The Water Phoenix is a memoir about a “maa-haara meye” (motherless girl), who, by her own admission, brings herself up. The epigraph, from Carl Gustav Jung, alerts us about the accent on her agency right at the start: “I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” We already know what the book has set itself up to narrate – the chasm that lie between these two states, the long dark tunnel that the author must have traversed to finally emerge into light.

And yet, we are surprised by the telling. For, the long dark tunnel is illuminated with wonder and curiosity and humour; and a child’s utter honesty – about people and places and relationships. Above all, about the lessons that life teaches. The hard way, always.

‘Maa-haara’, twice over

Is a childhood of abuse inevitable for a “maa-haara meye”? Does the peculiar vulnerability of a motherless existence easily attract predators? Is a fatherless existence less vulnerable, less depriving? Or was the real problem, in this case, being “maa-haara” plus having a father who was never there?

Would a more rooted childhood, with a home-bound father, not having any priorities other than earning a living, made life different for this girl child? Would it have kept her secure and safe from the vultures ready to claw at the slightest chance? The answer is probably “no” – for it’s a known fact that even children growing up with the love and care of both parents fall prey to sexual abuse, often by a trusted person close to, or within, the family.

In this story, too, the abuse is perpetrated by the man who was supposed to protect the child – the uncle – who was standing in for the absent father in a different city. The daily horror of living in his house, under the constant threat of further abuse, is the most traumatic part of the memoir. Even more damaging would be the long shadow of that experience in her adult life. Meanwhile, the child would seek escape in the world of books, finding particularly a kindred soul in Alice.

I found another episode equally painful. It comes before the child is packed off to the uncle’s house, long before she faces abuse – when her stepmother leaves her father. Which, in effect, also meant leaving her. This happens soon after little Rituparna had made emotional adjustments to accommodate the new mother in her life after the death of her own.

“We became Fast Friends. Her presence in my life also posed a dilemma. If I were to call my latest mother figure, ‘Ma’, then what would I call Maa by, I asked Pup-Pa.

‘I have Maa, even if she is dead. If I am to call my new mother Ma, then what would I call Maa?’

‘Call her Ma’, he replied instantly.

Grown-ups love planning and being prepared for anything and everything. Clearly, he had been expecting this question to pop up and had already rehearsed the answer in detail.

‘She is giving up her entire world in the big city [Kolkata] and moving to Nandurbar for you, so it would be mean if you didn’t call her Ma, he explained. I stared at him. ‘You can call your Ma, Amaar Ma (my mother),’ he said, putting the matter to rest.

Mother No.1 had 2 ‘a’s. Mother No. 2 had one ‘a’. And with this simple twist, the mothers in my life settled into their newfound names, fitting as perfectly as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. An ease that I envied as a growing misfit, a Complan girl misfit, who would try her whole life to fit in, in vain.”

I couldn’t help feeling that it is this second loss – not her mother’s death, but her step mother’s taking leave of her after a promising start to a life together – that plays the more decisive role in her life. For she is then perforce subjected to a series of stop-gap mothers, whose temporary affections she never takes for granted.

She proves to be a remarkably resilient child, who not only survives frequent changes of place, travelling across several states of India with her father, but also manages to do well enough in her studies to gain entry into a boarding school beyond her father’s means on the strength of a scholarship. Those school years are “salvation” for her!

Literary echoes and a missing link

In her “Acknowledgements”, Chatterjee meticulously mentions every single source she has used, not just names of books and authors (Alice in Wonderland being of special import), but every line that has been quoted in her story. Her memoir, however, strongly reminded me of Charles Dickens. Of the many orphans and their forlorn existence that filled his universe – think of David, Oliver and Pip – who became integral parts of our childhood. I could also personally relate to her life in a boarding school.

Though my cocooned childhood with my parents was worlds away from her deprivations and traumas, yet I could identify a lot with her school life run by missionary nuns – not the least in the warped notions of pregnancy that have a tendency to circulate within its hallowed precincts. Chatterjee renders school life with remarkable vividness and immediacy, suffused with all the energy and joy of those growing up years. This section stands out very distinctly in the memoir.

It is the final section that I have a problem with. Not because I am not convinced of the healing method it talks about, but I feel there is a missing link – between the young adult in Bombay who finds the city teeming with victims of abuse, and the mature woman in California who believes she is not her story. The sudden jump to that phase where she is a wife and mother was jarring to me, after having been given a gradual evolution in the first part of her memoir. Chatterjee seemed to be in a hurry to finish…but even in that rush, her final act of forgiveness remained with me.

The Water Phoenix: A Memoir of Childhood Abuse, Healing and Forgiveness

The Water Phoenix: A Memoir of Childhood Abuse, Healing and Forgiveness, Rituparna Chatterjee, Bloomsbury.