Let’s Gtalk!

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth” – Oscar Wilde

DAWN Inpaper Magazine | 12th August, 2012

Originally published here.

Young people are finding it easier to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences in life online

“I am at this new café in #Karachi having the best chocolate mousse cake ever!” — says the latest tweet on my Twitter timeline as I begin to write this article.

The online world can be very superficial at times, giving people a chance to brag about their consumerism. Facebook updates of exotic travel photos and restaurant check-ins are enough to make anyone delirious with envy. No wonder that some research studies reveal how over-connectedness may actually increase feelings of loneliness and mood swings.

While I agree with this downside of online interactions, I’ve also observed a rather positive aspect of the cyberspace in the last couple of years as Pakistanis have become more active online. Through personal experiences and by talking to young, internet savvy people around me, I’ve realised that often active users of social networks and chat programs use these platforms to vent out and express their true feelings.

Here I am not referring to anonymous websites (where people post their dark secrets on message boards) or blogging, but to personal interactions with people you are acquainted with or may have met in real life — that random person in college who will always say hello or someone you met at a picnic and later added on Facebook. Face to face, the conversation will generally not move beyond subjects of mutual interest. But you often see a different side of these people online.

Though there is a lot of room for exaggeration and dishonesty online, young people do seem more comfortable sharing their thoughts over controversial subjects or issues in their own lives over the internet.

In this context, I’m reminded of what Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth”. Today the internet seems to be that mask — you’re connected but there is still a safe distance. And this is not only the case with introverts or shy people. At times people are looking for internet catharsis or advice. There have been instances where I’ve played an agony aunt-type role with classmates or acquaintances choosing to share their personal issues on chat programs.

This might be because as a society we are still not open to counselling, social support groups or simply talking about subjects like divorce, child abuse, therapy, mental health, etc. on a personal level as opposed to general discussions or gossip. Log on to Twitter and you will see people sharing their personal stories. Tweet about emotions, relationships and life experiences, and voila, strangers will tell you how you’re not alone and start sharing their own hopes, dreams and miseries with you.

“Often social media has been my only respite and I love it for that!” reveals Huma Iqbal, a communications professional. “I vent out, get angry, use swear words and sometimes even thrash people online for being mean to me. These are things I might not do in real life when I’m angry and I get a mixed response. Some friends encourage me whereas others send me texts or emails to stop sharing so much online and to be cautious about online security.”

Due to security and privacy concerns, some people find creative ways to vent their feelings without giving away too much information. Taha Kehar, a 20-year-old law student, says: “Whenever I have taken the conscious decision to vent over Facebook/Twitter, it has either been through a cryptic status or a couplet that encompasses my distress. I think it takes a very perceptive individual to understand my exact emotions in such circumstances. So overall the response has been favourable.
More often than not, people do not leave bizarre comments. With time, they have learnt to give each other some personal space online.”

Tehreem Mehmood, who works for an ad agency in Karachi, says she likes becoming friends with people online though these friendships may not always last long. “But letting out everything in front of someone is such a relief,” she adds. “I have one internet friend, who I’ve met only once in real life but we help each other solve problems. Even when we fail to solve problems we can at least listen to each other. We realise that the most important aspect of this online friendship is confidentiality so we are good at guarding secrets and trust each other.”

At times the trust or friendship may be an illusion, or it may be a one-off experience where a person needs a non-judgmental, listening ear in a particular situation, but the internet certainly helps fill a void for many. If nothing else, it reassures you that you’re not alone in melancholy.

Learning to realise we’re all OK

Published on The Express Tribune Blog

Original Link

The best-selling self-help book by Thomas A Harris M.D.

While perusing the best selling self-help book:

I’M OK You’re OK by psychiatrist Thomas A Harris MD, one realises how well the theory of the ‘not OK child’ can be applied to a number of Pakistanis (not only as individuals, but as representatives of the nation).

Briefly, the book reveals that there are four life positions that each person can take:

  1. I’m not OK, you’re OK
  2. I’m not OK, you’re not OK
  3. I’m OK, you’re not OK
  4. I’m OK, you’re OK

Most children initially take the position of” I’m not OK, you’re OK”. They see adults as strong and competent and themselves as weak and prone to making mistakes.

