EVENT Magazine Review - Extended Families
Reviewed by: Jay Ruzesky
I admire the poetic form of the ghazal. Composed of couplets, a ghazal works a little like a set of matryoshka dolls. Each couplet has the compression of haiku and is a complete poem in itself. When the reader continues through a series of couplets, ideas are repeated and intensified, and when a number of ghazals are put together they form a gestalt rich in resonances. Ven Begamudré begins Extended Families: A Memoir of India with an author's note inviting the reader to 'read this book in any order you choose' with the exception of the chapters near the end about his mother, which should be read in order. So, as with a ghazal, the reader can open the book anywhere and find a vignette that makes sense and stands on its own. But only in the context of the entire text do all the themes of any particular section echo.
Structure is a challenge for any writer of creative non-fiction, perhaps especially when shaping memoir. Most often driven by events that took place in a linear way, the writer has to decide whether or not to accept the logic of linear time or to disrupt it with flashbacks and flash-forwards in order to accentuate details. Begamudré has the additional challenge of having worked on this book over a period of 40 years, beginning by taking notes on his first trip back to India as an adult in 1977 and ending with the final draft in 2017. Fortunately, he hasn't tried to force its shape.
Memory is messy, embellished and inaccurate. Was I wearing my favourite green sweater, or was that a different time? Is that what she said, or did he say it? Did it happen at all? Memory is further complicated by the craft of writing because no matter how accurate the author tries to be, words frame, select and highlight aspects of things. For that reason the structure of Begamudré's book makes sense. We get extended family history, the story of his immediate family, experiences in India, a meditation on his mother, and a section at the end of the book called 'Bonus Materials,' which is a collection of B-sides and fragments that don't fit anywhere else but are relevant.
Begamudré's memoir explores the intricacies of memory directly by calling attention to its slipperiness and its effects on us. In the author's note, he says that the book is a memoir of family and of 'my pursuit of my own identity within the family,' which is a key to reading the book. He wants to understand himself, but is aware that he cannot simply depend on memory to create that understanding.
There is often a distance in the tone of the writing. Begamudré can seem dispassionate about very emotional circumstances, but he shows us why he might have some distance from his subjects. He has to step back and see himself with perspective in order not to be swayed by any one particular memory. For example, when he tells the reader about the Hindu ritual in which he and his father bring his mother's ashes to the Kaveri River to be released by immersion, he gives us three versions. There is the one he is telling now, prefaced by the honest revelation that he doesn't 'remember the order of the ritual.' Then there is the version he wrote 12 years after the event, in which he describes his mother's ashes being slowly set free: 'Finally the priest nodded. My father took the pot from the bottom step and lowered it into the water. The lid floated free, and the pot bubbled air on its way down.' And the third version, from Begamudré's notes made a week after the ritual took place: 'Finally the priest nodded. My father poured river water into the pot. Standing with his back to the stream, he threw the pot back, high, over his head. The pot landed in mid-stream and sank at once.' The passages are certainly not devoid of emotion, but it is emotion filtered through time's lens for the larger purpose of the writer's understanding himself, and doing so with an awareness of memory's vagaries. The ritual's details and his father's actions might help him understand his father, but the different ways he has chosen to remember them over time help him know himself.
Begamudré is an excellent storyteller. We hear tales of a singer uncle who was in hiding from the Criminal Investigation Department for his subversive involvement in the Quit India movement, an aunt who was a savvy politician, and Begamudré's mother, who committed suicide by setting herself on fire. The stories that comprise Extended Families are compelling, and the quiet purpose of their telling is revealed slowly. These are Begamudré's life stories-- a saga of immigration and return, divorced parents, powerful famly, and belonging and not fitting in. But Begamudré himself is not any one of these things. As his story informs us, he is not any one version of any one story. He has reckoned with his Indian and Canadian pasts and knows he 'was neither; [he] was both.'