Some years ago, my grandmother, Lily Tharoor, asked me to write her life story. I was her second choice.
A man in the business of ghostwriting other people’s memoirs had come to her with a proposal. He planned to move to where she was living at the time—Thiruvananthapuram, in southern Kerala, India—and rent an apartment nearby. The two of them would speak every afternoon over tea. She was going to tell him her story, and he was going to write it for her. He pledged 150 pages in three months.
My mother, Shobha, and I exchanged emails with this writer. We asked him about his process.
Would he write in first person or third? Would Lily’s story, which began in December 1935, read like a novel? Was he after a rags-to-riches tale? If so, that wasn’t quite right. Lily was born in a village, but her father was a respected schoolteacher and her mother’s family were major landowners.
Would he emphasize the salacious? Widowed in her mid-50s, Lily chose to live alone: receiving guests—including men—home for drinks and dinner, and traveling around India with friends. And she did so in a social milieu in which widows who do not remarry often elect to move in with adult children.
Did he seek (in a familiar act of allegorical twinning) to map her life onto that of the postcolonial Indian nation-state? Born in pre-independence India, Lily moved to London in the early 1950s after marriage, where she taught herself English by listening to the BBC. It was a dramatic journey to the metropole that would forever transform her worldview through what Benedict Anderson termed, after José Rizal, “the spectre of comparisons.”1
We asked the ghostwriter: Would he write a tale of migration, diasporic belonging, and inheritance? Or pen a humorous narrative of middle-class domesticity, perhaps in the style of one of Lily’s favorite writers, the American humorist Erma Bombeck? Lily raised three children in the cosmopolitan cities of Bombay and Calcutta, in the decades before a Hindu nationalist resurgence refashioned the cities as Mumbai and Kolkata.2 Her children migrated to the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1980s, when the West was still the world center of higher education. Then, in the first decade of the 2000s—amidst talk of a New India in the “Asian century”—Lily’s son, Shashi, a renowned writer and diplomat, reverse-migrated to India as a leading member of the political opposition to the Bharatiya Janata Party. Lily’s daughters (including, of course, my own mother) would provisionally return as well: buying apartments, establishing companies, and publishing books in the India they’d once left.
All of our questions ended up being irrelevant. My grandmother wanted the ghostwriter to pay her for the right to tell these stories. He expected her to pay him for serving as her scribe. In the end, Lily decided he was too young. The deal was off.
But despite this setback, my grandmother—whom I call Ammamma (meaning “mother’s mother”)—was now determined to have a book. And so, the task of writing her book then fell to me, her “one and only” granddaughter. I recorded some unstructured interviews with Ammamma on my iPod. We made a few abortive starts.
This was the early 2000s, when it felt like anyone could be an oral historian and family archivist. I was emboldened by the convenience of new recording technologies and Gmail, with its seemingly inexhaustible Archive and the acuity of its Search. I suppose I thought posing questions by email (“Can you describe your first days in London?”) would suffice as research methodology. Years later, reading the anthropologist Anand Pandian’s memoir co-written with his grandfather, M. P. Mariappan, Ayya’s Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India—researched, co-written, and translated over many intensive months of conversation and ethnographic exchange—I was embarrassed by my naiveté.3
Emails, I found, did not a book make. Our exchanges were repetitive; the narrative failed to develop; promised details were never forthcoming. Ammamma’s initial enthusiasm (“As we progress I will open my thinking,” she wrote to me, “I am sure this will be a bestseller.”) soon gave way to ambivalence about self-disclosure: first, because her mother was still alive, and then because of fears of distracting from her famous son’s career. For my part, I worried that in trying to midwife Ammamma’s story, I would only end up writing my own.
Moreover, how was I to capture Lily’s distinct voice and idiosyncratic turns of phrase? I anxiously debated the formal distinctions between description, mimesis, transcription, and translation of my grandmother’s voice. “I have too much of ambition”; “At my age and stage”; “In my own bracket”; “I cannot function in a mechanical way”; “I have seen the cream of society”; “I have had good innings”: Could I write these words without ventriloquizing her, at best, or caricaturing her, at worst?
