This review is also published at: https://bengalurureview.com/from-ceylon-to-malaya-an-epic-traversing-countries-and-generations
“Flowers grow beneath her feet, but she is not dead at all. The years have not diminished the Rice Mother. I see her, fierce and magical. Stop despairing and call to her, and you will see, she will come bearing a rainbow of dreams.”
The Rice Mother is a searing epic that traverses countries and generations covering most of the twentieth century as one family’s fortunes rise and tumble through the different members of its clan. It is not a happy read, for sure, for a big part of its narrative, but it is never not enthralling. This is a family history with huge dollops of drama and emotional upheaval that reads like a page-turning thriller. And, for the literature connoisseurs, it is beautifully written as well. The opening prologue about the people who gather the essentials needed for making that delicacy of the Far East, the birds nest soup, by venturing into perilous terrain, is a sign of things to come. Appealing, unputdownable but tinged with dread throughout.
Lakshmi remembers a time when life was carefree and fringed with the beautiful green landscapes of her birth village in Ceylon, where she lived with her loving mother in a poverty-ridden but relatively contented existence in the early part of the twentieth century. All this changed once she attained puberty and she was stopped from continuing her life as she knew it. There would be no more of the unfettered feel of the sunbaked earth beneath her feet. Soon, a devious relation comes to her mother with the possibility of a match made in heaven, according to her, for Lakshmi. This is to a wealthy widower living in Malaysia. Lakshmi’s mother, who once was of a wealthy family but threw it all away to run off with an unreliable man in her youth, sees only the opportunity for her daughter to have a life of plenty as opposed to what she has known till now. The nuptials are done and Lakshmi decides to face up to her fate. On reaching Malaya though, she realizes they had been duped. Her husband Ayah, though a good and caring man at heart, is not the rich suitor they had been led to believe. A lowly clerk, his dull-wittedness and lack of ambition are maddening to Lakshmi, who has grand designs of life with the little she has been given. Rather than moping on her sorrows, she decides to take control of the reigns of her family’s life and give them a fighting chance. The kids start coming into their lives, six in all, including the first-born twins Mohini and Lakshmnan, Sevenese, Anna, Jeyan, and Lalita. Mohini, a fair and radiant beauty, becomes the cynosure of her parents’ eyes as well as her mother’s carefully worked out plans for life. But, as this novel keeps reminding us, life loves to throw curveballs every now and then, and some of these end up destroying legacies and tarnishing families forever. This is none more so evident than in the case of Mui Tsai, the servant of the old rich Chinese man living in the mansion to which initially Lakshmi thought she was coming to. Mui Tsai is a tragic figure in a story peopled with them, mothering Children for her Chinese master who are then one by one given away to each of his barren wives. But further misery awaits both her and Lakshmi’s family with the occupation of the country during World War Two by the Japanese, whose brutalities are shown in grim, unrelenting tones here. This is a particularly grueling portion of the book which perhaps the faint of heart may find a tad too disturbing. Among the pastimes of the cruel soldiers are the random seizing of young girls of the Malay and Chinese households and their being taken away for days at a time before being bundled back home a broken mess. Lakshmi, the fiercely protective matriarch and unquestionable force of her household by now, takes pains to ensure her daughters, especially the ethereal-looking Mohini are protected from roving eyes.
Eventually, though, fate intervenes as it always must and the occupation ends with the family seemingly on the point of no return. But Lakshmi is nothing if not a fighter. The narrative focus of the story shifts in the latter half of the book to her various children and their spouses or children. Each gives an account of certain pivotal incidents in the family’s lives and endear us to them, for they are all brilliantly realized characters of depth and nuance (apart from perhaps Mohini, who remains almost as ephemeral as her beauty). Lakshmnan, the tragic twin of Mohini, is racked with self-loathing and guilt after a pivotal point of the story and his gradual descent into gambling and addiction is compounded when he marries the proud and viciously unhappy and ambitious Rani, who clashes from the off with Lakshmi, the Rice Mother. A fascinating portion deals with the syndrome of the unreliable narrator as it details Rani’s versions of events and contrasts this with the same events as told from the perspective of the others. The same could be said about the portions detailing the life of the relentlessly unhappy Ratha, who marries the hapless Jeyan and who comes to detest both him and Lakshmi for what seemed to be, at least initially, enigmatic reasons. In fact, marriages, and the less than honest means used to make them happen, play a prominent part in the story as all the generations down the years suffer from the unhappy unions this produces.
