A novel about patriarchy and generational trauma
Leo Tolstoy said that “all happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Naheed Phiroze Patel’s first novel, “A Mirror Made of Rain”, is about an unhappy family. Since there are myriad ways to be unhappy, this is a unique story with its own particular kind of unhappiness.
The novel unleashes generational trauma and how women bear the brunt of this burden, which is rarely acknowledged or talked about. In a country where marriage is akin to a business deal, marrying someone like Asha Wadia, one of the novel’s central characters, is outrageous, and all the blame story is redirected to her. Little is known about Asha’s childhood except that she was very unstable. With no supportive family members except her husband Jeh, who can’t help much, Asha turns to alcohol to calm herself down. Her difficult relationship with her daughter, Noomi Wadia, mirrors her own relationship with herself. Even though Patel tries to portray a conventional mother-daughter relationship, it’s still a cliché image on many levels.
Noomi is a complex character in many ways. She distances herself from her difficult mother and yet ends up becoming like her. The absence of a loving mother makes her rebellious, open to hypersexuality, and later a depressed wife. There is ample evidence that many adults become hypersexual if their childhood needs are not met or if they are sexually abused. None of the boys who sexually abuse her are held accountable, as is the norm in patriarchal societies. What is even more disturbing is that they are not even presented as criminals. For the honor of the family, most parents overlook sexual abuse committed within the extended family or by close friends.
The novel begins with Sehgal’s description of tasteless feasts which sheds light on the importance of social class in India and its significance throughout the novel. Sehgal’s class-conscious parties redirect our attention to the class system in the Parsi community of a small town in India. Even though the community does not follow the strict Hindu caste system, we see that the Parsis are as aware of class hierarchies as anyone else. There is no mention of abject poverty, again suggesting the considerably privileged class of the Parsis.
Noomi bears the burden of generational trauma in the novel, and it’s unclear if she’s able to break this vicious cycle. Although it is evident that her self-destructive habits are more pronounced when she is in the presence of her mother, little support is offered to her. Noomi also becomes a conventional character who runs away from family to become independent and free, but nothing changes with men. The men of the Wadia or Sehgal family stay where they are without facing the consequences of their actions, but Noomi bears the brunt of all kinds of abuse. The boys are spoiled, spendthrift, and stupid, but Noomi is considered troublesome. Had she been the son of the family, circumstances would have been entirely different for her.
Despite many clichéd portrayals, there are significant concerns the novel raises. The first and foremost is the trauma of an unhealed past and unrealistic expectations of women and their families. The Punjabi family drama at Noomi’s wedding and paraphernalia is disappointing and rather hackneyed. The ostentatious display of wealth in Indian weddings looks rather embarrassing. The novel also portrays the Punjabi community as more rigid and traditional than the Parsis. All the conversations between the two families regarding marriage are insipid and full of hostility, as is common in most communities in India. This is partly due to gender biases that the girl’s family is expected to bow down and the girl is expected to “feel lucky” to be able to marry a capable boy. It’s annoying for Noomi, as it should be for any woman, to constantly be reminded that men are doing some sort of favor by marrying women, even when the women might just be compromising in the name of marriage. Sadly, this is a reality in India’s patriarchal and sexist society, and Noomi conforms to societal norms in her own way. Patel’s attempts to portray India’s upper middle class are shrewd and portray the tyranny of patriarchal structures so deeply embedded in class and religious beliefs.
The difficult mother-daughter relationship continues to the bitter end, and Patel uses different geographical spaces to capture the complexity of human relationships. Noomi has little empathy for her mother’s loneliness, just as Asha has no idea of her daughter’s temper and traumas. They remain strangers to each other until the end, regardless of their common traumas. They are mostly restless with each other, and they subvert the illusion of a perfect mother-daughter relationship. After multiple losses, Noomi still comes across as a good wife or at least that’s the image Patel tries to paint in the novel. This becomes an obvious flaw in the novel, suggesting Noomi’s failure to break through her family trauma. Patel’s debut novel is a heartfelt attempt to give voice to underlying latent trauma while being realistic in its depiction of family ties and hostility.
The author holds a PhD in English from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
A mirror made of rain
Author: Naheed Phiroze Patel
Publisher: Fourth Estate India