As they grow older, some children may take the position of “I’m not OK, you’re not OK” or “I’m OK, you’re not OK” (if abused or mistreated). With the right kind of environment, love and encouragement, some change positions to I’m OK, you’re OK, which is ideal.

However, many remain in the first position: “I’m not OK, you’re OK”. This is why they play the game of “mine is better than yours”- my doll is better than yours, my house is bigger than yours and so on – which becomes more sophisticated as they grow up. This game helps them feel better about themselves for a short period of time, though deep down they know that they are still not okay.

Is Pakistan ‘okay’?

How does this theory apply to us?  Consider the many people who constantly engage in India-bashing. Is this because they are actually better?  Do they care about the cause of Kashmir, Gujarati Muslims or Babri Mosque or are they just trying to hide their own flaws?

Even within the country, the same theory can be applied. One ethnicity or sect claims to be better than the other. In reality, the ethnic group wants to  establish its superiority and thinks that the only way to do so is by making the others look bad.

Some may argue that there is a natural bias or competition with India and among provinces – so why do we spend so much energy bashing the west? Many covetously eye the green card while simultaneously pointing their finger at an adulterous wine-drinking West.

Now, with the recent rise in Pakistan-bashing by various local as well as foreign media outlets, Pakistanis (like the abused child) seem to have moved into the position of “I’m not OK, you’re not OK”: I’m not good enough, but neither are you. I cannot accept my flaws without pointing out yours as well.

For a change, why not recognize the good in others and ourselves?

I’m all for promoting a positive image of Pakistan – highlighting the good aspects of the country like Granta Magazine, a foreign publication, has recently done. But we need to also realize that criticising other nations does not improve our image.

Be objective and start questioning the prejudices passed down by our parents. One can consider the possibility that Indians are hard working, that American society has some praise-worthy traits and Pathans are generally quite hospitable.

In short, it is alright to encourage socio-political dissent and debate, but one should also look at the positives and at least try to move towards the ideal position: I’m OK and so are you!

The secret behind strange obsessions

Published in SouthAsia (May 2009)

Autism Spectrum Disorder is the fastest growing neurobiological condition in the world and on the rise in countries in the South Asian region. There is still little awareness and help available for autistic children in these countries, observes Ayesha Hoda

“Hello. Allow me to introduce myself to you. My name is autism. Perhaps you know me or know of me. I am a condition, “disorder” that affects many people. I strike at will, when and where I want. Unlike Downs Syndrome or other birth “defects,” I leave no marks on those I strike. In fact, I pride myself on the ability to infiltrate a child’s life, while leaving him or her strikingly handsome. Many people may not even know I am there. They blame the child for what I cause him or her to do. I am autism and I do as I please.” (My Name is Autism, Author: Anonymous)

I came across this poem while randomly reading about health and human psychology on the internet. This led to the discovery of the hidden world of autism and the various autism awareness campaigns that have only recently gained prominence in our part of the world.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability affecting 1 in 100 individuals, according to recent world estimates. ASD is on the rise in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives. It is the world’s fastest growing neurobiological condition.

ASD was first described in 1943 by Johns Hopkins psychiatrist, Leo Kanner, and then by Austrian pediatrician, Hans Asperger in 1944. Kanner used it to refer to children who were socially withdrawn, struggled to acquire spoken language and could become so preoccupied with one thing that they would be completely indifferent to everything else in their environment.

Asperger named it the “Asperger syndrome.” He identified a pattern of behaviour and abilities in four boys, which he called “autistic psychopathy,” meaning autism (self) and psychopathy (personality disease). This pattern included “a lack of empathy, little ability to form friendships, one-sided conversation, intense absorption in a special interest, and clumsy movements.”

Asperger used the term to describe children who developed strange obsessions and were socially awkward, yet highly verbal and seemingly quite bright.

To understand the condition better, I approached a remedial therapist in Karachi, Fathma Naqvi, who explained, “Autism can be mild or severe. Symptoms generally appear before the child has turned three and include extreme difficultly in communicating and interacting with others, and repetition of any action or word. An autistic child prefers to play alone and does not make eye contact.

