Author: Sudha Murty
Publisher: Penguin Books India
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The Mother I Never Knew contains 2 novellas about men searching for mothers they never knew they had.
Let’s start with a disclaimer. I am a literary snob. My personal preference is for books that are best described as being difficult to read for 90% of the janta. Any book that wins a literary award immediately finds a place on my wishlist. While I try not to be scornful about popular Indian fiction, I must admit that it really isn’t my genre of choice.
Having said that, I had read – and thoroughly enjoyed reading – Mahasweta by Sudha Murty. I liked it not because of its literary merit, or because it was an eye-opener or gave me a different perspective on things – none of those hi-falutin reasons. I liked it because it was a simple story, well-told. I liked its strong female protagonist. It satisfied not the reader, but the feminist in me. I also loved Wise and Otherwise, her book of non-fiction. This is an author, the content of whose work stands out; an exploration of middle-class moralities, realities and problems.
So when I read the blurb for The Mother I Never Knew, I had high expectations for the content of the book.
What I liked
Sudha Murty’s tales are not set in the holy trinity of Indian popular fiction: Mythology, Love Stories, and Coming-of-age-in-IIT/IIM/IT companies. They explore scenarios that intrinsically have more depth to them. Which is great.
The first story is that of Venkatesh, an mildly unhappily married man who discovers that his late father had a wife and son who were unknown to him. The story turns on his moral dilemma: now that he knows about this lapse of judgment on his father’s part, what is his duty to this second ‘family’ of his?
The second story is of a man, Mukesh, who learns in his adulthood that he is adopted, and the search for his biological mother, and thus, his identity.
What I didn’t
There are two stories here, and each has more than enough potential to be a full-scale novel. Yet I felt as though all this potential was squandered.
The central conflict in Venkatesh’ story is resolved so unbelievably effortlessly, that it amounted almost to a deus ex machina. I felt cheated by it. It takes ten chapters for Venkatesh to search for, find and confirm the validity of his second ‘mother’s’ claims, and one chapter for him to discuss it with his wife and children, get repulsed by the selfishness of the wife and son, and feel redeemed by his daughter’s selflessness. I don’t mind so much that the conflict is resolved with a minimum of drama – but then, why the rambling approach to the search and confirmation of his father’s other wife’s identity? Why the painstakingly exact numeric details about Venkatesh’s financial status? I would have preferred instead a deeper exploration of Venkatesh’s relationship with his wife, the conflict between taking care of one’s own versus those considered ‘the others’.
Mukesh’s story has the same flaws – a rambling off into meaningless territory. Here, his search for his biological mother is complicated by the fact that he was adopted twice in a row – so he has not two but three contenders for the title of ‘mother’. Ohhh-kay. There is also a brother-in-law who is a lawyer, who behaves like a cad when it comes to Mukesh’s father’s will and his last rites. This intriguing thread was left dangling away, and never addressed beyond a single line that expresses his adoptive mother’s unconditional support towards his right as ‘heir’ to the family.
To me, The Mother I Never Knew is a novel of missed opportunities. The theme, the central conflicts, the very realistic, Narayan-esque settings, all made for some interesting fodder, which was unfortunately squandered away. Top marks for venturing into unfamiliar territory and aiming for something different – but the result fell far short of my expectations.