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The Keeper of Memories book review: A peek into Gorkha culture and identity

Madhu Gurung’s novel The Keeper of Memories is a story of survival and of retracing one’s roots.

books Updated: Nov 05, 2016 09:35 IST
Prerna Madan
Madhu Gurung

Field Marshal Sir William Slim (1891 - 1970), 14th Army Commander, chatting with a Gurkha rifleman in Palel, Burma, in November 1944.(Sgt A Stubbs/IWM via Getty Images)

Book in hand, she straightens the large square pillow before reclining on it. Next, she glances at the bottle of water on the wooden side table, scratched with age. Content at having completed the routine, she runs her fingers over the words ‘The Keeper of Memories’ on the paperback. Then she turns the cover and sinks into the story. It begins with a totem and a tale. “The first chapter is the most revealing of them all,” she thinks. “It gives away the theme.”

Speaking from the shadows of her Dehradun home, Dharmshila Bajai’s story of her brave Gorkha ancestors and their epic battle against the British enraptures her grandson Kharak. The grandmother’s yarn echoes to its end by invoking the kuldevta -- a grey stone of enormous spiritual significance to the family. Bajai’s passing on her family’s history to the next generation underlines that Gorkha culture was rooted in the art of storytelling, and is reminiscent of Chinua Achebe’s description of the Nigerian village before colonial rule in ‘Things Fall Apart’. The oral tradition was central to both cultures as the written medium hadn’t yet become a repository of beliefs and values.

The Keeper of Memories is essentially a story of survival, of retracing the path to one’s roots. The novel carries a dark undercurrent that eventually envelops the Gurung family home, nestled in the idyllic green hills of Uttarakhand, untouched and pristine until change strikes. The voices shift between characters, swinging between Kharak’s playful obsession with films to Biru’s football career and the gruelling episodes of the two soldiers, Bhim Kaka and Ranu, fighting in the World War.

As the reader is drawn deeper into the tale, she wonders why the author hasn’t given at least one of the female characters a narrative of her own. While the plot is centred around Biru, Ranu, Kharak and Bhim’s journeys, it is the Gurung women who emanate strength. And it is the brief story of the woman warrior, Rann Maya, who fought alongside her husband against the British and sustained the family after his death, that stands out. Bajai’s wisdom and melancholic love for the land too is deeply stirring. And it is the quiet resilience of Ranu’s two wives, who selflessly accept each other, that is admirable. It feels like the novel has missed an opportunity by not giving full expression to these vibrant women.

Madhu Gurung (Picture courtesy the author)

Despite this, The Keeper of Memories has the effect of a cinematic experience. Its narration is delightfully visual, engaging the imagination and alerting the senses. The war episodes are perhaps the most intense. A burst of bullets and grenades deep within the jungles of Burma segues to a slow description of the aftermath, with burnt corpses and bloodied rivers bearing testimony to the violence of war. The technique is reminiscent of a scene from Michael Bay’s movie 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, where the camera pans out to capture the exhaustion of survivors and the torment of those who had lost loved ones in the gunfight. Still, such imagery is episodic and the novel skips over huge chunks of historical events, ending hastily in a Bollywood-like closure, which is a shame.

Read more: The Gorkhas and their qualities

The Keeper of Memories is an inquiry into identity. In a nation that prides itself on acting as a protective umbrella for numerous cultures and religions, a minor character’s rant sums up the story’s purpose: “Sometimes, I do not know what I should call myself. Am I Gorkha or Nepali? Are both the same? Is there a third category I forget: Indian Nepali? No one questions any other Indian but us...” As the cacophony over nationalism grows, it’s clear that the Gorkhas are not the only community in India raising these questions.

She thought of all the family stories and of the red hibiscus at the kuldevta’s altar as she laid down The Keeper of Memories.

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