A memorable family saga

While it succeeds as a tale that traces the breakdown of the joint family, it loses much as a result of trying to fit in the voluminous history of a joint family from 1940 to 1990. As the book wrestles with the challenge of containing so much in a couple of hundred pages the reader naturally loses track. Despite this flaw, at the end of it all, you wouldn’t want to dismiss the book as a complete waste of time.

Young Rajan’s family lives in a sprawling house in Benares with five courtyards and so many rooms that generations together live comfortably and without getting into each other’s way. His grandmother, Badi Amma, presides over the humongous family with love and care. So huge is the house that a family member’s absence goes unnoticed for days, and so many children live there that they don’t have to look for play companions elsewhere.

Rajan’s father, Radheylal, the first son in his generation, is a successful advocate and the entire household lives well on his income. It is a family where most members bury their differences and their individuality for the greater good of all, where old dadi amma is cared for with love and devotion till her dying day. Such is the love among members that when her brother-in-law, Sunny, steals her earrings, Naeki Chachi does not cast aspersions on him. Why should he steal what is his, she asks those who talk ill of him. However, soon winds of change blow away this self-sacrificing paradise, so much so that towards the end, even brothers carry acrimony in their hearts and don’t see eye to eye. The book succeeds in bringing this loss of a sense of belonging very beautifully.

When young Rajan, in all innocence recites a song of revolt in school, he is punished by his British principal, Mr Smith. Rajan’s father Radheylal takes offence at the incident and accelerates his decision to take part in the freedom movement. This is the turning point in the fortunes of the family. With the pivot gone, the family wheel spirals out of control. The ultimate disintegration begins when Radhey’s own children decide to chart their life away from the ancestral home. When Rajan visits his ancestral home late in life, he looks at his beloved house now walled by the numerous divisions of property, with its inmates living like rank outsiders and wonders at the changes time had wrought. His three children, brought up in a nuclear family, clearly selfish and individualistic in their own way, epitomise the complete breakdown of the Benares family.

The book has some memorable characters who, despite being incompletely developed, stand out: Sunny, the youngest of Radheylal’s brothers, who loves his sarangi and leaves home to become a wandering monk; Govardhan, Shanti Devi’s adoptive father, who lives a Gandhian life, and one day captures a thief and lets him free when he finds the thief hungry; Kammo, the mujrawali, whose help Radhey’s mother enlists to entice her son, so that he gets his zest for life back, but who instead develops a soft corner for Radhey’s wife. Some incidents are memorable too — there is the one when Rajan travels to Benares to fight a case against his cousin Chhotey. But Chhotey’s mother, Naeki Chachi, takes Rajan home and showers genuine affection on him, without betraying any animosity towards this man who was taking her son to court. These characters and incidents are stories by themselves. If Govind Mishra had split the book into a few volumes and built the story slowly but solidly, would it have more charm? One muses.

The house with five courtyards
Govind Mishra, translated by
Masooma Ali
Penguin,
2011, pp 274,
Rs 299

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