Kith and Kin: Media Reviews IV
All in the family
-Sheila Kumar, (Rupa Publishers, Rs. 250) is on sale at leading bookstores
in the city.
Slices of lives served with a Malabar twist
Price: Rs 250
the characters in a light often unsuspected by those around them. Together, the stories are a commentary on the urban Indian and his/her shifting moods and realities.
people walked in and set up shop inside my head! Their stories just had to be written. And so they were written. Is any part of Kith and Kin autobiographical? Only in the broadest sweep. I will quote Zadie Smith here: it is not autobiographical but it has the intensity of the personal.Tell us about your relationship with Kerala.
It’s complicated. I’ve been a military brat and an army wife and so, visits home were restricted to that one month in the year. All the while, though, my sense of belonging was and is, a taut strong rope, binding me to Kerala. I didn’t realise just how strong that knot was till I wrote my first book and it was set in the heartland. This has caused many mouths to drop in sheer surprise, that I can tell you!
The structure of the book is such that each of the chapters can be an individual short story, or read together to form a cohesive whole…
Kith and Kin was written with a clear idea in mind: these were going to be standalone
slice-of-life stories, all 19 of them, but I was going to link every character, make them belong, in one way or the other, to this clan I called the Melekats. [There’s a play on the word; mele in Malayalam means `up` or `on high` and this lot consider themselves superior to others]. So, you
will find Melekat men and women walking in and out of each other’s stories, some quietly, discreetly, others with much insouciance, even braggadocio.
Each of the stories have a very interesting twist at the end… why so? Do you think life is such and did you draw inspiration from any author for that [I was often reminded of Somerset Maugham while reading your stories…]
The Maugham connect has been made earlier, too, and while I’m duly flattered, I’m no fan of Somerset Maugham, to be honest. I was working at The Times of India for over a decade, did a lot of writing in those years. As someone who has interacted with people from all walks of life for so many years, given voice to their stories, I know that we are not always what we seem. Kith and Kin just unspools that reel. Basically, life throws all sorts of things at us. Some of us deal with the situation du jour in an innately graceful and competent manner; some of us drown in the debris. Yet others, like Schultz’s Charlie Brown, run away from it all!
Everyone in India seems to be writing a book now. What is the publishing scenario like and how easy or difficult is it to get a book published. Does the plethora of books being released affect the quality of writing being dished out?
I will have to say that yes, the breaching ofhe floodgates in publishing is affecting the quality of writing. Then again, every book does seem to have a reader. One thing I firmly believe is that, in
the long run, only good writing will stay the course. The rest will fall by the wayside…some moments in the sun and then, oblivion. Where quality publishing is concerned, well, the doors have opened wide but it is still a by-invitation-only event.
You have been a journalist and an ad person. Has that helped shape you as an author in any way? As a writer, where do you draw your inspiration from?
Adwoman, journalist, features writer, book editor, army wife… it has been many hats through the years. At some level, I’m sure that has shaped my work, just as it has my life. I am an instinctive writer. I write and watch what I write take a definitive shape of its own. Nine times out of 10, I’m happy with that shape.
Have you started work on your next book…what will it be about?
The Melekats clamoured to be written about. Now there’s a quiet peace inside my head and for the moment, I am so enjoying that!
Sheila Kumar’s book tells the story of a family from multiple perspectives.
Her book Kith and Kin begins in a house in south Malabar, but Sheila Kumar hasn’t spent all her life in Kerala; her father was in the Army, and so she has lived all over the country. So while Mon Repos – the ancestral home in Kerala – is a very real presence through the 19 short stories in the book, its
characters are scattered across the country.
Kith And Kin (Rupa Publications, Rs. 250) a collection of short stories set in the fictional Melekat family, was released by writer Anita Nair at The Oxford Bookstore recently in the city.
The nomadic nature of her early years helped her as a writer, Sheila said. She spent “almost no time” in Kerala growing up, but visited the State once or twice a year as research for the book. “I’m one of those non-resident ‘Mallus’,” she laughed.
The book, written over seven months in 2009, has short episodes that usually follow a single member of the large Melekat family (the volume of characters is large enough to warrant a reference sheet at the start of the book). She initially had just disparate stories, but decided to introduce a common thread – and that was how the concept of the Melekat clan arose.
The family is headed by matriarch Ammini Amma; the rest of the characters are “literally, in
relationship to her.” Some of these include her daughter Padmini, a long-suffering wife nicknamed ‘Poor Padmini’, and the matriarch’s Norman Mailer-quoting granddaughter Suvarna. A particularly stirring character is Ammini Amma’s aging, lonely brother Raman, for whom a courtyard bench is the last symbol of certainty. Raman is alone in the “indignities of old age” – incontinence, forgetfulness, insecurity.
