25 February 2021, The Tablet

Live in hope

Live in hope

Brown Baby
(BLUEBIRD, 256 PP, £16.99)
Tablet bookshop price £15.29 • tel 020 7799 4064

Not so long ago, the writer Nikesh Shukla found himself appealing to the emptiness of the night, “Mum, how do I raise a brown baby?”

This book is a tribute to his late mother, written for his daughter, whom he tenderly calls his Ganga – the name of the Hindu goddess represented by the Ganges River where worshippers wash away their sins and free themselves from the cycle of life and death. They scattered his mother’s ashes there, Shukla remembers, holding his newborn child. “And here she was, reborn in you, my Ganga.”

Unsatisfied with romanticised memories of his mother, Shukla goes on a quest to recapture the real person he knew and loved. At times his grief is palpable, like the moment he goes through her handbag and finds some dirty old tissues, “Fossils of snot and DNA encased in their folds and creases. My mum. Could we clone her, I wondered?” But it does not stop him. Indeed, perhaps one of the most beautiful scenes comes later when he finds the last of his mother’s cooking, stashed away in some plastic containers in the freezer. He defrosts and warms it and, “Like a swirl, a whisper, a groan, a warmth, the kitchen swells with that smell. Of mustard seeds and garlic and cumin and turmeric and frying and my mum. It smells like my mum.”

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