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Book Review: Saeed Mirza’s ‘Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother’

By VM Girija

Title: Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother
Author: Saeed Mirza
Publisher: Tranquebar Press, 2008

It is Delhi International Book festival of 2016. I am invited by the National Book Trust (NBT) to read my poems as a representation of Malayalam poetry. It is more or less a tragedy because the only people present are my daughter Ardra (then a student in JNU), her friends, Archa, my younger daughter (then a student of history at the University of Leiden), who happened to be in Delhi, and of course people floating from book stall to book stall. They enter with lazy steps and wandering eyes, stay for a moment, and then fade away. Delhi-based famous Hindi poet, Anamika, consoles me by saying, “This is not a poets’ meet to be heard by common people. It’s just as if announcing your presence in the literary world.”

I thought I will find a ‘real’ publisher, who will be interested in my long poem, Sleeping Beauty (translation of my Malayalam poem Urangunna Sundari by Latha Karuthedath). I was thinking something like this: “Why don’t they understand that it is a great poem with universal imagery? Oh, why do people say poetry is no more marketable or saleable? Why do they say long narratives or poems are already dead?” It’s easy to think but unfortunately truth is just on the opposite side of the coin. I felt as if the world was asking me, “If you can’t write film songs, film scripts or novels, what does the word ‘writer’ mean?”

So eventually I didn’t meet any famous publishing house that lost a chance to publish a world famous future poet! But I did visit some bookstalls, which showcased good titles and different books. I am fifty-six now. When I was a student I didn’t have money to buy even text books, leave alone other books. Once in a discounted book sale of leftists, I bought three fat volumes of Das Capital but didn’t read them. I found it difficult to follow and left them aside. Afterwards I joined the All India Radio and started earning. But I never bought another book that was not completely readable to me. I hated purchasing books just to keep them in custody.

In the Delhi Book Festival, I found filmmaker Saeed Mirza’s book, Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother (2008). In the sleeve note, it was described as the first novel by a pioneer of the progressive New Wave cinema in India. I was attracted to the word ‘Ammi’ as it reminded me of my daughter calling me Ammi when she was a tiny tot. Then the phrase, ‘Democratic Mother’ aroused my curiosity as it’s almost impossible to find a democratic mother. It is not often that we meet a democratic family. That’s why I decided to buy the novel.

Saeed Mirza’s autobiographical novel infuses life to the beautiful image of an intelligent and deeply emotional woman, who represents changing India. As she lived in the Nehruvian India, she had internalised all those democratic and secular values. The story of her ‘unveiling’ is touching in many ways. The dress of the Indian woman represents many things: religion, caste, education, financial status, attitude towards English/Western culture, etc. Saeed’s Ammi suddenly removes her burqa and enters a brave new modern world, when her husband hints at it. And when her husband takes her to a remote place as a school teacher, she makes the dry land bloom. As a supportive and encouraging partner, she stands by her husband’s decision to look for new opportunities in Mumbai. At the end of the book, we come to know that she is the author of one of her husband’s blockbuster films. It’s a beautiful journey of a bold, balanced and yet romantic woman, who dared to be intelligent!

Mirza’s novel is political as well as poetic, which intertwine, flow, and build a new kind of personal politics. In later life, Ammi is very disturbed by the new developments, which appear to destroy India’s secular and democratic Nehruvian culture. Both parents represent the ordinary progressive people in a free and bold New India. This personalisation of politics and politicisation of deeper personal elements make this novel relevant today.

Saeed is never a flatterer of Indian culture and history. He is a truth-sayer (soothsayer, also) as we see in our epics or old ballads. Narrated with a structure reminiscent of the Mahabharata or Arabian Nights, the novel wants us to assimilate ancient wisdom and analyse it through the light of modern living. This is something that excited me about the book and made me feel as if I have discovered this book. The beautiful cover design by Moonis Ijal (about whom I don’t know anything more) adds depth to the novel.

I am not a critic, nor am I a critical reader in the standard sense of the term. As a poet, I found the novel a wonderful poetic journey into human mind and life. Even though this is a novel, it is also a fragmented political diary of changing India and the world. The pictures presented in the novel are not complete but the incompleteness somehow portrays a complete vision. The form of this autobiographical novel draws on ancient stories, Sufi tales, poems, verbal pictures, long scenes from a film-like description, and small stamp size moments. The deployment of varied aesthetic devices makes Mirza’s book an intimate one. 

Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother is available here.

VM Girija is a Malayalam poet and essayist. She is working with the All India Radio Kochi as a broadcaster since 1983.


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