Some children with ASD are gifted with certain unique talents. For instance, they may be able to perform complex calculations which their peers are unable to or solve a complex puzzle which no one else can as the child has outstanding visual-spatial abilities. However, not all autistic children are extraordinarily bright.”

Some autistic children also have certain abilities to learn languages or artistic abilities. Further questioning and research revealed that the debate on causes of autism is still going on. Most experts insist that it runs in families and is genetic while others are of the view that children are not born autistic but become that way when their parents, especially mothers, are cold and uncaring. Dr. Eric Hollander, director of the Seaver and New York Autism Center of Excellence, while answering questions for CNN, said, “In fact, of all neuropsychiatric disorders, there’s a stronger genetic predisposition for autism. It’s also clear that early environmental experiences can play an important role in modifying how these genes develop.”

Autism Awareness

Autistic characters have been depicted in western, particularly American, literature, films and television serials. For instance, Arnie Grape, (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) in the film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, and Seth Garin, in Stephen King‘s book The Regulators, are two fictional characters with autism. However, in fiction, the focus is usually on the extraordinary capabilities that autistic individuals have which fascinate the audience or readers.

Michael Fitzgerald, of the Department of Child Psychiatry at Trinity College in Dublin, has speculated about historical figures with autism in his numerous journal papers and books. He includes famous figures like painter Vincent Van Gogh, philosopher Immanuel Kant, writer George Orwell and German dictator Adolf Hitler, amongst others, in his lists. Other academics, journalists and autism professionals have also made similar interesting speculations.

Looking at the rising number of children with ASD, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution designating 2nd April as World Autism Awareness Day, starting in 2008. US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were sent a CD copy by UK Autism Foundation of the Autism Song, Open Every Door to mark World Autism Awareness Day 2009.

Japanese artist and widow of John Lennon, Yoko Ono auctioned her new work for an autism charity on the day at the UN lobby in New York. Her seven-foot mural, entitled Promise depicted fluffy white clouds against a clear blue sky and was made up of 67 jigsaw-like pieces.

These pieces in the installation were broken down, signed by the artist and auctioned off. Ono expressed the hope that all 67 pieces would be reunited once a cure for autism was discovered.

In South Asia, we have some examples of awareness campaigns related to ASD. For instance, Ivan and Charika Corea, parents of an autistic child, have launched a massive Autism Awareness Campaign in Sri Lanka. There are 30,000 autistic people in Sri Lanka, according to international experts and there will be a massive increase in 5 years time, in Sri Lanka and all over the South Asian region.

The World Autism Awareness Day 2009 was also celebrated in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, etc. A week-long campaign was organized in India to create awareness. Focus was also on helping families from an educational, medical and legal standpoint.


According to the Autism Society of America, there is no single known cause or cure for autism but it is treatable. Children do not outgrow autism but studies have revealed that early diagnosis and intervention can lead to significant improvement. People with autism can live full, healthy and meaningful lives with the right services and support.

People such as Krishna Narayannan from India have broken free from autism. In Narayannan’s case, ayurveda brought a breakthrough, apart from education and music. He co-authored a book with his mother, entitled Wasted Talent, an account of how he overcame all the hurdles to finally open his mind to his parents. They also included advice on therapies and techniques. “The title reflects ultimately my belief that the talent of an autistic is wasted away if it is not nurtured,” he stated when the book was published.

The toughest part perhaps is for parents to accept that their child is different from others. They need to take a proactive approach to learning about the condition and its treatment while working closely with others involved in their child’s care. Parent and family education has been shown to reduce family stress and improve a child’s functioning.

Perhaps more awareness campaigns in developing countries, especially through the mainstream media, will enable people to know and understand ASD better. These may eventually lead to the establishment of more support organizations and introduction of special techniques in educational institutions. This is extremely important, as Narayannan opines, “No challenge is greater than the challenge to educate the autistic because they are restless and their rigidity and rituals interfere with learning. They can neither write nor talk.”

