Check out this cool interview by writer and book nerd G.G. Andrew! Featuring Mary Poppins, Tayari Jones and me.
What is it worth to fit in? How do societies evolve, and what does it cost those who dare to push for change? These are among the questions Susmita Bhattacharya explores in her wonderful debut novel, The Normal State of Mind.
Hanging on the edges of society
In urban India during the last years of the 20th century, two women tumble off the small, flat world known as “normal life.” Dipali has been married for only three years when her beloved husband is killed in one of the terrorist bombings that have convulsed Mumbai. Far away in Calcutta, Moushumi has also found love, but in a dangerous place – the arms of another woman. She is exiled from her family and flees to Mumbai. There Dipali and Moushumi, both teachers, develop a firm friendship as they explore their shared experience of being “edged out into the border of society,” as Dipali puts it.
And what is it the young widow and the young lesbian have in common? It is the “lack of men in their lives” that in male-dominated and tradition-bound India leaves them “hanging on the the edges of society.”
Pain and politics
Dipali, for example, is politely invited to leave her cousin’s wedding party so her widowhood will not throw a shadow on the celebration. Instead of participating in the ceremony where the bride’s skin is covered in turmeric, she must content herself with munching on snacks in a separate room with the other widows, her mother and aunt. And despite being only in her twenties, Dipali is expected to remain true to her husband’s memory and never remarry.
The political context in which Mishoumi discovers herself as a lesbian reminded me more of the early 1960s in the U.S. than the 1990s, when Mishoumi’s story is based. She cannot find a model of the life she wants to live – a “normal,” open family life with another woman instead of a man. What she does find is ostracism, bigotry and violence from individuals and the state.
In a devastating scene, Mishoumi after years of separation finally finds the courage to call her family, only to have her father hang up on her. Later she drives past a movie theater and sees patrons running into the street, their clothes in flames. The theater has been fire-bombed with the audience inside, all for the sin of showing a movie about two sisters-in-law who fall in love with one another.
The Normal State of Mind is narrated in two voices, Dipali’s and Moushimi’s, whose separate stories soon intertwine. I very much enjoyed the tactile details about life in India – the sounds, smells and tastes – and the insights into the lives of modern women. The novel begins with a funny and warm wedding-night scene in which both the husband and the wife – strangers mere weeks ago – face each other with no idea of what to do next and only Bollywood movies to guide them. The book ends with just the right touch of ambiguity, offering hope but no easy promises for either the women or their country.
A writer to watch
Susmita Bhattacharya, who says “My name is not easy to say even after a few drinks,” grew up in Mumbai, lived for several years in Wales, and now lives in Plymouth, England with her husband and children. I thought I felt the pang of the expatriate in her loving descriptions of Indian food, but that might have been my imagination.
Her short stories and poems have been published widely in the UK, but I believe The Normal State of Mind is the first piece of Bhattacharya’s work to be available in the U.S. I doubt it will be the last.
Get a free copy of The Normal State of Mind
Want a free copy of this excellent novel? There are two ways to toss your name in the hat to win a copy.
You can contact me through this blog and let me know you’d like a copy.
Or better yet, you can sign up for my monthly newsletter to be eligible to win this and other free books by women writers. I give away one or two each month. When you receive the newsletter, just hit reply and tell me which book you want.
I’ll choose a name from those who contact me, and if it’s yours The Normal State of Mind will soon be winging its way to you. (Sorry, I can only ship to U.S. addresses.) I hope you will enjoy this lovely and unusual book as much as I did.
Thanks so much to NursingSchoolHub.com for sharing this fascinating infographic about the training, tools and career prospects and challenges of today’s military nurses. I know that Della Brown, my character from Her Own Vietnam who went into combat nursing so unprepared, would be envious of the kind of training military nurses get today.
I usually write about books on this blog, but today I’m writing about war and protest. This has been a week of remembrance. The past several days have brought the 45th anniversary of the killings at Kent State and Jackson State and the 40th anniversary of the end of the war in Vietnam.
Guns vs. students
In May of 1970, the Vietnam war was raging both overseas and at home. Already about 34,000 American service members had been killed. The public had just learned that President Nixon had ordered the military to invade neutral Cambodia, an action so illegal he had issued the order in secret. The news inflamed protests on hundreds of college campuses nationwide.
On May 4th in Ohio, the state’s National Guard fired on Kent State University students as they protested peacefully on their own campus, killing four students and wounding nine others.
