The contemporary memoir must surely be the most thankless of all literary genres. It remains an understudied category in scholarship, and is perceived as a lightweight or opportunist form among literary circles. “Everyone writes a memoir these days, all you need is a rare medical condition or scandalous life experience,” said a fellow-writer.
There are, of course, more statistical reasons to say everyone is writing short stories or poems these days, but then those forms don’t carry the easy bait of the memoir. Everything is open for contestation in the collection and arrangement of memories, and very few memoirists can escape unscathed, especially if the spotlight is on the family. The opening challenge for the memoir form is that there is an unavoidable voyeuristic eagerness to know another’s life, so sharp that the mechanics of narrative construction gets overlooked.
The content becomes the mode to further slot the genre – for instance, the celebrity memoir, the travel memoir, the coming-of-age memoir, the medical memoir – all of which completely dominates market talk (indeed, the celebrity memoir remains a bestselling category), denying us sufficient intellectual room to examine the category of the literary memoir.
Linear or fragmented?
It does not help this situation that there is not enough clarity for most readers on why a text might claim to be autobiography or memoir, or how the two are different. The early years of the twentieth century saw the morphing of the autobiography (with its wider narrative arc that offers a mostly linear and comprehensive exposition of life experiences) into the fragmented experimentation of events, impressions, and the playfulness of form that has been the hallmark of modernism as an aesthetic movement. This conscious rearrangement of life is the memoir.
More than the autobiography, the memoir can be selective about the memories it showcases, the form it uses to recast these memories, and the insistence of the fullness of this partial view – the sliver is more critical to the memoirist than the totality.
In addition to this, the literary memoir has to contend with having closer affiliations to literary fiction (a genre that gets cultural validation but limited readership), even more than it does to the autobiography. This is because the memoir’s primary interest remains in drawing from the tools of fiction, to repeatedly remind readers that what they hold in their hands is not just a candid account of a life but also a reflexive crafting of select episodes and perspectives.
At their best, literary memoirs invite us into thoughtfully unpacked and aesthetically rearranged memories that not only open up personal experience, but suggest that voice, tone, characters, structure, narrative-arc are equally vital components of an examined life.
The memoir, via the autobiography, has a chequered journey and presence in modern Indian literature. The first autobiography to appear in the public realm was an outlier, not by a male public figure, but by a woman who taught herself to read in the smoky confines of her kitchen in rural Bengal (now in Bangladesh).
Far removed from influences from the world of letters (apart from her immersion in the Chaitanya Bhagavat), Rassundari Devi’s impressive Amar Jiban (1869) stands in its own category. Unlike Rassundari Devi, whose writings were seeped in her inner (spiritual) world, most autobiographical narratives by her contemporaries and successors were motivated by the social reform movement, specifically around women’s education and widow remarriage. These concerns made possible the first emergence of writing by women in public discourse and it is no surprise that personal accounts becomes the preferred mode, such as Pandita Ramabai’s autobiographical tract My Testimony (1907) and narratives by widows that appeared in different publications (as can be seen in the edited anthology Shadow Lives by Uma Chakravarti and Preeti Gill).
The credit for an early (impactful) celebrity memoir in India can also be given to a woman – Binodini Dasi, a famous actress on the Bengali stage wrote two instalments of her life experience in Amar Katha (1913) and Amar Abhinetri Jiban (1924-25). Her recollection of life is less celebratory (as one might expect from a successful entertainer) and takes on a repentant tone that gestures to the public prejudice against actresses in her times. Nonetheless, the writing invites us into hitherto veiled emotional spaces of working women (and public figures) in early twentieth-century India.
In the decades that followed, several autobiographies emerged from male luminaries in Indian theatre and have been studied by Kathryn Hansen. Needless to say, the recollections of conventional achievers, whether in cinema or sports, continue to be the mainstay of the memoir section in any bookstore in the world.
The three streams
Apart from the life writing that showcases personal accomplishment, one may suggest three distinct strands in which the autobiography/memoir form has made its presence felt in India through the twentieth century (which in various contexts has been called The Century of the Self). First and most visibly, we have accounts by well-known political figures in the context of the nationalist movement – MK Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth (1925-29) and Jawaharlal Nehru’s An Autobiography (1936) are obvious examples. Often, these texts were also exercises in non-scholarly historiography that could accommodate the personal voice, as with Nehru’s Discovery of India (1942) and Nirad C Chaudhuri’s The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1951).
Secondly, the autobiography has made a formidable impact in Dalit literature and movement with its emphasis on bearing witness and speaking out against the oppressive other. Daya Pawar’s Baluta (1978), Baby Kamble’s The Prisons We Broke (1986) and Siddalingaiah’s Ooru Keri (1997, 2006) are some powerful initiators. The importance of the personal testimonial in identity politics is again underlined in the third cluster of texts – narratives about the experience of being transgender have been a distinct mode of advocacy in a country that till recently criminalised sexual minorities.
