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Rediscovering Childhood

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Book Review – ‘The Lighthouse Family’

By Dr Sanjeev Chopra

‘Your childhood is your homeland,’ said Epictetus. So did the poet and Nobel laureate Louise Glück, ‘We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.’

Children who grow up with stories ‘of homelands their parents can no longer call their own’ are often caught in a bind: they are born and raised in a new land (of promise), but the soil and the trees and the memory of their forebears stays on: it is inter-generational. Memory remains intact – even when scripts, currencies, anthems, flags and popular narratives are abruptly cast aside for new ones. Thus, The Lighthouse Family is the story of a forced migration from one country to another because ‘lines have been drawn’, and borders have birthed new nations. In this case, as in many others, the point of division was adherence to the crescent or the cross, and neighbours who had lived together for centuries suddenly found themselves ‘mortal enemies’. But while these divisions may have been politically expedient for helmsmen who seek control over lives and destinies of people and materials and munitions for their respective countries, it augurs pain, suffering and misery for those who are affected.

Population exchanges – whether in the islands across the Aegean or in the alluvial plains of Punjab or the riverine fluvial in Bengal or the hill tracts on the Myanmar border – are  infinitely more poignant, and certainly not as methodical and mechanical as the maps, charts and papers on which premiers and plenipotentiaries affix their signatures.

The Lighthouse Family by the forever itinerant Firat Sunel, currently Türkiye’s Ambassador to India with accreditation to Nepal and Bhutan is a spellbinding novel   set in Sarpıncık – the terminal village on the westernmost tip of his country, on the hillside overlooking the Aegean. Here lives the grizzled patriarch, his ageing paternal aunt Hanim Hala with her prayer beads and chants, his wife, and their three children – the weak-hearted İlyas, their only daughter, Feriha, and the youngest, Little K, our narrator. The year is 1942, and though their country is neutral, the Greek islands are facing the brunt of the Second World War, and many are willing to risk their lives to seek refuge in the land of their erstwhile adversaries – near the lighthouse- where our story is set. In his conversations, Firat talks of the lighthouse as a metaphor. For the lighthouse is much more than just a venue or a building. It symbolises loneliness and desolation while at the same time being a symbol of hope, direction, light and refuge to a shipwrecked soul!

This was indeed an idyllic year for Little K and his family – the bright young boy has received top grades in his school, and with the support of his  siblings and his mother, is keen to go to the town of Izmir to continue his education, though he also feels ‘the weight of the world as he struggles between his desire to go the city school, or help look after the lighthouse as only he can’. Around this time, the ‘family frame’ is captured by a photographer who is visiting their remote hamlet. But while they never receive a copy of this, Little K has an epiphanic moment when this picture is accidentally discovered in a flea market in a German coastal town in the 1980s. And he tells his partner… about the only image where ‘my whole family are present’. “That little kid in the front, the one in shorts giving a military salute: that’s me… Blissfully unaware that a military junta would later change my life… Dad’s hands on my shoulders, like he wanted to restrain me… Mum to his right, silent and docile as ever… the grim-faced woman sitting in a chair bang in the middle is our Hanım Hala, madam paternal aunt… My big brother İlyas to her right. Two years my senior, but we look like we’re the same age. He seemed to be growing younger as I grew up; I always thought we’d end up the same age one day. Which is not what happened… Standing next to me in a patched pair of trousers… is my big sister Feriha… The wildest of us all, obstinate and a daredevil bold enough to stand up to our dad. She lived in a world I could never enter, probably because I was a child… I never told her; but she was pretty, despite the shabby clothes and the short hair she had cut herself…”

The character development of every member of  the family  is striking: each grappling with their own internal conflicts and external pressures. From K’s internal struggle between duty and personal aspirations, to his brother Ilyas’s physical frailty but ardent wish to be part of the rite of passage of circumcision, and sister Feriha’s unwavering support, each character is intricately woven into the fabric of the narrative, adding depth and emotional resonance to the story. Their aunt Hanim Hala chanted around the mastic tree planted as a sapling: the soul of the home they left behind. When Ilyas dies in an avoidable accident, Fer­iha’s affections are taken by his namesake, a Greek war refugee named Elias, who is washed up in the cave below the lighthouse. We are not sure if this love was platonic, but Little K does not want his affection to be shared, and in a child’s ignorance the narrator commits an act of betrayal that will haunt him for the rest of his life. The father pushes Elias out of her life, as well as his own, by forcing him out into the rough sea on a rickety boat to a certain death in the stormy sea, and then he too, suffers from pangs of guilt for the reminder of his life.

Meanwhile, Little K completes his education, but reads more than is ‘stipulated by the state’ and writes what he wants to, rather than what is expected. While in Istanbul trying to find a publisher, he saves a Greek barber, and his twelve-year-old daughter, Delphina, during an anti-Greek riot in the city in 1955.

Perchance, he meets her years later in a German library where he has taken refuge as a Heimatlos (homeless exile), then they stumble across the  family picture, which has already been described in detail in an earlier para.

Together they retrace their steps to the lighthouse and Little K relives those memories, those times and also the repertoire of unopened letters he had sent to his sister, Feriha, who is more central to the lighthouse family and the narrator as well.

This is indeed a book where fiction and nonfiction walk hand in hand, and the translator, Feyza Howell, has also done a superb job in bringing the times and spaces of the characters and their geographies alive.

Valley of Words will be hosting a session on The Lighthouse Family later this year, and this reviewer is also looking forward to the next set of translations from the pen of Firat Sunel. Till then, happy reading.

(Sanjeev Chopra (born 3 March, 1961) is a retired IAS officer of the 1985 batch, from Kapurthala, Punjab. He is a resident of Dehradun. He is a former Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration and has written a book, “We, the People of the States of Bharat: The Making and Remaking of India’s Internal Boundaries”, published in 2022. He is now the patron and honorary consultant to a literary festival, the Valley of Words International Literary Festival, held annually in Dehradun. Chopra has held the Hubert H Humphrey Fellowship (Cornell), the Robert S McNamara Fellowship (World Bank) and positions at Royal Asiatic Society, London, the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute (Harvard).)