Towards the end of her memoir, it’s all in your head, m, Manjiri Indurkar gives us an epiphanic moment – recounting her visit to the therapist she had finally come to rely on (after several false starts) in treating her depression, and what the latter had to say of the RotaVirus that had caused havoc in her stomach, landing her in hospital:

“She started making me talk about how my child sexual abuse happened, in detail. It was on the couch that I cried for the first time in her office. It was on the couch that she made me see that what I thought was diarrhoea, was the purging of unwanted trauma. She asked me to visualise a sieve, and think of the entire trauma as the dirty, stinky water I had pushed out of my body that January night when I made the hospital visit. My bowel, we deduced, was that sieve. All the shit that my bowel had pushed out of my body was the trauma of rape and of a relationship on the verge of failure. The pain I was experiencing, physical and metaphorical, was my body trying to resist the letting go of what it knew so well. My body had been living with trauma for so long that without it, it would feel hollow and empty.”

This book is the story of that body living with trauma – the mind being just a part of it. It is a trauma that dates from childhood and has a long-winding trajectory: being sexually abused by two trusted, familiar males as a small child; having to hide this behind a happy face frozen in countless photographs preserved by a loving mother; trying to forge a new life in a big city as a young adult, only to re-visit that childhood breach of trust in romantic and professional relationships as well; the body’s revenge staged by a virus, leading to therapy and a successful confrontation with self.

Books and Bollywood

The confrontation with self was, however, an ongoing process, and books featured prominently in them. Indurkar mentions several that inspired her and helped her cope with her trauma. They range from Black American literature (Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye) and feminist classics (Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar), to memoirs (Jeanette Winterson Why be Happy When You Could be Normal? and Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body) and scientific studies on trauma (Bessel A van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score).

But while books provided succour, what really sustained Indurkar was Bollywood. She pays it rich tribute in her “Acknowledgements”: “Bollywood – had it not been for cinema I would not have made it out alive, I would not be the person I am.”

Bollywood is capacious enough to serve several functions in her life, the most predictable one being to provide the staple of her romance through songs (from the ’80s and ’90s). It is also her default frame of reference: Sridevi’s memorable mother-daughter double-characters (in Lamhe, Khuda Gawah and Nagina) are invoked to prove a point about how similar she is to her Aai; Shah Rukh Khan in Kal Ho Na Ho provides fodder for the ultimate death-wish; Arjun Kapoor appears in a life-altering dream; Sholay’s Jabalpur connection – the town in Madhya Pradesh Indurkar grew up in – is established (“The beedi factory where Sachin Pilgaonkar’s Ahmed is headed, but doesn’t ever reach because he is killed mid-way by Gabbar’s henchmen, is in Jabalpur”).

But its most profound role in Indurkar’s life is to give her the cover characters that allows her to tell her story at all – the big baddies, Ajit and Mogambo.

“If you remember the characters that the Bollywood Ajit played, he was always the well-dressed, well-educated, rich, suave, evil mastermind. He lived in bungalows and had a Mona darling or a Silly Lilly as his decorative woman, always by his side. He was subtly funny too. The Ajit of my life was no different. He was smart, intelligent and possibly the funniest guy I knew as a kid. And I was, for all intent and purposes, his Mona darling. I was always by his side. He cracked the funniest jokes a six year old could understand. And I did like him.

He was a brilliant student, studying to become an engineer. As it that wasn’t enough, he was polite, calm and helpful. And good looking too. Everyone’s dream child; the one who made middle-class parents turn envious. They all wanted a son like Ajit, the villain of my story…[Mogambo was] the one who caused the most damage. The one who infiltrated my mind and never left. Quite like Mogambo, the cinematic baddie who contaminated the – with kankad wali dal and unsuccessfully attempted destroying the nation.”

Family villains and compassion

There is also a third villain in Indurkar’s story. Aaji, her grandmother.

For me, the most achingly beautiful part of the book is where the author tries to understand Aaji. The grandmother who was witness to the sexual abuse she was being subjected to by a young neighbour…and yet did nothing: didn’t raise hell, didn’t punish the abuser, didn’t offer consolation or refuge, didn’t say what happened was not her fault (the thing the girl most wanted to hear), that things would be all right.

Why, the six-year-old had to dust herself off from the floor and tend to her little bruised body herself indoors. As if this studious silence was not enough, a few years later, “Ajit” was Aaji’s pampered guest, as he kept her company and prepared for a competitive exam, while the family took a holiday.

I had read two stories last year with the same theme: a girl child abused by the grandfather in one case (in Tanuj Solanki’s short story, “Good People”, featuring in the collection Diwali in Muzaffarnagar) and by the father in another (in Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte). In both, the crime is accepted, the trauma silenced; only, it never goes away, haunting the women in different ways. One manages to have a lasting bond with her partner later in life, the other doesn’t.

Indurkar’s memoir also reminded me of one of the earliest episodes in the series “Satyamev Jayate”, the hugely popular reality show presented by Aamir Khan in 2012, where a statistic showed that in the majority of the cases of child sexual abuse, the perpetrator is usually a member of the family or an acquaintance whom the child trusts and who has easy access to the child’s home.

While the reality show brought in victims to share their stories to make viewers aware of the extent of this crime in our society, and Rushdie and Solanki focussed on how it affected the victims’ relationships in adult life, Indurkar makes it her mission to diagnose the character who betrayed her most as a child. Her genuine desire to understand why Aaji did what she did, or rather, did not do what she should have, invests Aaji’s story with the greatest compassion, which goes beyond forgiveness.

I cried to think what a young girl must have gone through to balance the rage of injustice done to her with the desire to be just to the one who did it. It is an extraordinary feat, a measure of her quality as a human being. The measure of her worth as a writer is, however, attested to by the fact that she manages to translate this struggle into a pleasant read – at once humorous and poignant.

I also find it extremely significant that Indurkar tries to locate trauma in the inter-generational stories of women. Trauma and sadness – as she demonstrates through the stories of her mother, her two grandmothers and a great-grandmother – can be a matrilineal inheritance. Silence and lovelessness in marriage, or the death of a child, can be at the core of such sadness and trauma, having unforeseen bearings on successive generations.

It is this multi-dimentional uncovering of trauma that makes this memoir a very engaging read. But most of all, I admired the author’s courage in writing it.

it’s all in your head, m

it’s all in your head, m, Manjiri Indurkar, Tranquebar.