Memoirs can be superbly entertaining and, many times, be full of quaint incidents or snippets that inform as well. They aren’t all going around in some formulaic way because ‘Becoming’ by Michele Obama, ‘Kitchen Confidential’ by Anthony Bourdain, ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ by Mitch Albom, and even ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’ by Haruki Murakami are dissimilar in more than one way and yet clubbed under one genre. The gift of life written by Aabha Rosy Vatsa is also a memoir that makes you feel uneasy, alarmed, and concerned at the same time. As I read through this book, one persistent thought was that this book could have some interesting revelations for those specialists who deal with patients complaining of not being in sync with a world that believes in conformity. The book resembles at times with what the ‘Japanese called the onion life, peeling away a layer at a time and crying all the while’, to quote Arthur Golden from ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ as page after page one comes face to face with scary scars. One is reminded of Carol Tavris who wrote that ‘history is written by the victors, but it is victims who write the memoirs.’

Memoirs must also be well-written and do their bit of storytelling in a linked and logical sort of way. This book, unfortunately, meanders and goes in multiple directions leaving the reader to keep re-connecting the thread of dissonance and dark thoughts while throwing out the irrelevant biographical elements that could easily have been under-played. As Adi Shankaracharya writes in Shivoham: I am not mind, wisdom, pride and heart / neither I am ear and tongue / nor am I nose and eyes / neither am I sky or earth / nor am I power or wind’ – the author insists on pulling in long-winded descriptions of her childhood, stay in Zambia, visits to innumerable temples and even those moments that may have happened but forces readers to helplessly stray from the dark temperance that should be consistently focused on. Because of these digressions, the book ends up being more like a personal essay ‘taking ideas and crushing them like grapes to create a homemade wine,’ to quote Kilroy J Oldster.

Despite this short-coming, let me just say that her book does read like a thriller with depression, schizophrenia, and other mind-borne fears egging the reader to find what happens next. After all, this is a story where a woman spend years making feeble attempts at getting a divorce, and then comes back to stay with her husband once she finally does manage one, simply because she then ‘realized the father of my children who had quit alcohol a few years ago, was still important to me. I realized my happiness lay with Sanjeev, Anjouri and Surbhi’. The book, quite effectively reflects the vacillations of a person who constantly feels she is being persecuted for no reason at all and gets ‘the feeling there was a foreign body inside me and someone was using a remote to harm me. I realized how foolish I had been in divulging about drugs to my sister in my letter. Was it an attempt to eliminate me?’ This is one book where, as a reader, one keeps feeling uneasy about the bizarre and illogical conclusions that the protagonist surrounds herself with… and one wonders if it is sizodon or rhizodon or medicines replaced by drugs with malaise in intentions that are resulting in the author (the victim) believe that ‘there was a chip in my body. When I told my family about my fears, they laughed’. This is one autobiography where there is no dearth of villains as everyone appears to be plotting against the victim. In fact, I almost decided to title my review ‘Yes, God can write thrillers’, that is, once I had rejected the other contenders like ‘Mission Sherry’, ‘The woman from Begusarai’, ‘Pumpkins with roots’ and ‘And the universe conspired’. All the contenders are obviously linked to certain seriously hilarious incidents in the book except the last one which gets the crown for maximum appearances.

This is an autobiography and the protagonist, therefore, is the author, the fourth child after three daughters, who does strange things like deciding ‘to create the second hand-written Saharnama’ because Lalita Saharnama is a document with 1000 names of Goddess Lalita with no repetition and she finds this a challenge. And besides surprising ‘everyone, including myself by deciding to shift back to my home after my freedom’ as she has finally managed to see ‘the good side of Sanjeev, the sober and generous side of Sanjeev’, she goes around assuming she is like a Goddess: ‘Aabha Midha died and Aabha Rosy Vatsa was born in a new avatar. The avatar of Kali who vowed to avenge wrong-doing as there would be no peace otherwise. And thus I became Kali’. So yes, the book indeed has startling insights into the mind of someone who, at one stage, spent six months in a hospital called the World Brain Centre. What is obvious is that the book has enough drama unfolding at every stage.

Besides the drama never really ending, the author admits towards the end that ‘writing this autobiography has been more than mere storytelling. It has been a journey of self-discovery, clarity and exploring my ikigai’. The story, as I have already said, is about ‘compelling circumstances can break our spirit temporarily’ but the heartening fact is that ‘our antidote lies within us’ and only ‘we can create our own destiny because the conditions of life do not make us’. Mercifully, the pontification is limited to the final few pages and appears in small manageable doses. The book though does have a heavy sense of dependence upon long descriptions of religious rites, horoscopes, predictions, and pujas. The author could have included her reasons for this dependence and gone deeper into the dark phases of the mind instead of telling us about religion in typical Wikipedia-like narrative sessions.

Another short-coming in the book is that if travel and political news had to be included, they could have read less like a travel brochure or a news clip. Just writing that Prayagraj fort was ‘built by emperor Akbar in 1583. Akbar renamed it ‘illahabas’ which means ‘blessed by God’. It later became Allahabad’ or ‘Mukua means foreigner in Lozi language. Lozi is Bantu language spoken mainly in south-western Zambia’ indicates that people interested in a unique perspective about a period in time or a travel destination, would tend to feel cheated. A reader fails to connect if an author simply mentions that one of regrets on leaving Mongu in Zambia is missing ‘experiencing Mosi-o-Tunya, the indigenous name of the falls, discovered by the Scottish missionary David Livingstone, which means, the smoke that thunders’. So even if the dark and sombre mood dominating the rest of the pages had to be balanced, it could have been made to sound experiential than like some distanced and un-nuanced piece of prose.

This autobiography needs a thorough re-work as one of the impressions that I carry with me as a reader is that it was published in a hurry. However, despite a few short-comings mentioned in the review, the parts about the dichotomy of an unfulfilled personality have been brought out in a reasonably fair manner. This is more than enough to grant it a right to be on a book-shelf.

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Details of the book:
Title: The gift of life – an autobiography
Author: Aabha Rosy Vatsa
Publisher: Notion Press
ISBN: 978-1-64783-532-3

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The gift of life - an autobiography - Aabha Rosy Vatsa - Notion Press
The gift of life – an autobiography – Aabha Rosy Vatsa – Notion Press

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Arvind Passey
15 September 2020