At least three stories in the book have similar themes, Sheila said, attributing this to Kerala’s large greying population. “There is always the attendant geriatric depression and loneliness. And in the Melekat family the elders aren’t short of money; it’s the other problems,” she explained.
The early stories are marked by a hypnotic chain of characters; someone mentioned in passing in the first story is the second story’s narrator, and so on. This web-weaving must have taken some planning. “Not really. People wander through the stories – that was a bit deliberate,” said Sheila, explaining that she didn’t necessarily plan the family tree and each character’s movements. Given the interconnected nature of the setting and characters, why short stories, and not a novel? “I felt they had a point to make, they made it, and moved on. They needed to be told in a diffused manner, without one central narrator.”
The characters in Kith And Kin, on the whole, are English speakers, but the book is itself peppered with Malayalam words, with some stories even carrying a glossary for words such as ‘naasham’. Sheila explained that she refused to italicise the words within the text, and that done carefully, a glossary needn’t be intrusive.
This book defies pigeon-holing into any genre. Short story? Vignettes? Family saga? It has the under-pinnings of the last — particularly in the way the large family of Ammini Amma, the matriarch of the
Melakkat family is listed by name and relationship to her. Some of the characters do meet and interact in a few chapters.
The main setting of these ‘chronicles of a clan’, is Mon Repos, the family house of a matriarchal old Nair family in Malabar. Right from chapter one, which opens with a telecon between Suvarna, the grand-daughter in the Melakkat family, and her child-hood friend Sumant, Mon Repos looms large in the back-ground.
Ammini Amma is a dignified, regal woman who reigns supreme over her home and her large family and their descendants. The book spans the whole gamut of human experience from the exuberant youth, through the ups and downs of middle age to the bleak isolation of old age.
In one of the chronicles, a grand-daughter of the family, a wannabe journalist and film-maker in search of the perfect script muses that the stories of the sprawling Melakkat family, are “meat enough for at least three movies full of melodrama and tragedy.”
Each story is peopled with vivid characters. The setting and the language are apt. The casual mention of Ayn Rand’s, The Thorn-birdsand Pink Floyd in stories about young people, are crisp and interesting. The local colour, both literally and figuratively, brings the settings alive. The lush Kerala country-side is vividly evoked, with mention of hibiscus, allamanda, mango and papaya trees, ‘and nendrepazhams steamed over coalfires.’
There are a couple of stories, including a ghost story set in the Nilgiris, aptly named The Lightness of Being. The local colour is very familiar — the Sleeping Beauty range of hills, the eucalyptus and acacia trees, the hydrangeas and ‘the baby’s breath — all find mention.
The stories dealing with Ammini Amma’s aged brothers are poignant. The last story Closure is sombre. The descriptions of Mon Repos, now dilapidated and crumbling, the neglected grounds evoke regret. A minor detail adds to the poignancy. Suvarna is wearing red, the colour Sumant loves
to see her in, as expressed in the first chronicle. The wheel turns full circle.
“Kith and Kin pretty much wrote itself”
“I would choose fiction over non-fiction, any day; you get to play kingmaker and queenmaker, infuse all sorts of joy and misery into your characters’ lives and have them deal with it,” says writer Sheila Kumar.
So it comes as no surprise then that Kumar, a journalist and book-editor based in Bangalore, was able to quite easily string together a myriad of stories — 19 — for her debut collection, Kith and Kin.
These short stories, written over seven months, tell the tale of the Melakats, a clan that originates from an aristocratic family in northern Kerala.
Nothing specific spurred Kumar to pen down the book, she reveals. “Kith and Kin wasn’t inspired by anything in particular. I just wrote a set of stories about how people cope with all that life throws at them. And then I thought it would be more interesting if they were linked to each other.And thus was born the Melakat clan,” she says, adding, “Having been a feature writer for over two decades, I have done my fair bit of factual reportage and enjoyed doing most of those stories, too. But Kith and Kin pretty much wrote itself. And the process was most enjoyable.”
Despite being originally from Kerala, Kumar admits that a fair amount of research was required because, as the author puts it, “I am a non-resident Keralite and much about my home state still remains a mystery to me.”
Though, having said that, she adds, “The cultural traits, cuisine details, even the attitudes, have all been sourced through intense observation. For a while, I totally joined the (famous) staring population of Mallus! So it was on-the-ground research, as it were.”