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A Haunting Tale

Ira Pande

By Christine Spittel Wilson
Perera Hussein Publishing House, Colombo, 2007, pp. 262, Rs. 690.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 10 October 2007

Memoirs fascinate me: not just because like most humans I have an insatiable curiosity about other people’s lives but because of the landscapes embedded in memories that emerge defiantly from nostalgic syrup and startle you with a rare insight. Often, whole cities, regions, countries and cultures come alive—even in indifferent memoirs—because they provide the context for the way lives are shaped and destinies cast. How can one forget that once upon a time, when the Indian subcontinent comprised India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon as one seamless territory, our lives were interlocked with our neighbours in vivid relationships? Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian—these were not religions that separated us: they were faiths that bound us together.   This is perhaps the real reason why any memoir that comes out of any part of the subcontinent draws us to itself. Reading about the lives and places described there is as pleasurable as being able to complete a book that one had lost when still half-read. It revives old ties that have vanished forever yet continue to haunt our dreams and stories.   Sadly, few memoirs fulfil the role of providing glimpses of the multiple lives behind one life. Perhaps the reason for this is that the Victorian school of memoir writing had certain unbreakable ‘rules’ for writing a ‘good’ memoir: only great lives were fit to be recorded and one was never to speak ill of the dead. Unfortunately, both these rules—so eminently made for breaking—are rarely transgressed. One has therefore plodded through several memoirs that read like the lives of women who were Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa rolled in one and men who were so morally upright and courageous that it seems improbable that they were at all lovable. The truth is that often they were not: at best, they were figures of veneration, with bony laps and dry eyes.   A few years ago, I decided to write a memoir myself: the subject was my mother, the Hindi writer Shivani. My task was not made easier because she was an extraordinary mother, a dutiful wife, a wonderful friend and a lively mind. However, like most mothers she was also exasperating, maddening and, ultimately, an enigma. And as I wrote, I constantly recalled Philip Larkin’s lines on one’s parents:   They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They ...

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