By Nawaid Anjum
Noomi Wadia, the young protagonist of Naheed Phiroze Patel’s debut, A Mirror Made of Rain, shares a strange relationship with mirrors. “I loved how they brightened up a room, echoing light from one wall to the other, but usually I preferred avoiding my own reflection, always afraid of what I might discover if I looked too closely.”
Noomi’s fear roots itself deeply in her toxic and dysfunctional relationship with her mother, Asha, whose descent into alcoholism scars her forever. “A mother is the first mirror in which we see ourselves. But what if the mirror you look into is broken? You might see yourself always in pieces, no use to anyone, and take that as truth,” she reflects at some point in the novel, which is an exploration into the family as an oppressive milieu that engenders discord and derangement, and home as a site of violence and inequality.
A Mirror Made of Rain, the story of a family undone by addiction and anxiety, begins in medias res, with the narrator Noomi taking us to the lavish party of Sheila Sehgal in Kamalpur, a small town where everyone knows everyone and where “disgrace lurks at every corner”. It is at the party that we meet the novel’s interesting cast of characters, schmoozing and sashaying along in their fineries. Sheila, choosy about her guest list yet mindful of the tribal hierarchies that govern her terms of social engagement, also invites Lily Mama, Noomi’s grandmother, who comes from an old aristocratic family. The Wadia household includes Noomi’s father Jeh and her overbearing grandfather Zal Papa. Noomi and Jeh must tell everyone Asha is ‘sick’ to explain her absence at the party.
Alternating between past and present, the novel unspools the dissonance, fragility and rupture that lie at its heart, layer by layer, in delicately wrought and dexterous passages across its four parts. All happy families are alike, but every dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way. Noomi’s childhood memories are all unhappy, owing to the neglect by her ‘absent’ mother, who remains spiteful towards her young child even as the latter struggles to seek her acceptance; “Cruelty was a language I learned at my mother’s knee”. For want of motherly love and care, Noomi turns to her father, Jeh, ayah Shanta Bai and Lily Mama at various stages of her growing-up years, and all three become her emotional bulwark against her mother’s callous indifference.
However, Noomi, who recreates her past through memory, remains saddled with a broken sense of self even as she hurtles from a lonely childhood and adolescence to a troubled adulthood, taking shots at love and sex. Much of Noomi’s sorrow and suffering are a result of her being a witness to her parents’ failing marriage, which was destroying them slowly, “like termites eating a house”. A ‘weak-willed’ Jeh couldn’t ask for divorce even though their marriage was a ‘sham’, wracked and ruptured by Asha’s constant drinking, her frequent breakdowns and tantrums. Joy makes Noomi uncomfortable, “like a pair of ill-fitting, pinching shoes”. Sadness sits on her shoulder “like a heavy bird”; it is a “lake; if you explored its depths, it swallowed you whole”.
Feisty and rebellious as a teenager, Noomi ends up being a conformist when she falls in love with, and later marries, Veer Malhotra, who comes from an stereotypically upper-middle class New Delhi family — “one filled with narrow minds and outsized ambition”, succumbing to Veer family’s pressures for a traditional Punjabi wedding. Days before the wedding, Noomi struggles hard to adapt to the stifling traditions of Veer’s family; her in-laws insist she must keep Karva Chauth fast, and touch not just their but also Veer’s feet, reminding her how she had stumbled upon a ‘real diamond’ in him. When she mentions all this to her father, he advises her to lie down and take it; “Peace at all costs” is his frequent refrain. It is because, he says, he doesn’t want her to miss the chance to be “happy with someone who loves her”.
Unable to cope, Noomi must take frequent swigs from the vodka bottle secretly stashed in her suitcase to let the horrid memories of her unpleasant encounters with her in-laws fall from her skin “like leeches doused with salt”. Her mother was a ‘brittle gemstone’ who cracked easily, but Noomi had hoped that her marriage with Veer would be different as she was a “nicer person” with him around: kinder, with softer edges, less angry. However, the costs of playing by the rules of the family, mostly set by men, are heavy; the rituals and traditions are all designed to pressure women into acquiescence, make them comply. Noomi is quick to realise that her in-laws don’t quite like her, but some ideal of a daughter-in-law. “They like a lie.” So Noomi lives a lie, often striving to hide something or the other from them, “lying about who I was”.
For Noomi, lying down and taking all that happens at the Malhotra household doesn’t end well. In the process, she ends up being in the same state as her mother, as if she had become an heir to Asha’s history, her addiction and irascibility: “Anger… is a cliff. Standing at its edge, life seemed smaller, further away. But cliffs are lonely, dangerous places.” If her mother drank to ease the “symptoms of living as a woman”, Noomi drinks, she tells her psychiatrist, so that she feels that “the universe isn’t so malevolent”. Telling her story becomes an act of “looking back on the years sewn together by the presence or the absence of a bottle in my mother’s hands — in my hands”.
The poise of the novel’s syntax is elegant, yet unshowy; you never get the sense that Patel is trying to pull out all stops or throwing a lot in the novel’s bag so much that it buckles due to its weight. She is a writer with a keenly discriminating and distancing eye when it comes to gender bias in the upper echelons of society and the violence transmitted by the “most innocuous-seeming acts”. The dynamics of the toxic, dysfunctional and anxiety-ridden mother-daughter relationship has been the thread sewn into fiction by several writers in the recent past, including Avni Doshi in Burnt Sugar (Girl in White Cotton). A Mirror Made of Rain looks at this relationship, fraught with pitfalls, empathetically and in an unflinching manner.
When Noomi arrives in New York following Veer’s posting there, a hurricane is all set to wreak havoc. When the storm clouds break open, the rains make the window into a mirror that throws the smiling reflections of the family — Noomi, Veer and their newborn daughter Maya — back at them. Noomi knows her relationship with mirrors is all set to change.
Nawaid Anjum is a Delhi-based independent culture journalist
A Mirror Made of Rain
Naheed Phiroze Patel
Rs 599, Pp 296