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The authorised version, sort of

Nilanjana S Roy | June 22, 2005

One way of reading the two great epics of this country is to see the Mahabharata and the Ramayana as piercingly, ferociously honest family autobiographies.

With the Ramayana, there are many versions, so many that the true story is impossible to lose permanently: some versions might choose to portray Sita as a pliant, silent wife, but others have unchained her voice, choosing to retain her anger as well as her obedience, her castigation of Rama when he asks her to submit to a test of purity.

You might privilege one reading or one version above another, but the true story is there for those who wish to look for it.

In both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, little is omitted of the secret sins, sorrows and vices of the many members of the clans, from the weakness of kings to the greed of queens, from the mistake made by a young girl that will separate the sixth Pandava from his brothers to Yudhisthira's fatal flaw to the complex blend of wisdom, arrogance and acquisitiveness in Ravana's character.

You read the epics for their indelible literary qualities, for the debates over the nature of dharma and wisdom; but you also read them, in part, as the wrenching, true story of families torn apart by complex forces. No character's virtues are omitted, no vices glossed over.

The epics are still read in a way that few of their literary counterparts can match: Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales aren't woven into the fabric of contemporary England, the great Norse sagas are still read but they are not part of the common memory in the way of our epics.

Given that they are still so much part of our everyday life, our stock of metaphor and wisdom, it's strange that we don't follow the honesty of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana when we write in an autobiographical vein.

Business biographies usually gloss over the true histories; the memoirs of politicians and bureaucrats are often a trifle more honest about the working lives of their writers, but usually reticent about their personal life.

The autobiographies of well-known Indians in the sphere of the arts have, by contrast, an appearance of frankness: but the candour is usually not complete.

The careful reader can see the omissions; the knowledgeable reader can often supply the truth -- there are few biographies and memoirs, though, where the reader doesn't have to read between the lines.

There are strong social and cultural prohibitions on speaking out, on letting the skeletons, the mad cousins and the molesting uncles, out of the closet.

Even authors who feel they have earned the freedom to speak openly of their own lives find it difficult, in the Indian context, to tell the true stories of their families.

Perhaps this is because we balance a general disregard for the privacy of the individual with an obsessive concern for the privacy of the clan, unlike the tellers of the true and unexpurgated family history of the Pandavas and the Bharatas.

Two recent exercises in biography, one Indian, one Turkish, made me explore the idea of what makes up a memoir more thoroughly.

The first, Diddi, was planned by Ira Pande as a memoir of her mother, the well-known writer Shivani. Instead of writing a conventional biography, she blended her translations of her mother's writings with personal memoir to create a book that is almost more honest than a straightforward memoir might have been.

One of Pande's biggest problems was created by an apparent abundance of material, in Shivani's writings about her life, which were compellingly honest but told only a fraction of the truth.

In Ira Pande's words, 'Diddi's vivid childhood memories are as deeply frustrating as they are compelling. The wall she erected around her life and fears is impenetrable and guards a kingdom where she will grant entry very reluctantly, if at all.

'In contrast to her evocative pictures of Lohaniji, Henry Pant, Alakh Mai and Rajula is Diddi's stubborn refusal to confront the dark history of her own family, or indeed her own life. Her sharp eyes saw the shadows, yet she resolutely refused to expose the people she loved the most to ridicule or criticism.

'I think she sincerely hoped she could transform the nature of her past with the power of selective recall and that if she did not remember the unhappiness and doubts of her past, they would simply disappear. So she blotted out the sun by holding up a thumb...'

Pande's response was to go back to Shivani's writings -- and to re-read them with the knowledge she now has of the family history, to identify not just characters who were familiar but the connections between a story and the period in which it was written.

Because she fills in the context for the reader without pretending to tell the whole truth, we're free to re-interpret Shivani's life in a way that would have been denied us if Ira Pande had set down the same story as the absolute and the only truth.

It's an intelligent way of getting around the Indian discomfort with sharing family histories, and a way that's just as respectful of the reader as it is of the subject.

Shortly after reading Diddi, I read Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul, which is a memoir of a city, a culture, a history and a childhood.

Istanbul is a strange narrative, where Pamuk casts himself alternately as an unreliable narrator and as the perfect guide.

But early on, he has a passage that might be read as a warning against expecting any autobiography of a person, a place, an era, to be the true and authentic version.

'...I feel compelled to add 'or so I've been told'. In Turkish we have a special tense that allows us to distinguish hearsay from what we've seen with our own eyes; when we are relating dreams, fairy tales or past events we could not have witnessed, we use this tense.

'It is a useful distinction to make as we 'remember' our earliest life experiences, our cradles, our baby carriages, our first steps, as reported by our parents, stories to which we listen with the same rapt attention we might pay some brilliant tale that happened to concern some other person… Once imprinted in our minds, other people's reports of what we've done end up mattering more than what we ourselves remember.'

Perhaps another generation will rediscover the urgent candour of the narrators of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, who knew that the stories they were telling were too important to be told any other way but truthfully.

Or more narrators, caught between loyalty and honesty, faced with the inevitable silences of families and the lack of records, will choose to use Ira Pande's method of re-reading the old tales for new meanings.

Until then, Indian memoirists might want to rework their book titles slightly, to read: 'The Authorised Version (Or So I've Been Told)'.

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