What My Grandma’s Favourite Book Taught Me about Reading and Relationships

Yashodhara Sirur
·6-min read

Of all the books, in all the libraries, in all the world, my grandmother’s unlikely favourite was Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I say unlikely, not because it isn’t a great book – it is. Unlikely because it revolves around unfaithfulness, extra-marital affairs, and fractured families. It makes me wonder what my grandmother – a traditional woman who blushed at the simplest white lie, who devoted herself to my grandpa and her family – saw in the book that made it her favourite.

As a teenager, I never had the perseverance to read the book or felt the urge to ask her why she liked it. I was content listening to stories from her childhood, doing little sewing projects with her, and reading James Herriot together. Now, as a grown-up, I am curious to know what my amma thought of the lovely Anna, her boring bureaucrat of a husband Karenin, and the dashing Count Vronsky she later falls in love with.

I have read Anna Karenina many times since my grandmother passed away, hoping to get a glimpse into her thoughts, hoping to understand her better, and to see her not just as my beloved amma, but also as a woman with opinions of her own. Every time, I get annoyed either with how entitled all the men in the book seem, or at the lengthy discourses on philosophy and politics, I imagine myself reading it with her and at every step I wonder, “What did she think about this?”

Did amma like the convoluted philosophical exchanges?

Did amma like the convoluted philosophical exchanges? Says a character Sviazhsky, a gentleman farmer and minor character in the book, who discusses the emancipation of the serfs, “To educate the people, three things are needed – schools, schools, and more schools.” When I think of all the stories I’ve heard about my grandmother’s growing-up days, I realise she understood the aptness of this quote.

An intelligent, young girl, amma went to a Marathi-medium convent school and was a favourite with the Anglo-Indian nuns. They taught her not only about womanlike demeanour, but so many other things that she valued – the need for girls to be independent, something that wasn’t so common in the pre-Independence era that she was born in. She was conscious of the fact that many women in those days did not have the opportunity to attend school at all. She was aware of her privilege and took time out to share her knowledge with those less fortunate. Like Sviazhsky, she believed that education should be accessible to all.

She was aware of her privilege and took time out to share her knowledge with those less fortunate.

Yet, I feel it was the classic, well-known opening line of the book that spoke the loudest to her: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I never met my grandfather, and I think theirs was a fairly happy family, but I wonder what trials and tribulations they had to go through on their journey of togetherness. Was this about Anna Karenina that grandma found most relatable?

Was it simply the magnetic character of Anna that she adored like me? Through most of the book, I found myself mostly mesmerised by Anna. The book opens with the broken household of Anna’s brother Stiva, who married for love and has been caught having a dalliance with the governess. And Anna, even though she disapproves of adultery, advises her sister-in-law Dolly, to reconcile with her husband. She does it however with so much love, and understanding toward Dolly’s ugly situation that she wins her heart and saves her brother’s marriage. My grandmother, I am sure, would have done the same. As a very traditional woman, she would have probably abhorred adultery. Yet, her capacity for forgiveness was that of a saint. She would have understood and pitied rather than judged.

What struck me the most about Anna Karenina, however, is the relationship between Anna and Dolly. At a time when most sisters-in-law are supposed to be rivals straight out of Ekta Kapoor’s soap, my grandmother and her co-sisters were best friends. They wrote regularly to one another, stood by each other through thick and thin, and were quite simply – sisters!

I will never really know my grandmother’s answers to what she thought of Anna and adultery.

While reading, I couldn’t help picturing my grandmother in the place of the titular Anna and the second heroine of the book – Kitty – because don’t we always put ourselves and our loved ones in the leading role in a book or a film? While Anna started off being strong, composed, and confident, she slowly devolves into jealousy and madness. Kitty, on the other hand, starts off as the ingénue of the ball and matures to a capable, loving woman and a good mother. My grandmother, it seemed to me, was the best of them both.

In the end though, the book left me disappointed. As a long-time Disney fan, I am a sucker for happy endings. I was immensely sad that Anna was ostracised by society, and even the love of her life, Vronsky, let her down. On the contrary, her philandering brother Stiva, remained the blue-eyed boy of Moscow society and enjoyed a wonderful family life. Did my grandma bristle at the injustice of how differently society treats the indiscretions of a man and a woman? Or did she accept it as inevitable? I will never really know.

Stephen Emms of The Guardian, says in a review of the book, “It’s like ending a stupendous five-course meal with a bowl of thin soup.” I agree, and wish I could share this gem with my amma. What would I not give to know whether the end disappointed her too.

I knew my grandma for 15 years but there is so much I did not know about her. Today, I realise that one way of really “getting” a person, is to discuss their favourite books. It gives you an insight into their person. It is not just enough to read the same book with a friend, parent or grandparent. What makes us connect is asking why a friend adores Rhett Butler, why another friend’s favourite chapter in The Lord of the Rings is the one with Shelob’s Lair, and whether a new acquaintance is Team Poirot or Team Marple. And why! What about their life experiences resonates with an element from the book?

I will never really know my grandmother’s answers to what she thought of Anna and adultery. But I am resolved to have these conversations with the people that matter the most to me. And I’m going to start with my father. While my grandmother’s heart was given to Anna Karenina, my dad swears by Tolstoy’s other masterpiece, War and Peace. When asked why, he simply says in Konkani, “Bhayankar book asa. (It’s a great book.)” But does he find it frightfully good, frightfully long, frightfully hard to read, frightfully amazing? I am going to call and ask him right away.