I am writing to you after a short gap. The reason is that I was busy reading Tomichan Matheikal’s new book “Autumn Shadows: Memoir” and it was very difficult to interrupt the reading to pen down any of my own thoughts. So I decided to first finish the task at hand and then share my views with you. No, it was not a pleasure reading, instead I was reading it in order to review it as a critic. So today I would share my thoughts and opinion of this book with you.
From the very beginning, in fact from the very first page, you are held in awe by Matheikal’s exceptionally good command over English language. The overall tone is modest, polite and nowhere throughout the text does he force you to agree with him. Though he does not explicitly say so, yet the underlying message is –“That is my personal opinion, you can disagree with me.” Such is the case even when his opinion is very strong and he is convinced of the correctness of his stand.
Such perfect language and writing skill does not come by itself; it is a result of a long and patient reading — reading classics, reading philosophy, reading everything — all the books that constitute the literary history of humanity. Much before Matheikal himself starts telling you about the books he had read, his opinion of them, and shares with you his passion for books, have you already got a sense that his writing skill is not ordinary, something else is there which you are not grasping. His careful selection of words, huge vocabulary, his crafting sentences of appropriate length which are suitable to the context — all show that Matheikal is not an ordinary writer, he certainly understands the English language. This is important to understand because he changes the length of sentences to building up the mood and/or tension. As for vocabulary, there were several words which I was not aware of, and it is indeed good that the book is in Kindle format so the flow of reading was never compromised. I wonder if I would have been equally successful in appreciating the merit of this book had it been in paperback format. But it is my personal limitation, more experienced readers would enjoy it in any format.
The narrative is strange. It has a captivating appeal. Everyday you would be reluctant to open the book … Memoir?…Yawn!…But once you open it, it becomes enormously difficult to put it down. I had to force myself to slow down my pace of reading so that I could appreciate the language and skills of the writer. During the 15 days while I was reading this book, my daily routine got upset, every activity got delayed, all because I wanted to read just one more page! In summary, this book reminds me of Newton’s first law — difficult to start, difficult to stop.
One warning for the reader and potential readers. This is not an autobiography per se. Here you would not find very fine details of the writer’s life, that too chronologically set. That would have been a slightly boring stuff, though important nevertheless, and demanded high level of patience. This book is a memoir. The writer has divided his life into episodes — four of them — narrated cursorily the major events that happened during each of those episodes, and his reaction to them. It is mostly based on recollections and memory, so you can get a hint of how much those events have impacted his life. The book is made up of reflections and contemplation on life events in retrospection. This makes the book even more enjoyable and fruitful. Though the writer mentions his old age at several places in different ways, I found it very difficult to believe. The writing is so fresh, lively and full of vigour, that it sounds so much youthful. The writer may be old, but his writing is too young.
This book would serve as an inspiration for budding writers. This is how a book should be written. I do not want to turn you off by lofty praises, yet this book is by far the best book in English that I have reviewed so far. Most of the contemporary writers, especially in India, are concerned with churning out one bestseller after another, mostly creating stuff which are not very different from one another. This book will show them what writing actually means, how it must be done, and how much patience, effort and training it demands. It could be a litmus with which you should test your own writing skills.
OK. Now coming to the plot and criticism of the book. I would not give you full details of the narrative, for that you would have to really read the book. As I mentioned earlier, the writer has divided his life span so far into four episodes — Kerala, Meghalaya, Delhi and finally back to Kerala. There are brief excursions into Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra also, but these four are the major ones that the narrative focuses on.
The first episode set in Kerala is about his childhood, adolescence and early youth. It describes his family, few anecdotes, financial difficulties, his education and grooming for a profession in priesthood, his disillusionment with religion, his renunciation of religion and denial of god, and walking out of church life. It is not so simple as I have made it sound. In India it is indeed a very difficult task to accomplish, whichever be your religion, wherever you might be living. His family and society in general were not happy with his decision; how he kept his mental balance and stood by his decision make the core of this episode. This is the best written part of the whole book. Fine details of the events as well as his reactions to them as the events were taking place as well his opinion about them in retrospection are conveyed very beautifully. Time and again he elaborates the books he read and interlinks the events with the narrative or characters of any of the books he had read. It is a very clever gesture and enriches the narrative.
Second episode describes his life in Shillong where he got a job as a teacher. He further enhances his education by obtaining additional degrees thereby improving his professional value. However, this was the most difficult period of his life, perhaps mostly because of social and workplace politics, throwing him into ever deeper pits of depression and gloom. His marriage and difficulties associated with it are narrated very courageously. It is not easy to recall such a past because it implies living through that pain all over again. Still he attempts it with considerable success. However, for certain reasons, this episode does not stand at par with the first one. There was plenty of scope to elaborate the writer’s reactions to the events in retrospection. He did give it, but certainly not as deeply as in the first episode. Several details that he provided of the socio-political scene in north-east were completely new for me. The writer has provided it from a layman’s perspective, a normal citizen or rather a second class citizen, who was unwelcome, uncalled, unwanted. One serious objection that I have with this episode is his coining the term ‘Mastermind’, with a capital M. This is ambiguous as I do not know the reason for using such a term. What does the writer imply with that? Is he referring to god? Or destiny? Or is it a fellow human being — a colleague or a neighbour — who was playing dirty games and manipulating his professional, social and personal life? I could never understand it, and this ambiguity affected my reading experience. Did I miss something? If it was indeed a fellow human being, and in spite of all the wicked things that he did to the writer, the writer wants to protect his privacy and public image, then he could have given a human name with a note — ‘not his/her real name’. Simple. The trick used by the writer still confuses me. This is a very important episode and had plenty of value for readers. So many youth these days are suffering from depression and gloom. Though the narrative does not offer any remedy or advice, it could certainly have told them that they are not alone. Such things can happen to anybody, and it is only a matter of time before happiness chooses you. In such times, having a person sharing his similar experiences is a valuable asset. I would look forward to any new book from the writer based on his life in Shillong. And in spite of the gloomy atmosphere, the writing style is full of energy.
