Book Box | Sara Rai's Raw Umber makes you crave the forgotten languages of your life - Hindustan Times

Book Box | Sara Rai's Raw Umber makes you crave the forgotten languages of your life

May 12, 2024 12:52 AM IST

Read Raw Umber to hear Munshi Premchand’s granddaughter talk about her literary heritage and how she found her voice

Dear Reader,

Sara Rai(Courtesy: Sara Rai) PREMIUM
Sara Rai(Courtesy: Sara Rai)

You know the thrill you get when you discover a great writer, when the writer echoes truths that you knew, so deep down that you didn’t even know you knew them. You read this writer and you are like – yes, yes, yes! Thank you for the vocabulary to voice these things – buried in memories, or even deeper than memories, lodged in some mysterious inchoate areas of your being, and you are grateful for this writing that helps you tap into your soul.

Sara Rai has this effect on you.

When this essayist, translator, and granddaughter of Munshi Premchand talks about the dilemma of knowing which language to write in, and growing up surrounded by languages – Hindi, English, Urdu, Awadhi, and Bangla, you think of your own lost languages, starting with the very first language your mother taught you – the Punjabi that belonged to your ancestors.

A year after you began speaking fluently in that tongue, it was systematically separated from you. As your mother tells the story, it was your grandfather, a practical man, who spoke Oxford University accented English and quoted CP Snow and diced his rotis with knife and fork, who declared Punjabi was a language of no utility, that it must be replaced immediately with English.

Then there was Pahari, the mountain dialect your mother sang to you in, comforting ditties that went away as well, leaving echoes of long-forgotten sounds. What remains with you is English, some Hindi and a smattering of Bengali you picked up from the family you married into.

When you read Sara Rai on language and living, all this comes back to you.

You buy copies of Sara Rai’s Raw Umber for your friends. You badger your book club to read her book. You beguile them to go back in time to read Munshi Premchand, to pick a story or two, to set aside their English and read it in the Devanagari script or to listen to it on audio.


Raw Umber
Raw Umber

Returning to reading in Hindi, your excitement is mixed with trepidation. You begin with Idgah. Your ear thrills to hear a story in an almost forgotten tongue, in the Hindi and the Urdu of your early years, awakening memories in your body, in your very being. You are grateful to Sara Rai for taking you back to a language you had been sundered from. Of course, you speak street Hindi, and you watch Laapataa Ladies, The Gangs of Wasseypur and other such films, but this, this is different. Long-forgotten cells in your brain stir to life, thinking in another language, and making connections between forgotten worlds. You email a friend, who recently met Sara Rai at a literary festival in Bhopal, to please, please connect you.

And then one April evening, you gather together online. People join in from everywhere: Toronto, Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi and Singapore, to speak to Sara Rai who is in her home in Allahabad – a 100-year-old house, one of the only British bungalows to survive. A green and beautiful house, with lots of tall trees, a house that she tells you, is still inhabited by her ancestors.

“The air is saturated with their presence, their invisible script written into each corner of the house…Each space in the house has a history, and it’s as if everything in it casts a shadow, has a sort of ghost life,” she says.

On the screen, voices reverberate from all over the world. “ I haven't read in Hindi since school, so thank you for that. I know now, that I want to read in Hindi too,” someone says, echoing your own emotions.

“It's a condition of being a South Asian, there's this sort of sleeping pool of languages inside, I mean, everyone knows at least two or three languages here,” Sara Rai tells you all.

Being the granddaughter of Munshi Premchand, being born into a family of writers has meant many things for Sara Rai. She has always thought about words and language. Her first short story was published when she was ten years old. Then for 30 years – nothing.

“I used to write, but I didn’t publish anything. I wrote a diary. Lots of diaries. I destroyed some of them. You write and you destroy. And then you write some more. And then there was my whole struggle with languages. Because the people around you are living and speaking in the local language. They're not speaking in English. So how can you live in one language and write in another?," Rai added.

This granddaughter of Munshi Premchand began writing in Hindi. Today, she writes in both English and Hindi. She gets many more responses from Hindi readers, from all over, and even once from a man in a Goa jail, who was inspired by a story of hers.

Sara Rai talks of the books she loved. And when she talks about her grandfather, her voice gets animated, and it softens.


“He was a man on a mission. He was trying to say a lot with his writing but was also in a hurry. He wanted to write about too many things, and he just couldn't get all of it in, which is why he has this huge body of work. He was only 56 when he died, you know," she emphasised.

"He's possibly one of the most prolific writers in the world. Nobody has written novels, short stories, plays, criticism, letters and translations. Just name any genre, and he's written it except for poetry. His life and the life of the nation were carrying on together, he was getting formed by the society of his time, and he was forming and influencing the society of his time by what he wrote” Rai further said.

Afterwards, when the evening is over, and the readers have gone back to their lives, you stay awake in bed for a long time, thinking about the importance of family, houses, and the role of writers and readers.

What about you, dear Reader? What are the stories of your family houses? Would you consider writing these stories down, the way Sara Rai does? And also, the stories of your family members? On this Mother’s Day weekend, such stories of mothers and grandmothers are even more special. For more inspiration, here are seven provocative books for mothers. And here are books for a miffed mother.

And until next week, Happy Reading.

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at

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