Himanjali Sankar’s first novel for “adults”, Mrs C Remembers, is described as a “piercing exploration of the limits of submission, of illness and upheaval, and the unfathomable powers of the human mind”. This novel includes many aspects of contemporary urban life in India, but what Sankar subtly, rather than piercingly, demonstrates among them is every family’s own inevitable dysfunction.

At a simple level, Mrs C Remembers is about Anita Chatterjee, and her daughter Sohini, navigating their way through life as part of Calcutta’s elite.

Family matters

Mrs C, whose name almost unfailingly comes with the prefix attached (unless simply referred to as “Ma”) is bound by the many social relations that hold her in their grip. I say the novel is subtle because it’s only in retrospect that Mrs C’s descent into dementia seems inevitable. It isn’t what she remembers, as the title ironically suggests, but what she forgets, that unravels the strictures of Bengali tradition.

And what an exhausting existence it is. Mrs C and Sohini take turns narrating the history of their lives. Like a well draped sari – Mrs C’s staple outfit – appearances must be maintained, social relations preserved, diplomacy exercised. All this under the watchful eye of her husband’s abusive mother, who seems to linger long after her death at the beginning of the book.

For Sohini, whose path from girlhood to motherhood wasn’t quite as straightforward as Mrs C’s, reconciling her mother’s compulsive need to please everyone with her own coming-of-age becomes a shared battle over a span of several sub-plots and 14 years, well into their middle ages.

Mrs C Remembers is written simply, with prose that sticks to the point. Sankar asks difficult questions of people who lead everyday lives: Can you be best friends with your mother even though she says you are inferior to your brother? Can you love your husband even if he stays silent when his mother insults you? Would saying “yes” to either or both of these conditions make you a weak woman? What constitutes a strong woman?

Home and the world

The characters try to engage with the political stirrings of our times – from the Godhra riots to Nirbhaya to Kanhaiya Kumar’s arrest. Even though they are discussed at length – in a textbook Bengali, left-liberal way – they never fully penetrate the sphere of the family, or each character’s lives or even the novel itself. Despite feeling a need to be aware and to have a political position, the characters are ultimately concerned with their own lives.

Even Sanchita, Mrs C’s rebellious, Naxal-supporting feminist sister, tells Sohini, “I thought of how our lives would end if anything happened to you. Nothing else seems important when that thought enters your head. You just want your child to be alive and healthy.” And Mr C’s growing apathy for Muslims becomes a factor that the family must negotiate not because of the larger ethical questions but because Sohini’s partner Omar is a Muslim.

Instead, Sankar investigates the politics of the Indian family. What she unpacks is a history of conformity, of roles that familial relationships seem to steadfastly produce: the obedient housewife, the jealous mother-in-law, the unfeeling husband, the apathetic son, the rebellious daughter. While Mrs C has spent her life playing – and adjusting to – these roles as best she can, as she grows older her forgetfulness becomes the perfect tool for disavowal, enabling her to reject all that has been expected of her all these years.

Even though we are given her first-person narrative, it is clear that some parts of Mrs C will always remain inaccessible to us. It becomes difficult to tell when her forgetfulness is deliberate and when genuine. It’s unusual that the same woman who, by Sohini’s account at least, can’t seem to remember what happened five minutes ago is able to coherently confess to us her deepest secrets and struggles even through this period of forgetfulness. Giving us an unreliable narrator allows Sankar to foreground the latent violence that comes with enforcing the strict gender norms that the Chatterjee household demands.

Mrs C in you and me

Still, even with her dodgy memory, Mrs C is such a relatable character because she is the kind of woman who doesn’t necessarily have to exist as a person. She could be a confluence of ideas, or a representation of practices, or an echo of beliefs all of us have encountered, quietly saying things like, “women don’t take public transport” but also “I will fiercely protect you with every inch of me.”

When the novel ends, there are no questions left about her illness, or where it came from, or why it came. Sankar reassures us, with humour and compassion, that forgetting is okay.

Mrs C Remembers, Himanjali Sankar, Pan Macmillan India

An excerpt from Mrs C Remembers

It is not that I have never imagined my mother-in-law’s death. The important role I will have to play in all the rituals that follow. Quiet, dignified. I do not want to cry because I have never been the sort of person to cry in public. Even when my own parents passed away – my father ten years back and my mother more recently – I only cried when I was alone in the bathroom. I have never cried in front of my husband either. Only once in front of my daughter but I quickly ran to the bathroom because loss of control is so very humiliating even if in the presence of those one loves most.

My husband does not know how intensely I dislike his mother or all the things she has said or done to me. When I was a newlywed I did try to confide in him once. I tried to do it indirectly as if she had said something funny about my family, not malicious as it really was.

I no longer recollect her reason for ridicule on that occasion. There has been such a steady stream of insults in the course of the last thirty-eight years that it is difficult to remember the exact words, the when and the wherefore. That time it possibly had to do with my father coming from the gutters and my mother marrying him because she was not beautiful enough to find a really good catch from her own socio-economic background.

“But that’s true, isn’t it?” my husband had said when I told him what his mother had told me. And then and there I decided never to complain about his mother to him or to anyone else for that matter. He is too intelligent to not know if I am complaining even if I couch it in nice words. I appreciate the fact that I am married to a good-looking, intelligent man whom I love with all my heart and who loves me equally well in return. Why should I ruin what we have by bringing his mother into our bedroom?

She was practically bedridden and frail for the last three years of her life and completely at my mercy. Her son loved her but didn’t spend any time with her. He was immersed in his legal work as men should be. Just peeping into her room on his way to and back from work. He left the caregiving to me. To be honest, all I needed to do was employ nurses to look after her round the clock. Money has never been a concern.

I had to change nurses at least ten times in the last three years which is not surprising. All of them departed in tears. My mother-in-law would use foul language, abuse and torture them in ways that only she is capable of devising. Peeing and shitting on the bed instead of asking for the bedpan. Throwing her food on the ground.

I did not say a word to my husband. Just called the agency and asked for a new nurse and, in the interim, I doled out huge sums of money to the domestic help so they would take care of her. I entered her room once or twice a day to speak to the nurses, ignored her as far as possible and left.

In the evening when he came home, I did not tell him how his bedridden mother had suddenly materialised in our bedroom. But that night I forgot to give her the medicines she was supposed to take. Not forgot so much as postponed till I forgot. The medicines were kept in a small carved mahogany cabinet by her bedside. I couldn’t bear the thought of going into her room and taking out the medicines from the drawer while she lay inert on the bed, staring at me fixedly, muttering curses under her breath. Not that the nurses couldn’t do it themselves, but I usually handed the medicines to the nurse on duty when I was at home so I knew when the stock was running out. When I was out or busy with something else, I left them instructions. It showed them that I was in control. But that night I didn’t leave any instructions. Both the nurses must’ve thought the other one had given the medicines.

I started getting careless about Ma’s medication after that. Not deliberately, but it was also true that the quality of life she had now was worthless. She deserved to go. It was unfair and selfish of us to pin her to this life through artificial means. In a month’s time her condition had deteriorated. She had to be fed through pipes, a fibrous yellowing vegetable receiving meagre nourishment from thin translucent tubes. She could barely whisper any more, let alone shout. Her son started sitting by her side for ten minutes every evening, after returning from court and before his first clients arrived. She stared at him with large, sorrowful eyes, pipes running all over her face and body. He stroked her scant hair and wrinkled arms and her eyes softened. I think I forgave her then.