There is a small story tucked into the novel A Mirror Made of Rain by Naheed Phiroze Patel. Recited at the house of the protagonist’s in-laws, it is a katha about a queen fasting for the victory of her husband in war. The crux is this: although the queen is ceaselessly dutiful, the most minute of lapses ensures her an unhappy ending.
The katha is recited into a microphone for the women of the house, who are fasting for the health of their husbands. Our protagonist Noomi is, at this point, weak and cranky with hunger. The katha is ostensibly meant as some kind of guidance for Noomi, even if she hardly shares the queen’s obedience.
Often stories about women (and hence, allegedly for women) put me in a vastly different mood from the one stories about men do. The two sometimes occupy entirely different worlds. Stories marketed for men are a world of drive and power, and I leave them wanting to achieve something for myself. Meanwhile, I tend to leave stories “aimed at women” hoping to fulfil some vacancy in myself through some kind of relationship. Even if the women have their own storylines, it is incomplete unless it is intertwined with someone else’s, mostly a man’s.
In A Mirror Made of Rain, there are no purely personal journeys uninterrupted by relationships – and no relationship with anyone else that can substitute the one with yourself. The template of the purely individualistic man and stunningly self-sacrificial woman are complicated by Patel, but the expectations of them – to seek ambition for the former and love for the latter – remain intact.
In a deeply gendered world, Patel writes one of the first female Indian protagonists to reckon with alcoholism. She does not flip gender on its head so much as sends it tumbling – from upright to capsized, to upright again. Her novel portrays a range of responses to gender expectations – yielding, defiance, anger – all playing out with quiet devastation.
A state of anger
If this novel is encased in one emotion, it is anger. Anger seems to simmer gently under every word of the novel; reading is to trace its crackling and popping on the pages. Noomi is an easily incited and aggressive character from her childhood. She recalls an incident from when she was a little girl in which her cousin sneaked up behind her and snipped off the ends of her braid. Although an admittedly baiting provocation, her reaction – which is to try to snip his penis off – is perhaps a disproportionate one.
When she is scolded harshly and threatened with a thrashing, Noomi treats the situation as most children would: she hides, and waits for her panicked family to come grovelling for her forgiveness. After waking up from a nap and realising that no one noticed her missing, she goes to inform her parents that she had ran away, adding that she almost got kidnapped.
Her mother’s immediate dismissal of her story as a lie, as well as calling her a “maniac” and “slut” for her earlier stunt, enflames Noomi so greatly that she tackles her mother violently to the ground. Meanwhile, her cousin, like most of the male characters, seems to escape any accountability – a consistent trend from childhood to adulthood.
Noomi never seems to shed the outrage of a child who feels treated unfairly. We were often cruel and bitter as children too, the book reminds us; growing up simply involves finding new, more dangerous coping mechanisms. Noomi seems to frequently return to the role of the child hiding in the hut, waiting to be found, hugged and apologised to.
“It felt like there was a small child inside of me, always howling inconsolably. When I drank, she fell quiet,” writes Noomi. There is a stagnancy created by the novel; rather than grow up, we seem to simply grow out of our innocence. The world, in turn, grows more indifferent to our tantrums.
An unlikeable narrator
Although it could have been easy to write Noomi as a more stoic character, what is remarkable about her is perhaps precisely how unlikeable she can be. Noomi indubitably grows up in a sexist environment. Kamalpur society is constantly breathing down her neck, scrutinising her with a patronising and judgmental eye.
After her marriage, the world of her in-laws is the same – deeply conservative under its flimsy veneer of modernity. It can be difficult to discern whether a character in these circumstances is justifiably angry or not. Yet, although Noomi is clearly a product of her circumstances, the reader’s sympathy for her often wanes.
Noomi has very little fondness for most people aside from her father Jeh – and her indictments of almost every character apart from him are wry and cutting. She is frequently charged with being rude, and can deliver such biting dialogues that on the two occasions her mother accuses her of being cruel, the reader is forced to agree.
Although she is quick to observe other people’s faults, most of all her mother’s, Noomi is rarely self-reflective. Her self-loathing is more suffused than the pointedness with which she observes the world around her. It is through Noomi’s interactions with other characters, and their observations of her, that the reader registers her flaws.
We see Noomi’s behaviour start to slowly mirror her mother’s – not only in the obvious frequency with which she takes to the bottle, but in her hypocrisies and refusal to take responsibility for herself. In a world where agency is denied to women, drinking seems to be a rebellion as well as a coping mechanism. Yet, it paradoxically denies Noomi agency over even herself.
Although our narrator is loud and opinionated, the voice of the author is oddly absent – we don’t know what she wants us to take away. Noomi is not so much an unreliable narrator as a lifelike one – you treat her as you might treat a friend narrating their side of a fight. It’s not that she is lying, but she may sometimes trip up and reveal her hypocrisies. Reading her story is like dipping in and out of someone’s life without the clarity and framework literature generally assures you.
Addiction and love
Noomi, despite her apparent non-conformity, seems desperate to tick off everything in the standard checklist for women: husband, children, success in its recognisable manifestations of wealth and property. Somewhere within this list, she also craves love – and recognises this as tied to her addiction. She informs the reader of an experiment, in which “scientists concluded that drugs and alcohol light up the same parts of the brain as love. Addiction came out of being unable to tolerate loneliness.”
Maybe what one seeks from love and substances is selfish pleasure. Perhaps for a woman, who is rarely granted the privilege of being an individual (she is a daughter, a wife, a daughter-in-law), there is something especially compelling about these pleasures. But the personal satisfaction that they promise is an illusion, because we never anticipate the accompaniments. Like marriage, drinking is never just about you either.
Again, it is one of the cruel paradoxes of addiction – the need to be loved makes one drink, drinking makes it more difficult for one to be loved. Noomi, through the book, flits between battling loneliness and desperately wanting to be alone.
A Mirror Made of Rain is not an instruction manual to get out of addiction or a guide to love – it has no such pretensions. Rather, it recognises that we’re all subject to our own specific issues and trappings, and these are the ones we tend to be most blind to. People around us provide us mirrors ––doting partners can make us feel prettier, angry parents can make our reflections seem distorted and broken.
It is difficult to evade your reflection in the people around you, and to evade snatches of other people in your mirror. When you read this novel, you might find some reflections, however contorted, gazing back at you. Learn not to look away.
A Mirror Made of Rain, Naheed Phiroze Patel, HarperCollins India.
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