Ira Mathur's 'Love the Dark Days': A memoir of intergenerational trauma and resilience

It maps the complicated love between a mother and a daughter, the author’s meeting with Derek Walcott, the famous Caribbean poet, and memories of growing up Nawabi.
Ira Mathur’s parents on their wedding day.
Ira Mathur’s parents on their wedding day.

Don’t you know I love you but am hopeless / at fixing the rain? But I am learning slowly // to love the dark days.” This line from the Saint Lucian poet and playwright Derek Walcott’s Dark August provides the title to journalist Ira Mathur’s debut. Initially published by Peepal Tree Press in the UK in 2022, it has now come out in a revised edition by Speaking Tiger in India. Love the Dark Days is a memoir that chronicles the “accrued intergenerational damage between mothers and daughters in post-colonial worlds.” Her maternal grandmother, Burrimummy, lies at the book’s centre, so much so that it begins and ends with her death. The non-linear narrative charts the trajectory of Mathur’s eventful life.

In the acknowledgements, she shares that the memoir was first a work of fiction. Her author’s note states that the people in the book are “seen through the prism of my individual perceptions and memory, which are as truthful and fictive.” While explaining this distinction, she says: “My grandmother, Shahnur Jehan Begum, the eldest daughter of the last Nawab of Savanur, was a brilliant pianist — a cultured, witty, tempestuous, and beautiful woman.

She married Saied Uz Zafar Khan, nephew of the last Nawab of Bhopal. Yet she died a broken woman a continent away. In 2012, in her marital home at Shamla Kothi, I found stacks of my grandfather’s correspondences, photos of his mistresses, and crucially, daily letters from Stella, an English housekeeper he employed to spy on her. Unable to bear his infidelities, she left Bhopal with nothing, taking my four-year-old mother, Zia. All traces of my grandparents and mother apart from the letters were erased from Shamla Kothi except for the remaining initials at the gate. Memoir allowed me to restore my grandparents and mother to their places in history. The truth became my prism, inevitably subjective.”

Ira Mathur with Derek Walcott
Ira Mathur with Derek Walcott

A dislocation

Burrimummy never forgave her daughter, the narrator’s mother, for marrying a Hindu and disinherits her in every way possible but they keep in touch. Mathur’s parents are socialites, caught up in various functions and engagements with barely any time for their children. Burrimummy takes the responsibility of bringing them up in her sprawling house in Bengaluru. As the middle child, the narrator had her fair share of being ignored.

Life in India ended when the family relocated to Trinidad and Tobago. Commenting on her childhood, she says: “I grew up with the privilege of my father’s army life and remnants of Burrimummy’s Nawabi grandeur. Privilege then implied benign neglect. If I disassociated from unhappiness, I absorbed the stardust: my parents waltzing on gleaming wooden floors, my grandmother’s piano playing, drying her hair in oudh smoke, tea roses, army bands. My father, a self-made man, freed me from colourism and post-colonial trappings with a colonial education and a mindset of duty and service. My mother freed me with her Sufi disregard for the material, letting go of her Bhopal inheritance lightly.”

A kind of love

While wealth and privilege have dwindled across generations, the legacy of trauma remains evergreen. Mathur highlights how cruelty and unhappiness are passed down from mother to daughter.

It is also love of a kind, complicated by time and personal events. She says: “Mothers rarely consciously want to hurt their daughters but often do so anyway. This damage may be rooted in women’s survival instincts in male-dominated societies. Unable to confront men, women may direct their frustration at their daughters’ wanting more for them but unconsciously mothering how they were mothered.

Ira Mathur
Ira Mathur

People live intuitively until a crisis forces change.” Mathur herself has tried to break away: “I raised my daughter to be educated, independent, and articulate. She pointed out my blind spots, my legacy of damage. This insight enabled us to transform and grow together. My great-grandmother, the last Begum of Savanur, used to burn her gold-bordered chiffons once a year in the garden and gather up the cooled charred gold. I believe darkness and ashes have gifts.”

Women-focussed

Walcott does more than just contribute to the title of the memoir. He is a character in it as well. In the “present” timeline, the narrator spends time with him at his house in St. Lucia as he goes over her manuscript and provides feedback. He feels like a metatextual element, a self-reflexive device used to interrogate her narratorial choices and unpack a shared history of hybridity.

These sections can seem separate from the main narrative but Mathur mentions that Walcott and Burrimummy actually reminded her of each other. She is anyway not engaging in a fill-in-the-blanks exercise and so does not painstakingly relate every aspect of her life. The events are detailed only until Burrimummy’s death in 2000 and the

years after – it comes to a close in 2017 – are glided over in about 15 pages. None of this is a mark against the memoir. It is erroneous to expect an autobiography. The central focus of Love the Dark Days remains the women, one more than others, and their chiaroscuro lives.

Areeb Ahmad is a Delhi-based writer, critic and translator

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