Book Review: Once Upon A Life by Temsula Ao

Book Name: Once Upon A Life, Burnt Curry and Bloody Rags A Memoir

Author: Temsula Ao

Publisher: Zubaan

Genre: Memoir

Rating: 5/5

Book Blurb: Born in 1945 in the Assamese town of Jorhat, Temsula Ao lost both her parents in quick succession when she was young. Left to fend for themselves, she and her five siblings ran wild, skipping school and wandering the streets. But when the authorities caught up with her and sent her to a boarding school, she realized that education offered her a way to escape her bleak and uncertain future-and she committed herself to a lifetime of learning. Once Upon a Life is a powerful memoir of those early years and the career they led to, which saw Ao become not only an acclaimed writer, but also a professor and a successful cultural administrator. A beautifully written account of success in the face of hardship, and the power of education and determination, Once Upon a Life is searing, moving, and unforgettable.

Review: Temsula Ao’s powerful memoir is her account of her extraordinary life. It is a memoir and not an autobiography because it doesn’t cover her entire life and much of it is focused on her childhood, and particularly, her school years.

After losing both her parents in quick succession, Temsula Ao is packed off to a boarding school where she realizes soon enough that her only hope at having some success at life is to ensure that she gets a good education. The travails of hostel life are well documented but the education provided by the missionary school proves to be very useful later in life. She documents the misery of childhood without parents very well. The family often struggled to secure a basic meal.

“Young though I was, I was aware of the sense of ‘shame’ in eating the food we were not invited for.”

The bulk of the book is devoted to the school years and she also documents the Asian flu which also hit her hostel. She recalls tying a string to her head to bear the pain while inflicted with the fever. Given that we are in a pandemic currently, we must draw hope from the fact that like her, we will one day forget the miseries suffered during this pandemic and instead celebrate the resilience of the human spirit.

Hostel life is not easy. It comes with duties assigned to each girl and she also documents the stigma attached to menstruation and female hygiene. To safeguard the girls at night from roadside Romeos, a makeshift bucket is used as a piss bucket since the toilets are located outside away from the dormitory. The unhygienic task of emptying the buckets every morning is the responsibility of the unfortunate girl students.

What does one do with the choices that life (and destiny) enforces upon us?

You make the best use of the circumstances and never, ever give up. Temsula’s memoir, in essence, is a celebration of her unique life and how unfortunate situations can also be turned around with sheer grit and dedication.

“Compelled by forces way beyond my comprehension, I was forced to accept my fate with nothing in my arsenal except the strengths I developed in this school, the only ‘home’ I’d known these last six years.”

Temsula’s father hailed from an important clan in her native village and this meant that she could hope for a better alliance in matrimony. This is communicated to her by her relatives who scoff at her demand for higher studies. Who will pay?

She wants more from life even after getting married but the demands of a patriarchal system come in the way. She finds a way to continue her studies which is a good thing, otherwise, the world would never have access to such powerful writing.

“It is the ordinariness that challenges us and pits us against enormous odds.”

Temsula Ao is a very powerful writer. She manages to build a bond with the reader because of her candidness and simple language- minus the flair. Her sentences are well crafted and this book could well serve as a guide book for students of literature or for developing writers. There is a quote hiding in almost every page.

“This inborn propensity also widened the disenchantment between me and my husband which led us further away from each other over the years to a stage where no rapproachment could save our marriage.”

This is a very emotional memoir, you get sad while reading it but it is an inspiring story. In the end, you cannot help feeling that it is an ordinary story (and many others would also have similar tales) but the difference here is that Temsula did not give up.

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