Monday, November 4, 2013

Review: Past Perfect by Anna Varughese

Battle for survival. One can come up with a dozen things that this phrase could connote - it could be the intrepid attempts of a regiment in a war to stay alive while in the clutches of death or it could be the very battle a species being threatened with extinction employs. Further still, if one were to let the imagination run amok, it could be the very fight the humans are involved in when being overrun by aliens (yeah, harken back to Pullman's wonderful speech in Independence Day!). Or it could be the arduous and dauntless journey one subjects herself to in order to defeat the disease that is eating her from within, the struggle to stay alive so that her daughter does not end up growing up without the warmth and shelter of a mother. Past Perfect is exactly that and then some.

Anna Varughese diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (an abdominal dysfunction) at the age of four saw her relegated to a life of poking and prodding, highly monitored food-on-a-plate and a truckload of medicines. Her condition sometimes improves and often nosedives making a normal life quite impossible. Against these odds, Anna manages a life that had some semblance of routine; she manages to finish her MBA and becomes a mother. The final verdict on her disease came when she got to know that her liver was badly damaged and needed replacement; it was at this juncture that Past Perfect took shape in the form of memoirs to her daughter, a last-ditch attempt at letting a daughter know how much her mother battled for survival and how much she was loved; an account of the lovely childhood that her mother had amidst scores of cousins and family. I am not going to detail the nuances that this book has to offer or the actual occurrences in her life, one has to discover these for oneself for it is the tale of a grueling journey undertaken by a brave woman told in an effortless fashion that is at once compelling and absorbing. I am going to stick to those facets of the book that I found captivating.

Tales of personal suffering and individual uphill battles are a dime-a-dozen each carrying their own merits and traumatic experiences but as a book they sometimes fail to deliver the content that makes it engaging enough. So what does Anna do in order to not relegate herself to the common pile? For starters, her love for books and the fact that she is a voracious reader is amply evident in her style of writing. She abstains from resorting to wax eloquent as is a common pitfall of personal tales but she trusts simplicity to do the job. The prose is often breezy and immediate that keeps the reader engrossed enough to keep those pages turning. The anecdotal experiences are narrated so forthrightly that the reader can instinctively connect to the emotion within - that for me is exactly what a personal account should do, it should draw the reader in and invite him to be a part of the story. Another thing that impressed me is the brutal honesty that is present throughout the narration. Anna has no qualms bringing to light her own shortcomings or flaws as much as she criticizes those around her for their faults, a healthy dose of honesty does wonders in helping to understand the person behind the words.  She is also candid in stating that she is not a brave person and that the battle she was subjected to was due as much as to a lack of choice than anything else. I, however do not entirely agree with this sentiment for I do not believe that a person can tread such a perilous fight without some trace of will; yes, there was a lack of choice but to give up is always a choice that a human being has to which Anna never resorted to. That, to me speaks volume of the strength that Anna possesses and her will to survive against such heavily stacked odds.

Phrases like "Indian culture", "traditional ethics", "family value-system" and many more like those are so often misplaced and confused when narrating a story such as this. But Anna sets it right in the way she enmeshes these aspects into the story. Whether she is at loggerheads with what is accepted as societal norms (daughter-in-law paying obeisance by touching elders' feet) or if she is lauding the irreplaceable devotion of those near and dear to her always ready to lend a support, Anna is at ease; this is another aspect where Anna's candor is at the forefront lending to brilliant narration. Anna is a born raconteur and some of the things she said were actual eye-openers for me. For instance I did not know that some Christian families ancestry traces back to Brahmanism and thus practice customs which I did not know existed in Christianity (like naming the children after maternal and paternal grandparents or the presence of "thali" or "mangal sutra" in their marriage rites) - these facts make the book even more interesting and lend an irrefutable authenticity to the tale. The final icing on the cake that makes Past Perfect, well.... just about perfect is the silent homage it pays to the fundamental importance of the family value system and the beauty that is motherhood. Never in your face extolling the greatness of either, it is indisputably present and tangible enough. At every turn what eggs Anna on to witness the dawn of the next day is Aditi, her daughter. It may sound clich├ęd but one cannot refute the source of strength that it is. I, for one cannot imagine any reader not envying Anna her rich childhood and the phenomenally tightly-knit family that she got to be a part of (the whole part about Anna in Kerala with her family with games, food and fun is such a pleasant read). Neither their faith in her nor their tireless devotion to her well being is ever in question thus playing a more than significant role in seeing Anna's victory in the end. A special mention that is more than necessary is for Anna's mother (one of her rocks of Gibraltar as Anna puts it herself!) and Tarun (Anna's better half). Tireless in their efforts to keep Anna afloat, they are without question the pillars of support without which this battle would never have been fought, leave alone win.

There can be no review without some bellyaches now, can there?! Well, I do not mean to find faults just for the sake of doing it but Anna's pretty frequent use of "What if I am not around tomorrow?", "Will I live to see...?" laments could have definitely been toned down. I do not dare suggest that this is an indulgence on her part, by no means. A story that is this powerful and heart rending would definitely mean that the narrator would have been in throes of self doubt whenever life had a new curve ball to throw at her. I just mean to suggest that on hindsight these could have been fine tuned for the book. A minor gripe, I assure you that takes nothing away from the book. I would have also liked more photos (there is an array of photographs inset in the middle of the book) for putting a face to a name means that much more in a story such as this.

I definitely cannot end the review on the note above, that would be injustice! Past Perfect is a story of will and courage that results in triumph. It pays tribute to something that seems to be dwindling in our lives of late - values of family and love, it does so in a fashion that is not pedantic but natural, something that is not forced into its pages. Anna Varughese's debut is well written without doubt; yeah she did have a story already but the presentation is what makes the difference and Anna manages it with panache and skill. This is a book that can be enjoyed as a simple tale without being burdened with the trauma that is present within, the breezy style and matter-of-fact writing makes it possible. Unquestionable is the salute that the books manages to pay to motherhood and its strengths, something that could well use a little bit of reaffirmation in present times. 

(I intend to have an email interview with Anna and I would be following this up with that interview)
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