People should identify and appreciate the diverse abilities that autistic children have. As Diane Bubel has said, “By raising our voices together, we are creating a world that celebrates children for their abilities.”

It’s time to promote a positive perception and greater social understanding of the mysterious world of autism.

Repressed Souls of South Asia

Published in SouthAsia (June 2007)

South Asian women repress anger. They are always expected to maintain a semblance of propriety. Anger is only to be expressed by their male counterparts, or so dictate our social norms. Ayesha Hoda psycho-analyzes this pandemic and tries to unweave the threads of cultural oppression and subjugation in the Indian Sub-continent.

Women’s issues have gained centre stage in South Asia these days. Empowerment and independence are amongst the goals chalked out in discussions on television, in magazines and by NGOs working for the benefit of women.

There are often debates on issues of rape, domestic violence, the violation of basic rights for women, honour killing, prostitution, sexuality, divorce, male-domination, eve-teasing and so on. But what we do not always consider is that inherent in all these issues is the practice of our women, of bottling up their feelings and reactions, even in situations where outbursts might be necessary.

A Global Practice:
Globally, any expression of anger is associated with men. While no eyebrows are raised when boys, even at a young age, take an aggressive approach to project their fury, girls are often advised to stay away and adopt a problem-solving approach. In most cases, this may, in fact, be nothing else but repression of anger, leading to long-term resentment.

Commenting on this social reality, Sandra Thomas, psychologist and director of the nursing doctoral program at the University of Tennessee (Knoxvillle), aptly says: “Both men and women have been poorly served by the gender socialization they have received. Men have been encouraged to be more overt with their anger. If boys have a conflict on the playground, they act it out with their fists. Girls have been encouraged to keep their anger down.”

It thus appears that this is a global trend; even western societies have a patriarchal system and are male-dominated, following the rules set by men. However, one may also safely generalize that this practice has grown rather chronic in our part of the world, that is, South Asia.

Before considering the consequences of this passive approach to anger taken by women, let us first try to investigate the causes of the development of such a habit. Why is the expression of fury considered ‘manly’ and more uncivilized for our women, as compared to men?

Repression of anger by women was not always such a dominating characteristic of South Asian society, if we analyze our cultural history. One can only infer that this is a result of some Arab creed, or the influence of the concept of agni pariksha (test by fire) of Hindu women or a Christ-like submission taught to Christian wives, or perhaps a combination of all these factors. Not speaking up or tolerating injustice is equated with being good, especially for women and the practice is reinforced from one generation to the next.

It is also about who decides what is right and what is wrong. Our society is not only androcentric but follows a patri-local system (brides relocate to live with their husbands’ families). This may often decrease the kind of influence that women may yield in their household, as compared to a matri-local system. The concept of a nuclear family is still largely alien in the region, so equality is a distant dream.

South Asia also has one of the worst gender divides (greater than the Sub-Saharan countries), with Pakistan being in an even worse position than India. There is discrimination in wages, provision of basic needs (such as health needs and literacy), etc.

Within households, there are specific roles defined for males and females, which they are expected to follow religiously. Several families still give preference to the male child (based on the idea that the boy will be the future breadwinner and the pride of the family). The girls, on the other hand, can only expect to uphold the family reputation by being ‘good’ (which equals submissiveness).

Going further, we see that women are often also discouraged from higher learning (even where finance is not an issue) or from pursuing a profession (such as archaeology or sports) which is thought to be a man’s domain. They are not always encouraged to take up a job because the work environment is expected to lack decorum. There are several organizations, which do not appoint women at all, as per their policy.

With rising consciousness of the importance of higher education, it is rather frustrating for women who are not allowed to have their way due to a mindset. Match-fixing or arranged marriages (with or without consent) also  keep women distracted and produce the urge for financial independence which they expect will give them more control of their lives.

These factors cause frustration. However, due to social conditioning, with mothers and other women in the household as role models, women adopt an uncomplaining attitude. Even if they do express their anger, at certain points, they themselves tend to think that it is not something socially acceptable. To save face, they avoid reacting in this manner in front of people other than their family members.

