Kirin Narayan’s memoir My Family and Other Saints — by turns hilarious and heartfelt — is populated by godmen, hippies on the Indian “hash trail” and her eccentric family. Set in Juhu, Mumbai, of the 1960s and 1970s, it is rich in characterization, and evokes a country on the cusp of modernity and taboos, where this family stands out for its unconventional ways. The US-based cultural anthropologist told Lounge about writing from memory and her precious inheritance. Edited excerpts:
It’s a book about your childhood. How much did you rely on memory?
The book begins in the late 1960s and stretches into the 1970s, with some dives back into family history. I started by bringing out family stories, the kinds that are told and retold with amazed amusement.
Lost childhood: Narayan calls her Juhu home ‘the groovy pad’.
I’ve always had a habit of saving writings, so this meant I had something of a personal archive to consult: my own juvenile scribbling in copy books, issues of a postage-stamp sized magazine ‘The Family’ in which I used to record microscopic accounts of family events. Once I had a draft, I shared this with my immediate family and close friends, and their comments helped me rewrite. My husband pointed out that this collective process was transforming the “me-moir” into a “we-moir”! My mother, in particular, sent long comments by email.
The title alludes to Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals.
I first encountered My Family and Other Animals when I was 10, and I felt an immediate connection to Gerald Durrell because he was the same age in the book. Also, he too was a youngest child in a colourful family that hosted all kinds of guests. I read it sitting in the dense shade of the chikoo tree in my grandmother’s Nashik garden, and when I looked up after a few chapters, my vision had changed. A busy natural world came into focus around me: big black makoda ants on the tree bark, yellow butterflies on marigolds nearby, helicopter-like dragonflies hovering over the lotus pond. At a moment when I was especially exasperated with my mother, I warned her that I would someday write all about her spiritual aspirations in a book that I would call My Family and Other Saints.
You were the academically inclined, the Jane Austen reader, the ambitious one. Was it difficult to reproduce being the outsider in a book?
As an earnest little scholar, my ambitions were channelled mostly towards doing well at school and writing my own stories, but of course everyone else in the family had ambitions of different sorts too. My brother Rahoul’s teenage ambition to understand deeper meanings behind the impermanence of life seemed so much grander than my own mundane focus on generating good grades! By the time I wrote this book, I’d gained enough perspective to see the humour in how, if you want to rebel in an unconventional family, you can end up fiercely clinging to appearances of convention.
The central figure, and indeed most charming character in the book is Rahoul, the brother who left home while you were an adolescent and later died. How did he affect you?
Rahoul’s legacy fills many pages of the memoir and is difficult to summarize. When a person dies young, they often haven’t had a chance to leave behind many material objects, or a famous name, or descendants—but the impressions they stamp on people around them are maybe even more powerful because of the untimely loss. He became a photographer, and big prints of his photographs sometimes announce his presence in the homes of family and friends. He has left a lingering aura of tremendous high spirits and mischievous humour, reminding us to pursue what’s most compelling to our curiosity.
Have you visited Mumbai recently?
I haven’t visited Juhu or Mumbai since 1998. Since then, my travels to India have mostly taken me north. But 10 years ago, the Juhu that I describe in the book had been mostly cemented over. One of the pleasures of writing a memoir is lingering in vanished times and places that endure as they once were inside your imagination and in shared memories.