The Normal State of Mind by Susmita Bhattacharya
published by Parthian Books in May 2015
I want to thank Ms. Bhattacharya for partaking in my Meet the Writer feature. Her interesting answers about her book prompted me to request a copy of The Normal State of Mind from her publisher. Thank you to Susie Wild at Parthian Books for sending me this ARC.
The Normal State of Mind is a novel set in mostly in Mumbai and Calcutta. The chapters alternate between the stories of two women, Dipali and Moushumi. One is a traditional Indian bride, and the other is a lesbian. Both women suffer shame due family members and society trying to humiliate them, but Dipali and Moushumi count on their friendship to keep them emotionally stable when everyone else appears to present a threat. The story begins in 1990 and takes place over 8-10 years.
As she lays next to her new husband in bed after their wedding, Dipali expresses nervousness about consummating their marriage. New husband, Sunil, is understanding, and readers quickly learn he is not a traditional Indian man. Dipali works up the courage to take a shower, wash off all the cosmetics from their ceremony, and then get back into bed ready to make love (7). She’s known this man three months, meeting him after her brother found Sunil’s advertisement in the matrimony column of the newspaper (3). It’s a sweet beginning that made me excited to see what would happen next.
Sunil is kind and wants his wife to be happy. Granted, many studies show that during this time women suffer acid attacks, rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment. I wondered, Why is Sunil so different from what I’ve read and seen in the media? Did his family raise him differently? If so, why? Perhaps Bhattacharya wanted to write a sweeter story to show that there is happiness in India, too. It’s a weird comparison, but Ice Cube wrote Boyz N The Hood and then responded with Friday to show both the struggles and the good times in Compton. It’s possible this is what Bhattacharya was doing, too. It’s beautiful to watch Sunil and Dipali support each other. For instance, Dipali’s brother, Ashish, wonders why Dipali gets to sit at the table at eat with the men. He says:
“This is our family tradition. Ma and Dipali never once ate a morsel until Baba and I had eaten, did you Ma? Even Shikha [Ashish’s wife] insists on serving me before she can start. Maybe because then she gets the horse’s share,” Ashish laughed between munching on a poppadam. He eyed his wife’s big body and pointed at her. “Look at the advantages of serving the husband first. Doesn’t Dipali do the same?” (20)
I couldn’t help but think of Ashish as a piggish stereotype: he treats women like servants, humiliates them, and later tries to bully his sister and mother into destitution. Sunil is the perfect foil to Ashish, and I couldn’t wait to see the men interact more in the future. However, it was about this point that I got on Goodreads and saw the spoiler: Sunil dies in one of the 1993 bombings of Mumbai. After I read that, I didn’t feel very invested in Dipali’s story. It felt like a door slammed in my face.
Moushumi’s tale begins more perversely: she’s hiding in the bushes and watching a woman undress and wash her clothes. The narrator says Moushumi feels “stupid, child-like” (8), but Mushumi is a grown woman. Never are readers asked to ponder Moushumi’s criminal behavior, which suggests invading a neighbor’s privacy is just a normal part of a lesbian discovering her sexuality. I was uncomfortable with this implication.
The rest of The Normal State of Mind was very predictable. If you’ve ever seen or read a story similar to Bridget Jones’s Diary, you know where everything is going. It doesn’t help that many of the characters are stereotypes, like Ashish. For exmple, during the time Dipali enjoys her brief marriage, Moushumi meets a wealthy woman named Jasmine, and they begin an affair. But Jasmine’s husband is so rich and important that he doesn’t notice. Jasmine is a stereotype. Anything “poor people” offends her (58-59), she loves to shop (75), she has temper tantrums (74), and she’s all kissy-kissy with her rich friends (11) — she even utters the sentence “You have my number. Call me if you have the guts. I will show you how to live” (15). It’s an overused concept –a stereotype– to have a rich person show a poor person how to really “live.” Falling back onto stereotypes doesn’t help the reader. Instead, I had more questions: How did Moushumi insert herself into a rich woman’s world? Well, Moushumi, who lives in a “mediocre” neighborhood (59), shows up in a posh art gallery. Later, we learn she’s friends with artists. This part of her life doesn’t make sense and is not explored by the author. What do Moushumi and Jasmine have in common? I thought maybe it was the sex that Jasmine enjoyed so much, but there are no love making scenes in this book — none that you can read anyway.
