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Love the Dark Days by Ira Mathur review – heady memoir about family dysfunction in India | Autobiography and memoir

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Astounding wealth and equally astounding levels of alienation distinguish the globe-spanning Love the Dark Days. Indian-born Trinidadian author and broadcaster Ira Mathur traces a complex saga spreading out from her aristocratic, elite-tier Muslim Indian ancestors and grandparents through the glittering lives of her glamorous parents, down to the international jaunts and diasporic privileges of her own generation.

At a gorgeous wedding, “there are the usual stories of privilege, of pranks, of Oxford. Someone says Lord Mountbatten told him that he had never seen a woman as beautiful as my granduncle’s wife. There are stories of hunts and shoots, elephant fights, harems, pearls spread across balconies, Swiss bank accounts and their time with Dicky.” Layers of history coalesce as colonial collusion and inherited privilege drive all the characters – including the narrator – to the heights of snobbery, the depths of delusion and, for the youngest generation, a lurking pain.

The author’s parents at their wedding circa 1960
The author’s parents at their wedding circa 1960. Photograph: Ira Mathur

Mathur sees it all, describes everything and forgives everyone but herself, writing of her parents: “Perhaps some people compensate for their carelessness with you by their beauty and ability to give you a strange, big life.” Her socialite mother’s abandonment of her, her grandmother’s brazen neglect in favour of her prettier sister, her father’s combination of glamour and control … the facts speak for themselves, yet Mathur’s pitiless self-flagellation tops it all as she upbraids herself for not being a better writer, daughter or mother, and for her own (as she sees it) arrogance, stupidity and failure.

Even a sequence of scenes in which she spends time with the writer Derek Walcott, whom she reveres (and who behaves repellently), makes her reflect on her own shortcomings, her inability to please him or be treated respectfully by him: “Derek sits stony-faced… The meal felt like detention, as if we are all supposed to digest his unhappiness.”

The book is hard to get through on a literary level and emotionally. The sheer scale of history necessitates great chunks of expositionary dialogue that nobody in reality would ever really voice. When Indira Gandhi is assassinated, a character says: “Bloody dictator, imposing a state of emergency in 1975 so she could do all the rot she wanted – abolishing the privy purse … going to war with Pakistan in ’71 for no good reason, sending the army to the temple to kill the Sikhs in her bloody operation Blue Star.”

And yet Love the Dark Days is compelling in its narrative richness. Mathur’s characters and the reader alike are put through the wringer as imperial occupation and political upheaval overlay the miseries of forced marriage and unwanted abandonments. The dense prose feels intensely personal: underneath the jewels and silks, the private educations, the parties attended and international apartments so casually bought and sold are cold hearts, shallow minds and failed bids for love. When Mathur marries a man who reminds her of her own father, she says: “I keep him off-balance, refuse to blend our books, ‘just in case we don’t work out’. I take off at a carnival fete to sit some ways away and smoke cigarettes to worry him. He does the same.”

Love the Dark Days is a troubled and troubling book, a heady brew that stays with you.

Love the Dark Days by Ira Mathur is published by Peepal Tree (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply



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