When I reviewed “Vyakti ani Valli” by Pu La Deshpande, I was just acting on my promise to talk about the great writer and his writings. I didn’t know that the post would be so popular (it has more views than second and third most popular posts on this blog combined, and then some).
Given the interest of the people, I want to follow it up with the another book from his three most famous books, “Asa Me Asami“, on the birthdate of Pu La.
Asa Me Asami is the autobiography of a fictional Common Man, Dhondo Bhikaji Joshi. A clerk in a British firm, the book is the story of his life, just before and after India’s independence, and how it affected him. But rest assured, the story is anything but political. It is a very humorous narration of everyday events, everyday struggles of a middle class family and the generation gap which hits every father once in his lifetime.
Starting with his name1, there is nothing about the man, which would mark him as a “hero” of an autobiography. As he says in the very first page, he is one of the thousands of people you see every day living in chawls (or at least, you did till recently) and travelling in local trains in Mumbai. He and his ilk make up the backbone of any economy, the dependable middle class.
Although he has a respectable job, and thus is not poor, his life revolves around his family and his job. There is no place in his life for arts, religion or even the Struggle which is going on in the rest of the country. Moving through the life on a single track, his only contact with the new world, indeed the world around him is his family and friends colleagues.
Which is how he finds himself lost in the theatre with his family where a modern drama written by his friend is playing and spends his time outside, taking care of the children while his “family”2 watches the drama inside. His another colleague insists on taking him to a Baba3 whom he visits, where he finds himself out of place between the rich and famous people. Completely apolitical, the only indication he gets of the Freedom is when the British company he works in is taken over by a Shethaji4, and he gets promotion.
But he is really stumped when the promotion takes him out of the chawl and into new flats system. Accustomed to environment of chawl, he is completely surprised by the new culture, and new generation. He gets angry when his children score low in school tests, but finds out that even he is not a match for new curriculum they are taught. When his kids talk about popular film stars (who earn more for a film than his entire family tree has earned in their lives) like they go to school together, it does not really help his inferiority complex.
He is bemused when his wife enters the Ladies Council and gets her photo published in paper for some function or other (but he agrees that she does look better with all the new cosmetics and fashion fads). And he really gains his wife’s respect when he is selected as the President of his colony’s badminton club (mainly because he does not play badminton and hence would not occupy the court)
But along with all the other qualities, he also possesses the uncommon humour found in every Common Man. That’s why his take on everything in his life take a humorous form. He notes how the only thing which stuck in his wife’s mind while watching the “modern drama” was the colour of the saree the actress wore in a scene. He is nonplussed to note that the religion which depended on frugality and self-discipline now comes with wall-sized mirrors and plush carpets, and is taught in English which would make people give him breathalyzer test in normal situations. His take on the desi take-over of his company is that people (and his office) seem more British under Indian owner.
All in all, the book is really a beautifully crafted look at the lives of a middle class family in the mid-20th century Mumbai. Interspersed in the humorous situations about life in chawl and social fads of the era, is really insightful commentary on social issues of that and every period, like organized religion (and the myriad Babas, Sadhus and Swamis which cater to the rich devout), modern drama and artists and their peculiarities (his writer friend has a wardrobe which almost entirely consists of primary colours) and the reaction to and effect of freedom on urban middle class. And this is the true genius of Pu La, which really shows in all his humour.
Although some of the situations are specific to the time, the humour and the pertinent observations of the Common Man continue to entertain us more than half a century after the period of the book. And some of the questions he asks are still valid, e.g. His strict father, who wouldn’t know which standard he was in, but would go to the temple wet and cold if he was sick, or his friends who play and sing with his kids… Which times are better?
Asami in Marathi has a respectable meaning as “respectable person” or even a “person with some clout”. But often it is used to indicate a “Character” (as in , quite a character). Thus, the title itself is a rhyme, which can mean “I am a person like this” or “I am a character like this”, either of which suits the tone of novel admirably.
P.S. The book was later narrated by Pu La Deshpande and was later also converted into a drama.
Quote of The Day:
In ancient times, beautiful apsaras were used by Gods to break the penance by rishis. A Beauty sitting next to me on my first day as a devout was like asking a kindergartner a question from highschool.
– P. L. Deshpande, in Asa Me Asami
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