Where are the descriptions in The Normal State of Mind? There’s food aplenty, and I applaud the author for always making the food come to life. But still. There’s plenty of opportunity for descriptions when widow Dipali goes on a date with the photographer, Gandharv. Dipali is a very sensuous woman who wants physical intimacy, but has denied herself even masturbation since Sunil died (113). Now, she’s willing to try. Gandharv has asked his friends where to take Dipali on a date, and they recommended Bandstand. Dipali is confused when they get there; the place is known for couples making out and having sex in their cars. Though she had never been there, her teenage friends always wanted to go (228-229). Gandharv apologizes for the situation, but asks if they should “Do as the Romans do” (229). Dipali decides they should:
“I want this, Gandharv,” she whispered and pressed her lips to his. “Like you said, do in Rome—”
They fumbled clumsily as they tried to embrace each other within the constricted space [of the car]. They ignored the kulfi-wala asking if they’d like a kulfi to cool down.
‘Oh, stop, stop,’ she gasped, pulling away from him. They both faced each other, breathing hard. He put his head on the steering wheel and tried to calm down. She pulled down her kurta and began to ease out the creases. She had to hug herself tightly so that her hands didn’t automatically reach out to claim him again. (230-231)
When I read this scene, I assumed Dipali changed her mind and stopped Gandharv mid-kiss. However, when Gandharv drops her off at home, brother Ashish storms out the door and asks her where she’s been. He accuses her of being a whore (232). Dipali thinks, “Was having a night out whoring? Was making love to Gandharv a sin? No, it didn’t feel like whoring to her” (232). Here is the confirmation that Dipali did have sex with Gandharv. So why is the scene in the car so unclear? If not in the car, did she have sex with him at a previous time? If she did, I can’t confirm it. Many scenes are blurry enough to make me uncertain as to what’s happening.
I kept reading on, hoping for more from Moushumi and Dipali, who are not stereotypes. Yet, they aren’t balanced in a way that helps the reader understand them. After that date, Dipali is in a panic: she tells Gandharv she will be in trouble. Gandharv tells he she is an adult and can’t get in trouble (231). And yet, Dipali flip-flops. She’s brave, yet in trouble. She’s weak, yet wants her old-school traditional mother to take a stand against Ashish (257). Simply put, Dipali isn’t consistent, and I don’t know why.
Moushumi isn’t consistent, either. She goes from peeping tom, to wealthy woman’s mistress, to the shame of her family, to a face for the gay rights movement in Calcutta. At first I thought this represented growth; however, there is a scene in which Moushumi is so different I no longer cared about her. A theater is playing an Indian film in which a woman is always in distress and nearly getting her sari pulled off, breasts almost bared. A group of women protest; they call the people who watch the film rapists, pornographers, and perverts. Here is Moushumi’s reaction to the crowd of women fighting for their rights (and with good reason; remember what I said about rape, domestic violence, child brides, etc?):
Moushumi watched, at first with amusement and then with growing concern. She didn’t know with whom to side. The women, who self-righteously claimed that the film was degrading women. Or should she side with the film, which, by being a means of release for these men, possibly prevented them from committing sexual crimes in reality. They probably jerked off in the cinema, giving vent to their sexual frustrations. She was in a quandary. (174)
This passage is highly problematic. First, why would Moushumi laugh at the struggle of other women when she was fighting for gay rights? Next, where did she get the idea that films with breasts prevent sexual assault? Third, I’m not sure how it’s a smart idea to suggest that sexual frustration leads to sexual crimes. “Frustration” and criminal acts are not the same thing, though Moushumi is the woman who hides in bushes and watches women undress, so perhaps this is the “frustration” she means. Finally, what is Moushumi’s “quandary”? She’s not going to take action; she’s weighing the sides as if she’s trying to figure out which shoes would work best with an outfit. Really, I’m not sure what the author wanted readers to take away from this scene other than Moushumi is unreliable, ignorant, and a bit cruel.
With so many problems throughout the novel picking at me like a thorny bush, I was never really moved to block out everything else and be in the novel. I was constantly aware that I was reading a book. For instance, Dipali thinks about how she likes the new teacher, Moushumi, because she isn’t like the other teachers (123). In what way? What is Dipali’s impression? Another writing tool frequently used is the question: instead of thinking out ideas, characters asks themselves long lists of questions. When Dipali learns that Gandharv kissed Moushumi to help her confirm she won’t be straight if she just gives it a try, Dipali wonders, “How dare she? Why use him? How could he? Could he do that to anyone without feeling for that person?” (187). All of these fairly polite questions — instead of thoughts –feel like the writer is asking readers to help her. I can imagine what Dipali is thinking about Moushumi and Gandharv, but it’s not my job to fill in descriptions.
In the end, I wanted more care put into the writing style and more substance from the characters. It would be easy to do. Dipali and Moushumi are both teachers. Yet, they never discuss teaching, students, or colleagues. The story is consumed with finding a boyfriend/girlfriend, and so if you’ve read that kind of story before, you won’t be surprised by what you read here.