Vinod Kanth (2011) Journey of a Grasshopper Patna: AMS Publications, Price: Rs. 400.00, pp. 341, Paperback
“I mean to present my fellow-mortals with a man in all the integrity of nature; and this man shall be myself.”
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. (1781)
Writing an autobiography is like removing the drooping layers of one’s self, petal by petal to smell (and spread) the lingering fragrance, to see, to assess and at the same time to deconstruct the events, looking at them from a vantage point of autumnal maturity, candor and poise that life invariably bestows on the ageing author.
Today, there is a dramatic rise in the genre of autobiography as it has witnessed experimentation in the form which may combine fact and fiction and at times the author may take a postmodernist subject-position. But the author of Autobiography of a Grasshopper has not experimented with the form and seems to be influenced by M. K. Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth, N. Palkiwala’s We, the People, and M. C. Chagla’s Roses in December. The author, a practicing lawyer for more than four decades, while “looking back”, with all humility confesses that his story of life is going to be “[T]he running commentary of the bioscopewala used to be very childish. Similar is likely to be mine.” (4). On the contrary, after going through this readable and highly engaging book one is sure to discover more than what the author has confessed- a world of adolescence with all its adventures and misadventures, of friendships that run beyond the boundaries of caste, religion and economic disparity, and of bonhomie cutting across the bureaucratic, social, economic and cultural differences. Besides, within those worlds one can find the smaller worlds, of attachments which are based on detached philosophical ways of life imbibed through generations of community living and, of the extended family system which has disintegrated itself into nuclear families with the impact of neo-liberal tendencies of the West, of the familial bonds, duties and responsibilities, the world of an aspiring lawyer and, of struggles through the unpredictable possibilities that life is always ready to furnish .
The various worlds in this book are etched out with the incredible “hopping” memory of the “grasshopper” taking the reader into the lanes of past and present, giving veracity to the remarkable events of a journey of life against the backdrop of the different districts of Bihar. The life and events described in the early chapters of this book are of a” bygone era”(19), the good old days when “Friends were like blood relations, first cousins, second cousins were like own siblings” (13). The author makes this comment while portraying his mother’s family, its significance in the freedom struggle of India, its sudden rise and fall, and the cohesive bond among the members of the family that thrived on happiness and contentment “in extended jointness” (Ibid). The author has given a brief but vivid account of his father’s family which was basically of rural background, in which the role of his widowed grandmother as a capable home-maker supervising the ancestral land and its income for the family whose domineering personality kept the family and the family values intact. No wonder his father completed his M.A. and joined the government service as a young magistrate in the late 30s and early 40s when not all people used to get the benefits of education. His father’s “world” at Latehar and Ranchi in the early decades of the twentieth century not only throws light on the family life of a young officer but also on the political, social and cultural scene of the time in the chapters such as “1944-48: Babuji’s World,” “Purnia Days: 1948-March 1952,” “Growing up at Chhapra: March 1952-June1 955,” “Drift at Muzaffarpur: 1955-1958,” and “Babuji moves to Bhagalpur: Drift unabated.”
Along with these descriptions the adolescent author’s unseen progress of growing up has been recounted. The author now at a mature age looks back attempting to integrate new experiences and insights with his self-development in his growing days as a child. This is how with the blessings of God, as the author affirms, a driftwood was shaped into “a piece of decoration, to be given a position in the corner of a drawing room.” (39). In other words, the young children acquire knowledge and wisdom through experience and amalgamate that experience to form a world-view and an understanding of the self. That is how the author, it seems, has” re-discovered” (131) himself through a challenging and chequered career of a “non-careerist” (134) who was “living in fantasies and always governed by heart” (136) finally chooses the career of a lawyer at the destination of Patna High Court in November, 1965. At this destination he had “tryst with destiny” (149 ), his ‘match-box house’ authored his destiny (168) and finally his destiny (his lady love who was to soon become his wife) walked into his life (195). At this destination he not only re-discovered himself but also he was re-born when his son Udayan died. He considers this sad event as a “turning point” (205) in his life as he turned out to be more focused in his profession and more responsible in his duties of life.
In autobiographies and autobiographical writings memory plays an important role. The author is aware of that as he says “[M]emory is relatable to your concern and interest in something or somebody.” (39) Evidently the author is reconstructing the past in the present not only to know himself but also to know others. The author gives a candid account of his encounters with his senior lawyers and the way they guided him to the road to seniority and success. His sympathetic portrayal of his teachers who taught him at the various schools of the state of Bihar is praiseworthy. It is also praiseworthy on the part of the author to find deeper meanings in life as he declares, “Life must always be lived purely on one’s own terms” (vii). His moving away from Patna to Delhi to practice as a lawyer in the Supreme Court and his return to roots amply demonstrates what life meant to him. His experience as a lawyer gets reflected throughout the book but the last chapter of the book “Self-opinionated Divines: Hon’ble Judges” is the result of his deep interest in his profession.
Commendable is the attempt of publishing an interesting book with an impressing cover and getup by AMS Publication, Patna. An index would have systematized the curiosity of readers about the numerous well-known personalities of the state of Bihar. The pictures of the four generations of the author have been wisely included towards the end as Alice has said, “What is the use of a book without pictures?” The book needed to be proofread more carefully however the minor typographical errors by no means undermine its significance as a forthright account (with a tinge of humour here and there) of a life in Patna and some of the important districts of Bihar that have already disappeared. A reader interested in the legal profession would be immensely benefited from the first hand experiences of the author narrated throughout the book. The author’s maiden attempt, his autobiographical odyssey, with an aim to give voice to his passionately lived experiences finds support in the famous lines of Robert Lowell, the admirable proponent of confessional poetry:
Yet in this tempting leisure,
Good thoughts drive out bad;
Causes for my misadventure, considered
For forty years too obvious to name,
Come jumbling out
to give my simple autobiography a plot.