A delightful memory of my book launch at “ Landmark” in Mumbai on 14/9/11 was meeting the affectionate and bubbling Savitri Babulkar. She was there with a group of collegians of different generations whose presence and solidarity with a fellow alumna deeply touched me for a milestone in my life. Savitri’s presence was very special, because she herself is an author and was kind enough to make available a copy of her lively memoir “ Childhood Daze!” Delving into its pages is a delicious detour in time- a vanished but familiar world brought to life in fluid and pellucid prose.
While writing my own novel “ Blossom Showers”, I was often stymied by a lack of first hand acquaintance with the past. It’s easy to access books on academic history, but the social history of how people actually lived are few and far between . I had to hoard and expand my grandmother’s casual utterances, kicking myself for not having touched her for more detailed reminiscences. I actively longed for a memoir like Savitri’s to give me an intimate acquaintance of the bygone. The writers of memoirs are de-facto historians and sociologists whose documented memories aid general understanding of the evolution of societies.
Her childhood home “ Toggu Ghara” is a gracious Chitrapur Saraswath Brahmin homestead in picturesque Manjeshwar, where the waters of sea and river meet in delightful confluence. Her pages resonate with lyrical prose to evoke the rare beauty of verdant earth, silver waters and golden skies. But the real fascination of little “Ammanoo” lies in people- exploring the comforting network of aunts, uncles, cousins multiple generations of grandparents and devoted household attendants. Individually and collectively, they surely offered a sound support system, for as we poignantly discover, the little girl is motherless and her father works in distant Bombay. The affectionate character sketches of the people who animate her pages lend it the character of an endearingly engaging tale.
The social setting of her writing stimulates many inferences. She depicts a family whose feudal background dictates a progressive “ noblesse oblige” that debunks widely held myths and stereotypes of an oppressive landlord class. Long before legislation would mandate their humane treatment, the progressive elders of her family broke unfair taboos by embracing the so- called lower castes as trusted members of their household. If her grandfather opted to be out of the employment market, it was from the laudable sentiment of not depriving another of a livelihood which he enjoyed from the comfort of ownership and social position. The safety of tenants proceeding for the Haj was a matter of concern to a caring landlord. An ingenious arrangement was worked out with basket weaving ‘ koragar’ tribals to preserve a precious little girl from a feared destiny. Her writing sheds light on the diaspora, principally in Bombay, of family and community members who congregated there for the superior employment opportunities that utilized their learning and intellect.
A chapter on her grandfather’s herbal remedies is especially educative. Household rituals like the preparation of jaggery remind us of the self-reliant nature of bygone lifestyles. The memoir is especially vivid in evoking earthily flavoursome food, largely derived from the abundance of home grown produce. In an age when fusion cuisine teases the palate, one is intrigued by such unusual combinations as Vas bakery bread layered with butter and paired with ragi balls.
By its very name, “ Childhood Daze” would be of equal utility to child psychologists, since grappling with the complexities and mysteries of the adult world form a substantial area of a little girl’s puzzled pre-occupations. She revives her childhood persona with a natural simplicity and vivid clarity. Like “The Railway Children” of Edith Nesbit’s classic novel, her young ears are attuned to the changing rhythms of a passing train. She joyously recalls the frolics of a seaside picnic. Her understanding of life is narrated through the expanding range of her social inter-actions and continuing scholastic progress. In myriad chapters, her charming memoir revives the enchanted innocence of childhood, and arouses nostalgia for the past.
Savitri’s writing records a mock despair about not matching some of her clever peers in academic excellence. The shy girl whose exemplary English essay was nevertheless shared with her class has lived up to the promise of that tender time and has since impressed a sweetly significant literary mark.