Ten days later in Mississippi, local police responded to protests on the campus of Jackson State by shooting hundreds of rounds into a women’s dorm. The fusillade killed two students and wounded twelve more.
In a dynamic that a generation later would give rise to a movement, few people outside of Mississippi ever heard about the killings at the historically black university. The massacre of white students at Kent State drew headlines nationwide, and added fuel to the anti-war protests that embroiled an estimated 4 million college students that spring and closed down 800 campuses across the country.
Bring the boys home
Five years later, on April 30, 1975, the Vietnam war officially ended. I was a junior in college, and the war that had cast its shadow across my youth was over. “Bring the boys home,” we had chanted, and now it was finally happening.
If I was even aware that some 10,000 American women had served in Vietnam, they did not cross my mind on that day 40 years ago. I never could have imagined that I would spend more than a decade in the middle of my life writing a novel about them.
Looking back at a movement that has ended
Last weekend I attended a national conference called Vietnam: The Power of Protest, designed to reunite the Vietnam anti-war movement and examine what we’ve learned. (I am saying “we” although I was only a casual participant in the anti-war movement.)
While our nation often looks back at pivotal events, such as the recent commemoration of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, rarely do we get the chance to examine and assess a movement that has actually ended.
This is not to suggest that the peace movement is over; indeed, it is needed more than ever now that the U.S. operates in a permanent state of war. But the anti-Vietnam war movement is history. And the young, fiery activists who fought for peace now have decades of experience to call on as they consider what it all meant.
Learning the lessons
So what did the Vietnam era anti-war movement achieve? Some say the movement ended the war; others say it merely shortened the war. Some think it merely ended the draft; others think it drove one President out of office (Johnson) and launched another (Nixon) into a downhill slide from which he never recovered. I believe all of these outcomes resulted from the movement’s most spectacular accomplishment: it turned public opinion against the war.
Tom Hayden is a political activist who co-founded the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), was one of the Chicago Seven convicted of “conspiracy to incite violence” after the police riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention, served for a decade in the California state assembly, and wrote several books. After all that, he is probably best known for having been married to Jane Fonda.
Hayden was a keynote speaker at the conference, and he had a singular perspective on what the movement had achieved. “We can take credit,” he said, “For creating the constituencies that elected Bobby Kennedy, Bella Abzug, Ron Dellums, and Patricia Schroeder – all elected at the height of radicalism in 1972.”
Radicals in Congress
Former Congress members Pat Schroeder (D-CO) and Ron Dellums (D-CA) also spoke at the Power of Protest conference. Schroeder recalled advocating against the war from within Congress, a seat she had won with campaign donations that averaged $7. Her campaign poster was a photo of a military cemetery with a quote from Richard Nixon saying, “Many of our soldiers have already been withdrawn.”
Dellums, the former mayor of Oakland and longtime member of Congress, sounded a somber note. “When the war in Vietnam was over,” he said, “a lot of people went home and left us [African Americans] to deal with poverty and injustice. What would America look like now if Martin Luther King had been alive to say, ‘The war is over. Let’s move on to end racism’?”
We heard personal testimony from a diverse range of anti-Vietnam activists, all of whom are still involved in social justice movements: Susan Schnall, a Navy nurse who was sentenced to six months hard labor for distributing anti-war leaflets while in uniform; David Harris, who served three years in federal prison for refusing the draft; Wayne Smith, a Vietnam veteran who has spent the past 40 years “helping to heal the wounds of war by addressing the causes and consequences of war.”
Mark Rudd, a leader in SDS and founder of the Weather Underground, spent seven years underground himself, a fugitive from the federal government. He personified the gamut of feelings about the anti-war movement.
“It was the greatest thing in my life,” he said, “to be part of a mass movement that won.” But then he questioned what exactly we had won.
“I’m going to die soon, never having tasted any power at all. Why are we so allergic to power? The right-wing doesn’t feel that way. They’re idiots! They don’t believe in global warming! But they run the country. All of our strategies and tactics should lead toward political power,” Rudd said. “The only way to do it is to organize mass movements.”
The journalist Juan Gonzalez provided a perfect definition. “Movements are made by tens of thousand of people who make individual decisions that they will risk the disapproval of their families, losing friends, losing jobs, losing their freedom, even losing their lives – because something has to change.”
But it was Heather Booth, progressive organizer and strategist, who added a grace note to the long day. Looking back at herself and her colleagues in the Vietnam anti-war movement, she recalled, “We were young, headstrong, reckless, arrogant, foolish – and we were right.”