BOOK REVIEW – SILVER HAZE by PANKAJ VARMA
In the foreword the author says “She always wanted to tell her story and after she realized her memory loss is irreversible she started to write it out but her attention span was never long enough to pen a coherent narrative” referring to his mother and the onset of dementia. It was therefore up to the author to complete the story for from the time of realization of her fading memory his mother would not have been able to recapture all those memories of the distant past with such precision unless of course she had over the years shared with her son and daughter all those significant happenings in her life. Pankaj Varma the author acknowledges this in the foreword when he says “When I started writing this book, I started with the family folklore and all those little things I remembered my mother telling me but soon my writer’s imagination took over. I have developed characters loosely based on her life, but the story is essentially fiction of my own creation.” And yes it is a fiction he has created and in such a wonderful manner that ultimately you end up believing that this was the real thing. One is reminded of Irving Stone’s various fictionalised biographies of eminent personalities like Van Gogh and Freud where you can never really discern the dividing line between fiction and reality. When you finish ‘Silver Haze’ you are left with the feeling that it is the author’s mother who is actually narrating the entire chain of events.
‘Haze’ is an indicator of diminished visibility, brought on by dust, smoke or a mist. When one talks about being hazy it would refer to a vague or confused state of mind. May be ‘Silver’ is indicative of the mist. The ‘Prologue sets the tone for the narrative that is to follow and perhaps one of the most moving paragraphs in the entire book is – “I realized that I would have to live the rest of my life in some kind of a haze. I would gradually find it difficult to look back at my own past. I would lose my short term memory first and then my long term memory. Life would be like a swirling mist and I would have moments of recall. I would be able to recall clearly some past events but this would again be lost in oblivion as the fog moved in again. I wouldn’t be able to peer into the future without the benefit of being able to recall my past.” This sums up the condition of dementia. We are left asking the question as to what if it happens to us. The author has not only observed such a patient at such close quarters but has also tried going into her mind to understand what it really feels like.
The storyline or rather the narration spawns across three generations and covers all the significant events that occur in the life of a woman belonging to a middle class Punjabi family, uprooted during partition and beginning life afresh across the border in India. Educated but at the same time subjected to the prevailing societal norms regarding love, marriage and a patriarchal outlook, ultimately settling down to the joys of parenthood, a family and grandchildren thereafter to the sorrow of separation and increasing feelings of isolation and then to a slow deterioration of mental recall, all are there in the book. The events are so well stitched together through seamless narration that one cannot but laud the author’s felicity with the language and his minute attention to detail. The narration is sensitive and touching.
There is one very poignant sentence on page 74 where the narrator while on a train journey to Agra says “I also avoided looking at the countryside – after the partition village after village looked ravaged and plundered. The monsoon was still away and even Nature wore a dirty brown colour. It was much better to be lost in the make believe world of the books than to face the sordid devastation out of the window.”
I found this lyrically disturbing and a window to what partition was. There are similar expressions scattered across the book.
The Epilogue is crafted beautifully and in a very sensitive manner with the narration by the son as the mother by now has been totally lost to Alzheimer’s disease. As the disease is incurable and degenerative the affected person relies increasingly on others for assistance placing a great amount of burden on the people taking care of them. It is while reading the epilogue that we start to understand the deep love that the author has for his mother, for only that can sustain and nurture a parent who has now become a child.
“My mother is there with me but I cannot share my life with her. I can hug her and kiss her but I feel sad that I cannot tell her how much I love her. But I am happy that she is happy.”
In all, this is a great book that highlights a condition that anyone of us would be susceptible to. Recommended as a must read.