Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Ammi - Letters to a Democratic Mother by Saeed Akhtar Mirza

That is why I came down to your bed that night and began to massage your feet. Do you remember? ‘That’s very nice of you Saddu … very nice,’ you had said as I kneaded your feet and ankles. I know you were surprised by my action but what I didn’t tell you was that I was hedging my bets. You had once told me that it was written in the Quran that heaven lay at the feet of all mothers. As I massaged your feet furiously, I was hoping God was watching and taking down notes. (Page 66, Ammi- Letters To A Democratic Mothers, Saeed Mirza)

The concept of motherhood is perhaps the simplest to understand. It is universal. No man can eschew its influence, both, in the presence and absence of a mother. Despite being simple and universal, the intricacies of motherhood are complex to the observer’s eyes; unfathomable too. Thoughts, theories and eulogies exist aplenty about it all - the most apt perhaps being the one which equates mother to God- the Creator. The divinity, the unquestionable haloed status of a mother arises from the fact that she is the channel through which new, nascent life forms set foot in the world. She seamlessly glides into the role of a Preserver too, as she nurtures and protects her infant, and oversees his/her growth into an able, and healthy adult. Truly has been said about this unsung hero who decorates each child’s life with beauty and comfort that she is not someone to be understood from the outside. Only a mother can understand the dynamics of a mother’s heart. She is the most powerful influence in the early stages of a man’s life, but not always understood by the very objects of her love. The time when she is, is sometimes too late.

On the surface, the debut novel of Saeed Akhtar Mirza, seems to be building on this lamentation associated with motherhood. Below the surface, the same novel derives heavily from a psychedelic mix of unrelated concepts, thoughts, ideas and people to form a narrative which is engaging and unconventional. Ammi- Letters to a Democratic Mother is a unique book. At its core lies a son’s awe, admiration and reverence for his mother. However, the book seeks to investigate more than just the relationship between a child and his mother. This book is a journey across time and space, events and people which influenced a young mind. This book is also a sensitive, yet not sentimentally, written ode of a child to his mother, posthumously.

Saeed Akhtar Mirza – the name may be new to the world of contemporary Indian literature, but it is very popular among art cinema aficionados. After a decade of bollywood inspired by the angry young man in whom the discontent of the middle class found voice, 1980s were a decade of creative degeneration, as is rued in polemical accounts by cinema critics. The 1980s, also called the ‘disco’ decade, were also the decade in which the Indian art cinema scene came of age. Serious in content and keenly intent upon telling realistic stories inspired from sociopolitical climate of the times, this wave of cinema was endorsed and led by acclaimed film-makers foremost among whom was Saeed Akhtar Mirza. By making and presenting films like Naseem, Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho, Saleem Langde Pe Mat Ro and Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai to an audience blinded by the glitz and glamour of mainstream cinema, Mirza had long established himself as a master storyteller. This time around too, he comes out to tell a story, story within stories, only using a slightly different medium. He holds a pen in his hand instead of a camera, and churns out a novel which delights with its understanding of important concepts and world events.

Mirza’s mother passed away in 1990. Despite being in the same city, Mirza could not meet his mother before her death due to a mundane act of procrastination. This novel was penned around 2007 in the form of a long, continuous letter written posthumously by Mirza to his mother. Despite this lucid proclamation, this novel is cannot be categorized under the routine epistolary form of writing. In his narrative, Mirza mixes together more than half a dozen literary forms to aid the narrative as and when required. Ranging from critical reporting of global and domestic events, parables, poetries (Urdu and English), short stories, historical accounts, travelogue, to satires and plain sharing of memories- this novel keeps changing the landscape a reader journeys on while reading it. Quite remarkably, experimenting with different literary genres does not, even for once, compromise upon the continuity and comprehensibility of the broad storyline. The essence remains constant; it is aided by scores of vignettes inserted at appropriate places to make the narrative engaging and entertaining.
The author - Saeed Akhtar Mirza

It is quite difficult to succinctly put into words the basic storyline, or what one would call the essence  of this novel. It has many stories to tell, many events to discuss and many discourses to give. However, broadly, in the form of a single letter, Mirza relates to the reader the domestic affairs of an ordinary Indian family. He begins with salutations to his mother and then goes onto build her personality, one that was formidable and inspirational from where he saw the world. He begins her story from the time of her marriage, and with sensitivity and sensibility, tracks her growth into a mature woman, who despite having begun her life in a cocoon, stands up as the moral, spiritual and even financial pillar for her family. A character analysis, albeit interesting, will take up a lot of space here, but suffice to say that it is a bildungsroman of a kind, in which many characters grow, and mature around the central, pervasive figure of the mother. At the end of the main narrative, the script of a film comes attached - which merits an entire review and analysis for itself. The magic of the book has many manifestaions - insight on love and relationship, history and politics, society and culture, individual and family - and so much more! 

That said, I have to emphasize that this book is compilation of rare beauties, which kept me enamoured from the first word. The most beautiful and believable love story unlocked itself in the pages of this book, almost like a fable of coming together, and staying together. It is a book I hold dear, very dear. It made me smile internally, it prompted me to think and reflect, it also motivated me to investigate into incidents and people mentioned. What more can a literary creation aspire for? Certain pieces of beauty should not be rated, but if I could, I would give it five stars on five, and perhaps some more.

Book Details
Author - Saeed Mirza
Publisher - Tranquebar
Published - 2008
Genre - Fiction
Pages - 385
Price - Rs. 295 (Paperback)

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