Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Michael Maam, you will be missed

Michael Maam (Maama means mother’s brother in many Indian languages) had no fan club, but if he had had one, I would undoubtedly have been its founder, president and life member.

That is the significance of the place he held in my life.

My childhood was definitely a cosier and far more comfortable place because of his presence in it.

He worked as a chief steward on the ship, a position that he had attained after decades of hard work. The stories of the backbreaking work he put in were the substance of the family legends I grew up on. Mum would tell me of how he went to work on the ship back in those days, when he was a slip of a 15-year-old, because his own father had passed away a year previously, leaving my Mamai (grandmother) and her brood of five with no support whatsoever.

Mamai scrounged around and made ends meet, making a little go a long way, walking endless miles to pick up broken twigs that could be burned to cook another day’s meal. This when she wasn’t working in the harsh noonday sun, working in someone else’s fields, hoping to earn enough to keep her children fed and clothed.

It was a harsh life, and I can only imagine how Michael Maam, the eldest of the children, matured before his time, and took the decision to go on the ship to earn a living. I wonder how he must have steeled himself for the task, and how he found it in himself to ask Mamai for permission. I wonder how Mamai must have felt then about letting him go work on the ship. It was after all the sea that had swallowed her husband, widowed her and left her children fatherless, with the youngest, my mother, being less than a year old.

One lonely, stormy night at sea, during which my grandfather went on his first sea voyage and never returned. Even his body was never found. I never considered this then when Mum told me this part of our family history but I have been thinking of this today. What courage he displayed when he took the decision to do the thing that needed to be done, to be the grown man that his family needed even though he was still only a child.

Mum spoke about how he would return home from those voyages, his arms and bags laden with goodies. Cheese, and chocolates and I don’t know what else, stuff they would not otherwise have had. But those things weren’t important in themselves. They were important for what they came to symbolize. They came to stand for the abundance and the freedom from want that he brought in their lives. This big brother became both Big Brother and a Father Figure to them all. For all of them, and my Mum, too, it was a bond that was never shaken.

Baab, she and her siblings used to call him, remained ever a figure that merited and was given the deepest respect and love. He had earned it.

I would eagerly listen to those stories that Mum used to recount to me, using them to forge my identity in a family in which people loved each other. Using those stories, and the people within them, as markers, I understood the depth of love that a family can hold.

And that is how Michael Maam became a part of my life.

I don’t recall the first moment in which I met him. So much of what happens in our childhood, even though it may be of life changing significance, is stuff that we cannot assign dates to.

But this much I remember. Michael Maam was always a favourite. From the beginning. No, from the beginning of the beginning. And that was a constant not only for me, but for my brothers and my cousins. Nothing could change that.

We all felt excited when we knew he was coming.

He would be at sea for around 9 months, and would return to Goa for a well-earned 3-month rest. Mum would tell me that he was coming, and just like that, I would get excited. Even if I was smack in the middle of exam fever, the news that Michael Maam was on his way was like waking up on the first day of our summer vacation. It spelled joy and happiness and affection. I would look at the world with delight in my eyes, thinking Life is good.

When he paid a visit to our modest home, neighbours would spot him climbing up the stairs and announce to my mother, “Tuzha bhau aala (Your brother has come.)” Joy indeed!

And not for what he bought, even though he never came empty handed. He was the only one who asked me what I wanted him to bring for me. Primed by Mum, I would tell him that I had everything I needed, but he would prod me nevertheless.

He could also be a prankster. At my aunt TiaO’s house (Tia is Portuguese for aunt), where I spent many pleasant days, he would often hide his toothbrush in my bag, and then search everywhere “frantically,” then “find” it in my bag, and then rag me endlessly about my “toothbrush robbing” habits.

When Dad lost his job, it was Michael Maam who wrote to Mum telling her to make sure that our education was not hampered, offering his unconditional support. More than the financial help he extended, it was the reassurance that spoke out loud through his handwriting on the blue inland letter that made Mum and Dad feel easy.

Michael Maam’s presence in our lives was like that, a huge tree in which birds took shade. It felt solid.

Summer holidays felt better when he was around. Childhood felt great because he was around. Life felt better because he was around. Now he is gone, and there is a giant sized hole where he used to be.

