This begins as a wonderful account of growing up in India, narrated by Nargis, one of three children of an Indian army officer. From the start ‘Daddy’ dominates the book. Daddy’s superiority to everyone else, Daddy’s stories of the past, Daddy’s diktats. Everyone wants to please Daddy. He’s a frightful hypocrite, though, proclaiming that women are equal with men before calling his wife (a graduate) a ‘stupid woman’ and hitting her. No wonder Mummy never argues with Daddy! They live in army quarters, then in a Bombay bungalow with a view of the sea. Once a year they make the long journey to visit Daddy’s family in the village where everybody seems to be related to them. Well taught by Daddy, the children feel superior to their aunties and cousins, grubbing about in the fields, drying cow dung to feed the fires. Stone age! Flintstones! There’s no exciting plot here, just fascinating descriptions of daily life in India soon after independence. You keep wondering, though, when it will be revealed that Daddy has feet of clay.
It happens about a third of the way through the book. Nargis is often in bed with her parents. Then Daddy begins his ‘inappropriate touching’, i.e. sexual abuse. The odd thing about this is that Mummy is also in the bed, apparently unaware of what’s going on. She even promotes the bed-sharing: ‘At other times, Mummy would encourage me to go to Daddy’s bed, “Go beta, get some love from your father.”’ Mummy’s silence and passivity is one of the mysteries of the book. Nargis is nine years old at the time.
Nargis has problems at school until she starts working obsessively. Eventually ‘The impossible had finally happened! I topped the Indian School Certificate examination from the entire state! I felt on top of the world! …Around the same time, I was offered a scholarship to pursue Literature at the University of Cambridge in England.’ She doesn’t go to Cambridge, though, because Daddy wants her to be a doctor. More incredibly hard work follows, she wins a place at a top medical school, then is selected to study in the USSR, which is what she does. This pretty much follows the author’s own experience. Even while Nargis is away from home, Daddy influences her. The dullest chapter in the book is one consisting entirely of Daddy’s views on religion, with which he would browbeat any captive audience. Nargis accepts all Daddy’s views and makes them her own.
Nargis marries secretly, because her parents disapprove of her choice of husband. The couple then emigrate to America. Even when she’s successfully established in her career, happily married and with children of her own, Nargis can’t let thoughts of Daddy go. She fantasises about killing him and, when he really is dead, imagines she sees him everywhere. This all emphasises the author’s point that abuse in childhood ‘completely messes with your mind’. Unfortunately, the author then forgets she’s writing a novel and should be engaging with the reader. Over several chapters, during visits to India, Nargis turns on her mother. For page after page she harangues, browbeats (just like her father!) and lectures her. What she wants is acknowledgement, not just from her mother but from her brother and sister, that things happened the way she says they did. They have Indian ideas of family honour and wish she’d just shut up about it: ‘Your problem is that you keep going back to the past.’ Here’s where the author defeats her own cause, because the reader starts to feel sorry for the elderly Indian lady being treated this way, and fully understands when she says, ‘Nargis, I can’t handle you anymore.’
Sexual abuse of any kind is abhorrent. If you seem to criticise a victim, you’re open to charges of condoning the crime. Nothing could be farther from my intention, of course, but I do think it’s fair to criticise a book if it starts well and then ceases to hang together as a novel because righteous anger has got in the way of the story. I have a few other little niggles. It’s a mystery, for instance, how Daddy managed to read The French Lieutenant’s Woman before it was published. Then there’s ‘Engles’ for Engels, ‘hay days’ for heydays, ‘run amuck’ for run amok and what on earth does ‘perseverate’ (verb) mean? If these are common American spellings and meanings, I take it back. Nargis is an Indian girl, yet the book’s cover shows a white girl; surprising when her Indian background is so important to the story.
Dr Bahugana practises as a psychiatrist, specialising in helping victims of abuse. You can read more about her here.The book won’t be published until next year; it’s scheduled for March 2013. It’s recommended for high school students but I’d hesitate to label it YA. I’ll be interested to see if it is a publishing success. I read this courtesy of NetGalley.