Fiction

A riveting family saga set against the backdrop of the pandemic

Jonaki Ray | Updated on October 29, 2021

Namita Gokhale’s The Blind Matriarch is a story that is as much about grappling with grief and loss as it is about hoping for a better future.

You know you have stumbled upon a rare story when you come across lines from poets ranging from Walt Whitman to Ramdhari Singh Dinkar within it. Namita Gokhale’s 20th book, The Blind Matriarch, has the following lines from Dinkar in the first chapter:

‘Saubhagyana sab din sota hai

Dekho, aage kya hota hai?’

(Good fortune does not forever slumber

Let’s see what happens next?)

In a world that has seen us experience within the last two years a range of emotions, unimaginable losses and death, lockdowns with endless cases-and-infections, and being held captive inside our homes, these words prove to be the clarion call as much for the characters of the book as for us.

The novel follows the travails and tales both within a joint family and outside in a world grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic. The family lives in C 100, a multi-storied house, and is helmed by the eponymous matriarch, Matangi-Ma. The story alternates between the past, through Matangi Ma’s memories about her marriage and losing her vision due to macular degeneration yet simultaneously gaining insight into the realities of her marriage, and the present, where her children—the two sons, Suryaveer and Satish, and daughter, Shanta, living on separate floors of the house -- grapple with the problems of their lives.

There are also the backstories of the other people who live in the house: Lali -- the help who lives with Matangi Ma and Munni, who helps Shanta, and the constant communication between each floor and section of the family, with all its complexities and emotions encompassing the rivalries between the siblings, the shadows from the past histories of each member of the house, and the dynamics that play out during the individual meetings as well as collective interactions between all these people.

In the detailed description of the competitive clashes within a family as well as the bonds that sustain it, this book is a reminder of the classic The Forsyte Saga by the British writer and Nobel Prize winner, John Galsworthy. Like the Forsytes, the novel crisscrosses the stories of an upper-middle-class family, and shows how the past always casts a long shadow on our present. Interweaving and interlinking the two threads is the parallel story of the pandemic—its beginning (in India) around the festival of Holi last year, the brief respite, and the dreadful surge in cases in the first quarter of this year.

Namita Gokhale’s characteristic style continues to engross the reader with its sharp images, as well as deft strokes delineating each character and the various sub-plots and threads. Thus, we have the fascination of Matangi Ma for afternoon soaps in contrast with her daughter’s for Irrfan Khan’s movies; we have Suryaveer’s love for poetry and his frustration trying to write a book allayed with his adopted son, Samir’s quest for his family, which includes an interlude about quantum mechanics and the possibility of parallel universes.

Pinning it all are the descriptions about the outside: the challenges faced by the migrant workers when they left their jobs and often walked back to the states they had come from, as well as the desolation wreaked in our daily lives, which is sensed by the blind Matangi-Ma: “Everything was as it had been, but there was another unheard sound, a sense of monotonous expectancy, a fear, a waiting without end”.

The stress and unease of the pandemic and its effect on children are also brought out through the voice of Rahul, the nine-year-old son of Satish, Matangi Ma’s younger son, and his wife, Ritika. Right at the beginning of the pandemic, he says, “I wasn’t allowed to play Holi because of the infection…”. There are also the experiences of Riyaz Pappoo, a nephew of Lali, who stays in the house for a few days before going home and his experiences once back and staying at the quarantine centre in his village.

The Blind Matriarch shows the quiet strength that endures and, by its very survival, inspires us. Thus, while the first part of the book seems to indicate Matangi Ma as someone who has adapted and adjusted, the reader realises that this adapting is inflexible in its clarity, and she is the binding force for all the characters. Similarly, when Ritika’s work overwhelms and stresses her, it is her child, Rahul, who empathizes and says, “Grown-ups can have problems too, just like children. I’m old enough to understand that”.

Ultimately, The Blind Matriarch is a story that is as much about grappling with grief and loss as it is about hoping for a better future. If this seems contradictory, then it can only be explained by the quote from Samir towards the end of the book:

‘The past and the present wilt—I have fill’d them, emptied them,

And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.’

(Jonaki Ray is a poet, writer, and editor in New Delhi. Her poetry collection is forthcoming in 2022)

About the Book

The Blind Matriarch

Penguin Viking

₹599 (Hardcover); 208 pages

Check the book out on Amazon

Published on October 29, 2021

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