About 10 years ago, Michael Maam began to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. At first, it was not so evident. Forgetting to post letters, which he carried about in his pocket; forgetting to buy something; harmless it seemed, even comical.

And then it grew. Bigger and bigger, until this horrible disease consumed my Michael Maam, making this giant of a man stoop within himself, making him forget to eat and bathe, making him forget to speak, and unkindest cut of fate, making him forget who he was, and how an entire extended family, not to mention a whole village, looked up to him with respect and affection.

Once I got a job, it became difficult to go to Goa every year. Years passed by in which I didn’t see him. But that did nothing to shake his place in my heart.

Last May, the Husband and I planned a holiday to Goa, with our two children, known on my 
blog as La Niña and El Niño. Mum and Dad came along with us too. Michael Maam’s was the first house we visited.

At their home, I spoke to him, but he just stared at me, offering no response. I knew that he had stopped talking some years ago, that he wouldn’t move around anymore, staying in one position for a long, long time, so it wasn’t a surprise, but it still hurt to not hear his booming voice in response, to see him reduced to a shadow of his former self.

We sat in their living room, chatting with my aunt, TiaT. Throughout the 30 minutes we spent there, he kept staring at me. Just staring, that is all. I felt a pang in my heart, and hoped that in some forgotten recess of his mind, my presence there, my voice, was sparking a memory, reminding him of who I was, reminding him of what he meant to me, reminding him of what a difference his presence had made in all our lives.

But he only stared. No other response.

At length it was time to go. As we took our leave, I took my two kids by the hand and led them to him. I said to him in Konkanni, “Michael Maam, these are my children.” He stared at me for a long beat, then lifted both his hands slowly, and ruffled my children’s hair with his fingers. My kids, probably sensing their mother’s affection for this man, stood still and silent. My son, only three, and always restless, stood still and silent too.

And then a thin film of tears shone in his eyes, making them shine brighter, like the sun bursting through on a rainy day, while a smile, ever so faint at first, appeared on his lips and touched his eyes.

I burst into tears at the sight, thanking God for giving me that last visual memory of him. Thanking God for causing Michael Maam to dip into the deepest recesses of his consciousness and find in the trove there some glimmer of who I am, and our bond together.

Thank you, Michael Maam, for the man you were and for all you meant to me. Our world is poorer for your absence but I have no doubt that there will be feasting and merriment and a joyful reunion in Heaven tonight.

Monday, March 23, 2015

What a Character! (A to Z April Challenge 2015 Theme Reveal)

Character is what I have and you are.

I forget who said that, but I suspect it must have been someone like George Bernard Shaw, he of the biting, trenchant wit and the skills in sharp characterisation.

We all have our favourite characters. Some of them spring up from books. They remain with us long after we have read the final word on those pages, or lent those books, or even forgotten where the books might be. Every book owner and lover can identify with losing books.

The reader requires no special skills to conjure these characters.

They make a warm impression on our hearts. Long after we have closed the book, they continue to sit by the fireside in our hearts, warm and comfortable and totally at home. Their feet propped up, sipping something delicious, they look up at us entering the room and with a smile that transforms their eyes, they say, “What took you so long? I’ve been waiting to catch up.”

It’s a rare skill to be able to create a character like that. One that slips off the constraints of the printed page and occupies a life life persona. Completely three-dimensional. Flesh and blood. As real as you and me.

Some of them may befriend us early on in our childhoods; others may strike a flame later on when our middles are more pronounced than any other part of our bodies. Still others may enter our lives when the silver has touched the soot on our heads. No matter what stage of life we may be in, they leave an impression upon the wet clay of our minds. And they never leave.

And somehow they touch us, leave us better (or worse), but different than we would have otherwise been.

Mere figments of somebody’s imagination they are, and so we supply the substance they sorely need. Our affection strengthens and sustains them long after their authors have written their last books and gone to that Great Big Library in the Sky.

All through April, I will introduce you to some of the characters that have grown with me. The idea is to write letters to each one of them.

It is by no means an exhaustive list, constrained as I will be by the limits that the A to Z April Challenge imposes. Besides, a lifetime spent reading and devouring books necessarily means the accumulation of more friends than I can describe in 26 days.

