Book: Days of Gold and Sepia
Author: Yasmeen Premji
Publisher: Harper Collins
Price: Rs 399
It could be the story that you heard at your grandmothers knee. Its an everyday story of how an insignificant boy from a remote village in Kutch struggled his way to fame and fortune to become one of the cotton kings in the City of Gold,as Mumbai was known in the late 19th century.
To the telling,Yasmeen Premji brings both the simplicity of a rural bard or boppa,as the storytellers of Gujarat are known,and the compelling need to grab the attention of the reader with her vivid recollections of the past. She weaves the glittering motes and dusty shadows that inhabit the mansions of her memory into a rich tapestry that is woven with many motifs,much like the wall hangings created by Kutchi women.
Certain motifs are repeated. Certain threads and colours are used to link episodes into one coherent design. There is the haunting lilt of a peasants song heard long ago from the desert sands of the Kutch landscape,the street cries of Mumbais pavement dwellers who dream of making it big,the smell and swell of a merchant ships bilge carrying boys,desperate to strive for their fortunes,to the East African coast,and the clatter of Mumbais teeming textile factories and the clink of money changing hands as swiftly as the shuttle flying across the loom. Linking them together is Lalljee Lakha,the lad who would be a King.
At times,Premjis young hero appears like a Dickensian version of Pip in Great Expectations,at others he has the jaunty optimism of Dick Whittington seeking his fortunes with a bundle on his back. Then again,in situating Lalljees rise from penury to the pinnacles of entrepreneurial and social glory against the background of Mumbais commercial growth,Premji has written the equivalent of The Frosyte Saga. Even in the theme of Lalljees longing for his first great love,though it is played out a bit like a Hindi film sequence,there is something of the Galsworthian ideal of a beautiful woman who inspires a man to dream beyond his reach.
Whereas Galsworthys saga might have praised the Victorian ethos of individual prudence and rectitude,combined with the Protestant values that are said to underwrite the success of the capitalist way,Premji underlines the Indian model,or should we say the Gujarati model,perhaps even without intending it. Put briefly,this would include family networks,the instinct for saving,if not hoarding,and a willingness to take risks. Finally,and at the cost of sounding hopelessly sentimental,there is also a deeper belief in an intangible quality that could be called faith or resignation,or acceptance.
It is brought to an almost luminous conclusion in one of the final chapters of Lalljees saga. I would even say that Chapter 44 should be made required reading in every school or institution. All the terrible turmoil of the Partition era is encapsulated in one moment. As one of the characters,who could have been his executioner,tells Lalljee: Sometimes we lose our heads and do terrible things. And sometimes we are fortunate. Life gives us a chance to redeem ourselves,a moment of reprieve . Somewhere,he added softly,the cycle of hate and violence must end.
Its neither an earth-shaking truth,nor one that has not been underlined in words of gold many times over,but in reminding us of our common humanity with her own story told as a fable,Yasmeen Premji has given us a moment of reprieve to savour and to remember.
Geeta Doctor is a writer in Chennai