her aunt Tara’s shopaholism), on the people who have known what it is. Hunger appears at/as the origins (in India, Africa) of this family´s history, which then moves towards plenty (in Britain, the United States) – it is not reified into a condition of perpetuity. But what it leaves nonetheless is its traces, not the less poignant for being borne as memory. “…[T]he disjuncture between the plenty found in the present and the memory of hunger lingers on… Unable to view themselves in the social universe, my father, aunts and uncles have imploded, the fissures leaving deep grooves on their faces”.
Within the larger perspective of global political economy, hunger structures the geography of the world into a South and a North. One of the offshoots of this division is that some people in the world are spectacles, and the others spectators, of hunger. But Mukta insists on exploring the phenomenon that disturbs this neat divide: she explores the difficult ethics of witnessing hunger. “You cannot just look. The act of witnessing is fraught with difficult tensions, and at times trauma. There are shocking nightmares, sometimes death by suicide”. Without this understanding of the costs of affluence (even if only for some, let us admit), fasting-feasting as a way of conceptualising difference might have produced a merely vulgar polemic.
Hunger is susceptible to easy topological metamorphoses into ‘hunger for’ – into a metaphor for desire, sexual appetite, driving ambition, immortality itself. But Mukta keeps the focus simply and literally on food: its lack, and its consequences. This integrity is reinforced by her careful marking of the gradations of hunger in order not to sensationalise her after-all-middle class family’s experience. What they knew was endemic hunger, not the starvation found in times of famine. Of the latter, “May no one ever experience this”, she writes, and the fervency of that prayer says more than the rest of her writing on the subject.
As much, then, as family memoir as historical document, this is a reflective book driven by a clear political and ethical agenda. Understandably, the narratorial tone is not always stable, moving from the deliberately sought-after historical understanding of, for example, the reform movements around widowhood in 19th century India (‘Archive Odyssey’, ‘Voices that rise from the Past’), to the passionate pity for her grandmother’s privations following her husband’s death:
We [her daughters and granddaughters] hover around her, like anxious butterflies around a precious flower. We are chary of drinking of her sweetness, fearful of depleting this, intent always to say: ‘Oh, but you are beautiful.’ And swift comes the reply: ‘Your eyes have made me so.’This is as naked a love as one can find written in literature.
The mixed genres and shifting emotional registers create a palpable tension within this book, producing a hum as on a wire stretched taut. Inevitably, given that an account of this kind must negotiate generational and cultural differences in beliefs and values, there are other kinds of tensions as well. There is, to begin with, the idealisation of the extended family – of the love and closeness it nurtures in an alien and hostile world – that must contend with (indeed, is asserted against) not only the fact of the actual dispersal of the family, but also the exclusions it performs, the costs it extracts.
Only briefly, for instance, does Mukta reflect on her mother’s situation in the family she marries into, the eldest daughter-in-law in a household where all resources had to be shared (her wedding trousseau, for example, was passed on to her sisters-in-law); and in which she ‘lost’ her daughters’ love to a mother- and sisters-in-law. As well, the hard labour of keeping the extended family together in a single household, first in Nairobi and then in Wembley – the large meals that had to be cooked and served all the time, if nothing else – was without a doubt performed by the women, her mother and the other daughters-in-law of the family. The family romance is preserved by the problematic, surely even dubious, assumption that domestic love lightens domestic labour.
‘Sacrifice’ – for this is one of its forms – is, indeed, the ideology and practice that proves most troublesome in writing about this family. “My father, mother, aunts and uncles became adept at crushing the expansion of their needs, stamping down on novel ideas and tastes”. This expresses the grimness of (a necessarily sacrificial) family ideology. Mukta’s father dropped out of school at 16 to go to work to support the family. Her uncle Rajni (‘Haba’ is his niece’s nickname for him) “gave and gave and gave; he asked for nothing”. He and another uncle, Pushker, died, she writes, “having borne the burden of settling a very large migratory family in the very heart of Britain”. She adds, with bitterness, “While none of us has gone out to eat this world – we ate him up”. Mukta’s condemnation, arising from a modern individualist ethic as much as stricken personal guilt, is kept in check by her personal admiration and gratitude towards the sacrificers. Her dispassionate, somewhat remote, historical understanding also diagnoses within this the persistence of a “rural peasant household” ideology conditioned by a “subsistence ethic”.
Sacrifice is accompanied by other religious values, passivity, exalted spirituality, acceptance, which are also both admirable and problematic. Mukta will not allow herself to be critical of her grandmother. “What if she had shown more courage”, she begins to ask, but checks herself, “Stop, Pari. Stop this”. Instead, she dwells on her strength, her calm, her transcendence of bitterness, her seeming oblivion even of suffering, her entry into the “dense yet luminous world” of religious faith, bhakti. Her grandmother’s asceticism, which limits her to one meal a day, links her story to the thematic of hunger. Fasting is ordained as one of Hindu widowhood’s ritual prescriptions, though for Ba obedience is a voluntary exercise in spiritual self-discipline. (Gandhi deliberately adopted and adapted this female religious ritual as an ethical and political praxis.) Thus, ascetic widowhood brings together (voluntary) sacrifice and (involuntary) hunger within a specific problematic of gender ideology to which I shall return.
Here is another of the tensions that informs the book. I use the word ‘tensions’ rather than ‘contradictions’, which these moments could otherwise be taken for, in order to indicate that these crucial questions are consciously marked and allowed to remain as questions. The dilemma in judging the religious faith of others is one that I share (as a reader able to identify with the author in several respects). Between practising or at least accepting widespread and culturally ‘authentic’ ways on the one hand, and on the other making a commitment to a secular modernity that must function as an antidote to Hindu fundamentalism in India today, the Indian intellectual finds herself in muddy and deeply troubled political waters.
