Thursday, January 24, 2008

This much I know is true

After years at college and working away from home, three-fourth of the way into 1997, I moved back to where my Punjabi heart lies, good old Delhi. To live under my parent’s roof one final time before forging my own. It was a time of recuperation for my mum after an intense illness and all she needed to do was rest. That year that ensued is a bit of a blur in mind as to the sequence of events. What I do remember with amazing clarity is that that was the year my brother and I learnt to juggle work (for me), studies (for him) and household chores (both of us and dad) effectively. Mid-morning every single weekday, while we were at work/ school, my mum would settle herself on the daybed to watch the Oprah Winfrey show. Like a prayer. Everyday.

It helped her in innumerable ways by bringing to life the challenges that a certain set of women on the other side of the world faced. More than anything it gave her something to watch and focus on beside her health and the good cheer and big hopeful stories cheered her up immensely. Even the sad dire wretched stories helped making her count her good fortune at having beaten the illness. For this distraction of Oprah babysitting mum while we needed to be elsewhere I think deep down we were thankful.

I never really got the Oprah bug like my mum did but on the odd day that I watched it I was drawn to the Oprah Book Club recommendations. As part of my ‘loving-lists-scheme’ I would write down the recommendations each time I heard them and patiently over the year compile a list to decide which ones I could afford to buy at the end of the year. I never could afford more than a couple and when I went to buy them they were either unavailable or I got distracted by something shinier or hotter amongst the Indian press and my peers. So many of the ones I wanted to read got left behind.

I eventually misplaced many of the lists but discovered that the internet was a treasure trove of replacements. I also developed an interest in a different genre of books and began making decisions on what to buy based on factors other than ‘popular on somebody’s list’. I think I owned only two of the Oprah list books (bought consciously) but both inspired me in some small way, opened my eyes to an area I had next to no knowledge about.

One of these books was ‘This much I know is true’ by Wally Lamb. It’s a very hard and depressing book about twins Dominic and Thomas Birdsey. Thomas is a paranoid Schizophrenic and Dominick’s life is intrinsically bound with trying to help his brother and cope with the turns his own life take. It moves forward in time over the course of their lives but digs deep into their own ancestral history and the secrets that every person carries to their grave in an attempt to blot out all that is bad. It highlights flaws in places that one would never consider looking and how all their lives are about coping in one way or another. I won’t say it’s the most depressing book I’ve ever read but it’s definitely up there in the top three. I know that so far I haven’t sold this book well. But it wouldn’t be truthful to say this was a book about hope without talking about how horridly awful Dominick’s life is. The reason I so loved this book was how it richly crafted each character is, from the same-but-separate-but-not twins to their timid mother and abusive step-father. It’s a vivid picture of middle twentieth century America and how this man learns to deal with anger, frustration and incredible loss. It’s a book about harshness and loss and kindness and forgiveness and above all acceptance.

I know that makes it sound a bit soppy and wimpy but really it’s not. This is a better review of the nitty gritty of the book. I was at an impressionable age in my life and I think it was one of the defining books of my mid-twenties and made me think long and hard about counting my blessings, facing my fears, limiting my needs and accepting my flaws. It made me consider a lot more seriously the idea of living my life like I mean it. With as few regrets as possible. With gentleness. And that included embedding the constant thought that every action I undertake should ideally lead to a richer and kinder life. And that those two things are not unconnected.

I think this is the year I need to re-read this book.


  1. sounds good! Just checked, and my local library has it too, so I'm gonna borrow it soon and read it!

  2. Anonymous12:43 AM

    I remember enjoying this book a few years ago but it was so long I never managed to get beyond halfway through. My bookmark is still there though so this post has been a trigger to resume reading it.

    PS - I am a big Oprah fan - embarrassing as it is to admit it. I don't watch her anymore (no time) but still buy her magazine each month (and read it only in private!!).

  3. It sounds like one of those books that you need to read just once for it to stay with you forever. Would you count that among your favorite books, however? I am kind of wrestling with the idea that my favorite books are not necessarily the ones that I read over and over...

  4. Quite an interesting post about Oprah, her suggested books, and then about the book.

  5. Sounds intriguing .. you know,am currently reading 'The Memory Keeper's Daughter' which is also a story about twins but different from the one you describe ...