Book Review: A Patchwork Family by Mukta Sathe
Two siblings experience the trauma of losing their best friends. The brother loses his best friend while still in school, the sister, when she goes to college. The Patchwork Family stitches together their stories, the circumstances that led to the deaths, the siblings’ responses to the tragedies and how the twin deaths shaped their identities. In doing so, the book becomes an exhaustive commentary on our deeply flawed judicial and educational systems.
At the core of the story is Janaki, a young and idealistic lawyer, and Ajoba, her grandfather Sridhar’s best friend and her support and confidant since childhood. They are unrelated by blood or any other ties that society endorses, yet on 29-year-old Janaki’s bidding Ajoba (grandfather in Marathi), now 85, agrees to move in with her and the two form a patchwork family.
Sridhar, a doctor, and Ajoba, a dentist, are childhood friends from middle class, upper caste Pune families and their lifelong friendship continues into their sunset years, with the two becoming even closer after the deaths of their spouses.
It’s an ideal family from societal perspectives, with Janaki and her brother Rahul, five years her junior, keeping everyone entertained with their childish banter at family dinners and high teas, at which Ajoba and his wife are a constant presence.
Rahul is an extrovert and makes friends easily, unlike his sister Janaki. His world falls apart when his schoolmate, Akshay, a studious boy who had his back, becomes a subject of ridicule. Akshay is taunted by teachers for his falling grades and when a “note” is sent to his parents he commits suicide. Rahul becomes aggressive and wants to seek revenge for his friend’s death. It takes tremendous effort on his family’s part to not let him take the matter into his own hands.
Tragedy revisits the family a few years later, when Janaki, now a law student, is witness to the gangrape and brutal murder of her best friend, a stark reminder of the December 16 gang rape case. What follows is the examination of our deeply flawed justice system and how it takes a toll on Janaki and her family.
The author, Mukta Sathe, raises pertinent questions, offering a critique of truth – the reality of truth and the truth of reality – and how its individual and collective perception, coloured by a socio-cultural lens, can affect judgements and alter lives.
She examines the futility of idealism as witnesses grapple with guilt and shame and stand up to intimidation in our rather skewed justice system, especially when disposing of gender-related cases.
Sathe is at her best when she describes the stern cross-examination of Janaki by the defence counsel as the “honourable judge” sits back rather amused.
“You were in a suburb of Pune at eleven in the night. The forensic reports state that your friend was wearing jeans. No decent woman would do that. Your friend approached my clients and seduced them and induced them to have illicit intercourse with her… How much money did you think you would make by trapping my clients?...”
Janaki is shocked at the vagaries of the justice system, of which she is herself a part, even though Ajoba finds the profession despicable. But the idealism in her, the relentless pursuit of truth and justice, is inextinguishable.
She is determined to bring the killers of her best friend to book even though the unending legal ordeal spanning several years, without much ado, is beginning to impact her immediate family.
Sathe is empathetic to Janaki caught at the crossroads that she is, for no fault of hers, and beautifully bares the complexities that lie beyond the apparent urgent need for justice. Without judging the protagonist she captures her trauma – her fight with self, her guilt, her self-absorption and her nightmares. Why did she not put her life in danger to save her best friend? Why couldn’t she muster the courage to seek help from people at a nearby shop? Why didn’t she attack the rapists? Why did she fear being raped and killed herself?
Unlike Janaki, Ajoba, who has seen a lifetime of pain, has now stopped “feeling pain” and resigned to fate. “I live because my life is not my choice. My birth was not my choice and neither will be my death. I don’t forcibly try to give my life any meaning. I don’t try to make my life my choice. I await the verdict of those whose choice it is. Fate.”
Janaki has a long argument with Rahul over the glaring flaws in the justice system and what constitutes “justice”. She admits to shortcomings in the system insisting on a reformation from within, without seconding her brother in abolishing it.
“The reason I testified even after being insulted and threatened was not primarily because I wanted justice for her. It was because I wanted to be able to live with myself,” Janaki tells herself not willing to accept the reality of elusive justice – it’s been eight years since her best friend was killed - or willing to accept the justice system in which an “honourable judge” gives justice to one and denies to another.
Janaki’s family, too, tries to dissuade her from pursuing the case any further, but she is unstoppable. Her only solace is Ajoba, who stands by her every decision, even though their worldviews differ considerably.
A Patchwork Family is a debut novel of unusual wisdom and maturity. An insightful read for anyone who wants to understand what crime and punishment entail in our legal system. Sathe, a young lawyer, has put her best foot forward with this impressive debut. Her writing is stark and confident, and it deserves more readers.
Lamat R Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in Delhi.