Similarly, the third episode also has a lot of value for everybody, especially working individuals. It describes his teaching job in Sawan Public School, Delhi. Here he tells you about his love at first sight with the school, its premises, the environment, the various people he met — good, bad, careful, calculative, sincere, talented, everybody. He tells you about workplace politics in sufficient detail, the interplay between religion, politics and money which swallowed such a fine educational institution. However, it is mostly a narrative only, interspersed with sketches of his colleagues, with only a slight account of his own reactions. You would certainly miss the details of the type that he had been giving earlier in the book, especially the first episode. Also for reasons I gave in the previous paragraph, this episode had great value for young professionals who could have gained by his experiences, and learnt what to expect at a new workplace, the type of people one could meet, the type of difficulties one could face and how to deal with them. You empathise with him as he expresses his annoyance and disgust with the religion-politics nexus which swallows everything, shaking the very foundation of society by hitting at educational institutions, thereby ensuring the nation’s decay and decline. But he does it all with fair modesty, trying not to hurt the reader’s religious or political prejudices. Everyone is a devotee these days, either of an unseen god, or a politician; people prefer to depend on someone else for their welfare however doubtful their credentials might be, instead of using their own virtues and intelligence. Anyway that is the shape of the things to come and we cannot do anything. The country has chosen such a future. The tone in this episode is very casual as compared to the very formal style in the first two episodes.
The fourth and final episode describes his return to Kerala after resigning from Sawan Public School. He joined Carmel Public School as a teacher and this is the job he really loves and enjoys. He is indeed happy, and you also begin to feel happy with him. This episode makes sure that after finishing this book, you leave with a smile on your face and a warm heart. The students especially deserve the writer’s affection and kindness. This is the only episode that is full of positivity. It is also the one which would clarify all the doubts that you might have regarding the writer’s own stand and his own philosophy. When apparently everyone in society is seemingly crossed with him, your doubts that there might be something wrong in the writer’s own philosophy could be understandable. In this section, Matheikal tells you in quite clear terms what his overall outlook towards life is. And it is very simple, very very simple — It is not necessary to believe in god to be a good human being. A person may be irreligious and still be a good person. One should not impose one’s own philosophy upon others. And he keeps reminding you of his two loves — one for books and the second for his students.
However nicely the book may be crafted, it has certain flaws, which have potential to adversely affect the reading experience. Interestingly, the book has only few typographical, punctuation or grammatical mistakes, that too sparsely scattered in the first quarter of the book. The remaining book is nearly free of errors of all types. Just one more careful reading would render the book free of all errors.
The weakest point of the book is the Introduction written by Dr Jose D. Maliekal. Though aimed at giving the reader a brief overview of Matheikal’s thoughts and writing, it overdoes the task it was assigned. The Introduction goes on and on and on, seemingly never-ending, and covers exactly 10% of the complete length of the book. That means, for this approximately 200 pages book, just the Introduction itself takes up 20 pages. Come on! This is bad on several grounds. First, it already biases the readers or rather orients them even before they have started reading the book. Some may be turned off by this elaborate essay and put down the book even before tasting Matheikal’s words. Yes, the introduction is different and in sharp contrast to Matheikal’s own writing style. Even otherwise, I personally believe that the readers should be left to risk and experience any literary work by themselves, and not guided or brainwashed into it. If the commentator indeed wanted to say so much, he could have written a review in magazine/newspaper or blog post or epilogue at the end of the book. It is my sincere suggestion to the readers to skip the Introduction; instead straightaway jump to the Preface by Matheikal himself, and start reading the book. After finishing the book, you can come back and read the Introduction.
Right from the first episode itself, Matheikal draws parallel between events or characters in his life with some literary piece in some book or mythology. On such occasions, he digresses and narrates the piece he is referring to. Perhaps he wants it to be self-sufficient so that the readers who are not familiar with Christian mythology or literature may also appreciate his analogy. However, such explanation sometimes goes on for about 1-2 pages due to which the flow of the narrative is interrupted and the reader feels lost. Fortunately, Matheikal himself keeps track of the narrative and after completing his analogy, returns exactly at the same point where he had left. Still, such references and analogies need to be trimmed and cut short. The main narrative itself it fairly interesting, and the reader could be turned off by the analogies. Of course, Matheikal loves to read, and like all book lovers he also loves to talk about them. I do not blame him for this. At the same time, I would point out that somewhere it gives an impression that he is mostly living in a literary world and is not in touch with the actual, real, outside world. Few examples:
“…the campus reminded me of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness…”
As I noted earlier, the episodes from Shillong and Delhi have ample scope for a detailed narrative. I would not mind if it increased the length of the book by another 100 pages or so.
One final comment. In the episode on Delhi, Matheikal draws attention to the large number of Sharmas in Sawan Public School staff. Then he spends next 2-3 pages describing their personalities and characteristics, mostly positive traits:
“I felt at ease with him more than with any other Sharma in Sawan. He was a Sharma with a difference.”
This is far fetched. Like Singh, the surname Sharma is a very frequently misused surname. Thus all Sharmas need not belong to the same community. Due to this confusion, it is not an indicator of caste or community these days. These are fine details of the complex north Indian society. Again, I do not blame Matheikal for this generalization. This is just a comment.
In conclusion, read this book for sure without any further delay. You have a lot to learn from this short composition. It would broaden your mind and perspective. Even if you disagree or differ with Matheikal, still you would get a new way to look at your own life. But let me remind you, read the Introduction after reading the main book. Happy reading!