When a film-maker such as Saeed Mirza sets out to write a book, expect the unexpected. The write-director of films such as Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro and a defining voice of India’s parallel cinema movement of the 1970s and 1980s, has penned a book that explores his dilemmas about politics through soliloquies and dialogues with his mother. At the heart of the book is an abstract political idea, yet it has a romantic, lyrical twist.
The book is titled Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother, but the format isn’t just letters. It’s your journey…
Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother: Tranquebar, 307 pages, Rs395.
The book is a series of dialogues with myself and with my mother. Many of my personal dilemmas have come through. It follows a conversational pattern and my thoughts or what I wanted to say are illustrated through tales—some from my parents’ lives, some from my experiences and journeys, some from popular stories and others from what is happening around. I like to think of it as tales upon tales, much like stories from A Thousand and One Nights.
I remember trying to always bring my mother up to my standard, tell her what the correct way was, but now when I think back, I can see how vast my mother’s experiences really were and how little I knew about defining what was modern or secular, democratic or civilized.
What justified the structure of the book?
I did not want to feel restricted by one style. I had no benchmark to be judged by. I like to think of this book as a “tossed salad”, a book that comes from various parts and yet one that is hopefully complete. It has a bit of poetry, parable, travelogues, some stories, anecdotes, a fictionalized account, a film script. I don’t know if everyone will find it cohesive enough (his wife, he thinks, certainly did not) but I don’t think that makes this attempt at writing invalid.
You move between eras, between time zones…
For you: Mirza revisits his relationship with his mother Iffatara Khan.
That was deliberate. I wanted to play with time and space. I knew that the end of this journey for me was Iraq and what was happening there, but how to get there was not fixed. There were so many words that I feel have lost their meaning over time and I wanted to bring that out as well. Another thing that was important to me was to keep the language simple, much like it is in the visual medium.
How easy or difficult was it for you to describe what you were feeling in words?
I don’t know why I started to write this book instead of making a movie. There are words that bother me, that have lost their meaning—words like civilized, uncivilized, evil empire, democracy, rogue states and law-abiding nations—who decides what is the true meaning of these words?
When I was looking back, I began to feel that perhaps in this “modern” world, would someone like my mother be deemed uncivilized because of the way she spoke or dressed or the choices she made. I think (the) book is really my way of finding answers to this dilemma. In many ways, I feel the book is a reflection of the kind of cinema I made.
‘It’s not iskool, the word is school’
Back at school, by the age of eight I was ashamed of what I had.
It wasn’t so at the beginning but within a year, these thoughts would cross my mind. From then on, it just got worse. I would get angry with myself for thinking this way and yet I couldn’t help it. This civilization doesn’t scream out its superiority, it lets it seep in and enter the bloodstream. It subtly lets the ‘native’ know that it has the power to help him deal with the present and the future through its sciences, its dress code, its architecture, its food. I call it the slow and steady colonization of the mind. And, in the forefront of the colonizing process was the language.
‘Ammi, it’s not iskool, the word is school.’
‘That is what I said, iskool.’
‘Look at my mouth carefully: School.’
‘Let us start again: Skoo.’
‘Now put it together. School.’
I would look at you in despair and you would laugh.
Why the hell was I so concerned? I was just ten years old and I had already started feeling superior. I wish you had thumped me. Did the pronunciation of the word ‘school’ really matter? Why did I want you to get it right? Besides, I had not realized that people who had studied in Urdu and Pashto had a problem pronouncing English words like school, screen, style, scrub, stare. Most of them would end up saying iskool, iscreen, istyle, iscrub, istare. And, each time I would look at you and shake my head. How many times did this happen?
‘What is the problem?’ you would always ask.
Quite honestly, it was not a problem. I had made it one.
Excerpted from Ammi: Letter To a Democratic Mother by Saeed Mirza