This review appeared in The Asian Age on August 29
Days of Gold and Sepia: A Novel
By Yasmeen Premji
pp. 419, Rs 399
“No man’s life can be fully known or his tale entirely told,” argues the narrator of Yasmeen Premji’s (Wipro chairman Azim Premji’s wife) enchantingly evocative debut novel, Days of Gold & Sepia, “for a man’s secrets pass on with him”. “A man’s life may be pieced together from the places he lived in and the people he knew… most importantly, from the memories he leaves behind in the hearts and minds of those whose lives he has touched,” the narrator ruminates.
This strand of thought colours Days of Gold & Sepia in good measure, so much so that the novel becomes an act of piecing together a man’s life, a life less ordinary, from the places he lived in and the people he knew. And, most importantly, from the memories he left behind in the hearts and minds of those whose lives he had touched.
Days of Gold & Sepia, then, is a rite of remembrance, a romp down nostalgia lane. It’s a story of vaulting ambition in the face of immeasurable adversity and the pangs of early adolescent love that’s doomed but remains lodged in the lovers’ hearts forever, like a lifelong ache. A novel about life and love and the many ways they intersect — life with its share of hardships, love with its quota of heartache — it also trails the forgotten glory and faded grace of “a life richly lived”. Essentially, however, it’s a tale of the inexorable cycle of change, both essential and inevitable; abject penury is followed by prosperity which gives way to poverty again, love leaves in its wake a trail of loss but fulfilment looms just around the corner.
In the novel’s world (just as it happens in the real world), everything — lives, achievements, fame, fortune — eventually end, but memory resurrects them, hearts relive them. “Our stories don’t die with us. They pass down from generation to generation, and even when we think they have been forgotten, somewhere in the universe they resonate, resurrecting at another time, in another place, however distant or far away,” reflects the narrator (in the Epilogue), who is the custodian of the stories of her forefathers.
Days of Gold & Sepia opens on the cusp of a new millennium. It’s Mumbai, “a rabidly expanding metropolis”. The year is 2000. In the prologue, Shahina Lalljee, the narrator, stands on the threshold of the “grand old mansion” of her childhood. In first person, she apprises us, for example, of the builders who “hover around like vultures”. The surge of “a new tide, a new time” ensures the old makes way; “Life’s endless cycle must go on”. Tomorrow, they will begin to break the mansion down. But Shahina must take a “last lingering look” so that she could “remember it all when it’s no more”.
In the debris, she stumbles upon her grandfather’s portrait in sepia, a solitary reminder of his splendoured era. It is as if he is there to witness the narration of his own story.
In subsequent chapters, 45 in all, Premji turns the clock back to tell the story of Lalljee Lakha, a boy from a small village called Siddhpur along the Great Rann of Kutch, who goes on to become the “cotton king” of Bombay, overcoming the grinding poverty of his origins.
When we meet him, it’s the winter of 1866. Lalljee is only six-year-old, and with his parents having succumbed to an epidemic sweeping across Siddhpur, already head of the family. Leaving his two-year-old brother Jappu with his elder sister Munni, who is married, Lalljee must make a journey to Gogha. On her deathbed, his mother had asked him to meet one Rehmu Panju who, as it turns out, was her long-lost brother. Rajjo, Lalljee’s mother, came from a well-to-do family, but had fallen in love with Lakha, an itinerant labourer, and eventually disowned by her family.
It is during his temporary shelter at Rehmu Mamu’s place that he falls in love with his charming cousin, Reshma. But their love is doomed: Rehmu Mamu couldn’t marry his daughter to an “orphaned beggar”. Reshma is eventually married away. And Lalljee has to learn to live with the memory of her lost love; Time passes, but Reshma continues to kindle his heart and soul.
The young boy’s loss triggers a resolve: “Lalljee swore then that never again would he let poverty deprive him of something he so cherished… He would become so rich, so powerful that there would be nothing he wanted that he couldn’t acquire, nothing he desired that he could not have.”
Through his incredible strength of character and good old values – honesty, integrity, humanity, compassion – Lalljee writes his own destiny. From Kutch, he travels to Bombay on foot, penniless but with dreams in his eyes, in 1877. The city provided Lalljee a refuge from old wounds: “Bombay did not question your caste or creed, didn’t care whether you were a pauper or a king, for the city belonged to no one and to everyone. So, people came, armed with their ambitions… Fortune lurked around the corner, a dream away, a scheme away. The city kept their dreams alive and, in time, Bombay itself became the dream”.
Bombay fulfils all of Lalljee’s dreams. His story gets entertwined with the zeitgeist — the 1857 War of Independence, freedom movement, Great Depression, Independence and the “euphoria and mayhem” it left it its wake.
He marries, has children, acquires many cotton mills. But in a life which was “eminently successful and amply fulfilled” there were “the two things he had most craved he had not been destined to have: the woman he had loved and longed for, and a son he had sired.”
But such is life. You win some, you lose some. Perhaps a perfect world is only a mirage. Towards the end of his life, soon after he celebrates his 88th birthday, Lalljee, looking back on his life, finds a parallel to his life in a Ghalib’s line:
“Shama har rang mein jalti hai seher hone tak.”
“The flame of life burns in every hue, before the break of day.”
Lalljee’s flame of life had burnt in the hues that his destiny had in store for him.
It was a difficult novel to pull off, with its vast canvas and rich cast of characters. But Premji does that with unparalleled panache and grace, not an easy feat for a debutante: the richness and lucidity of language is in absolute harmony with her vibrant characters, bristling with life. Classical storytelling at its best, Days of Gold & Sepia is dazzling in its scope, ambitious in its conception and delightful and heart-warming in its execution.