Book review: This is what it is like to lose someone you love to Alzheimer’s disease
Himanjali Sankar’s Mrs C Remembers, the story of an elderly homemaker who has Alzheimer’s disease, is a welcome addition to the lean genre of Indian fiction about mental illnesses.
It started small, with frivolous worries and paralysing thoughts that wouldn’t go away. Did her food taste weird? Was it the new cook? Was he acting on someone’s instructions? Was her daughter-in-law pilfering her stuff? Then came the memory lapses, forgetting of names and faces, social commitments, confusion about dates and days. One day, she lost her way around her sister’s house, and then in the neighbourhood park. The slip-ups could no longer be palmed off to ageing. Though no one can say with absolute surety when the ever-so-busy Mrs Anita Chatterjee began to fade away, losing herself bit by bit to oblivion.
Works of fiction by Indian writers that explore mental illnesses are few and far between. The subject has mostly been approached in some brave memoirs. Himanjali Sankar’s Mrs C Remembers, which is about Alzheimer’s disease, is a welcome addition to this lean genre.
The story is told — by turns — over 14 years by Mrs Anita Chatterjee (Mrs C of the title) and her daughter, Sohini. Mrs C, wife of a wealthy and influential advocate in Kolkata, is diagnosed with dementia caused by Alzheimer’s. The news is devastating, especially for Sohini who is very close to her mother though the two are very different people.
Despite the serious subject, this is not a weepy book and the beauty of the story lies in the telling of it. The narrative ticks all the boxes: It steers clear of information dumps, is well-written, with strong relatable characters, plot twists, and 14 years of remembering and forgetting — all in less-than 200 pages.
The novel, however, is not just about the pain and suffering of slowly succumbing to an incurable and degenerative disease that feeds on brain cells. It is also the story of Mrs C’s generation of women — the obedient and self-effacing daughters-in-law and wives whose worlds began and ended with their families.
Married into a large, orthodox household that she comes to manage rather well, Mrs C is not allowed to work despite a “degree in mathematics” and — as her children tease her — the skills to be a “wonderful manager in a corporate set-up”. She has lived to please her selfish husband, found a way around the patriarchal mindset in her house to get the best education for her first-born (a girl), has stoically borne the humiliations inflicted by her mother-in-law, and dealt with the inevitable generation gap to the best of her abilities.
In a moment of distress caused by her daughter, Mrs C tells the reader:
When the children were small, I used to so look forward to them growing up and becoming independent, almost the same way I looked forward to my in-laws dying. And when the in-laws died, I was too tired to rejoice. Their absence didn’t liberate me the way I had expected it to. Same with the children.
It is not that Mrs C is free of the prejudices of her generation (she doesn’t “get this feminism-sheminism”, secretly laments her South Indian daughter-in-law’s dark skin), she is firmly etched in grey. Yet she is self-aware enough to know that she “would have been a different person” had she gone out to work in the world, and liberal enough to question her old ideas and conditioning as her kids grow up.
She may be rooted in a particular culture and class, but Mrs C is like any, or rather, every mother. And this is what makes her slow tapering away – as dementia sneaks up on her — all the more frightening.
But the ending isn’t all tragic and sad. There is some poetic justice, too. More importantly, Mrs C Remembers succeeds in doing what good stories are meant to do: Help us understand lives other than our own.
Mrs C Remembers
By Himanjali Sankar
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Price: Rs 299