By Dr. Satish C. Aikant
One would expect someone trained in western medicine to give short shrift to imaginative writing but not if the practitioner happens to be someone like Venu Sanon, MD, whose scientific mind runs parallel to her idiosyncratic imagination. Author of three well crafted volumes of poetry she has now prodced a book of nonfiction prose. Her earlier books are Realization, Call of the Spirit and I Will Survive, the last being a tribute to the dignity and resilience of village women is a collaborative work with her spouse Dr. Sunil Sanon who has rendered her English poems into equally lyrical Hindi. It will not be out of place to mention here that the doctor couple are unusual in their unorthodox approach to health care. While their practice is centred in Mussoorie they are also engaged in an extensive outreach programme which takes them to remote villages of Uttarakhand to dispense care, at their own expense, to the underprivileged village folk.
Whenever she finds time to take off her doctor’s mantle Venu is engrossed in the world of literary creativity. Her writing, which revelas her intensely humane and sensitive persona, is product of her interface with a cross section of people in towns and villages. At the Brewery Cottage chronicles a personal narrative peopled with characters not only from the human society but also from the world of animals, birds; and sundry benign spirits, if you believe in the supernatuaral. If not, the readers must be prepared for a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ to come to terms with the world conjured by the author.
The book lucidly reveals the author’s own and her family’s history in her familiar locale that is Mussoorie. The recollections from personal memory are accompanied by several photographs and sketches constituting significant testimony to her past and a world that has vanished. The tone is autobiographical and it allows for the vulnerablities and nuances of the author’s life. It is a cheerful, homespun narrative; a fusion of intellect and imagination with adequate ingredients to arouse the reader’s curiosity.
What makes the book particulary interesting to the common reader is the interveaving of the author’s personal history with the history of Mussoorie, right from its inception when Captain Frederic Young established the station in 1826. One of the earliest commercial establishments was the The Crown Brewery that came up in 1827. By all accounts the business thrived as beer that was produced gained populairty far and wide for its distictive aroma and taste. Ghalib is believed to have special fondness for the brew. But then the business declined for a variety of reasons and the brewery had to be summarily closed. The property, in virtual ruins, changed several hands; the last owner was Col. A. R. Skinner. On a chance visit to Barlowganj in 1989 the site caught the attention of Sanons who decided to buy the land and build a house on it. Well, the resolve was duly executed and, in 1992, up came Rickvan Ridge, their new home. Enough care was taken to let part of the ruins stay as they were as testimony to the colonial history.
Perched in Rickvan’s Ridge the author weaves several tales responding to the rush of images and memories hidden in the recesses of her mind. These memories make up the episodes in the book. History is revisited in the Whymper family, the first owners of The Brewery. With its metamorphosis the Sanons found a congenial home in the Rickvan Ridge. ‘Viola Comes Home’ is a true story of an oil painting that is proudly displayed in the house. The painting was remarkable for its ‘Picasso effect’ as someone commented. What perplexed the Sanons however is the tiny initials ‘VM’ scribbled at the bottom. ‘Who was VM?’ sets them into a whodunit mode till they have their euroka moment in a portrait of the artist bought from a kabari shop. The identity is established as Viola Melville.
There is an interesting tale of two ‘Owls’ who remain perched on a tree branch just outside the house for two days. Strange for the nocturnal birds who shunned humans and their habitation and were thought to bring ill omen. Venu, however, finds the creaures fascinating, unlike the moping owls of Gray’s “Elegy.” Sure enough ‘the Owls’ proved harbinger of hope and prosperity for Venu’s family. Owl after all is goddess Lakshmi’s mount! ‘The Lamp on the Bridge’ recounts an episode of a Diwali evening. The air was still with no wind blowing when a pole in the garden suddenly starts shaking back and forth frightening Venu and her young son. Was some supernatural force at work? The mystery remained unsolved. In ‘The Apparition’ a visitor to Rickvan’s Ridge is guided by what appeared an embodied spirit. Sounds eerie, but is true. Then there was a spirit, hovering around the hose, which loved music (‘The Musical Entity’). The impish spirit is especially fond of old Hindi film songs. So the music system in the house starts on its own in the dead of night or wee hours of morning. Another unexplained mystery is an insistant sound of banging at the door in the midnight, not a soft midnight knock but an insistent, loud, insolent, urgent and demanding banging. The author records that such uncanny occurences defy any logic. But amidst all the turmoil, the author observes the Rickvan Ridge is a place that has ‘the tranquility of the forest; poetry and romance seem to be everywhere. In the fluttering of the oak leaves, in the whispering of the wind, .. in the soulful cry of the nightjar and in the gloriously colourful sunsets’ (p.98).
Not to be missed are the pet canines, feathered creatures of all varieties, and the ubiquitous monkeys and langurs from the forest around. There are holy encounters with a Swiss Swami and a Mauni Baba who lived in Barlowganj.
Memories exist as wisps of perfume, snippets of images, stories that haunt our dreams, fragments of our lives waiting for us to breathe full life into them. This is precisely what the author has done. While reconstructing reality the book uses lot of imagination – but it is not imagination run riot. Restraint and vericimilitude mark her prose. The book is beautifully illustrated with vintage photograps and reproductions from old gazetteers and maps. However a more careful proofreading could have avoided the printer’s devil in the Foreword where the sentence ‘Several interesting and unexpected occurences have found place in this book’ gets repeated five lines later. But that should be a minor issue.
The prose pieces in the book are richly interspersed with the author’s poems so that the reader can have the glimpse of the best of both worlds, that of the flights of poetic fancy and the real terra firma. Take it for the good doctor’s prescription – an unfailing recipe for a wholesome life of happiness while she demonstrates her true allegiance to the Hipprocratic oath.
(The reviewer is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, H.N.B. Garhwal University)