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)


  1. Morris Selman seems to be a man of many hues and the author seems to have nailed the character well. I am sure there are captivating glimpses of the dwindling world of Jews too. I am sure that is a fascinating book.

    I am mostly a fiction reader but there used to be a time when the stock of unread books on my shelves used to be in single digits. Not any more. No, I haven't got richer -it's the reading that hasn't been able to keep up with the usual purchases. But I'm going to try and read this one.

    1. I'm so glad you are going to make time. It's really sad that books get accumulating in our bookshelves and cry out to be read but we'd rather vegetate in front of mind-numbing daily dose of news or films we have seen several times. I think the reason is books prod us to think and contemplate over it, while watching television or playing a game on the iPad or Tab is a mindless exercise.
      I can't tell you how much I loved reading this book for the sheer reason that since I had decided to review it, it forced me to read it carefully, try and look for sub-text and ruminate over it. I think more than finesse, what this book has is a big heart..and its a story told sincerely.. :)

  2. One lifetime is too short to read all the books in one's bookshelf. (Of course I am not going to comment on the review here. As ambitious as it seems to contribute my misguided 2 cents on something unknown. Maybe someday I'll read the book and find out. Someday :P

    Other than that, you seem to have taken a sabbatical every alternate year in blogosphere. More posts please... Also maybe you should try out meanwhile, might be good for some photos/writings.

    1. Haha! True that The Analyst. So many things float in my head but I end up writing down none! Btw, these days my reporting is largely on Instagram. :)

  3. Yes I figured, checked out your webstagram/instagram profile, some really nice pics there, followed...

    Instagram though is still not a story telling platform I feel, you are reduced to pictures with captions which tend to be very ephemeral never standing the test of time unlike blogger here ;) (This is where the website I mentioned claims to do it better, but we have to see where it goes. DMing you an invite just in case)

    1. True that. I love the small details and meticulous style of story telling that after an exhaustive day of work, writing leisurely somehow never works out. Need to plan my weekends better I think!! :) You have inspired me.. I did check out that site. Need to enter it to discover that kingdom now! :)