Have we willed ourselves to forget 2020, and a quarter of 2021? And have we done so with an aggression we didn’t think we had in us? Maybe moving on from the global horror and anxieties of the pandemic is an act of self-preservation, maybe it is a manifestation of a universal impulse towards some kind of optimism that moves things along.
However, reading Namita Gokhale’s latest book The Blind Matriarch is an essential, gentle remembering. It is an act of giving ourselves a private, meditative space to feel relief for those who survived or came out unscathed, to mourn those we lost, and to settle ourselves into a slower and softer way
Through her simple and soft prose, Gokhale lets us revisit the pandemic without the paralysing glares of its horrors. The world of building number C100, with each floor housing different sections of its joint family, is kept together by a strong old lady, Matangi-Ma, who lives on the top floor with her assistant, Lali. One a separate floor, is her eldest, Suryaveer, a single man with his adolescent son and their dog, Dollar. On another, is her other son, Satish, his wife Ritika and their young son Rahul. On the ground floor is Matangi-Ma’s daughter, Shanta, single and living with a cat called Trump and her assistant Munni.
Being with this family through their daily lives in 2020, the quality of our own lives indoors comes back to us: the anxieties and absurdities of taking care of a family member with a non-Covid illness during the early days of quarantine, the uncertainties of remote work, the disconnectedness of online classes, the loss of offline time with friends and peers, and daily domestic inconveniences. How we received the outside world also comes back — the people-less streets, the clearer-than-ever skies, and major cultural newspoints — a section on how every member of the family engages with the news of actor Irrfan Khan’s death mirrors how many of us, with privileges similar to members of Matangi-Ma’s family, had reacted.
That the story is engaging, the language lucid yet lilting, and the characters memorable, will be obvious praise to offer a master storyteller such as Gokhale. The characters live ordinary yet interesting lives, some have misgivings about one other, and some still nurse scars from family trauma they’re each dealing with on their own. At various points, whether it is due to the pandemic or politicians, the fathers or mothers, the husbands or wives, the children or careers, there is frustration bottled up, and frustration expressed. All of the characters also contend with questions of family and of mortality.
Despite this, and despite being set in what nobody will remember as a relaxing year, the book’s narratorial voice is utterly relaxing and calm. It is sensitive without trying too hard, it is socially and politically aware without screaming for someone to notice that it is. The real success of the book comes from this very space— it never forgets to be kind. And what better way to heal and move on, than to remember with kindness....