Granny's gift to kids

Granny's gift to kids

Granny's gift to kids
The Keeper of 
Memories
Madhu Gurung 
Harper Collins 
2016, pp 368, Rs 
295


A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it,” said William Styron. Everyone has a hidden story. Some have sagas. And Madhu Gurung had the saga of her family inside her, which manifests as The Keeper of Memories, putting the mantle of the family memory-keeper on her.

The Keeper of Memories narrates the story of a Gorkha family in India, and covers a span of two centuries. The keeper of family memories is Dharmshila, who recounts the tales of the family’s ancestors to her grandchildren off and on, weaving them in daily conversations and rituals. The children are awed with the valour of their Gorkha forebears who left Nepal to fight the British in the Battle of Khalanga in Dehradun. Dharmshila’s storytelling skills bring alive the battle in the minds of the children. The courage of their great-great-grandfather, Bom Bahadur, and his brother, Nar Bahadur, as also that of their Chepchu Bajai, Rann Maya, is embedded in their souls. The grey stone from the battle area where Nar Bahadur died becomes the family’s kuldevta. 

The army and football continue as family passions down the generations except for the filmi aspirations of Kharak, considered the black sheep of the family, who has his own demons to fight. In keeping with the martial heritage of the Gorkhas (turned into Gurkhas by the British), joiing the army is a given for each successive generation. Even Kharak joins the army, but decides to bolt to big bad Bombay in search of his dream career.

But all this happens in contemporary times. Gurung weaves the various generations in and out of the present times masterfully, sometimes as flashback and other times portraying the past as the present. The skillful structure does not, at any time, lose the attention of the reader despite the backward and forward of the narrative. It all comes together seamlessly.

Writing of any book involves a fair amount of research, but a book spanning almost 200 years requires extensive study. Madhu Gurung’s fact-finding efforts show. The various eras and milieus depicted: be it the Japanese occupation of Singapore, the creation of Chindits, the “lime-green rice-rich” valley of Imphal, the smell of basmati wafting from the fields near Dehra, the Fagin-like Hari Ustad’s chawl with its naked bulb and Murphy radio, the frenzy of the football matches between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, or the charged riots of the Gorkha National Liberation Front, all come to life under her skillful penmanship.

The book, in parts, becomes a history lesson for the reader. But unlike history lessons in school, these are deftly incorporated without being boring or sermonising. The different strands of the lives of Ran Bahadur, Bir Bahadur, Kharak and Bhim Bahadur are interwoven adroitly with the lives of their forefathers, to make their individual stories a cohesive whole despite the huge time span of the story.

Gurung’s prose, at times, seems to change with the environment and the action depicted. Words take on urgency in the muggy fly-snake-and-mosquito-infested, dangerous war-torn forests where they seem to be picking up tempo to keep pace with the action. 

A few pages later, a peaceful setting such as the Buddhist monastery in Burma, where Sayadaw resides, or the family home in Dehra with the yellow creeper roses and the odour of Batman cigarettes exudes calmness and serenity; even the words employed to describe these scenes seem tranquil. 

The locales, as diverse as tropical jungles of Burma and their “swaying elephant grass with its silvery white feathery flowers” or the sweaty light-boys in the film studios in Bombay perched on their precarious platforms in their vests and striped underwear, come to life with Gurung’s evocative vocabulary.

Nuggets of information have been cleverly incorporated in the novel. For instance, the fact that the supply-carrying mules in the action against the Japanese in Burma (in 1943) had their voice-boxes removed to prevent the enemy from spotting them due to their braying, proves the hours the author would have spent in gathering information in creating this masterpiece. The story is written in a language that is simple, with not a pompous word in sight. Words from the vernacular are used. But, unlike in most works by regional writers, they become a part of the flowing narrative even though no meanings are given as footnotes.

The minor hiccup is with editing in a few places. Spelling and syntax are awry here and there (“pour over a book”? Really?), but that should not keep one from enjoying the author’s family history adeptly masquerading as fiction. The sketches preceding each chapter bring the characters to life — the weather-beaten Bajai, the handsome Ranu, or the march to Burma — and deserve a special mention.

And true to Styron’s statement, I did lead the several lives but was not exhausted.

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