While real life diaries are fascinating, fictional diaries can be just as engrossing, whether it’s Sue Townsend’s young, hormonally-charged Adrian Mole or Helen Fielding’s longing-for-love singleton Bridget Jones.
Mrs Pankajam is a little older than both. Well, a lot older at 63. The first thing she writes about is her husband’s second heart attack, and the experience surrounding it. She reveals herself as self-deprecating, witty, and forgetful, with a vague “geriatric mental problem”. Writing a diary is part of her doctor’s advice to help her get in touch with her feelings. Clever doctor, because Mrs Pankajam certainly seems distanced from everything that happens around her.
Losing her memory is not the only thing Mrs Pankajam is worried about. She’s petrified of water, and won’t venture near any water body, including swimming pools. Apart from that, she seems like a mildly eccentric but reasonably well-adjusted person who socialises with relatives and is in constant touch with her building’s WhatsApp group.
Mrs Pankajam and her husband are proud of their two fiercely independent daughters. The older daughter’s marriage appears to be on the verge of a break-up, but she is not willing to answer questions on the subject—fortunately she lives in the US. Unfortunately, Indian parents would willingly travel to Mars (if they must) if they suspect that their children are hiding something, so we’re treated to descriptions of Mrs Pankajam’s holidays in the US.
The single daughter is a delightful character who wants her parents to find her a husband but insists that she wants to interview prospective mothers-in-law first — she has a list of questions for them, including terribly important ones like, “Do you know how to bathe babies,” and “Who did you vote for?” When she forthrightly interviews one of them, Mrs Pankajam remarks in her diary: “I liked this lady and did not wish my daughter on her.”
Her relationship with her husband is a little strained, perhaps because they don’t seem to be on the same wavelength. Also, as Mrs Pankajam confesses, “It is very difficult to live with a heart patient who you want to fight with. You can’t talk back; you can’t do anything shocking… ”. The only person Mrs Pankajam appears to have had a strong bond with was a childhood friend who vanished. And the only person she’s shared some sort of a rapport with later is her husband’s brother.
A little over halfway through, the diary gets darker and darker, and you feel as adrift and disconcerted as Mrs Pankajam. While her candid observations still provoke a chuckle or two, the mood has changed. The childhood friend resurfaces as Mrs Pankajam moves to a new home and a new lifestyle. Finally Mrs Pankajam reveals two startling secrets, both of which make you realise that her doctor was right: she had been deliberately suppressing extremely strong feelings for decades! No spoilers here, so read the book to find out. Warning: Be prepared to laugh — and cry.