The Normal State of Mind by Susmita Bhattacharya
Reviewed by Mahsuda Snaith
Susmita Bhattacharya’s debut, The Normal State of Mind, is not your typical novel. Here is a book dealing with big subject matters—the limitations placed upon widowed women, the illegality of homosexuality in contemporary India, for example— that is also written with a lightness and fluidity that would rival any bestselling chick lit.
The novel follows the lives of Dipali and Moushumi, two women brought up in two separate, bustling cities in India. For the first half of the book, their lives do not intertwine; instead we learn about their respective daily struggles with family and the rigid expectations placed upon them to toe the line. For Dipali, pressures come in the form of living in Mumbai as a modern-day bride with a husband who rejects tradition; for Moushumi, previously buried desires come to light as she gets entangled in an affair with a wealthy, married woman in Calcutta.
As a South Asian woman brought up in the West, I find it fascinating to read about modern-day life in these dynamic Indian cities and to learn about the day-to-day lives of women who are not usually depicted on TV, film, or in novels about India. This is no nostalgic retrospect into a land of the colonial past, this is a modern India dealing with current dilemmas and prejudices within its own communities. In addition to detailing the political unrest bubbling in the backdrop of her story, Bhattacharya brings nice little touches to her writing by discussing the introduction of escalators and the chasteness of television commercials on cable. All this makes for a refreshing and enlightening read.
It is the second half of the novel that takes us into the real heart of the story. After a tragic bomb blast in Mumbai leaves Dipali a widow, her position in society changes. Eventually she comes to terms with the death of her husband, but she must also take into account the way she will now be treated as a widow:
“She understood why she was in the room with these two women. They were all widows. And widows did not participate in celebrations. Certainly not where marriages were concerned. Nor babies.”
Moushumi too, has to deal with change. After her whirlwind affair turns sour she moves to the hustle of Mumbai life. Here is a passage that represents a little of her relationship to this city:
“She should really call it Mumbai now, not Bombay. The current ruling political party had insisted on reverting back to the original name the natives used to call their city. Mumbai, named after the patron goddess, Mumbadevi. She liked that. Different names, different identities, but the spirit of the city had not changed. She too would metamorphose. She would find her destiny here, away from the family pressures back in Calcutta.”
When Dipali and Moushumi eventually meet, as teachers working for the same school, they become close friends and slowly begin to trust each other with their personal worries and secrets. Their friendship seems at first like a literary device to unite the two storylines, but eventually reads as warm and convincing. However, there was a slight discord between my desire to follow a character and the author’s choices. I felt more engaged with certain parts of the story than others. Still, combining two strong narratives is a hard feat to accomplish and Bhattacharya does it well, managing to peak interest throughout the novel. This is largely due to the novel’s simple prose and the author’s choice to refrain from what a western audience might call ‘the exotic’. In fact Bhattacharya finest descriptions are related to food rather than saris and sunsets. And the other details she chooses to include quickens rather than slows down the narrative.
While Moushumi finally finds a certain level of acceptance as a lesbian, I was disappointed with the unravelling of Dipali’s story. As the two main characters sit in Jogger’s Park discussing what Dipali should do about her controlling brother and the new man who has entered her life, Dipali reveals the essence of her helplessness:
“The hero died, not the villain. So the damsel in distress remains so. Back to being ground under the brother’s thumb.”
It is sad to see such a potentially strong character being reduced to a ‘damsel in distress’ and to learn that ultimately her way of breaking free from her oppression is to find a man who will rescue her. Where Dipali may have found strength in becoming a person of distinction in her own right, she is shown pining for validation from sources outside of herself, growing bitter at the female attention her love interest is garnering and belittling herself in the process. As a reader and writer I found this dissatisfying, and yearned for a resolution as bold as the subject matter it deals with.
This is a book that deals with, what some might find, shocking subjects but does not aim to shock itself. It is a depiction of the ordinary lives of women dealing with an abnormal hostility for the lives they should be free to lead. The Normal State of Mind is written with refreshing and unfussy prose driven by an equally refreshing and unfussy storyline. More than anything, Bhattacharya deals with the controversial subject of homosexuality in India with the normalcy the topic truly deserves. As the author makes clear, it is time to move forward, not backwards. To break from the typical and accept there is no such thing as a normal state of mind.
Mahsuda Snaith is a writer of short stories, novels and plays. She is the winner of the SI Leeds Literary Prize 2014, Bristol Short Story Prize 2014 as well as a finalist for the Mslexia Novel Competition 2013. Mahsuda leads creative writing workshops, has performed her work at literary festivals and has been anthologized by The Asian Writer, Words with Jam and Bristol Short Story Prize. To find out more about Mahsuda visit www.mahsudasnaith.com.