Review: A Mirror Made of Rain by Naheed Phiroze Patel
In this debut novel, families, tied by wealth, opportunity, and secrets of indiscretion, operate as tribes
In Martin Scorsese’s film based on Edith Wharton’s novel, Age of Innocence, close-ups of plates, knives and forks in plush 19th century New York houses get a lot of play. One of the reasons for the cutlery frames, critics have said, is that society houses operate like ganglands – a terrain Scorsese would have known – where unsaid codes of conduct, honour and dishonour tie families of wealth not unlike the Sicilian mob. Here, transgression will not go unpunished; murder, when it has to happen, will be cold-blooded; dissenters will be watched over; unruly passions neutralized by “armed camps” sitting around a dining table.
In the book, Countess Ellen Olenska must smile through a farewell dinner held in her honour before her banishment. She, a woman with a failed marriage, had dared to attract the love of a man betrothed to another. Newland Archer, the character in love with her, reflects: “It was the old New York way of taking life ‘without effusion of blood’: the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than ‘scenes’, except the behaviour of those who gave rise to them.”
In A Mirror made of Rain, families, tied by wealth, opportunity and secrets of indiscretion, operate as tribes, and on pretty much the same principles as Wharton’s creamy layer. The setting is Kamalpur and Sheila Sehgal’s parties – the details of how her husband made his money are, of course, fuzzy – are the high point of the social calendar where we first get a glimpse into the Wadia household.
It is telling which particular Wadia is considered unfit to join the Sehgals’ party. It is Noomi’s mother and Jeh’s wife, Asha, someone perennially concussed on vodka.
“Remember,” Jeh said, “we are telling everyone that your mother is home sick.”
Noomi is the novel’s protagonist; in many of her encounters, mainly with other boys of her class, she gets a second look at the first meeting because “she is uncle Jeh’s daughter”.
She gets invited to Kamalpur’s parties because her grandmother, Jeh Wadia’s mother, Lily Mama, belongs to a family of old money; otherwise she is also not Sheila Sehgal’s favourite person having had a fling with Sheila’s son, Siddharth, when they were younger. And she was going to get cosy at this party too where Sheila was going to announce his engagement.
In the novel, the setting and character portrayal are all on point and the story of a troubled family moves well. The characters arouse curiosity and we want to know how far the author will take them or restore their sense of self, whether they will find peace or happiness or band-aid their damaged parts.
Noomi’s relationship with all her men – Siddharth, Arjun, and her boyfriend Veer, whom she eventually marries — seem doomed from the start. That sex seems to be top of mind of both parties is refreshing. What is also interesting are the roles that women play in the background of each of these relationships. In Siddharth’s case, it is his mother Sheila who acts as the disapproving mother-in-law even before her son has made any commitment. In the case of Arjun, it is oddly the end of Noomi’s friendship with his sister, Ammu, after she finds out Noomi’s affair with Arjun, that seems to hurt Noomi more.
One evening as it threatens to rain, Arjun brings Noomi to their house as he thought the family was away. Just as Arjun and Noomi get down to business, Ammu walks out of the toilet.
At the window, a crack of lightning broke the world in half. Rain poured down from the ashen sky. Crying, I searched the house for Ammu, only to find her when I stepped out on the driveway, pacing up and down the gravel, her arms hugging her small body. I said her name. Then I shouted it… Ammu looked at my hand on her shoulder as if it was a spatter of bird shit”.
This reinforces Noomi’s belief that everything that happened had been her fault. She’s corrupted “noble, kind, legal-aid-clinic-running Arjun – made him do things he never would’ve had I not tempted him. But my life was forever altered, while his didn’t change a bit…I became even more of an outcast.”
Noomi hates but doesn’t move out of this society matted with tribal loyalties. But then she is quite the oddball – broken and unbroken; a rebel and a conformist, all at once. Against dowry but she lets her father pay up when her in-laws insist. Her response to cover up for her distaste:
‘Excuse me, Badi Mummyji,’ I said. ‘I need to reapply my lipstick.’
Noomi’s toxic love-hate relationship with her mother runs on a parallel track in the novel. After Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar this seems to be another attempt at revisiting what is sometimes a difficult relationship to negotiate. I would read this book for showing what we all know happens within families. There are days when that may seem enough.
Paramita Ghosh is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.