A few of the characters are not from books. They are elements of pop culture, like films or advertising campaigns or even products, and they’ve stayed with me too for reasons just as strong.

This April, I hope you join me in my endeavour to renew my friendship with these characters. I hope the attempt will remind you of those that are waiting for you in the recesses of your own mind.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Book Review: UNKEPT

Title: Unkept
Author: Ericka Clay
Publisher: Bannerwing Books
Pages: 257

I wondered why Ericka had not called the book, Broken, since that was what most of the characters were, bruised and broken. But I supposed, Unkept worked just as well. I wondered what it stood for though. Did it mean a mess, something that wasn’t kept well?

The cover revealed nothing. In an age of designer book covers, it was stark and plain. Just the title and the author’s name, giving us no indication of what to expect, and taking away our right to judge its merit by its cover.

The book alternates between the first person present tense account of Vienna Oaks and the third person past tense account of Heather Hammel, her childhood nemesis. The alternating POVs don’t always take the story forward. Instead they retrace the same experiences from differing viewpoints.

The trouble with choosing different styles for both was that it got me unconsciously supporting Vienna over Heather. I don’t know if Ericka meant that to happen, or if she merely wished to set the two viewpoints apart.

The setting is established in the first few pages. We come to know that it is a funeral home, from the sweet smell of formaldehyde and the body of a five-year-old that initiates an upheaval in the mind of Vienna. It is amazing how the needs and complexities of life constantly buzz and swarm even in the backdrop of a funeral home, a reminder of how the circle of life and death is so entwined within itself.

We begin the novel by seeing Heather and Vienna as their pregnancy hormones wreak havoc in their lives. Both are now grown up, but the shadow of grade school still hangs heavily over both of them. Both women are psychologically bruised, and have a physically or mentally absent father, a mother with severe issues, and of course, Wyland. Married to Heather, Wyland no longer loves her. He is incapable of staying committed to either woman.

It is hard to describe the plot but I will try my best. Through the writing, you sense the dysfunction of this family across generations. Vienna’s dead mother with a severe alcohol addiction, her grandmother who blames Vienna, her dad’s affair with Loretta (Dad’s yellowing stationery to Loretta’s neon Post-it note), and her grandfather in prison. And a secret that Vienna has kept repressed for years.

Between the troubled family members, the children feel hemmed in on all sides. Vienna battles life, nervous and anxious, while Troy, her brother, drops out of civilized life. As Vienna observes, Dirt and time have made their beds in his pores.

At age 15, Troy sleeps with 13-year-old Rosa, Vienna’s best friend, and leaves her pregnant. Rosa becomes an unwed teenage mother. It is another example of the wrong personal choices that the characters make, one that reprises itself when Maya, Rosa’s daughter with Troy, also becomes pregnant in her teens.

Heather carries her own issues. Her childhood saw her father leave her and her filth- and vermin-loving mother to set up house with another woman. Distressed, Heather seeks to rebuild her self-esteem by torturing other kids in the sixth grade.

As grownups, Vienna has an affair, which results in pregnancy, with her one-time best friend, Wyland, now Heather’s husband, a man who cannot stay committed to any woman. Heather too is pregnant with Wyland’s child. When Heather’s mother dies, she chooses Oaks Funeral Home to complete the formalities.

Slowly Heather and Vienna gravitate towards each other, bound by their pregnancies, and their burdensome past and complicated present. Their attitude towards their mothers informs their lives, as Ericka observes through Vienna’s voice: There’s nothing extinguishable about the burning roots that connect a mother to her child.

It takes a while to figure out who is who, because Ericka establishes the relationships and the circumstances in the best way possible: from the inside out. The relationships are all complicated and twisted, leaning into one another.

The friendship between Vienna and Rosa is beautifully described. Even though we don’t get her point of view, and therefore know nothing about the pain she feels when Vienna wounds her feelings, she still comes across as rock solid, forgiving and loving, standing up against Heather’s bullying, and fiercely protective of Vienna.