Living Smile Vidya’s I am Vidya, A Revathi’s The Truth About Me and Laxmi Narayan Tripathi’s Me Hijra, Me Laxmi are notable examples. All these thematic imperatives and alignments in the autobiography and/or memoir – of politics, of history, of sexual identity, of social oppression – that stress the unpacking of individual identity to draw attention to collective rights have been important developments that need to be further studied. However, what this has also meant (in comparison with other reading cultures) is that it has not required us to ask what differentiates the autobiography from the memoir, or if such differentiation is even relevant.
An elusive search for a slot
I have thought of myself as a reluctant memoirist – the writing of If I Had to Tell It Again (2017) began as a private conversation with a dead parent, and the thought of publication came much later when I began to consider the merits of stepping out of several circles of silence and shame that might resonate with others like me. I began to consider the work as a literary text, even as I agonised on the ethics of my telling. The first concern – the balance of tone (and voices), soon settled into a parallel preoccupation – the suitable aesthetic form to further nuance that tone. The memoir grew within a familiar novelistic and dramatic tradition – for instance, a chapter is written as a one-act play.
However, after the publication of the book, and when I received responses to the content of my work, I realised that I still could not find a way to talk about the work as a literary memoir – there simply wasn’t such a category in the Indian bookshelf for the work to perch on.
The awkward gambit for the literary memoir is that it is seen too quickly as life, and not enough as literature. Occasionally, when there is a memoir that defies thematic or stylistic categorisations, one is grateful for the surprise of that literary experience, as with Reshma Valliappan’s fallen, standing: my life as a schizophrenist (2014) which is a compilation of emails written to her editor and publisher Ritu Menon – hence, not consciously crafted as a book, but deeply performative in its affect, the beguiling transparency of its splintered text forcing the reader to notice and walk with its jagged form.
Arjun Nath’s White Magic, a memoir focused on heroin addiction and recovery has its moments of narrative virtuosity, but then settles into a dramatised biographical portrait of Dr Yusuf Merchant, the founder of the rehabilitation centre. “This is a work of non-fiction,” Nath writes in his Author Note, “but, as always, there is fiction in the space between.” The uneasiness of the memoir’s claims to veracity shows in the seams of these disclaimers. The reader also wonders about the seed of tension in the narrative that remains conspicuously elided – the narrator’s relationship with his biological family. The line between fact and fiction has also been under scrutiny for Kamala Das’ My Story (1976), an early experiment in the genre.
It feels like the most inane and obvious thing to say, but one still has to say it – it is a daunting task to write about family in India with frankness (for we get defensive about any public suggestion of dysfunction or disruption there) and such memoirs will remain rarities. An exception comes to mind – Amandeep Sandhu’s Sepia Leaves (2008), which often gets called a novel and is even slotted as such by the publisher, does not name a genre on its cover and is entirely memoir in its spirit and content. It was one of the first books of its kind in India, about living with a mother and her mental illness, and even a decade later has been joined by very few titles in its examination of the family unit, especially when much of what is relived is deeply traumatic.
While the literary memoir elsewhere has eloquently showcased the intricate workings of family and intergenerational dynamics – for instance, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), Linda Grey Sexton’s Searching for Mercy Street (1994), Mary Carr’s Liars Club (1995) – it is a fiercely blockaded thematic space in our cultural milieu. Even the memoirs that do write about family tend to do so by pushing into the more emotionally fenced genre of autobiographical fiction, as in Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom (2012).
There are some remarkable moments of sparkle, both with tackling the family-scape and also in the narrative style, in The Book of Light (2016), edited by Pinto, with many memoir slivers threaded through it. The deeper the memoir burrows into the emotional labyrinth of the family, the more an individual ache seems to surface, almost like a Philip Larkin poem – “However the family is photographed under the flag-staff – /Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.” Or as Alison Bechdel writes in her graphic memoir Are You My Mother? (2012) – “My mother composed me as I now compose her.”
Even as one accepts the primacy of the formalistic element in the workings of the literary memoir, one starts to wonder if more thought needs to given to the material that the genre has tackled successfully thus far. Perhaps the complexity and vulnerability of the family terrain has actually been a positive contributor and influence on the innovations and growth of the literary memoir. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the intergenerational memoir and the literary memoir are both rarities in India.
Rebecca Solnit, a masterful exponent of the memoir form, explains the stakes: “We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate to see or to be blind […] The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller.” The memoirist, in some ways, is the most primal of storytellers, for the stories are the telling of her.