According to Sigmund Freud, repression is an unconscious function of the ego, which controls a person’s desires, wishes, memories, etc., which are part of the id. As a child, one learns what is right and what is wrong. As one grows up, one’s ethical standards become the repressing forces that help lead a civilized life.

Repression is a normal psychological process, important for personality development. However, when an emotion as natural as anger is subdued constantly, there may be acute problems in the long run.

The most obvious problem for an individual may be infrequent but unpredictable and untimely outbursts of anger, which are often also misdirected. Locally, the lack of psychological therapeutic techniques or anger management exercises leaves women without any solution or outlet. Women are not even conscious of practices as simple as meditation, relaxation, looking at nature, painting and so on, which are often healing.

An example may be quoted here. An educated woman (who chooses to remain unnamed), belonging to the middle class, had problems in her marriage; she was battered and verbally abused by her husband. She become more capable of dealing with the situation, when on a psychologist’s advice, she started voicing her thoughts in front of different people. Whatever her listeners may have said about her being so loquacious about matters so personal, she gradually learnt how to handle the problem and was able to give vent to her fury.

Other than this, anger has an alarmingly close relation with depression. The inability to express negative feelings tends to build up a depressive tendency. With psychological treatment still considered taboo by many and the easy availability of medicines without the prerequisite of a prescription, women often opt for self-medication.

They may dwell in self-pity. Even though they follow what the society deems as acceptable behaviour, they experience a feeling of worthlessness, because of the lack of power to make any difference to their own lives. In extreme cases, women may engage in self-destructive activities and substance abuse and have frequent nightmares and unpleasant thoughts. There are also physical symptoms of repressed anger, such as ulcers, panic attacks, headaches, hypertension and hysteria.

Apart from these impacts, which affect an individual and her relationships, passive anger can lead to destructive gossip, putting people down and provoking aggression without being directly involved in the act. South Asian women, then, cannot be expected to be strong role models for anyone or address the issues that affect them.

In order to move towards gender equality and make the search for self-identity fruitful, one should first become conscious of problems such as these. Anger is an emotion, which is far from subtle. Though it is modern practice to find other ways of releasing anger, this should be applicable to people regardless of gender and in context of the situation.

The Day The Mountains Moved

Published in Books & Authors (Daily Dawn) on September 23, 2007 – Original Link
By Ayesha Hoda

Edited by Unaiza Niaz
Sama Editorial & Publishing Services, Karachi
In collaboration with
Institute of Psycho Trauma Pakistan (IPTP), Karachi
ISBN 969-8784-52-7
277pp. Rs375

THE day the mountains moved is a documentation of the mental health services provided in the aftermath of October 8, 2005, the day the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) in Pakistan, witnessed the worst earthquake of modern times. Around 73,000 people lost their lives while four million became homeless as a result of the disaster.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occurs when a person’s psychological defences are unable to cope with extreme stress. An extreme level of stress is one of the consequences of such natural disasters. This book has been divided into two sections: one presenting the Pakistani perspective on handling PTSD, and the other providing a brief look into international perspectives. Over 29 experts have contributed to the book, including Dr Unaiza Niaz who has also compiled and edited the chapters.

Niaz is a renowned psychiatrist and psychotherapist based in Karachi, with several articles and scientific publications to her credit. She is also the director of the Institute of Psycho Trauma Pakistan (IPTP). In her words, this book ‘is the story of IPTP in the last one year’ and ‘a modest attempt to share and document our experiences as mental health professionals.’

The catastrophe of October 8, like any other natural disaster of such magnitude, created a need for psychosocial support. Most victims suffered from psychological distress, and several others from mental disorders such as psychosis, depression, severe disabling anxiety, substance abuse, etc.

Unfortunately and rather alarmingly, Pakistan has a ratio of one psychiatrist per five lakh people, with even poorer proportions in Kashmir. In view of this the IPTP, which had only just been established on October 3, 2005, strove to spread awareness about the importance of psychological treatment to counter the shock experienced due to such unpredictable and sudden calamities. Keeping in mind the stigma attached to seeking psychosocial support, a programme was devised by IPTP and other mental health agencies and professionals to reach victims effectively and help them recover from the trauma.

