Review: The Blind Matriarch by Namita Gokhale
Namita Gokhale’s twentieth book is a real-time narrative of India’s encounter with the coronavirus, the complete lockdowns with containment zones and interstate boundaries, and the unending ‘house arrest’. At the heart of the story is Matangi-Ma, the blind matriarch, who holds together her joint family residing on the four floors of the same building in such trying and unprecedented times.
This insightful book is not just a multilayered narrative of the dynamics of a joint family stuck together due to a pandemic, it is a brave and timely commentary on India that once took pride in its unique diversity.
The blind Matangi-Ma registers the changing dynamics of her family during the extended lockdowns, as they begin to re-examine their life and purpose, reconcile with old secrets, and form new bonds. Her own past life comes back to her in flashes, her womanising and abusive husband, and how, one day, she chose to unsee everything – literally and figuratively. She revisits her past in her dreams and when wide awake, never sharing the burden of her memories or of existence.
Matangi-Ma’s retinal damage had set in gradually and, tragically, quite early when her last child was born. She had adapted her other faculties to her failing vision with perfection often scaring Lali, her caretaker, who thought she was pretending to unsee or was possessed by a spirit.
None of her three children - Suryaveer, Shanta, or Satish - spoke of her blindness in the house. The cuckoo clock in Matangi-Ma’s room, a gift from her daughter-in-law Ritika when she returned from her honeymoon in Switzerland, kept her going: “Another day. One more morning, afternoon, evening to be negotiated.”
She spent her time singing old songs, hearing the chirping of birds, and watching television - of late, the depressing news of the “Chinese virus” or of desperate migrant workers stranded without food or money. Her favourite all-time serial was Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, and she fancied herself as a Ba-like matriarch and adored the character of Tulsi: “Then that girl Tulsi had to spoil it all. She went back to being Smriti Irani.”
Matangi-Ma lived life to the fullest “as though she had eyes everywhere, in her fingertips, in her silver be-ringed toes, in the alert grey hairs that stood up on end on her thin arms, and her elbows, even.” Lali helped fill in the blanks when the matriarch needed clues. When the Prime Minister was addressing the nation during the Janta curfew, she asked Lali what did he look like? “He looks like an old man, a buddha baba… but his skin is as smooth as Kareena Kapoor’s,” Lali informs her.
Gokhale documents the enormous complexities of human relationships in middle-class India with flair and humour, taking in every emotion that has engulfed Matangi-Ma’s joint family that is being crushed by the uncertainties of the pandemic. Though the extended family systems are mostly redundant, her characters, even those trying to branch out in favour of individual growth, make their peace and find solace within the four floors of their home – an allegory for a disintegrating India: “We had been a family, once. India had been a nation. It wasn’t just a virus that was destroying us, it was the demon seed that we had spawned.”
Suryaveer, her oldest child, constantly struggling with his ideological stance swinging between “left-wing commitment to right-wing obfuscation”, seeks comfort in Matangi-Ma’s company, reading out poems to her. When life comes to a standstill for Ritika, the wearer of diaphanous dresses to keep the romance in her marriage to Satish alive, Matangi-Ma’s love and wisdom win her over. Ritika had never approved of her mother-in-law’s overarching authority, or the unwritten rules of the house, and had wished her dead.
The matriarch’s kindhearted daughter Shanta runs an NGO occupying the ground floor of the house with her ginger cat Trump. During the lockdown she diligently cooks for the poor, disapprovingly taking in the changing socio-political fabric of the country. When Shanta offers to cook for a policewoman, the latter remarks, “So, you are an NGO wallah? Shaheen Bagh? JNU type? Urban Naxals? Terrorism. Sedition.”
Shanta is depressed over the mounting death count, especially of actor Irrfan Khan whom she had a crush on, and Matangi-Ma over Rishi Kapoor’s - albeit for a different reason. “She felt an enormous guilt descend upon her, the weight of being alive. Here she was, at 80, blind as a bat, of no particular use to anyone. A burden upon her loving children. And it was the young who were dying.”
Matangi-Ma handholds her grandchildren Rahul and Samir through their highs and lows. Samir is bewildered by her intuitive powers when she urges him to look for a bird in the neighbourhood park that needed help: “A green bird. I can see the bird. It is hurt. It is lying under a tree. It doesn’t know how to fly.” Samir finds the bird, and with the healing of this barbet, later named Mirchi, the family, too, embarks on a healing process, embracing their follies, letting go of their pasts, fearlessly continuing with their onward journeys, and surviving the crises.
When coronavirus visits their building, and Matangi-Ma falls sick, the family exhibit amazing grace under pressure. Here, Gokhale’s writing is phenomenal: “It was difficult to breathe from her nose or her mouth, and yet she was not choking. She tried to click her tongue against the roof of her mouth, but she couldn’t manage it. It was as though there was an insurrection going on inside her body; it had become a battleground with no interludes of peace.”
This story of love and loss, of the resilience and triumph of the human spirit, will resonate with every single person who has survived the pandemic. Gokhale’s twentieth novel is an unputdownable read with a beautiful cover, which has its own back story. The reader is sad when the novel ends, wishing it went beyond page 207, wishing for the unceasing company, love, wisdom, and healing touch of magical Matangi-Ma.
Lamat R Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.