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.
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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.