Gaurav Monga’s “My Father the Watchmaker” Hawakal Publishers

Book Review
Dr. Oindrila Ghosh

My Father the Watchmaker, Gaurav Monga. Hawakal Publishers, New Delhi, Kolkata, 2020. 250 + Pp. 70. ISBN:978-819-485382-4. 

My Father the Watchmaker is a delightful book, which is also as, the author, Gaurav Monga insists, ‘a fantastic one, full of lies’ (Preface). It is not a book one ought to go to looking for stories, or plots, but perhaps more for experiences – both those which were actually lived, and also those which life missed living out. The Preface suggests that the book is autobiographical, while the general reader, who has little knowledge of the author’s family or past, would not be in a position to separate the kernels of truth from the bushels of lies. And, it is indeed not even a prerequisite, or a necessity, in order to be able to enjoy this book! The book is slim, of seventy pages, convenient to finish reading at one sitting (being divided into amorphous short tales) but loaded enough to make a reader muse for long, thereafter! Beneath its apparent simplicity, or its lack of a definitive argument (and even of coherence), except for the figure of the writer-narrator’s fiercely independent Father, it is an addition to Partition Literature, but in a way that one seldom comes across regularly. It chooses to narrate the tale of uprooting and anchorlessness, seamlessly, without the overt flaunting of the blood and the bruise. The bruise, in fact, has been buried too deep and internalized by the Father and seems to have been passed down to his Son, as voluntarily as are blood, genes or the family heirloom– whereby the two cities Delhi and Lahore become almost identical (‘two cities that, in my imagination, often look like one’ Preface), almost mirror images, in the writer’s mind and imagination. While living in one he seems to be imaginatively attuned to life in another. One wonders if the Father is not the author himself, or even, for that matter, the Grandfather. The boundaries between characters seem hazy, ready to meld into each other and also separate at whim. Thus, in, what seems almost, a Naipaulian trait, the author, his Father and his Grandfather perhaps become one, as the dedication to the book seems to suggest, it is the grandparents who brought memories of Lahore to Delhi – a shifting which was not merely physical but a strenuous overhaul of mindscapes too. A veritable Mr Biswas then, the writer-narrator, flits through the narrative weaving memories, with strands of reality and fiction interwoven, to the extent of them becoming inextricable and almost unapologetically interchangeable. 

As is the problem with all autobiographical fiction, this quaint book of tales at times lapses into cryptic statements or episodes, which might puzzle the uninformed reader. While at the same time the flowing language tantalizes and pulls one to fathom deeper into the characters, while savouring the flavours of the places they inhabit. Divided into ten sections, or tales, the book is more of a musing into the history of the writer-narrator’s Father, of his family, its move from one Colonial city to another, uprooted by partition and the deep, buried, perhaps unacknowledged, need to erase that fact, by choosing to think of the two cities interchangeably, as identical twins. And this is done effortlessly, just the way his Father ‘didn’t struggle to move his watch shop from one nation to another…two hands of a clock’ (The Delivery Boy 25). Though it is only the first tale in the book, that is eponymously titled My Father, the Watchmaker, the metaphor of the watch, of time, runs as a leitmotif all through the other tales, poignantly emphasizing the writer’s need to find succor from a better past, perhaps by delving into a time which he can only have re-lived either through the tales recounted by his father or only in his imagination! In the writer’s hands, a tribute to his Father, to a city, to an undivided nation, coalesce effortlessly and without lavish ceremony. 

Apart from a unique style of storytelling, Monga creates a repertoire of interesting characters – half-sketched, elusive, and yet relatable – leaving readers hoping that they shall reappear in some future yarn he may choose to spin! The Father’s devious Sister, Raj—the maternal uncle who dies unexpectedly, the author’s Mother, who is a shadowy figure in the narrative, the Khannas, the Kashmiri Photographer’s beautiful daughter, all of them make half-lit appearances and disappear even before the reader has had opportunity to get acquainted. The amusing stories of his Father’s professional and personal exploits are often undercut by dark, sardonic quips which hint at the existential angst within the narrator, who questions the unfairness of natural selection (‘It is fascinating to think of when a mother gives birth to a litter, and one of the children dies so very early, while another cannot stop living’, Raj 31). So also are passages which nervously elide over the traumatic uprooting that partition gifted to families, which ended in a loss of adaptability in them, with individuals caught in an eternal warp of time, plagued by a perpetual sense of being misfits everywhere. The house on Nishbat road, Lahore, had his Father’s heart and spoke his identity like the shop in Delhi, or the House in Rohtak Road, could never do. This is hinted at several times, and while the Father is ready to rush back to have just a glimpse of the house, symbolic of the life left behind, all the way to Lahore, the Son refuses to encounter the reality of exile and grasps at wisps of imagination to hold unto his roots buried deep in a now-alien country (‘I would instead imagine myself wandering into Anarkali’ The Delivery Boy 26). Leaving the house on Rohtak Road, is a second uprooting, a merciless  picking at a half-healed wound as the Father feels anew, that, ‘he was leaving the house on Nishbat road once again’ (Rohtak Road 37). These and other subtle and muted reminders of the indelible scars which the Partition left on generations of South Asians, makes this the latest addition to Partition Literature, while already showing those traces of change that have started marking out the genre, and its handling, from an older generation of writers. The Partition, and its aftermath, lurks within the narrative, like an injured animal, resurfacing and often licking its wounds. Just as it begins, with the tale of the Watchmaker, who however lives mostly unaware of the passage of Time, in an almost unchanged, unfazed and seamless reality, untarnished by man-made temporal and spatial divisions, the book ends with the search for identity and roots, unfettered by borders and time, finally accomplished. One wonders if the Father’s Blue Sapphire is his final rendevouz with his long-lost identity and his search for stability, once-disrupted by the horrors of the Partition? Shoring up seamlessness against temporal and spatial fixities and freedom over stability, seems to mark the vision of the protagonist, as also of the writer.

This book is certainly for those who believe in muted, unostentatious musings and expostulations on urban life, people and painful but unalterable, historical upheavals. It takes many of us on a fantasy-trip, making us chuckle to be able to identify our own teenage urges to expose the shrewd and devious machinations of close family members, which never found outlet, nor courage, of confession in ears of parents and elders (‘…perhaps merely because she was greedy’ Rohtak Road 37). Overall this book is, certainly, a rich treat in a small package, a dish with complex layers disguised in the apparels of simplicity, leaving the reader craving for more flowing from this writer’s pen…and soon!

Dr Oindrila Ghosh
Associate Professor and Head, Department of English
Diamond Harbour Women’s University

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