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Sara Rai's Raw Umber: A lush portrait of Hindi literature’s first family

With ‘Raw Umber’, writer and translator Sara Rai candidly, but compassionately, recalls the experiences that framed and formed her

The stories are about everyday lives and grief—small, usual, commonplace.
The stories are about everyday lives and grief—small, usual, commonplace. (iStockphoto)

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One early autumn morning in San Francisco a few years ago, I walked into an art store on Market Street. I moved along an aisle of paints, gawking at the brilliant yellows and blues before finding myself among the browns. No artist myself, I was fascinated by the colours and the graded poetry of their names—terra, sienna, umber. These browns moved me more than all the surrounding jewel-tones and light-brights. It seemed to me that the browns were living colours, not just stains and pigments, for they lived in my skin and eyes and hair. I remembered this a few weeks ago while reading Raw Umber, writer, editor and translator Sara Rai’s memoir, where she writes about her encounter with colours and their names in her father’s studio.

My experience of reading Rai’s sensitive, evocative, insightful memoir of an extraordinary family was peppered with several such connections, creating the kind of reading experience Rai calls “literary ventriloquism” in the chapter titled On Not Writing. She explains the term as a situation in which a “writer’s voice was out there on the page, but it sounded as if it came from within me”. The words in Raw Umber repeatedly found an echo in me—her wonder of place names, thoughts on the written word or the urge to write—evocative and detailed, bringing to life a fascinating family and a time long gone.

Raw Umber is essentially a collection of essays on people, places and experiences that framed and formed Rai’s life—her paternal grandfather and father of the modern Hindi novel, Munshi Premchand; an ancestor from her maternal side, Bharatendu Harishchandra, father of modern Hindi; her formidable grandmothers, Shivrani Devi and Munawwari Begum; her incomprehensible father, the literary critic and painter Sripat Rai; her baffled, opaque mother and short-story writer Zohra; her troubled brother Atul; the old homes and family lore of loves and partings that moulded her seeking and searching self.

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Given that she belonged to arguably one of the first families of Hindi literature, one can imagine the pressures and fears Rai would have experienced, how they must have impacted, hindered and finally shaped her own writing. She writes candidly but with compassion about her family, about the taciturnity of Shivrani Devi, Premchand’s controlling and capable wife, and the caustic tongue of Munawwari Begum; about the complex relationship between her parents; about the grief she grew up surrounded by after the rather mysterious death of one of her brothers and the alcoholism of another; and above it all, shadowing their lives and yet placing them firmly in the limelight, the looming figure of Premchand, the person and the legend. As one reads about the family’s tragedies, there’s a sense of foreboding—art and creativity aren’t unmixed blessings, they must be paid for over generations.

Raw Umber—A Memoir: By Sara Rai, Context,  240 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699.
Raw Umber—A Memoir: By Sara Rai, Context, 240 pages, 699.

While reading Raw Umber, I could visualise a young Rai in her old Prayagraj home, with its shade-filled garden and large rooms, or the houses in Varanasi—whether the ancient, crumbling Nawab-ki-dyorhi or the one where her paternal grandmother lived with an old helper and a goat tethered in one of the street-facing rooms. I could see Rai—observing, wondering and later questioning what she saw and believed; ruminating, probing and finally searching for words for the sense of despair and longing she felt.

I could visualise it all because of Rai’s fine, rich and gently paced writing. Raw Umberis a reminder, if one is needed, that Rai is one of the finest fiction writers and translators of our times, with unfaltering command over two languages. Among other works, she has translated a selection of short stories originally written in Hindi by Premchand and collected over eight volumes of Mansarovar. She has also, together with Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, produced the best translation yet of Hindi writer Vinod Kumar Shukla’s remarkable short stories in the award-winning anthology, Blue Is Like Blue (2019). Her short stories in Hindi, particularly those collected in Ababeel Ki Udaan(2019) and Biyaban Mein(2005), keenly observed and unhurriedly, empathetically and elegantly told, deserve to be read and discussed more.

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These stories about everyday lives and griefs, small, usual, commonplace, set in towns she is familiar with—Prayagraj, Varanasi, Delhi—are made special and engrossing through careful telling. She uses the stream-of-consciousness and third-person limited narrative techniques adroitly to offer close-ups or objective clarity about essentially solitary lives, lived among people in big and small cities, in proximity but without closeness, in commerce but without understanding. The alienations she writes about are largely urban, ubiquitous and individually experienced.

While Raw Umber, unlike her fiction, offers glimpses of storied lives, the chapter On Not Writing stands out. I cannot recommend it enough to all writers/aspiring writers to examine their motivations. Rai writes about her preoccupation and struggles with writing. There is a brief reference to her going abroad and not writing a word for many years, finally giving in and sharing her stories with her father, who makes a weighty prediction—that she would be the Katherine Mansfield, arguably one of the most influential short-story writers of modern times, writing finely observed and detailed stories about women and their lives, of Hindi literature.

She quotes from her journals, sparingly and self-deprecatingly, about her conflicts with herself and her deep concern with writing. It seemed to me that her struggle was perhaps more against what writing stood for—perhaps not a rebellion or way of self-expression but a conformance with family tradition. Despite this, and perhaps because of it too, the insights into writing and her approach to the art and craft of fiction are sharp and thoughtful. For those alone, this book is a rewarding experience.

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An additional noteworthy feature is the Appendix—her translations of four short stories, one each by Zohra Rai, Moghal Mehmood, her maternal aunt, Shivrani Devi and Premchand. I found the choice of stories curious, from the sensuality of Zohra Rai’s Mango Blossoms to the pathos of thwarted hope in The Will by Mehmood, the idealism of The Holi Of Ruin by Shivrani Devi, and the compassion and awakening social consciousness of the boy-narrator of Premchand’s Ramlila. They cover a wide spectrum and varied writerly sensibilities.

All in all, Raw Umberis a family portrait and just like Rai’s fiction—in the preface and in the first chapter, Palimpsest, she writes about the blurring of boundary between memory and fiction—it is, by turns, lush and panoramic, acute and microscopic.

Anukrti Upadhyay is a writer of Hindi and English prose and poetry. Her latest work,The Blue Women, a collection of short stories in English, came out in January.

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