A Country Called Childhood – Book review of a Mesmerising Memoir by Deepti Naval

Deepti Naval describes her memoir as a screenplay and that is an apt description. Her childhood is laid out in scenes as she sifts through the sands of time. There is an almost hypnotic quality in her prose, gently nudging the reader into following the gorgeous visual vistas that she lays out, bringing alive "Mochistan" and "Ambershire" among many others. To know which places these are, you must read the book!

What It's About

This description by Naval of her home's barsati sums up what the book offers: "From here the city looked like a Pahadi miniature, all perspectives clear and visible - the houses, their interiors, the banisters, courtyards, inner and outer views into windows clear and transparent - all terraces ending in the whiteness of the summer sun, scorching through clear glassy skies…." 

Add people to this and you have a grand narrative resplendent with the sounds, sights, smells, and more of growing up in the 1950s and 1960s that draws in locales as well as an ever-widening circle of family, friends, innumerable Mais, neighbours, classmates, and strangers that include fakirs and bad men, the privileged and the castaways.

Why You Should Read It

After Bena’s Summer, this is another book that has top-notch writing that bespeaks a command of the language and has enchanting names that offer a captivating glimpse into the playacting of children, the pur ginos during breezeless nights, the adolescent confusions and first crushes, the fight-back against the harassment by boys, the dawning realization of trouble within and outside, her burning desire to become someone of note. There is also the overwrought imagination of a young Naval that is both mirthful and disturbing at times.  

There are glimpses of her love for cinema and dance, wanting autographs from film folks, her craze for film songs and posters of her favourite heroines, and her delight at finding familial connections with acting, this last reminding me of Sai Paranjpye’s similar joy in her autobiography, A Patchwork Quilt.

Amidst all the fun and games and escapades peppering the narrative, there are also deeply moving passages of the desolateness of her Mama and her parents, Bade Daddy and Badi Mummy at what will prove a final parting; the demise of her paternal grandparents - Bauji and Bibiji - the tragedy of her classmate and friend Neeta Devichand as well as the financial struggles of her Piti as she calls her father and how, when his peers contemplate retirement, he shifts home and family to USA and starts all over again from the bottom rung.

In the title as in the book, Naval without adopting a strident tone is calling for more tolerance and harking back to a more syncretic time. At the same time, she does not shove out of view the class divide (her behaviour at a friend's party) and caste prejudice (the division of neighbourhoods). The intolerance leading to communal violence is also described. The broadcasts by All India Radio and Radio Lahore during the 1956 war between India and Pakistan are brought out with verve and a dash of humour that underlines the absurdity of their jingoism.

The perfect placement of the photographs needs special mention. Often, in memoirs, there’s a photo dump at the centre-fold pages or they are placed randomly. Here, a painstaking effort has been made to select photographs and make them integral to the narrative, such that captions are not even needed for all of them. It's lovely to see Naval through the photographs as she grows up, and the landscape and people through her eyes. 

From the gully of her neighbourhood to Indu bhaiya with his actor’s puff and Naval in her dance costumes and poses, the school plays, the cousin at the army front, and the natural surroundings where they spend many a vacation; this book is a charming film reel.

The Khairuddin Masjid that has such an evocative presence in Naval's memoir appears in photographs as well as her mother's painting on the back cover.

Kudos to all those who created such a lovely tapestry of words and visuals. Brilliantly done, it also meshes beautifully with the very visual nature of Naval’s writing.

Some Drawbacks

The memoir sprawls over five sections namely, Beginnings, An Unlikely Punjabi Family, A Country Called Childhood, Wars and Rebellions, and Dreaming of America. But one wonders what it would have read like had Naval been allowed to just let it flow without trying to connect it in terms of locations or phases of her life. For instance, there is a noticeable dip in the section where Naval attempts a narration of her mother’s memories of Burma. In presenting her parents one also gets a sense of Naval being unsure of how much to reveal and how much to hold back. This is reflected in the differing tone of voice in this section with her mother’s first-person account of her childhood and growing up, switching back to the third person when Naval takes over. There is even a short story about her mother’s attachment to the gramophone, but it doesn’t all hold together and seems forced in parts. Overall, this section breaks the rhythm of the easy cadence that is the hallmark of her lucid prose. 

Similarly, while the prologue is perfect, the epilogue seems like an indulgence. The superb effect of the ending chapter dissipates in the fog of the epilogue. It's like it has been placed there for want of a better section to fit it in. 

Since this memoir is restricted to Naval's childhood, there also seem to be certain gaps in the story, probably meant for another book, as Naval admits there is much more to mine from her memories. But none of these in any way take away from the breathtaking mindscape that Naval so vividly presents that manages to be both intimate and grand at the same time. Go get it!

Information on the Book

Published by Aleph as a Kindle book and hardcover, it is priced at INR 999 for the hardcover. Available at indie bookstores as well as online.

Note on Author

Deepti Naval is an award-winning actress, writer-director, and author of an anthology of short stories called The Mad Tibetan as well as English poetry entitled Black Wind and Other Poems and Hindi poems Lamha Lamha as well as other titles. Her works have also been widely translated. She is also a painter and her paintings can be viewed on YouTube.

This book review has been written by Madhuri Kamat, author of Flying with GrandpaBringing Back GrandpaBurial of The Dead - Mystery in a Mohalla, and Yudi Yudi Dharmasya: Mahabharat - Through the Eyes of Kunti.


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