Kith and Kin: Media Reviews III
Gita Mohan’s Blog
On Saturday evening, my local library, Easy Library, had arranged yet another fantastic author meet with not just one, but TWO women writers whose works reach out to all of us.
They were in conversation with Shinie Antony, who needs no introduction to Bangaloreans. The first of these was Sheila Kumar, a journalist and travel writer, from an Army background, whose book of short stories, Kith and Kin, is a collection centred around the individual members of a single Keralite matriarchal family, the Melekat family.
Sheila Kumar explained how, in her collection of short stories, while each story is about a particular individual, the matriarch, Ammini Amma, ties them all together. She is the central force of the book. These are all slice of life stories with all the 19 stories about the same clan.
Sheila admitted that she used to come across all sorts of “life stories” when she was regularly handling the Agony Aunt section of Femina, the women’s magazine, for years! When quizzed by Shinie as to how Sheila wrote about Pain without being “cloyingly sympathetic”, Sheila explained that the catharsis was three steps removed as she was writing someone else’s story. She deliberately kept it light as Life throws all sorts of things
at people; some characters are in perpetual denial.
Shinie also complimented the writers on possessing a “quiet intelligence” and of keeping their writing extremely fresh. She felt both Manreet and Sheila firmly belonged to the School of Anti-Cliche! To which Sheila willingly admitted that she was definitely rebellious, while Manreet declared that all her works deal with the two Fs – Fundamentalism and Feminism. Sheila also explained that as a journalist, it was expected that the next step would be a book…
The talk then moved on to the use of dialects and the vernacular in their works. This was a rather animated part of the session as there were divergent views! While some present felt that English works HAD to use only words in English, others spoke out for the peculiar brand that is Indian English…Shinie felt that one is no longer apologetic about using the vernacular, as Sheila has used a lot of Malayalam words and phrases in her works, while Manreet too has peppered her books with regional flavours. Manreet defended the use of these as much is learnt from the context itself, while Sheila has used a mini glossary to justify her characters’ use of language.
The discussion then moved on to whether we are on our way to having multilingual works. Sheila felt that while her own use of colloquialism was for entertainment, Manreet’s was for instruction…
Being held so close to Valentine’s Day, the session ended with a light discussion on the place of Love in the books by these two authors! In Shinie’s words, both authors were teasers on this subject…
then the clan Sheila talks about was large. It’s telling as short stories does
make it more accessible. and didn’t find all those malayalam terms problematic
either, unlike the Amit Chaudhuri book we encountered :). Well, it probably has
to do with being familiar with those terms. The book does sag a bit in the
mid-regions.Oh, yes, the book does enliven all those lovely memories of that land and it’s
some what crazy people. they stare, for one.and how do you end a book like this – with some good ol’ vedikattu!…“
By Express Features – KOCHI
Sheila Kumar has been a journalist for twenty years. Along the way, she has done numerous stories on the ecology, environment, travel, profiles, food and opinion pieces, and the occasional political piece.
Based in Bangalore, her life was going on at a hectic pace, when, suddenly, one day, the image of Ammini Amma, a matriarch of the Melekat (Nair) family in South Malabar arose in
her mind. Soon, others characters appeared, including Ammini’s siblings and descendants.
There were years of ‘no book’ and suddenly, there it was, a book inside my head,” says Sheila. “So it was imperative that I write these stories down and hopefully see them in print.”
So, for the next seven months, Sheila wrote the 19 stories that comprise the book, ‘Kith and Kin’. “It was written in fits and starts, amidst the hurly-burly of everyday life,” says Sheila. “And no, it is not autobiographical at all.”
Asked whether it traces the decline of the Nairs, Sheila says, “Yes, to some extent, the Melekats are well past their glory days, but they stubbornly cling to a feudal mindset, despite changing times. The family is still well-off, but the power attached to the name has waned. The older generation still basks in the feeble warmth of that light, while the younger generation, though almost all of them have an inordinate pride in their lineage, are going about their business.”
And there are other aspects that Sheila looks at. “It casts a sympathetic glance at the twin hells of old age and ill health, graying Malayalis, mental illness, love,loss, betrayal, and all the other emotions that life comprises of. There is even a ghost who has come to terms with the fact that she was murdered.”
There is also a wannabe journalist in search of the perfect story, a girl in search of a husband, and a woman in search of a reason any reason to leave her husband.
‘Kith and Kin’ will be released by noted director Renjith Panicker, on Saturday, November 17, at 5 pm at the Bristol Hall of the Lotus Club.
