Thursday, October 2, 2008

Self-Therapy Through Writing

Prior to writing The Finger Puppet, I have never really had any insane desire of becoming a writer. That sort of sneaked up on me. In its origins, the book was about youth and longevity and all things bright and beautiful. But in the many years it would take me to write, I discovered that the quickest way to aging was to become a novelist. I wish John Gardner had warned me of this in his fine book, On Becoming A Novelist!

Going back into the past and reliving our lives in Horror House where I was no longer a writer but a helpless child watching, watching, watching - all the things I didn't want to see or remember - had to have some impact on my mind. In person I was fine, playing wife, mother and the good friend. But when I sat at the computer I was not sure who I was anymore. There have been moments when I was terrified that I might walk up to someone and say, Oh please may I borrow your head? Alas, that is the charmed existence of a writer! Thankfully the loopiness did not extend beyond the computer screen :)

The writing of the book was certainly a healing play, a leela as Vasantha Surya writes in her Dialogues with Daemons. Immediately afterward, of course, I found it very hard to step back into the present. But as the months pass, I am so happy I wrote -- crazy though the novel is. The idea for the thumb as the main protagonist came out of the blue. In a summer workshop with Farnoosh, one of my fellow writers was working on a short story about a size 6 shoe model whose big toe gets chopped off by a dog's leash. As I imagined the big toe flying in the air, I found myself drawing features on it, remembering my finger puppet playing days with my sisters.

Now I must focus on my body -- exercise/dance off the extra pounds, get rid of the horrible slouch, and step out in the sun.

Dialogues with daemons


This novel affirms that being authentically creative with one’s own emotions and thoughts is a healing play, a leela.

Filthy rich and clean broke!” — that’s the situation of a dysfunctional family sitting on a gold mine of stolen antiques and prime real estate in Tiruchirapalli, and are reduced to eating rancid curd rice with mango pickle to disguise the taste. Thanks to a megalomaniac pater familias, who fancies himself to be a rationalist and a “modern”.

Set in the mid 1960s, with a speechless 12-year-old’s thumb as the protagonist, Anu Jayanth’s debut novel is about many things Indian. Put together in the eclectic fashion of a Navaratri Golu, she holds together the whole show with some startling insights into the nature and function of language.

Restoring faith

The book’s much- more-than-whimsical illuminations have proved wrong my distrust of a whole genre of Indian English writing, sparked long ago by Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness. My reasoning then went thus: Here I am, drenched and gasping in this torrent of ‘India’ — what can a diaspora writer have to tell me about it, from that abstracting distance? This story of a deceptively phlegmatic maami and her three daughters who subvert feminist stereotypes and intelligently resist patriarchy without detesting their yajamaan, has taken the sting out of my defeat. Now, after all these years, I shall accept that for many outside India, as much if not more than for those who are here, India is not a geographical expression but an area of consciousness which can accommodate and sometimes ingeniously reconcile opposites. Its darkest patches have a way of suddenly lighting up.

Tara has been silenced by the experience of domestic violence. Unwilling to burden her beloved co-sufferers with her own struggle to cope with a seething welter of contradictory messages and feelings, she takes to talking with her own thumb. A common enough childhood daydream, you think. We remember whispering to invisible companions, and not just long ago. But when it’s the coping technique of a victim of abuse, unsettling questions can surface: is this child “disturbed”, or “depressed”? Does she have behavioural problems?

Changing conceptions

Our guesses on what constitute sanity and insanity have been changing, as we strive constantly to align received wisdom and apparent commonsense with what is currently seen as politically correct. Discoveries in neuroscience tempt us to speculate on the role of will and consciousness in human systems ruled by self-propelled neural impulses. The sense of losing ground and authenticity in a world of fragmenting identities has driven us to look anew at old ideas about the mind.

Lest you should think Tara’s is a case of what goes by the name of schizophrenia, or the now-discredited diagnosis of “dissociative identity disorder” or multiple personality, hers is a instance which does not fit into that model of mutually exclusive or antagonistic selves. Tara’s is a personality which grapples with but also celebrates and embraces its own “split”, to use a phrase no longer fashionable in psychiatry. It divides itself not to escape from its daemons, but to have a dialogue with them from two standpoints. To remain integrated — and sane — without erasing the line of division, she plays … and how she plays! Her daemons, once confronted, turn into curiously endearing presences…

Serving a purpose

Like the many swamis and devis in the puja room, each of them a loving concatenation of human aspirations, Tara’s daemons are there for a purpose: to guide her to solutions not available through the usual avenues of logical analysis. Tara and her sisters discover that being authentically creative with one’s own emotions, observations, and thoughts is a healing play, a leela. What saves their flights of fantasy from turning into pathological delusions is the sense of fun that flutters around that house, under the indulgent eye of the “shock absorber” mother steeped in Vedas, ayurveda, ahimsa, and Carnatic music. The father who insists that it is just a figment of his silly womenfolk’s imagination slowly sickens, while his wife heals herself of all her deepest griefs with her customised version of occupational therapy. She assures her children that their crazy father loves them all “in his own way”. Positive reinforcement? Or just self-defense? The family breaks away at one point for sheer survival’s sake but returns to care for him till the end. For, he is one of them, a pitiable fragment who has “lost it”.

As Anu Jayanth weaves together the fabric of life in Tiruchi with the khadi values of Gandhigram, the motif of the finger puppet pops in and out. A strange kind of sutradhar, the finger puppet somehow manages to tassel together the many loose ends in this perceptive tale.