Monday, January 3, 2011

Writing and reading My Brother Tootoo

Hello reader. Hello brand new year. As a new year begins, spare a thought for the near and dear ones of authors who are caught in the final throes of finishing a book. If you can't imagine what that must be like, Nandita Mahajan, daughter of author Urmila Mahajan, gives us a ring-side view of the action plus an intimate review of My Brother Tootoo

When my mother first told me she was writing a book, I wasn’t that surprised. She has always been one for inventing stories. When I was a child I’d heard several of them, all tailor-made to fit my interest. So, writing a book seemed to me a very characteristic and predictable thing for her to do. My lack of surprise however, only lasted until I read it.

The first time I read My Brother Tootoo, it was still unfinished and unpolished. However, being a literature student and having read hundreds of books myself, I could tell that this was turning out to be a really unusual one. Even though the plot hadn’t quite been formed yet, it was the astounding portrayal of characters that stood out from the beginning.

Before long, I became the guinea-pig. I was made to read the book at various stages of development, and offer suggestions. As the rate of its production accelerated, however, I didn’t get to see the excerpts as often as before and my mother was often staying up till late at night, writing. I next read it as a finished product, after it was published.

To call My Brother Tootoo a children’s adventure story would be a gross underestimation. As I went deeper into the novel, I found that it is rich in meaning and is among other things, a study of human nature. It is a story within a story. Rini, a sensitive girl of about fifteen, writes about the events of three summers ago, in the hope that they will “feel like a story about someone else.” At the same time, she writes a diary, giving the reader a glimpse into the present. The opening line of the book seems to be a premonition of things to come.

Dear Diary,
Mama says home is a place where at some time or the other, everything has happened.

We are introduced to Rini’s brother Tootoo, who is a late talker, and Murli, the son of the local presswallah. The three become friends, despite Rini’s initial disapproval of Murli’s disobedient, headstrong nature. Before long, the children find themselves in the middle of an unexpected adventure.

The novel’s remarkability lies largely in the perceptiveness of Rini’s narrative. The events themselves, though extraordinary, could have happened to anyone. I think that it is in my mother’s view of the world that she shows her true genius. The story is set in a regular Indian city, and is about a seemingly ordinary family that consists of a mother, a father, a grandmother and two children. Yet, as the story unfolds we find that there is more to each character than meets the eye, and people are often much more than they seem to be. The theme of appearances versus reality runs throughout the novel and adds to its sense of secrecy. It is the pursuit of secrets that leads the children into forbidden domain, to a point of no return.

The characters of the three children in particular are portrayed with astonishing depth. Their thoughts and actions make them seem real to the reader. Rini’s character is disclosed mostly through her writing which subtly mirrors her own nature. The connection that she feels with the natural world and her observancy are etched into her entire narrative. It is in these little descriptions that my mother’s originality emerges; in the viewing of everyday occurrences by a highly observant mind.

The story is peopled with an array of characters – philosophical Mad Madhav, the barber with a difference, outrageous Colonel Sinha, miserly Rice Aunty and of course, the banyan grove which looms up hooded in secrecy, and assuming the significance due to a character. 

Though the novel is labelled a children’s book, its insightful nature ensures that it can be appreciated by readers of all ages. At every stage, I found it possible to relate to the characters and to grow increasingly fond of them. My Brother Tootoo, I’d say, is a novel worth reading.

- Nandita Mahajan

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