TV journalist Elizabeth Thomas will hold a question and answer session with the author. This will be followed by a reading of excerpts from one of the stories by business woman Rema Tharakan. Which, in turn, will be followed by tea and snacks, and a book-signing session.
While she writes about anything and everything that interests her, Sheila Kumar’s, Kith and Kin – Chronicles of a Clan, pretty much wrote itself! The author, a non-resident ‘Mallu’, writing as an insider yet never giving herself up just like her novel’s protagonist Ammini Amma, weaving emotions of love, hatred, resentment and treachery in one big web of a family, successfully sketches each of 19 characters!
Sheila Kumar ex-adwoman, journalist, travel writer, book editor, lives in Bangalore and writes about anything and everything that interests her. She has had her short stories published in many anthologies.
Here’s a getting to know how author Sheila Kumar went about bringing her book to life.
(Interviewed by Nikita Banerjee Bhagat , iSahitya)
- When you first decided to pen your book, why did you choose to write the story of a clan?
Sheila Kumar : From the beginning I wanted, to borrow from JRR Tolkien, one ring to bind all my stories together. That one ring became a clan which I named the Melekat clan. So, while the stories are all standalone, after a bit, the reader starts to recognise the characters that come and go.
- Sketching so many fictional characters and bringing them to life, what was your biggest challenge when it came to forming them?
Sheila Kumar : Keeping all the different skeins attached to one hook, one clan. There had to be physical and emotional common threads, threads the reader can easily ascertain, running
through the generations.
- You narrate this story as an outsider, watching each character closely, yet there is no judgement passed by you. How did you manage to do away with the biases, if you felt any?
Sheila Kumar : These are people rather past their glory days and fighting that fact, at least the older lot. Here, character traits determine each character’s trajectory. I merely relate,
I do not pass judgment.
Q.Every author has a favourite character. Of the many in your book, you’d say your favourite is? Why?
Sheila Kumar : I’d say Ammu from the story `Passing Through. ` She’s a funny girl, with the incipient eccentricities of the Melekats already showing. She spends a harrowing night at Rome’s Fiumicino airport but emerges unscathed, in a manner her clanswoman Ammini amma would have approved of.
- Kith and Kin take the reader across different states and countries. Yet each character is rooted and somewhere relates to Ammini Amma & Mon Repos. Was it difficult to draw such connections?
Sheila Kumar : Kith And Kin tells slice-of-life stories about a set of people who just happen to be linked to each other. And in most families, there is always one overarching figure in
whose shadow the others nestle happily or with resentment. In this book, it is the matriarch Ammini amma. As for the family house, most of the older Melekats have strong memories of Mon Repos; the younger lot have heard about it.
Q.Well, each one of 19 characters has had something to say except for Ammini Amma. Why is there no story from her perspective?
Sheila Kumar : That is deliberate. Ammini amma’s presence runs through every story like a ticker tape. But I wanted the lady revealed through the perspective of her family. The reader gets to know enough about this formidable woman through her siblings, her offspring, and their offspring. I just didn’t feel the need to give her a direct voice.
Q.Colours and the Bench. I loved both these stories and found them to be very different from the rest. While with ‘On The Bench’ one can understand the nostalgia but Colours was a complete surprise. How did it come to be?
Sheila Kumar : My generation of `good Mallu girls` were inevitably put through the boy/girl-seeing` drama. If they were lucky, it was lucky- first- time. `Colours ` is a humorous collation of many such `seeing` sessions. Do note that Beena is not in the least traumatised by the fact that she is shown to many `boys!`
- Ants is another story I loved reading. Why is it called so?
Sheila Kumar : If you recall, the young girl Omana wakes up to see a line of ants on the edroom wall, industriously plying whatever their trade is. Omana is visiting her elderly
aunts who are as industrious and disciplined as the ants in their house. As set in their ways, too. She has news for them but isn’t too sure that people who wake up and do the same thing every day, will be receptive to the slightest ripple in the smooth fabric they have made of their lives.
- What was your biggest challenge when it came to writing this book?
Sheila Kumar : Staying true to the authentic Malayali flavour; I am a non-resident Keralite so it didn’t come too easy.
- The book begins with Suvarna and Sumant and ends with them too. Not with an ending one was expecting! Was this deliberate? Or was there an alternate ending?
Sheila Kumar : You know, Kith and Kin pretty much wrote itself! The characters all seemed to know just where they were headed. So no, there was no alternative ending. Suvarna and Sumant, these were two people who appear forever trapped in the `might-be. ` And then suddenly, there is no more might-be. Sad but that’s life…