I share another of Mukta’s political and theoretical commitments, that of feminism. I have suggested already that I believe Mukta to be disingenuous in not fully acknowledging women’s problematic position in the (idealised) family. But in other places, the question of gender is addressed in powerful and original ways. One of these is the examination of the “actual father”, as Carolyn Steedman has described the contradiction of patriarchy in 20th century Britain. In Mukta’s family patriarchy is posed not so much against the lack of stature of the actual fathers (for the patriarchs are indisputably the breadwinners in the family), but against normative cultural definitions of masculinity.
These gentle unassertive men, her father and uncles, how could they fulfil male roles which demanded success and authority above all things? Haba was thought to be a “bit of a simpleton”, “anyone could walk all over him”; his goodness was “interpreted as weakness, as a lack of manliness”. Mukta re-evaluates these qualities in paying homage to them. More interestingly (and characteristically), she also finds a genealogy for the weak man in the romanticism of a certain kind of historical male type, the colonial Bengali babu. The icon of this type is Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s eponymous hero, Devdas, and especially his cinematic personification in the actor KL Saigal opens up a rich seam in the cultural terrain that Mukta mines.
Mukta opens up another site of gendering in the culture through her extended meditation on the figure of the ladli, the beloved daughter. Drawing on the legend of Sonbai, as well as memories of her own growing-up years – the fine education her father scrimped and saved to give her, the out-of-school treats he organised for her, the sheltering love of her grandmother, the companionship of sister and aunts – Mukta shows how the ladli becomes a particularly vulnerable social being, not only victim but also an agent of conflict in this culture. ‘Beloved daughter’ is a paradox that should be of particular interest to those pondering the murderous misogyny expressed in India as femicide (the killing of female foetuses, infants, young brides, or women’s reduced life expectancy as a result of simple neglect in childhood), reflected in a national sex ratio that points to 37 million “missing females”, in the words of the economist Amartya Sen.
Mukta does not attempt an answer to the puzzle of why daughters so beloved are yet destroyed. But that simple misogyny cannot be the answer points to the need to pursue the question within, if need be, psychic spaces in the culture (which need not be Oedipal stories). Analysis must venture into the structures and practices of the exchange of women, the rivalries of love, the complicated (il)logic of its expressions, and the confused psychology of filial fears, frustrations, anger. Mukta remains content with suggesting, as reason for her father’s estrangement from her following her decision to choose an Englishman as a life partner, the likelihood that he was “raw” from “the injuries inflicted on him by a privileged race”. No outsider, not even a reviewer, is authorised to probe such profound family events without presumption, especially since what Mukta reveals of the pain of a ladli’s rejection by her father and community could not have been easy to write.
When she tentatively advances an explanation, it is in terms of the choices a daughter must make in this culture, between being a baapkarmi (“to be bound to the fortunes of the father”), and an aapkarmi (“to cut one’s own path in life”). And having chosen to be the latter, she must pay the price in pain and isolation – but also must have the wisdom to seek reconciliation. But I cannot help thinking that explanations must go beyond ascribing sole agency to the daughter, into exploring the dynamics of father-daughter relationships in the culture more fully. If the framing of the choices in this particular, over-determined way is not questioned, the closure of this moral fable can seem too pat. (I must also admit that I found Mukta’s device of narrating her own story in the third person in this section, in the persona of the mythical “Sonbai”, irritatingly coy.)
In writing of religion, masculinity, childhood, Mukta draws upon the resources of everyday popular culture, the devotional Bhakti songs, the films and film songs, and the folk-tales and myths, which are to be found on everybody’s lips in South Asia and its diaspora. In this way, the author finds a language – really a strategic shorthand – in which to write a history and autobiography that might otherwise have been too vast, as well as too personal, to handle. It is a very successful device for the most part. Sometimes, however, the references to too diverse a range of European and Indian sources (Pinocchio and Narsinh Mehta at the same time, for example), can seem random and eclectic, though admittedly this does describe the Western-educated South Asian’s actual hybrid cultural knowledge quite accurately.
This book’s thematics of diaspora and cultural hybridity, the invocation of ‘magical’ stories, the fragmented narrative structure, the privileging of memory: a recitation of these features would appear to add up to a recipe for the typical postcolonial/post-modern contemporary text. What I have tried to suggest, through a greater immersion into its form and politics in this review, is that this is a book that also resists such incorporation. As a feminist historical account it transforms our understanding of both stay-at-home nationalism and of diaspora, both of which have tended to be largely gendered male in the most influential accounts and theories of these phenomena in the Subcontinent so far. The title’s mixed metaphor of “shards” of memory that depict the “woven” lives of four generations, points to the contrary pulls of severe (though not contingent) selection on the one hand, and the desire to make (comprehensive) meaning of one’s life on the other.
Above all, Shards of Memory is a deliberately didactic work, reflected in the bibliographies and reading-lists, the frequent pauses for self-reflexive takes, and the self-righteous exhortations to the reader on political issues. Its gravitas places it at a distance – generic as well as political – from the exuberant tones and the playful historical licenses of, say, Rushdie’s fiction and its ilk. The didacticism is likely to be hard to take for some readers, but for others it will serve as a sign of the integrity of the self that speaks in these pages. At the very least its difference should mark the heterogeneity of contemporary South Asian writing.
~ Rajeswari Sunder Rajan is Professorial fellow, Wolfsen College, and Reader in English faculty, University of Oxford