The importance of cultural context was realised and lessons derived from the recent Tsunami psychosocial measures and literature. There were efforts to put an end to the various rumours circulating in the quake-hit areas, which could further add to the anxiety experienced by the local population. Details of plans, workshops, research and other activities have been provided in the book, along with some photographs, to give a clear picture of the kind of work that was carried out. The contributors have elaborated on their individual approach to the disaster and their specific areas of interest.

The book highlights a wide range of subtopics such as gender perspectives, media as a tool for therapy, art therapy for children, and so on. The international section gives a general overview of the psychological impact of natural disasters, behavioural treatments, research issues, etc, with examples from different regions to illustrate these more effectively.

On the whole, the book will prove to be useful for psychiatrists, psychologists, NGOs and social workers. The reader cannot help but realise the need for more people to enter the mental health profession, as the services provided by such professionals are quite indispensable.

The Brain, The Body, The Soul, The Mind: An Exploration

Published in Books & Authors (Daily Dawn) on December 10, 2006 – Original Link
By Muzaffar A. Ghaffaar
Ferozsons, 60 Shahrah-i-Quaid-i-Azam, Lahore
Tel: 042 630 1196-8
UAN 111-62-62-62
ISBN 969-0-02034-X
176pp. Rs295

Muzaffar A. Ghaffaar is not a specialist. He does not write for specialists. He writes from his seemingly profound knowledge of the various branches of science and mixes philosophy with them. Some of his arguments are supported by religious sayings, etc, but not all of them. In fact, he has refrained from the inclusion of any religious reference in several places. His past works include How Governments Work, a book advocating the concept of a responsible government but one with limited powers, Unity in Diversity, etc. He is also a poet, has translated Punjabi poetry and has included some of his poems in this book. The title of the book is according to a descending order of importance/preference, in the view of the author. As obvious by the hierarchy, he places utmost importance on the human brain. He says, “The brain also delineates our spiritual geography which is a mixture of myth, morality, faith, history, experience, pain and joy.”

Ghaffaar has, however, discussed each of the four aspects in equal detail. His aim is to bring his readers closer to reality; to everything that is so entirely significant to their existence and individuality. All the questions are not completely new or unheard of but they have been put together to make people ponder. Ghaffaar addresses various aspects of genetic engineering. He explains the reason behind the increasing number of hermaphrodites in society and for gender confusion amongst human beings as well as animals. He draws parallels between human beings and their environment or, in other words, presents us with an interesting analogy.

The author has opined that DNA is “fate”. He says that external factors do affect a person but again places a lot of importance on a person’s genes. However, his arguments for this statement cannot be deemed as very substantial. Ghaffaar questions the vague relationship between the body and the soul. He discusses the Muslim belief regarding the soul in more detail than other beliefs (though he has mentioned them) and also philosophical movements such as existentialism and the religious philosophy of the Sufis.

In the chapter on the mind, Ghaffaar briefly comments on the conscious, the subconscious, the unconscious and the Freudian school of psychology. The first two chapters are thus about our tangible side, whereas the last two discuss the intangible and how it comes in contact with the tangible and he sheds light on the background of matter and antimatter.

It is heartening that though the author does give his own opinion, his tone is not judgmental and does not coerce one to believe in everything he says. There are some controversial topics such as the ‘transsexual phenomenon’ –– opinions vary on the point of whether this is a natural or inborn trait or a result of circumstances. The author has not shied away from the subject of changes from male to female functioning, since it is an issue that is prevalent all over the world. Each society needs to think about the cause behind such attitudes or inclinations.

Ghaffaar quickly jumps from one subject/question to another. At the same time he maintains flow or rhythm successfully. The language is simple and scientific jargon has been avoided where possible. This helps to acquaint any layman with the facts without creating confusion. In certain places, as mentioned in the foreword, the text has the semblance of a conversation, since some of the content was part of the lectures delivered by the author. The discourse in the conclusion leads to further questioning and allows man to think and form his own opinions regarding his existence.

