Twenty-five years after captivating readers with her novel Listening Now, Anjana Appachana has published its sequel, Fear and Lovely. The latest offering is as rich and riveting as the first novel. Set in a New Delhi colony in the 1970s, it depicts a close-knit world that can be both incredibly supportive and maddeningly intrusive. Privacy is an alien concept and gossip spreads like wildfire. And yet the neighbourhood is swarming with meddlers, secrets abound. From clinical depression to sexual orientation, there’s much that remains hidden.

The book draws you in with its psychological depth and scintillating wit. It introduces a number of striking characters, such as Arnav and Randhir. Appachana depicting the inner struggles of these teenagers on the cusp of adulthood. Randhir’s soul is in writing, while Arnav has a flair for acting. When Arnav’s father sends his dog to its death, the boy is jolted into the harsh realities of life. He becomes newly aware of the emotional violence endured by his mother, of the truths that have to be buried to go on living. Randhir is a brooding young man who is reluctant to work in his father’s factory. He collects sleeping pills just in case life becomes too much for him. The boys’ complex inner worlds are drawn with a sure hand.

At the centre of the novel is Mallika, the precocious child who knew the weight of her mother’s grief. She is now a shy youngster whose reserve has earned her the reputation of being a bore. Great at mimicry, she is her natural self with Prabha, Mahima, and Gauri. The four friends are termed the “quadruplets” by the boys. While the older characters participate in the action, the younger generation propels the narrative forward. The description of the lives of young people – sexual exploration, youthful idealism, smoking, parties, girly chatter, cheerful banter – gives a light touch to the book.

Mental, pagli, lunatic

At the beginning of the book, the word “mental” is thrown in with delightful levity. With much glee, Appachana shows the peculiar mindset of Indians: “Marriage was more effective than any psychiatrist. A psychiatrist merely treated mental, whereas marriage cured mental. After marriage, crazy people became normal. Homosexuality became heterosexuality. Heavy periods became normal periods.” As the novel progresses, this playfulness gives way to a grave exploration of the symptoms of depression.

Mallika suffers two setbacks in quick succession: first she loses her memory and then goes into a downward spiral. The descent into the abyss, a tragicomic episode, is described in vivid detail. The words “pregnant” and “period” bounce around inside Mallika’s head, turning into a dizzying internal rant. Though she latches on to sanity with the desperation of a drowning man, she rapidly loses coherence. The label “mental” threatens to attach itself to her. “Pagli.” “Lunatic.” becomes a refrain in her delirium, mirroring the superb ease with which such terms are bandied about.

Mallika feels a cactus lodged inside her. With time, it grows bigger and pricklier. Her head starts to feel funny, resulting in poor concentration and obsessive fixations. When her exhausted mind and body discard the metaphorical cactus, she feels blissfully blank. The narrator describes her state with a touch of irreverence: “Finally, blessedly, there were no more thoughts in [Mallika’s] head, and no more feelings in her heart. Mental was a benediction like no other.” The generous sprinkling of humour makes the book eminently readable.

Losing memory

Both Listening Now and Fear and Lovely are preoccupied with the maintenance of pretences. Lies are spun to settle Padma, an unmarried woman with a baby, into a respectable neighbourhood. Fear and Lovely, which foregrounds the predicament of Padma’s daughter, adds new threads to this web of secrecy, the most prominent one being the clever concealment of Mallika’s mental illness. As Mallika loses the drive to do anything, the grim reality of depression becomes palpable. Even the most basic tasks like speaking and walking require Herculean effort. As she crawls out of the abyss, thanks to her treatment, you acknowledge the unsung bravery of those who fight their way back to normalcy.

The battle waged by caregivers is no less heroic: “[My mothers] were the ones on the battlefield. Their hearts were torn and bleeding. They were fighting, but no one could know. They were fighting, but no one could see. They had to fight with smiles on their faces and easy words on their lips, and they couldn’t show that they bled.” The novel provokes reflection without becoming ponderous.

Much of the tension in the novel comes from the erasure of three days of Mallika’s memory. Late at night on the roads of Delhi, Mallika witnesses a man dragging her student into a car. With lightning speed, she rushes across the road to extricate the girl from his clutches, only to be dragged into the car herself. As the man gets on top of her, she defends herself with a knife she carries for safety. The narrative moves at a breathless pace, making the episode somewhat surreal. Arnav latches on to the racing car, which ultimately rams into a truck carrying dangerous-looking poles. Rescued by Arnav and a hijra, who goads the friends to run from the spot, Mallika makes it home with a swollen face. Mallika loses herself in Arnav to obliterate the memory of the horrific night. Their frenetic love-making is wiped off from her mind by a concussion.

The theme of acceptance lends poignancy to the novel. Randhir, the golden boy who excels in everything, is ashamed of being gay. It’s a reality that lingers on the edges of his awareness: “You could only dig so deep. There was no point in digging till you reached the centre, no joy in finding a rotten core.” He is weighed down by the fear of social stigma.

The label “pervert” hovers menacingly over him. Acceptance is what he craves. He finds comfort in the shelter of a tree with a solid, supportive trunk and a marvellous canopy: “If anything could save him, it was this all-embracing, all accepting tree; it was all there was for him.” Painfully alone, he wages a silent battle. It’s a battle for many people who are suffocating in the closet but are unable to come out.

Though none of Mallika’s caregivers understand illnesses of the mind, they accept the reality of her depression and the accompanying dysfunctionality. Their unquestioning acceptance and unconditional love create a conducive atmosphere for her recovery. Acceptance becomes the essence of love. The novel also looks at the flip side of acceptance. Madhu, Padma’s neighbour, counsels her daughter, who is trapped in a bad marriage, to accept her circumstances. Such capitulation is nothing less than a life sentence for her spirited daughter.

Mallika’s fight with depression is a silent, secretive battle. To keep prying eyes and wagging tongues in check, her “mothers” concoct a tale that she has tuberculosis. Their story carries such conviction that the entire neighbourhood clucks in sympathy. The narrator observes: “You see, the secret to a credible story is for the teller to believe it too.” With one subtle stroke, Appachana reveals the secrets of her own craft.

It is not often that one comes across a novel that treats mental illness with incisive humour and realism, that shows normalcy to be a façade maintained by silence, pretence, and skilful fabrication, that exposes the foibles of a society full of prejudice and unfounded assumptions. Full of spice and verve, the novel keeps the reader turning pages till the very end. It’s a novel you don’t just read. You start living in it.

Fear and Lovely, Anjana Appachana, Penguin.