A decade passed.
In retrospect, I failed to write Ammamma’s story for the same reasons that I made the attempt. Like many feminist theory and cultural studies students of my generation, I had intuited the formal and creative power of the autotheoretical mode on the one hand, and internalized the post-structuralist prohibition on self-referentiality on the other. It was too gauche to write about myself; so I became interested in writing the life of an intimate other: a foremother, my grandmother. But I never could shake the delimiting orientation of the “my.”
This prehistory conditions how I can now engage with Good Innings: The Extraordinary, Ordinary Life of Lily Tharoor, now out from Penguin. It is my grandmother’s story, written by my mother, Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan, a voiceover artist and author of numerous children’s books.4 Good Innings is a single-authored work. At the same time—to the extent that my mother’s initial research methodology was the activation of memory—it is a co-creative project between mother and daughter, a lifetime in the making. The book is a hybrid biographical text, constellated with citations from multiple languages and thinkers, including musings by Lily’s idols (like Lucille Ball, Audrey Hepburn, and Sophia Loren) and much-cited aphorisms from the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rabindranath Tagore.
Good Innings is, in other words, a self-help book, and not only to the extent that, in Mohsin Hamid’s playful words, “all books, each and every book ever written, could be said to be offered to the reader as a form of self-help.”5 Intended as an inspirational text, Good Innings is written in accessible, forward-looking prose that seeks to match Lily’s open, forward-thinking, energetic attitude. Each chapter corresponds to a particular life phase and lesson, from “Believe in Yourself” to “Embrace the Unexpected” to “Age Is Only a Number”—chapters 1, 4, and 13, respectively. In an opening Author’s Note, my mother explains that she sought to “build a timeline of an interesting and full life, emphasizing its teachable moments.” For example, Lily and her husband Chandran’s 1980 move from Calcutta to Bombay inspires reflection on crossroads as “a place of opportunity.” Chandran’s death in 1993 moves Lily to live life “on her own terms.”
Describing Good Innings to a fellow academic recently, I observed that “we” (read: “we” academics and professional critics, but also maybe “we” Americans) are not the book’s intended audience. “Then who is it for?” my friend asked.
I immediately regretted having overdetermined the book’s reception. And yet, beyond the given readership of those who know my grandmother personally, I do imagine the book’s addressees in specific terms: as middle-class Indians belonging to the contemporary, expanded Anglophone reading public that anointed Chetan Bhagat (“I like his writing … I am an admirer of him,” Ammamma wrote to me in 2014) India’s “paperback king.”6 This is the demographic that speaks, reads, and writes what Akshya Saxena terms “vernacular English”—as opposed to an English that is first and foremost a colonial bequest.7
“Good Innings” is the book my grandmother would have written if she had written it. And it’s been a lesson for me, who failed to write it, in the critical possibilities of genre as voice.
I also imagine the book’s readers as consumers of self-help, which, as Beth Blum has argued, is both a narrative device and a sophisticated hermeneutic, or mode of interpreting the world.8 The global genre appropriates “the wisdom literature of the past” and lays bare a wide range of “mimetic cultural desires.”9 Self-help inaugurates morally engaged, practical, and even radical reading practices. For example, Blum points out that the ideal self-help reader is one “so galvanized into action by the text that he is unable to finish reading it.”10 Plainly, these are not the usual terms of textual engagement for close-reading-humanists. Most radically, perhaps, self-help is vested with the reader’s “belief in the emancipatory power of the text.”11 Daily, we literature scholars question whether books can change the world. Readers of books by Dale Carnegie, Deepak Chopra, Paulo Coelho, or Stephen Covey know that they can.