The book is an exploration and leads to further investigation. Most of us are already well aware about the problems surrounding genetic engineering and that the brain is the major control unit of the human body. However, the book has a certain tinge of originality which makes it worth reading. Conclusively, in Ghaffaar’s words, “That being has no physical substance. And all physicality is present in it.” –– Ayesha Hoda

Bougainvillea House

Published in Books & Authors (Daily Dawn) on November 20, 2005

Original Link: http://www.dawn.com/weekly/books/archive/051120/books10.htm
By Kalpana Swaminathan Penguin India.
For more information log onto http://www.penguinbooksindia.com
ISBN 0670058297
346pp. Indian Rs395

“Clarice’s eyes, terrified, dilated, singed Sister Abby’s cheek with their heat as she bent over her. The soft tube slid smoothly down Clarice’s parched and slackly stirring throat. Its free end swung ignominiously out of one nostril. Sister Abby taped it down securely.”

“Original” and “graphic” are two words that instantly come to one’s mind when asked about this novel – Kalpana Swaminathan’s second book. The explicit nature of this book may be attributed to the fact that the author is also a surgeon. However, some readers may find the book a little morbid because of certain medical details.

The book starts and continues on a depressive note, though one’s interest does not falter because of this. If anything, Swaminathan’s descriptions of all things intangible are comparable to those of English classics: “My cheek went cold. My hands were steel claws digging in the sofa. My toes were ice chips. My tongue a thick paperweight of glass, words snowing within it with each noiseless shake.” Her comparisons are also quite innovative: “Memory is striped grey and black. It stalks, patient as a cat, lean and randy. It thrusts into me, fur, claw and needly white teeth, licking the back of my eyes with its rose-petal tongue. Memory is a cat, a thieving homeless beast that leaves behind fleas as it leaps from brain to brain. A wild, harsh, solitary thing.”

The story is based in Mumbai and Goa, the latter being where the Bougainvillea House is situated — the main characters (the Portuguese Aranxas) return to it after an absence of more than three decades. Clarice Aranxa has been diagnosed with a motor neuron disease in which the muscles weaken due to the destruction of nerve cells. However, her illness is aggravated after she shifts from Mumbai. Old, painful memories come rushing back once she moves into the house. Then there are several, much unexpected deaths and Clarice starts to suffer from catatonic phases.

On the other hand, her doctor, Liaquat Ali Khan, finds himself getting a bit too involved with his patient’s sickness. He is unable to fathom her character and behaviour which is not in any way a symptom of the disease she is suffering from. Though her nervous system is obviously affected, neuropsychology reveals that her unresponsive and insane reactions are not caused by her disease. Soon, the doctor’s wife begins to notice her husband’s visible unease and restlessness and complains about those “chudails” (witches).

However, the doctor’s curiosity gets the better of him and he is determined to find out what is wrong with Clarice. The novel is a psychological drama throughout and has a certain amount of suspense. It is largely through Clarice Aranxa’s mind that one unravels the plot. She is completely aware of the fact that she has very little time on her hands. Her thoughts are disturbed and chaotic because of a haunting past and the progression of her illness does nothing to put her mind at ease. In fact it is the exact opposite.

There are also several portions written by Dr Liaquat, Clarice’s daughter Marion, her maid Pauline, Sister Abby, etc., all of whom are important characters in the book who have distinct voices. Nowhere are any of the characters left floating in the air. They are more or less indispensable to the story.

However, several Indian reviewers are of the opinion that Swaminathan’s first novel Ambrosia for Afters was a much more remarkable piece of writing. In this book, some factors do not gel well as the mystery unfolds with the result that parts of the story sound incoherent and somewhat unconvincing. The doctor’s details about the patient in between chapters seem a bit irrelevant since one is already aware of the facts and so these can be easily skipped. They might have been added to create more interest but unfortunately they do not fulfill the purpose.

Conclusively, there is no real moral of the story because it just talks about psychology. According to some critics, Swaminathan is lyrical. Nonetheless, she maintains the sombre mood of the book and does not falter for the better part of the story. The plot manages to stay alive despite the frequent mention of death, murder, illness and suicide. — Ayesha Hoda