There is a fascinating short story in MT Vasudevan Nair’s latest book of autobiographical pieces and short storiesBear With Me, Ammawhere the narrator, a little boy, crawls out of his room in the night and raptly watches as his three grandmothers sing and dance in the courtyard. When he is ordered to go back to his room, he complies, only to quickly sneak out again. As the grandmothers clap their hands and swerve their feet in a swift rhythm, he looks on. In an instant, three other grandmothers appear out of a clump of trees, join the ongoing dance, and begin to sing a different song than the one being sung. Some commotion ensues. When the boy takes another look at the courtyard, extra carefully this time, he no longer sees the three grandmothers that had abruptly materialised. He discovers, later, that he was taken inside and put to bed as he sat burning with fever – it was all a dream, a vision. The three bonus grandmothers were performers never in the courtyard but only inside his head.

Like the narrator in the story who takes his three grandmothers and makes up three more, MT effects something similar with this book: to take what is real and extend it through imagination, the creative faculty of the mind.

Bear With Me, Amma, thoughtfully translated from Malayalam by Gita Krishnankutty, first came out as Ammakku (For Mother) in 2005. It stands as a wistful collection of nine short memoirs and nine short stories (in that order) – as in number, the short stories take after the memoirs also in content. As you flip the pages, people you meet in the memoirs soon greet you as characters playing different parts in the short stories. Like the frazzled narrator who goes back to the scene of the courtyard with a more attentive eye, you, the reader, frequently return to the site of the memoirs on encountering something strangely familiar in the short stories.

Borrowing from real life

When MT was ten and his father returned from Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka) after four years of absence with a young Sinhalese girl, whispers stirred all around. Some said that the girl was the orphaned daughter of Achan’s friend who had passed away in a bombing, others said that she was his own daughter. “What was the truth?” MT stops to ask in the collection. To this day, he doesn’t know for sure. He cannot give us the truth, but he earnestly demonstrates his formula to give us a story instead: “I went back to the night when a conflict had torn the family . . . A climax could be worked out from that scene. It would start with Achan’s arrival, Amma and the little Sinhalese girl: these were my characters.” MT borrows, heavily and guiltlessly, from his real life – the people, the settings, the incidents – nourishes them with imagination inside his head (his head, which he treats as a dedicated incubator for any freshly caught idea or, as he calls it, “the germ of a story”), until a story is conceived and then birthed onto paper.

If the short stories in the collection seem to draw from the memoirs, there are also times when the memoirs read like collections of stories in their own right. In the title memoir, MT gives away Amma in morsels of memories that are strung together to no narrative end in particular. You meet Amma just the way she resides inside MT’s head – as the dictator of pragmatic letters, as the wife of an absentee husband, as the keen storyteller, as the giver of hearty meals to strangers when food at home is barely sufficient, as the ailing patient of cancer, and as the mother who doesn’t know MT writes. “Amma left us too quickly,” he writes. Ammalu Amma never lived long enough to see his son become one of the most cherished writers in Malayalam.

But isn’t it strange that a seasoned writer like MT would struggle to paint a more coherent picture of his own dear mother? As he admits in the book himself, the portrait of Amma that has taken shape through his stories is actually very incomplete. “I have still not said everything I wanted to. There is so much more that remains to be said,” he laments and then quickly resolves, “I shall put all of it away carefully.” There is a responsibility in writing about Amma, to handle with care all of MT’s memories with her.

But even as the collection draws from an enormous mental archive, it never sees itself as a tell-all tale about Amma. The individual memoirs and short stories do not work in service of any larger design laid out for the collection – vibrant by themselves, they walk their own gait. Where Amma is a warm, posthumous presence in “Seeds,” a story where family members come together for her annual death rituals, in another story “Firecrackers,” she is shown to be unassailably cold in her refusal to buy her son some: “Mine was the only house where there was no noise, no activity. I wondered, didn’t Amma feel ashamed of this at all?” And in the final story, “Money,” she is hardly a presence at all. Even though MT chose the memoirs and short stories in the volume himself, there is no discernible criterion of import here. The holy grail of the collection as a whole, if anything, is only this: to put all of it away, for Amma.

To Amma, with love

One big instinct in this book is to drown in all maternal love. You know, how cats hopelessly melt at a head scratch and blissfully lose sight of everything else; likewise, MT softens at all touch that resembles a mother’s. It is, of course, most obvious with Amma. In the title memoir, as MT is turning seventy, he is suddenly overcome by a desire to leave everything behind, go back in time, and do nothing but surrender himself to Amma’s feet. This very real sense of yearning stretches out and makes itself home in the short stories too. A woman of resilience and command, Amma is feared by many. But MT writes of her with such sincere fondness and attention in his stories – in “Karkitakam” and “The Wedding Shirt,” you can almost imagine the young protagonist clung to the helm of Amma’s saree with his eyes intently following the smallest of her actions.

You feel a similar instinct in MT when he writes of the river Nila in the memoir “The Nila I Remember.” Like Amma, Nila intimidates him. On days of heavy rain, it hisses and threatens to take everyone in. But if the river is threatening to others, to MT, it offers ease: “The Nila River was for us a most gracious and merciful mother. It was she who guarded and caressed our secret dreams.” Even the gradual deterioration of the river, to him, feels like someone gashing the veins of a profound maternal love. Later on, in the story “Karkitakam,” when the monsoon downpour is dousing everyone whole, he thinks of it as a mother loving her children. It is in such moments of maternal warmth, that MT basks and glows.

What makes MT so sincere as a writer is his loyalty to reality with respect for form. Where he pens down memories as they are in the memoirs, he fiddles with them in the short stories and devotes himself completely to churning out a beginning, middle, and end. The short stories align so beautifully that you swoon when you realise how you were led into the endings. But both the literary forms in the collection belong to the same rustic universe. For MT, everything comes together in his fond reminiscence of the life he had lived in Kerala while his mother was still alive.

And you, the reader, are gripped anyway no matter the odd repetition of anecdotes and characters and no matter the number of grandmothers dancing the night away.

Bear With Me, Amma: Memoirs of MT Vasudevan Nair, translated from the Malayalam by Gita Krishnankutty, Penguin India.