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Writing a Good Life


M.S. Ganesh

ON BALANCE: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY
By Leila Seth
Penguin/Viking, New Delhi,, 2003, pp. 464, Rs. 495.00

VOLUME XXVIII NUMBER 4 April 2004

Autobiography and memoir—are they the same? In the subtitle the book is an autobiography, in the author’s preface it is “a memoir”. If you go by the COD, an autobiography is the story writing of one’s own life. But a memoir is just a record of events or history written from personal knowledge or special sources of information. It is only memoirs that become synonymous with (auto) biography.   But Seth transcends publisher’s punctilio and editor’s emendation and strikes her own misericord. For she is “Leila, the playful one, engaged in the play of universal energy” (p.3). Her charming smile on the dust jacket is her prelude to the music which, according to her singing teacher, “she will never learn how to sing” (p.12) (emphasis in original). She is modestly self deprecatory. If she could not sing her heart out, she could certainly write it: “I write in English because English is the only language I know well. It is the language in which—unlike my mother—I think and dream” (p.8). And, yet, perversely, of her first visit to England with her husband and their stay in a Tilbury hotel: “One thing that did give me a rather ignoble pleasure was to see Englishmen and Englishwomen cleaning the toilets and the floors. It was something that I could not have imagined before leaving India. It gave me a kick to see the whites who had lorded it over us in our own country now serving us in theirs” (p.90). Then a flashback to a prejudice that all Hindu flesh is heir to: the bout of cholera at the age of three which she survived, “but I was left very weak and very dark complexioned” (p.7).   It did not matter, in later years, to Premo, the man who became her husband. “He was colour-blind, but that did not stop him from appreciating the colour of my sari and praising it as a ‘beautiful sea-green’, when it was actually magenta” (p.67). In the shoemaker’s (Bata) shop you would never see Premo stop, till his heart went pop inside the little shop when universal energy wafted in.   Then the Seth family burgeons. Vikram, the courageous (b. 1952), a suitable boy who, Conrad-like, moved from Hindi to English to fame; Shanthum, the man of peace, (b.1957), who found it with Thich Nhat Hanh; then Aradhana, the answer to Leila’...


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