Book: A Comma in a Sentence
Author: R Gopalakrishnan
Publisher: Rupa Publications
In a country where few families maintain genealogical records, a non-fictional narrative of the life and times of six generations of a family, hailing from a nondescript South Indian village, would inspire much interest. Author R Gopalakrishnan’s A Comma In A Sentence promises at the start a family’s story set amidst the social, economic and political evolution of Indian society over the past two centuries. Gopalakrishnan, however, provides nothing more than an account of the usual societal changes that placed many of today’s affluent urban families on the upwardly mobile trajectory. He relies on numerous anecdotes to propel the story, but some appear forced or have tenuous or no apparent links to the primary theme. Where this book offers value to the reader is where it reaffirms the principle that families, where each generation adapts to changes without losing their fundamental humanism, tends to prosper.
The book opens in 1824, the year Gopalakrishnan’s great-great grandfather Ranganathan was born in Vilakkudi in the Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu. The author has very little to offer us about Ranganathan or his son, Ooshi Veera Raghavan. Instead, his imaginative prowess takes over and helps him deduce that Ranganathan’s life revolves around the village temple. The author visualises young Ooshi closely observing the socio-political changes like the intensifying colonialisation and entry of modern transportation, newspapers, and politics. It is only when Gopalakrishnan’s father, Rajam, enters that the narrative becomes a multi-generational tale. Rajam, born in 1912, is a fighter, who overcomes a mild polio affliction and his father’s protective instincts, to migrate from his agrarian, ritual-bound village to distant and metropolitan Calcutta. Rajam starts out as a stenographer, goes on to become an accountant, before landing senior roles in corporate firms. His son Gopalakrishnan graduates from IIT Kharagpur, and steadily climbs the corporate ladder to become a top honcho at Hindustan Lever and Tata Sons. The story ends with a brief retelling of the sixth generation, educated abroad, and positioned well for assuming top leadership roles at a much younger age than Rajam or Gopalakrishnan.
While Gopalakrishnan would have us believe that this is the story of an ordinary family living through extraordinary times of change, what he doesn’t seem to realise is how his family’s privileged social position helped it all along. Among the first Indians to benefit from the opportunities thrown open by English education and the modern economy unveiled by the British Raj, was the landowning, upper-castes. In that respect, Gopalakrishnan, hailing from a landowning, Tamil Iyengar family, does not adequately credit his family’s success to the comparative head-start this elite community had over other Indians.
At a time when the genre of memoir writing has become an intensely personal exercise, Gopalakrishnan’s writing, while elegant and occasionally witty, is unable to help the reader become more intimate with the characters. The narrative, thus, often becomes a series of dreary anecdotes which are unequal to the task of seamlessly carrying the story forward or effectively revealing character.
Despite such setbacks, A Comma... is a breezy read upholding values such as the importance of inter-generational conversations, of education and liberal attitudes, of probity and seeking happiness from within. Gopalakrishnan’s story of each generation unfailingly acting as an enabler to the next one, reaffirms the responsibilities that individuals owe to themselves, their families and the larger society. However, the opportunity to tell a stronger story — either through an alternative narrative style, deeper research, or a more intimate depiction of characters — has been lost.