Kith and Kin: Media Reviews II
The title Kith and Kin, Chronicles of a Clan tells you at the very onset that the stories here are snugly interlinked to one another and you will see characters carry over from one story to another. This is quite comforting.
If you, as a reader, are not yet ready to part with a character, no need to despair — there is a good chance he or she will make an appearance again in someone’s thought, or as someone’s someone.
Through the 230-odd pages of the book, you will live with the eccentricities and quirks of a prestigious matriarchal family, the Melekats from Kerala. At the head of the family is Ammini Amma, and the stories cover characters up to the present day — till Ammini’s grandchildren.
The author does not take the rather boring and tiresome route of narrating the stories in a genealogical order, but weaves them in seemingly no particular sequence. However, given the easy flow of the stories, one can imagine the shuffling she must have done in lining them up.
The collection grabs your attention from the very first story, which briefly introduces you to the matriarch and to the clan, but mostly to Mon Repos, the matriarchal home. Young and thriving architect Sumanth gets a call from his childhood friend Suvarna out of the blue. Suvarna, Ammini’s granddaughter, has now inherited Mon Repos, and she calls Sumanth to know if he wants to buy the place from her.
Through Sumanth, who lived in a rented house next to Mon Repos as a child, the author paints a picture of the grandiose mansion and its uppity dwellers. The stories that follow are almost like a soap opera plot!
There is Raman, Ammini’s widowed brother, who laments having to live with his son’s family as an old man. Then there is Rajan, Ammini’s unmarried brother, who lives on his own, but goes through an intense loneliness that slowly pushes him towards insanity. You will dread old age after gulping these two stories down.
While elders in the clan get you down a little, with their sufferings and insecurities, the younger generation garners your admiration for their resilience. Take Beena, Ammini’s granddaughter. After being forcefully indoctrinated into the “boy seeing” ritual, this is the sentence that sums her thought — “Would they force her to marry that insufferable man? Well, if they did, she would embark on an affair with the brother!”
Or Avinash, the matriarch’s grandson. He is subjected to a silent trauma all through his growing years having to bear with his embittered and embattled parents. The troubled youngster finally decides to move far away from them to Baltimore — “He knew his father would be pragmatic about the move, his mother would be devastated, but it had to be done. Let them sort their lives out, I really cannot be the sole crutch any longer.”
In this compulsively readable collection of short stories, the author’s handling of the main character, Ammini, is subtle but strong. Ammini appears in every story, as someone’s mother, grandmother or sister, but not with a story of her own. So, all along as a reader, you make up your mind about what kind of a person she is.
Just when you think she is a cold-blooded mother, who never cared for her daughter, a grandchild shows you how erudite Ammini really was. While one brother loathes her dominance and control, another loves her for being calm and dignified. So, who is this mystery woman? What happens to her at the end? And how do these stories end? You read on, because I don’t want the review to be flagged for spoilers!
September 2, 2012
The first thing that strikes the reader about Sheila Kumar’s Kith and Kin: Chronicles of a Clan is the multitude of characters in the 237 pages of the novel. The author actually has a page devoted to a rather intimidating list of the 35 habiting her story, and briefly sketches their relationships to each other. And this, across generations and geographies.
The list is a well-intentioned guide since the book is a loose weave of stories around the Melekat family, a Malabar landed gentry. Their residence is named rather unusually, Mon Repos, and is typical of the landlord folk of Malabar, complete with sprawling grounds, cowsheds and ponds and mango trees. It’s occupied by its matriarch Ammini Amma and her descendants.
Not all of the tribe is resident. As the story unfolds, they narrate from their current locations. The reader just needs to sit back and figure out the role of the protagonists as they come on stage and tell their part of the tale. The picture is large, to say the least, and the mosaic is not easily definable.
The characters point to a couple of skeletons in the closet as well. The women of this matrilineal clan are infamously given to tantrums and the men are insipid by comparison. The reader also gets to know that the Melekats are also good looking; and they are by nature, well, clannish.
The story opens and closes with Sumant and Suvarna; their camaraderie tips us to the dramatic bend of the author’s pen. But the rest of the story is about lives and routines, and patterns of living, which ranges from traditional to hip and from the rustic to high urban.
The writing style is easy and flows well and most of the cast are etched credibly: especially Padmini, the unfortunate one; the spinster lives of Sarasa and Rohini, and the senior Menon men who are neurotically tormented and have geriatric issues.
The author is also eminently capable of creating the mood of the moment and sucking the reader right in, as she does with Sudha’s angst.
“Kith And Kin is not formed on any family — no family has that many dysfunctional people” — a really laconic outline of Sheila Kumar’s new book by the author herself.
The cosy Cha Bar of the Oxford Book Store was the site of the launch of her anthology of brief stories recently. Noted author and playwright Shreekumar Varma did the honours, while publisher and former dean of studies, Asian College of Journalism, Bindu Bhaskar engaged the author in a review about the book, stories, characters and, of course, her inspiration.
Departing from a tried-and-tested regulation of protagonists, antagonists, heroes, heroines and villains, Sheila narrates a story of a once-powerful gentle house through the eyes of a several members.
A “non-residentmallu” and an Army wife whose “heart belongs to Chennai”, her inspiration
for the Melekats came from her observation of several Nair clans of Malabar. Melekat Ammini Amma, the ‘White Rose’ of a town, and the ancestral home of the Melekats, Mon Repos, are literally the twin bulwarks that any story hinges. Straying spouses, waste uncles, manic-depressive mothers-in-law, drifting immature men, groom-hunting immature women — all make an coming in 19 tranche de strive stories.
“The Melekats were clamouring to be written about,” smiles the author in between book signings. “With apologies to Tolkein, I wanted one ring to connect them all.”
It took her 7 months to write, longer to find a publisher. “I refused to change the format of the story to a novel instead of brief stories,” she explained.
A touching story
Of all the stories, ‘On The Bench’ seemed to be a transparent favourite, closely followed by ‘Colours.’ The former narrates a touching story of an “intensely lonely” aged male while a latter recounts the several attempts of a girl embarking on her hunt for a suitable boy. Every story has a opposite lead character, giving the reader a new viewpoint of the complexities of the dynamics within a family.
It is, however, interesting to note that notwithstanding Melekat Ammini Amma being the self-evident anchor of a story, there is not a singular story from her perspective.
We get a clear idea of her though, a legendary beauty, dauntless matriarch, a means manager of finances, egos and lives, and, as her brother rather uncharitably puts it, an
The characters all speak good English, with a smattering of Malayalam terms thrown in. A glossary at the finish of a story takes care of translations.
Penning the chronicles of a house and traversing four generations is not easy, though Sheila accomplishes the charge with aplomb.
From reminiscing about the good old days to confronting the quandary of selling off their birthright piece by piece, the Melekat family does it all.
Spoiler warning — a turn at the end of the book makes for an extraordinary climax. “The family had been decaying for too long, it was time for them to read the writing on the wall, time to let go,” Sheila explains.
An account of change
Sometimes witty, infrequently poignant, infrequently funny, infrequently officious, Kith And Kin is not only the story of a family — it is an account of change. Change in tradition, in lives, in culture, in society, in people and in a approach they think, though not in the way they feel.
(Kith And Kin-Sheila Kumar, (Rupa Publishers, Rs. 250) is on sale at leading bookstores.)