In the New Year, I am aiming to experiment with reading new genres. Especially the ones I have been wary of reading. Historical fiction and politics being two main of the lot.
This was why when I chanced upon ‘Memories of Fire’ by Ashok Chopra, I decided to give it a read despite a mention of it based on the dark contemporary history of India and Pakistan. Rave reviews about the author’s previous works from trusted sources gave me the needed push.
The blurb on the cover reads;
Memories of Fire is the compelling story of five childhood friends meeting after a gap of fifty-four years. They embark on a journey into the past, laden with nostalgia and humour, and encompassing all the ugly and wonderful things life has to offer.
Inspired by true events and interspersed with the dark contemporary history of India and Pakistan, Ashok Chopra has created remarkably realistic characters who tackle prejudice, prestige, privilege and even prison head-on. He skillfully weaves together five storylines as the friends move in and out of each other’s lives. The result is a defining voyage through life, one that queries tough choices and the price one is willing to pay for them. It also asks the epic questions: What makes for happiness? Why do people make certain choices and not others? And why do men and women willingly make tremendous sacrifices for those they love?
The book has an attractive cover in vibrant shades that seems to capture the essence of fond memories of the past that form the underlying theme of the book. The patterns on the cover also hint at the love of art and traditions that paint the backdrop of the entire book.
The catchy title subtly hints at the memories of the difficult, turbulent times that painted the canvas of the lives of the five friends and also the socio-political atmosphere of India and Pakistan from around 1950s till date.
The book opens with an introduction to the lives of the five friends who first bonded during their school days. Right from the start, the book focuses at length on the life, culture, religious sentiments and lifestyle of the people of undivided Panjab.
The book takes turns to narrate the happenings in the lives of each of the five friends though Vijay Thakur’s life comes across as being given more space than the others. The book is divided into three main sections, “The Early Years, The Middle Years and The Later Years.
“It is a strange paradox that very often, on extremely minor and inconsequential issues, and against our better judgement and the directions of our heart, we let the basic instincts and conditioning hammered into us by our upbringing prevail. While, at other times, on issues that we know will impact our entire future, we throw out our deeply ingrained rules and beliefs at the behest of an irrational impulse, a fleeting whim.”
However, as the book progresses towards the middle years when the 5 friends have graduated out of school, the book loses the connection that the five friends should have felt towards each other. This is mainly because all the friends communicate with each other through letters that very briefly talk about their own lives and rather focus on topics pertaining to the contemporary political scene of India and Pakistan.
I wish to congratulate the author on spinning a distinctive period charm as the five characters deal with the prejudices prevalent in their times in their own ways.
“Memory is as elusive, fickle and unbidden as love. You can dredge the darkest corner of your mind for memories of events that meant a great deal to you when they occured, but they will resolutely refuse t come back when you want them to.”
The book generously highlights that the author has had some rich encounters with the legends of the field of art and music. Author’s eye for detail and master craftsmanship in weaving his love for poetry, drama, literature and cultures, shines brightly in his words.
However, the book loses its charm because of lack of restraint in sharing the details of the artwork, traditions, religious beliefs or the political history. Beyond the first hundred pages, where the author has balanced the nostalgia with the vast, colourful, emotional spectrum of the lives led by individual characters with a regular dose of humour, the book becomes rather dreary.
For me, the book failed at seamlessly blending the lives of the five friends with the true events. As a result, the book becomes a struggle for someone who is curious to learn how the country’s politics and the defining moves of the local leaders affected the lives of the five friends.
The writing is simple, vocabulary-rich but the prose is uninspiring. The parts where the five friends make life-changing, tough choices, fail to evoke emotion because of limited (if any) dialogues or interactions amongst the members of the (said) close-knit families.
The book would have tremendously benefitted if the lives of the five friends had been kept as the primary focus instead of letting them take a backseat. The seasoning of humour that is limited to the first quarter of the book was sorely missed in the latter parts. Trimming down the political history, family history of the tourist spots and also of the handicrafts too would have helped salvage the book that with 400 pages makes for an arduous read.
I’d recommend this book to the people who are more inclined towards politics than perhaps I am. This can definitely make for a good one-time read if you are interested in the history of Indian politics (particularly pertaining to in and around Punjab) from 1950 onward and are fine with it taking precedence over not so well-developed story-lines.
About the Book:
Title – Memories Of Fire
Author –Ashok Chopra
Publisher – Penguin Random House India
Genre – Fiction
ISBN – 978-0-670-09034-1
Pages – 420
Price – INR 599
About the Author: