Book Review: Raw Umber – A Memoir

‘Some of the boxes had never been opened. The viscous oil colours dried up and hardened, and the tight caps were difficult to unscrew. Raw Umber, Gamboge, Cobalt Blue, Scarlet Lake, Ultramarine…,’ says Sara Rai, speaking of the tubes of paint her father – of whom she writes at length and with great affection – used when he was painting oils. Raw Umber is also her recently published memoir, a collection of essays where she writes about her childhood, of her life in Banaras and Allahabad, her family, her illustrious grandfather’s legacy (she is Munshi Premchand’s granddaughter) and her own writing. It’s a deeply felt memoir, spare and elegant, written with unflinching candour. Raw Umber comes alive with Sara’s poignant descriptions of times gone by, enlivening an era that no longer exists. It’s fascinating.

‘There is something melancholy in the act of writing about one’s past. This is especially the case if most of that past has taken place in the same house in which you still live. There were people who lived here, but many of them are no longer alive. Absent, they are still palpable,’ she says in one of the opening chapters. That first sentence, in some ways, sets the tone for Raw Umber – there’s a tinge of melancholy there, an undercurrent of loss, a touch of regret, a yearning for the days gone by. You feel it when Sara talks about her family’s old house in Allahabad, and about the city itself and the way it used to be. The childhood memories – of her father’s bungalow on Drummond Road, of the hot cross buns and gingerbread biscuits her mother used to bake, the records she used to play on the family’s HMV gramophone, of the Bavarian nuns at the convent where she studied – form a rich palette of colours, which Sara uses to great effect in Raw Umber.

Throughout the memoir, you feel Munshi Premchand’s looming presence, whom Sara never actually met. Premchand had ‘already been dead twelve years when my parents got married, so there was no question of my meeting him,’ she says. And yet he’s very much a part of her life; she feels his presence in the house in Allahabad where she’s always lived, and his literary works seem to have had quite an influence on her and, in some ways, encouraged her own forays into writing.  She wonders what made Premchand so popular and seems mildly surprised at the large number of people – from all walks of life – who read and remember his works. ‘How was I to make sense of my grandfather’s virasat, the inheritance that I had been born unto?,’ she wonders, even as she reveals that she does keep a photograph of him above her writing desk.   

In the memoir, Sara also offers interesting perspectives on her own writing. ‘You will be the Katherine Mansfield of Hindi. Go on, write it down,’ her father said to her a few months before he passed away. ‘The weight of his literary expectations had come to rest on me,’ she says, adding that she started writing fiction in Hindi largely because of something her father had told her – that fiction can only be created in one’s mother tongue. Having grown up in a multilingual household, where Hindi, Urdu, English, Bangla and Bhojpuri are all spoken, Sara seems to have faced some inner turmoil in deciding the language she would use for her own writing. In talking of the dilemma she faced about choosing the language in which to write her memoir, Sara also reveals a detail that may surprise some people: Premchand, who wrote his stories in Urdu and Hindi, used to write extensive notes before he actually started writing those stories. And those notes were written in English.

In the second half of the memoir, Sara recounts the time she spent in Banaras, in the 1960s, with her mother’s (a Shia Muslim) side of the family. ‘Throughout the sixties, during my childhood and early teenage, my mother, my siblings and I travelled from Allahabad to Banaras at least twice every year,’ she says, recounting memories of her grandmother’s grand old haveli there, and the fact that the said grandmother had an imperious manner and a caustic tongue. Later, she writes about going back to the haveli after her grandmother was dead, only to find that the old place had been pulled down. ‘The house that had always seemed to be on the bring of extinction was finally embracing its fate,’ she says. What she remembers still are the smells – the dust and mustiness, of the steaming tea her grandmother made, the smell of khus from her burqa, the aroma of kebabs being roasted on an open fire and of jalebis bought from a nearby halwai.

Raw Umber is a masterful piece of work, written with great elan by someone to whom, quite clearly, writing comes naturally. Highly recommended.

About the author:
Granddaughter of Munshi Premchand, Sara Rai, born in 1956, is a literary translator, writer and editor. She is the author of a novel (House of Kites), and many collections of short stories (Nabeela and other stories, The Labyrinth and other stories, In the Wilderness, story collection and The Swallow’s Flight, story collection). She has also edited and translated into English, works of Munshi Premchand and Vinod Kumar Shukla, and compiled translated collections of other short stories. Sara has won a host of awards over the last three decades, including the Coburg Rückert Prize in 2019 for The Labyrinth, a collection of her stories translated into German, and the Atta Galatta Prize of the 2019 Bangalore Literary Festival, in the fiction category, for the English translation of Blue is like Blue. Her latest piece of work is Raw Umber: A Memoir.

Raw Umber: A Memoir has been published by Context, an imprint of Westland Books. The book is available on Amazon

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