Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Prison and Chocolate Cake by Nayantara Sahgal

Rating: 10/10


The delightfully-titled book Prison and Chocolate Cake is proof that truth is sometimes more fascinating and gripping than fiction. India and her struggle for independence are seen like never before, from the point of view of a young woman, Nehru’s niece Nayantara Sahgal.

Being part of the ‘first family’ of Indian politics is no easy task and this book is an intimate, innocent, almost naïve portrayal of the men and women who Nayantara called Mummie, Mamu and India calls its first women cabinet minister, its first Prime Minister. But it is because of this naivety that this book is refreshing, a far-flung cry from the usual non-fiction books littered with metaphors and complicated words.

Written in 1952-53 recalling the revolutionary 1940s, the book moves from scenario to incident seamlessly and never at one point is there confusion or complication. Being a young Indian in British India came with a whole load of quirks and in Sahgal’s book, you find intimate little stories about these. The fact that it was intended only for a small audience perhaps explains the very personal feel of the book, making it an immediate treasure.

Sahgal talks with ease about her travels and education in the U.S, her association with ‘Bapu’( Gandhiji), her angst about the fact that people abroad couldn’t even point out where India was in a map and the pride and the responsibility that came with being ‘Nehru’s niece’. Her relationship with sisters Rita and Chandralekha and the playful teasing and wit that comes with it is a beautiful part of the book.

The book is as much about the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty as it is about India and quite understandably so. One gets a ringside view of the family jokes ( Nehru( India's first Prime Minister) calling a Mrs. Hopewell Mrs. Hopeless is priceless), the unwritten rules ( Never cry in front of a policemen when any member of the family is arrested for the cause of independence), the good-natured banter ( Cousin ‘Indi’( Another PM) was called a ‘celery stalk’. Hard to imagine the iron-fisted woman of the emergency being equated to celery), emotional moments ( Sahgal meets her cousin Indi’s 3 year-old son Rajiv ( Yes, he would also go on to be PM) and wonders how time has passed by ) and little details of what it meant to be part of this dynasty.

Sahgal considers three people as her parents- father Ranjit Sitaram, mother Vijayalakshmi Pandit and uncle Jawaharlal Nehru and this book is a tribute to all three. Several invaluable, adoring anecdotes about these people find place in the book, leading way to the only possible criticism, that of the book being too obviously partial having been written by an insider. 

Sahgal and her sisters asks Nehru questions that anyone who has read his Discovery of India would want to – ‘Do you believe in God?’ ‘Don’t you get sick and tired of traveling so much?’ Nehru’s answers, his flair for life, his witticisms are quite certainly the greatest treasures unearthed from the book.

The book ends on the tragic note of Gandhiji’s assassination and recalls the reaction of the public and several famous personalities. As Sahgal points out how struck by grief, Nehru bent down to Gandhiji’s body and forgot himself for about a minute, it is a single but powerful expression of the relationship between these two great men. Sarojini Naidu’s reaction to the assassination ‘What is all the sniveling about? Would you rather he had died of decrepit old age or indigestion? This was the only death great enough for him’ is delightfully typical, as Sahgal points out.

There are a dozen wondrous and uniquely Indian instances and emotions in the book- admiration, pride, love, angst, grief, bravery and conveyed in Sahgal’s simple yet effective style, the book stays with you long after you’re done reading it. A must-read for every Indian and a treasure for anyone who aspires to know more about India, in all her manifold forms.


Anonymous said...

Great review. I love how you describe it as an insider's view to something that many would otherwise not be able to see or experience. We see leaders, past and present, through the public eye but there is so much more going on behind the scenes. Fascinating!

Kals said...

Thank you! That's right- this book is an excellent exercise in understanding that our leaders were human too and had their own lives as well :)

A Buckeye Girl Reads said...

I loved this review-I normally don't read a lot of non-fiction books, but this one looks really interesting.

Kals said...

It is fascinating and is written in a way that is easily understood by non-Indian readers :) Thank you for checking this review out and leaving a comment.

Whitney said...

I love the title of this book, and the plot sounds interesting too. I don't normally read non-fiction books either, but will have to investigate this one.

Kals said...

I love the title too :) And the book is definitely worth checking out. Sahgal's a lovely writer.

Unknown said...

I have read this book long back and i would like to read it again. i would love to own one for self for my kids. Tina


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