Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Man With Many Hats - The Book Review

Some books are a breeze, others are turgid and do not inspire the desire to read more than a few pages. Then there is another kind - one that makes you feel like a little child standing on her toes peeping in through a grimy glass to see what's going on inside the old spooky bungalow. For that child in every reader, the Selman mansion is a peek into an old world - an alien world that is ironically also vaguely familiar. The author Jael Silliman's words, descriptions and most interestingly the sketches that pepper her book become the guides to decipher the saga that unfurls at its own pace.

Illustrations by Jael Silliman
The Magen David sketched by Jael
I must begin this revew with a confession -fiction has moved over on my bookshelf for narratives and accounts that are outside the fictitious realm. There are few novels of contemporary fiction on my shelf currently, so this book is a departure. I guess I need to qualify that - for it is strangely not as much a departure from non-fiction because through her novel, Jael manages to draw a a rather compelling portrait of the Baghdadi Jews that made Calcutta( I chose it over Kolkata) their home centuries ago. The observations are inspired by reality, the colour and meticulous manner of her descriptions clearly show that they have been irrigated by experiences of her community. So much so, that as I read the tale of Morris Selman - the man with many hats (and personas over the years), I began simultaneously opening multiple pages up on my laptop, looking for the old haunts of Jewish Calcutta- Nahoum's Bakery and Magen David synagogue among others to read about them in depth. Jewish traditions have always been an enigma and this book is like a secret permission to watch a different world at work that I have normally no access to. Through her novel, Jael brings to life a community that is dying out, there were about 500 members left in Kolkata when Rachel was young. Today, the Kolkata Jews struggle to cobble a quorum together to conduct prayer services at the synagogue ( information I gathered while reading this book), the numbers of other Jewish extractions across India are similar or even less.

The main character (arguably) of Morris Selman, the man with the many hats, embodies a strange dichotomy - of being larger than life while managing to come across as a troubled mortal being of flesh, blood and sinew. He is as generous as is miserly, as keen to please as to dismiss, as much a besotted selfless lover as a boorish, violent husband. Amidst all these contradictions, that he manages to straddle a space of his own is the success of the novel. Even as a mature Rachel takes over a great part of the mindspace of the author, leaving Morris alone to battle his old age and demons, the departure in the narrative in itself is symbolic - of the passing of his prime years, of him no longer holding the centre space in the lives and minds of his community, of a neglect that seeps in with time and accumulated misdemeanour.

However, in this saga of relationships across a lifetime, there are few images that linger on long after the book is over. Most daughters have experienced the innate need a girl feels to compare every man yo her father -measure him against the yardstick set for manhood early in life. I feel the fathers often win this bout, for there is a certain selfless love there that is tough to replicate. Through the book, I felt this conjecture of mine would be proven wrong, however the wisdom Rachel finds in hindsight felt like vindication to me. Rachel's band of friends, who stick by her through thick and thin are reasons why despite little family left in Kolkata, the city remains home even after years of making a home in other cities of another country.

All illustrations are done by Jael herself
Morris' many hats fit well with the many roles he plays out through his life. Each one more flamboyant than the other - like living out an image that sometimes is to the detriment of one's own sanity and peace. He lives and loves kingsize and sweeps regrets, which he appears to have periodically, under the carpet and move on with life.My biggest regret with this book is that somewhere along the story, Jael's story shifts to Rachel and her trials, leaving my curiosity about Morris and how life panned out for him through the decades after Sarah, Rachel and Jacob left him, unrequited. You snatch glimpses of the changed man time and again - the miserly grand dad, the fun-loving uncle to Rachel friends who pulls off unimaginable stunts, and the people who populate his later years, keeping his heart and soul together towards the end of the novel. But like a little child, one feels like wandering around the rooms of the haunted looking bungalow filled with interesting people and stories seeking Morris.

(Jael Silliman opted to self-publish her first work of fiction. You can find this book on: Doorstep Books, Amazon India, or Flipkart)