The Week, Health supplement carried a review this week on Page 31. Issue dated April 27, 2008:
Sorrow of the River
A dusty yellow envelope arrived one day, carrying a prescription. It said: “Patient: Manjeet Kaur, Age: 35 years, Schizophrenia.” Manjeet Kaur allowed her little son, Appu, to hold it, saying, “My brain is most precious, you are my son, Antimony.”
The little boy tried, in vain, to find the meaning of the strange word. Growing up he realized a single word or phrase was simply not enough to grasp the world of schizophrenia. Which is why he sat down to write a whole novel — Sepia Leaves.
The book, an autobiographical narrative by debut writer Amandeep Sandhu, is not just about schizophrenia. It is about what happens when the effects of the illness permeate through the entire family, friends and society.
The death of his father sets the story in motion with the writer moving back and forth through his memories to come to grips with his reality. So there’s Mamman who is not like other mothers. She serves half-burnt puris, prepares halwa using salt, doubles up as Indira Gandhi or goddess Kali, pisses in her clothes carrying the stench with her all day long, hits her husband in a grip of rage, and assures her little son he will one day be the president of the country.
Baba, the father, lives in the shadow of Mamman’s illness. He takes her thrashings without much resistance, loves ghazals but listens to them behind closed doors for fear of offending Mamman, weeps in utter helplessness, and strives desperately to find her a cure.
Appu is their only binding force. Given the circumstance at home, he is barely allowed to live a child’s life, so much so that he grows up hating the word ‘responsibility’. But the resentment never turns to bitterness and that’s where the novel scores.
“Mental illness is not about one individual but the entire family. Life is never easy for a care-giver. The health care provider may, at best, show the way but the burden of decision rests solely with the care-giver,” says Amandeep. In the absence of any medical help, Baba could have opted to send Mamman to an asylum as advised by the doctor. But the suggestion leaves him infuriated. He may lose his patience with Mamman on many occasions but never his commitment towards her. Naturally then, for the little son too, Mamman never becomes the ‘Other’ even if he feels ashamed of her at times.
The novel has several moving moments: The scene when the little child overhears people talk of his mother as pagli and wonders about it, mother’s return from the hospital, looking haggard and miserable than ever, and the physical assault on Mamman by her husband’s relatives to name a few. Appu straddles through these moments even as he comes to grips with the sexual abuse around him and the world of Mando, his maid.
“I chose to empower myself by stripping and being naked in front of the readers,” admits Amandeep, who employs a rather matter-of-fact tone in his narrative, steering clear of glorifying the issues of mental illness and victimhood. Where he does falter a little is in balancing the two voices – that of the adult and the child. As when the little boy lies between his parents on the bed and thinks of himself as a river amid two banks. One wonders if it is the child speaking or the adult speaking for the child.
Set partly in the times of Emergency, Sepia Leaves is about the personal struggles of a dysfunctional home that strikes a deep chord with the reader. It would not be wrong to say that the novel is unique in Indian writing – a medical fiction delving into a subject that rarely makes for a plot. More importantly, it lends voice to a care-giver who is often ignored both by the doctor and the society.
Mental illness cannot be dealt with either through denial, as it happens in most cases, or through seclusion. Many may not even have a cure but the answer lies in acceptance and building resilience as in Sepia Leaves.
Amandeep who modestly says, “Sepia Leaves helped me lighten my burden but I’m still not a writer,” has already written his second novel Roll of Honour, set in a military school in Punjab at the height of militancy in the state.
The book, which once again draws from his personal experiences, is awaiting a publisher’s nod. “As a writer I’ve discovered I can move into bigger realms by lending a voice and meaning to my immediate, personal experiences, Literature, for me, is an understanding of the essential human struggle to become complete,” he concludes.