The healing power of confession which Vienna experiences with Rosa as a child is something she has need of, even as a grownup. What mattered was wringing my soul dry like a dirty washcloth and feeling the quiet smoothing over every raw nerve. That is how Vienna explains the act of playing confession time with Rosa. It is a line that struck me at the end of the story, making the otherwise hard-to-accept conclusion easier to accept. A closing that provided closure to Vienna.

While Rosa offers healing, Vienna’s Gram is bacon in a pan snapping hot oil against my ear, and just like that you feel the sizzling in your own mind.

The writing is sensual. We taste the words as we read, and stop and think about the implications of each line. Vienna thinks about herself stooping to her Gram’s level and how it is not that great a drop. In another instance, she says, the chips and nicks are time scraped perfunctorily into the wood.

The flashbacks are truly seamless, and we traverse the distance between past and present as effortlessly as the characters themselves. Bit by bit, Ericka peels off layer after layer. Heather’s cruelty is there, magnified when set against the fact that she stole Wyland away from Vienna. Heather is not mean the way Hollywood portrays it, but her cruelty pecks away at a girl with severe anxiety issues.

The characters are all complicated, as is the writing. Don’t pick up this book, if easy reading is what you are looking for. Readers must be prepared to make an investment on their own part in order to get the best out of this book. But that is what all good books demand of readers, and good readers are more than willing to oblige.

Ericka handles her material well. She knows how to turn the cushion inside out so the hurt and the embarrassment can stay hidden.

I found her choice of words most interesting. Often the usage is far removed from tradition. For example, the soap…flirted with the air. Elsewhere, miscarriage is described as the pain in my womb healing without my consent.

Ericka’s style can bring out the laughs just as you are reading something deathly serious. But as Vienna says, There is nothing funny about the truth. 

The author is matter-of-fact about everyone, whether they are in pain, or whether they are doing something wrong. There is no judgement.

The women are all strong, even when they are faced with the fickleness of the men. Vienna and Heather who love a man who does not love them as much. Loretta who cares for Vienna’s father and his children even though she cannot expect a ring in return. Vienna’s mother, Louise, and Heather’s mother, Caroline, in the face of their addiction and issues. Rosa, who finds herself pregnant at 13 and Vienna’s Gram, whose husband is arrested and imprisoned. It is the men who are unable to keep their promises.

Unkept brings out the fact that grief and the need for forgiveness and redemption are universal. The novel brings up a number of issues. How adults can mess up children’s lives at home, as well as the insidious effects of bullying. About the pain of ruptured relationships and the delicious release that comes of forgiving and mending the rupture.

I understood the meaning of Unkept in the last paragraph, when Vienna thinks being this free is almost harder to bear than being kept.

Reading Unkept left me feeling a little exhausted as if I had lived all those conflicting and troubled lives. I hope you’re convinced to read it too.

Sunday, March 01, 2015


Title: Bloodline Bandra
Author: Godfrey Joseph Pereira
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 264

The first thing that invited me to read Bloodline Bandra was the most charming cover. How can you not want to enter an image infused with an era now almost gone? The old storied houses, the cross erected in the centre, the Mangalore-tiled roofs. The two pigs were definitely part of that charm. And above them all, the predatory eagle hovering over the charming vista, threatening paradise.

Random elements from the cover image are used to serve as an introductory motif to each of the three books that make up this story. Book I sees the two fat pigs, symbolising the inherent nature of Pali village, and the pigs that have as great a right to stake claim to being the original residents of the area as the East Indians themselves. Book II highlights the image of the eagle, presaging the challenges that David will be up against. And Book III showcases the cross with the crow poised on a corner, symbolic of the nonchalance with which Pali village views the pace and other yardsticks of success of the rest of the world, and at the same time affirming its stoic, eternal nature, all forgiving, ever welcoming.

The story is about the quest for the great American Dream, and how it unknowingly perpetuates the exploitation and debasement of people.

David Francis Cabral belongs to Pali Village, in Bandra, Bombay, and yet he is not completely of it. The quaint lingo of his fellow villagers, their particular mannerisms and idiosyncrasies that allow them to revel in their believed superiority, the double entendre they indulge in, effecting shutting others out, turn him off.

When David’s childhood friends return to Pali for a holiday, he is struck by the life they describe, and completely taken in by their stories of success, of having made it in Dubai and Oman. Their open disdain of Bombay and the deteriorating conditions make him feel ashamed of what he is, of how far he has somehow slipped from them. The barbs of his friends sting him and he feels weary of the only life he has ever known.

