Shefali Tripathi Mehta’s “PEOPLE ON OUR ROOF”(Olive Turtle)

Olive Turtle: an imprint of Niyogi Books
INR 399 /-


A Review by Anjana Basu

The recent pandemic has brought emotional issues very much to the fore, as well as the problems of caregivers struggling with the old and ailing. Words like ‘counselling’ are peppering the newspapers as people become more and more aware that staying at home and being threatened by a virus have their fallout. However, there are people who, for whatever reason, have minds that are different from those of others. How does a caregiver, a girl, deal with a differently abled sister and a mother who constantly imagines a buzz of conversation from the roof of their home? A situation that most people with family support would do their best to hush up and which results in a kind of unimaginable social stigma. The person who has to deal with it is alone in more senses than one unless she has the benefit of enlightened friends and neighbours.

Mehta, who volunteers for the disability organisation, has written a novel which deals with these issues. Naina is a young girl who is struggling with the issues of her family – her father has disappeared and the whole neighbourhood is convinced that Naina must be as mentally challenged as her mother and sister. In the middle of all this is Naina’s working life, the men who are attracted to her and who, while aware of the situation at home, try to bring some kind of normalcy to her existence, through little gestures like persuading her to pierce her nose. Mehta is aware of the problems that even normal young girls have to go through in South Delhi, including stalkers, which adds another challenge to Naina’s already challenged existence.  Her writing brings in snippets of everyday life to set against the troubled existence inside the dilapidated bungalow, the normal contrasted with the abnormal, or what most people would regard as abnormal since mental illness is one of the most suppressed issues in the country and the one no one wants to be associated with. Even though it is all in the mind, the mind is what makes things real.

Readers may remember Jerry Pinto’s cross genre work, Em and the Big Hoom which was a study of life with a depressive mother and the ups and downs of that experience. Naina’s narrative is more of a growing up, understanding the reasons behind her father’s vanishing and achieving a kind of closure. Certain elements of the novel may seem obvious, though they are narratives that recur when one is faced with people whose brains are differently wired. In the end Mehta charts a story of courage and faith in relationships against overwhelming odds, though people might find the book a searing read in places and occasionally the editing could have been more taut.