Books

Book Review: Shadows Of Impermanence In Sara Rai's 'Raw Umber'

Transiting between tongues and navigating memories, 'Raw Umber' is Sara Rai's first work in English.

Book Review: Shadows Of Impermanence In Sara Rai's 'Raw Umber'
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Memoirs are striking chords with readers – last year there was Deepti Naval’s In a Country Called Childhood and now there is Sara Rai’s Raw Umber. One might wonder at the name, taken from a painter’s tube, evoking a shadowy shade. Much of Rai’s memories are shadowed with grief – she begins by commenting on the fact that many of those whose smiles and moments crowd family photographs are no more. But death, she writes philosophically, is a fact of life. 

  Rai’s family is overshadowed by the legend of her grandfather, Premchand, who touched many lives with his stories. However, two of her memories centre on her father Srinath, certainly unique in his own way who was a publisher and later a painter, operating the Sarasvati Press and abandoning Allahabad to live in Delhi. 

  She begins with her houses, Banaras and Allahabad, revisiting their different characters, describing how she grew up with her siblings and the world of life at school that was not always the most hygienic. There is a rawness underlying the subtlety of Rai’s prose that returns again and again in her remembrances of her family, her mother and aunt’s deaths, the chaotic life or her brother and more. In sense one might call it a reimagining since she revisited these spaces after a five-year stint in Australia and found the walls still held their memories, though the people linked to them were long gone. 

She writes about the different faiths of her family, her aristocratic Muslim mother and her Hindu father with his village roots – one memory traces her mother’s family tree with its ramifications traced from her ancestor’s grave. The religious plurality is a thread that links the shadows making it all the more striking in the current scenario of things. There are Pakistani sisters in law who come and go, American and Polish cousin in laws - all adding their grist to the mill of memories. 

   Rai’s details are what lighten the shadows with their poetry, glimpses of nature, flower petals and bird song. She also captures life as it was then for those who lived out of the urban rush and who travelled by train passing through stations that all seemed similar in their quaintness. Hers is an emotionally charged world overshadowed by many legacies written honestly and directly, self-contained within the ‘schizophrenic sixties’. She clings to watches that have stopped working, old chocolate tins and pieces of fabric, writing on her grandfather’s desk, the only thing that she possesses of his, since he was a man who left nothing behind that could go into a museum staying for her the picture within the cupboard. Though there are many cupboards and many pictures throughout the narrative with the flow of the past weighing down the present. 

Since the stand-alone essays were written over time, things recur – her father’s books for instance, his writing in Kahani, life at the Press and in the Drummond Road bungalow. The mahuas and mangoes that line the Lamhasi road return in their season as do the cloud yellow butterflies trapped live into albums. And there is the mention of her grandmother’s use of different tongues to speak to her family and to the domestics.  In the end, the book is a coming of age as well as a chronicle of one of India’s most revered literary families, with stories by Rai’s mother and grandmother as an appendix for those who may not have encountered them before, which coming as an additional bonus for the reader. 

Rai continues to be a translator and writer in Hindi – Raw Umber is, in fact, her first work in English. However, in the essays on writing that are also part of the book, she dwells on the dilemma of capturing the sense of words like ‘shabd’ in English where the sound and the word are divorced from each other. In fact, she comments that one should really not write in anything but one’s mother tongue. However, English has the merit of lending distance and a certain objectivity which may be what she needed to express her narratives of a lost past. It was also the language that she has read in.  She also revisits the fact that her father hoped she would be a Katherine Mansfield in India, a comment found scrawled in a long-ago notebook, though she adds that the New Zealand writer was actually a British import to the country, apt in a world where Rai was transiting between tongues. 

Raw Umber: A Memoir, by Sara Rai 

Westland 

INR 699 

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