However, not being married doesn’t seem to provide much solace either, best exemplified in the tale of Sevenese, the reckless third child of the Rice Mother, who veers from an ultimately ill-fated fascination for the family of the snake charmer who lives in their vicinity, and especially for their eldest son who is mysterious, almost surreal, in his understanding of the most vicious snakes and in his unspoken love for Mohini. Sevenese’s desire for friendship with this boy is made possible by his dangling his sister’s enigma in front of the boy like a carrot, but to what ends? Eventually, Sevenese turns into something of a wandering vagabond, traveling from one part of the world to another, and yet never finding succour or salvation. His story dovetails with that of Dimple, the spiritual heir of the Rice Mother, who is the first daughter of the explosive union between Lakshmnan and Rani. Her naïve desire to keep hold of what she perceived to be her righteous happiness brings her to her loved uncle’s doorstep and through him back to the snake charmer’s home. But is happiness pre-ordained? Or is it the illusion to a state we keep reaching out for and yet find that it always remains just out of our flailing fingertips? The novel ends with a few more startling revelations and a fitting kind of circle of life redressal with Nisha, Dimple’s daughter. By then, we are exhausted and yet strangely exhilarated also by the sheer power of the prose and story.
“In this house, our Rice Mother is your grandmother. She is the keeper of dreams. Look carefully, and you will see, she sits on her wooden throne holding all our hopes and dreams in her strong hands, big and small, yours and mine. The years will not diminish her.”
It’s riveting. The character of Lakshmi, who is the titular Rice Mother here, is an impressive portrait of a person we can probably come across in real life; the misunderstood mother from hell who underneath it all is driven by a raging fire lit by an unstinting love for her children and the passionate desire to not let the wrongs done to her and the poverty of her life finds itself repeating in her progeny. Yet, as all children who have been raised by tough parents may tell you, this is a double-edged sword that has the potential to cut the rest of the family in unexpected ways if not handled carefully. Such parents inspire both love and a misunderstood sense of injustice and anger in their children. Thus, it is with Lakshmi here. As one of the characters says, she was the umbrella under which they all huddled, but she couldn’t stop life and all its inherent uncertainties from catching up with them. There are times when fierce love is just not enough (or it may be a bit more than enough). Her hapless husband, Ayah, can only watch with a bewildering sense of love and deepening gloom as he realises that the woman-child he married is no demure being and may never really love him as he loves her. Ayah is also left scarred by the war as, apart from the tragedy which befell the family, he has a particularly brutal confinement at the hands of the Japanese. Each chapter is narrated lucidly and fills in most of the blanks from the others’ perspectives of their story. Even the children for whom Lakshmi most feared for, Lalita and Jeyan (for being dull-witted facsimiles of their father) get their share of her love and intensity and a chance to tell their pained stories. Luke, embittered millionaire husband of Dimple and father of Nisha, and Ratha were the most enigmatic characters for me, but they too get their space under the sun to tell a part of their stories.
It’s not just the characterizations of people. The author’s descriptions, both of the lush, leafy environs of pre-war and pre-independence Ceylon, so intimately described that one can feel the green leaves swirling on one’s face and the warm brown earth beneath one’s feet as Lakshmi discovers the pleasures of childhood, and later, once the action shifts to Malaya, more cloistered and drawn-out descriptions take us into the heart of the incredibly tough adulthood Lakshmi and her family go through. It’s beautiful and tragic. Just like the book. And for that reason alone, don’t miss it.