Situated at the intersection of self-help and biography, Good Innings activates the tension between the universal and the singular, the historical and the individual. In Ayya’s Accounts, Pandian and his grandfather tussle over the contest between ordinary and extraordinary as well. “No one else could have had this kind of life,” Mariappan reflects on his own trajectory. “I have to believe that there are many others like him,” Pandian counters, “scattered here and there in contemporary India and beyond.”12
Who is this book for? Good Innings is for Lily. But it is not just for Lily today (my grandmother, who initially expressed little interest in my mother’s project, now carries the book as an aide-mémoire). Instead, Good Innings is for Lily as she might have been, if she were born in a later generation. The woman, mother, daughter, sister, wife she might have been. Equally, the entrepreneur, inventor, traveler, and “dreamer.”13
For there are many like Lily in India and the world: “ordinary” individuals whose lives occasionally touch the “extraordinary.” This book is for them.
I always thought that the challenge of writing my grandmother’s story was capturing her singular voice. Rereading her emails from years ago, I remember why. Much of our correspondence is mundane (“Baby / Please eat lot of fresh vegetables uncooked and fruit juice”), but it is also lively, moving, and funny.
“Wish I was born in your generation,” a 2012 email begins. “My children had a higher platform to start life.” Ammamma’s 10th-grade education and village upbringing left her unprepared for her “confusing” exposure to “the western world.” She laments having brought up her children “in a too too westernized way.” She blames herself for having lost her grandchildren to the diaspora, when they might instead have participated in India’s 21st-century rise.
“World and India have changed so much, if you have a vision here, one can get anything in life,” she writes. “Sky is the limit in India, but living a sheltered life in California no one can get all this. Even your actor Brad Pitt is courting an Indian girl now.”
You won’t find sentences quite like this in Good Innings, because my mother specifically did not reproduce Ammamma’s voice. Even paragraphs written in the first person—that is, as if from Lily’s perspective—do not attempt fidelity to her particular accented turns of phrase. That said, the book is indisputably my grandmother’s.
Our Mothers, Ourselves
With Good Innings, my mother has managed the impossible alchemy of capturing Lily’s spirit and voice without ventriloquizing or speaking over her. She offers instead what the feminist theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha calls “speaking nearby,” which is a form of speaking “that reflects on itself and can come very close to a subject without, however, seizing or claiming it.”14 Speaking nearby requires both ethical distance and intimate proximity. It requires knowledge and careful thinking, about what is to be said and what is to be left unspoken—to whom, and how.
Good Innings is the book my grandmother would have written if she had written it. And it’s been a lesson for me, who failed to write it, in the critical possibilities of genre as voice. As Ammamma has often said, sizing up success and loss, dreams achieved and deferred, projects consummated and abandoned, “This too is an education.”
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames.
- Benedict Anderson, The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia and the World (Verso, 1998). ↩
- Thomas Blom Hansen, Wages of Violence: Naming and Identity in Postcolonial Bombay (Princeton University Press, 2001). ↩
- Anand Pandian and M. P. Mariappan, Ayya’s Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India (Indiana University Press, 2014). ↩
- Srinivasan’s books include Indi-Alphabet (Mango & Marigold, 2018); How Many Lines in a Limerick? (Clear Fork, 2020); Prince with a Paintbrush: The Story of Raja Ravi Varma (Westland, 2021); It’s Time to Rhyme (Aleph, 2022); and Parvati the Elephant’s Very Important Day (HarperCollins, 2022). ↩
- Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (Riverhead Books, 2013), p. 20. ↩
- Ulka Anjaria, “Great Aspirations,” Public Books, July 31, 2017. ↩
- Akshya Saxena, Vernacular English: Reading the Anglophone in Postcolonial India (Princeton University Press, 2022). ↩
- Beth Blum, “The Self-Help Hermeneutic: Its Global History and Literary Future,” PMLA, vol. 133, no. 5 (2018), pp. 1099–1117. ↩
- Ibid., pp. 1099, 1108. ↩
- Ibid., p. 1107. ↩
- Ibid., p. 1101. ↩
- Pandian and Mariappan, Ayya’s Accounts, pp. 164–166. ↩
- Snigdha Poonam, Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing the World (Harvard University Press, 2018). ↩
- Nancy N. Chen, “‘Speaking Nearby’: A Conversation with Trinh T. Minh-ha,” Visual Anthropology Review, vol. 8, no. 1 (1992), p. 87. ↩