He longs to build a better life for himself, to get out of the pond that he sees himself stuck in. Dissatisfied with his life and keen to do better, he applies for a job as a journalist in New York and is overjoyed when he is hired by Asia Times.

Book II sees David in America but it is nothing like his imagination. He receives a rude shock when he learns that he will have to live in the office and work for a pittance. If he is fired, he will be an illegal alien. His visa will not let him find another job unless another company is willing to sponsor him.

Manu Laxman, the owner and editor of Asia Times, lords it over the hellhole that the newspaper is, exploiting and demoralizing the cheap workforce he hires from India. For David, work offers no saving grace as he is expected to plagiarise and rewrite shamelessly. He writes home, inventing stories of a great life. When he falls in love with Hatsumi Nakamura, a Japanese cellist and music student, it is the only bright spark in his sordid life. The two have a relationship that has no future because both are bound by cultural norms and circumstance.

David befriends a homeless man, one who has willingly dropped out of the world, a man who once worked with Oppenheimer. This man prompts David to question his idea of success and achievement.

The author recreates for us the bravado and swagger of a city through the medium of its people. Manu Laxman asks him to do an original story in return for better conditions and the sponsorship of a Green Card. David chases a feeble lead, even delivering a package of what he suspects is a drug, just to get his source and his story. In spite of all his efforts, he is fired when he falls sick.

In Book III, David is rescued by a kind couple from Pali who have made NY their home. He finds another job, equally demeaning, as editor and writer for India InTune. Achyuta, the publisher, exploits him. The Promised Land continues to elude David. He finds himself a victim of modern day slavery, where low wages and the fear of becoming an illegal resident prove to be his undoing, forcing him into long, backbreaking hours of work for less than the minimum wage. Meanwhile, Achyuta's wife, Kamala, tempts David into assisting in the accidental murder of her husband, in exchange for the sponsorship of his Green Card.

Will David continue to subject himself to back-breaking labour and soul-deadening shame? Will he ever be successful in America?

So good is the writing that before long we begin to identify with David and find ourselves plagued by the questions that torment him. Even if we have never stepped beyond Indian shores, we understand the pain of being forced into a quandary and not being able to get away from it all. We miss the village he had sought to escape from, and our hearts ache at the thought of Hatsumi and David having to go their separate ways.

The characters, especially those that people Pali village, are very entertaining. None of their stories are taken to any conclusion. They serve only to introduce us to the world of Pali, and yet we are entranced by them. Pereira has brought them all alive. Their amusing nicknames illustrate their characters. The pages, and the village, are filled with such gems as Salt Peter, Lorna Leg Spread, Bosco Big Stomach. It is a world where one characteristic or one weakness can serve to brand you for life, and the author sees them all with an eye that is at once indulgent and critical. We all know such types and archetypes, but few of us could have brought them to life so well as Pereira has.

Here we meet stalwarts like Salt Peter who went to college for one year, as legend went, and insisted that "the bleddy big books" had "transformed him into an absolute idiot." We come to know of this proud race of people, the East Indians, their history, and of how their superstitions and faith reside side by side, their rules regarding parental responsibility and other interesting nuggets of information,

Allowing us to see them through David’s perspective, we understand how he might like and loathe them at the same time, how he is one among them, and yet longs to distance himself from the individuals and types that have populated his culture and his village for longer than he has lived. In fact, Pereira has built the world of Pali so beautifully. You actually find yourself transported to the bylanes of the village, completely transfixed by it. The anecdotes and stories that pepper the Pali chapter of his life are hilarious and amusing.

Even though the story is written from the third person perspective of David, it is a semi-autobiographical account of Pereira's own experience. It deftly combines two separate works that Pereira had written, the agonising account of his experience in America with the account of life in the sleepy Pali village.

The reason why Bloodline Bandra succeeds is that Pereira proves how tightly we are all bound to our bloodlines, the places we hail from, and how hard it is to get them out of our system. How it must feel to constantly yearn for a place one has moved away from, while longing to belong to a place that shuts its door in our faces.


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