A beautiful, dark, almost gothic tale of
a dysfunctional family and dissolving marriage
The book ‘Missing, Presumed Dead’ by Kiran Manral gave me sleepless nights as I could not read it at one go due to time constraint from my side. The story kept haunting me at whatever point I left it till the time I could pick it up again. The story begins with how a family of four retreat to a small hill town due to the mental illness of the protagonist-the lady of the ‘kothi’, Aisha Thakur. The story takes a roller-coaster ride once she disappears; the police declare her ‘Missing, Presumed Dead’; hence the title.
The story line
It is a beautiful noir tale with a touch of gothic, it tells about a dysfunctional family and dissolving marriage, about the love-hate relationship between two half-sisters, Aisha and Heer, and Aisha's husband, Prithvi, an ambivalent character you sympathise with at one moment and doubt another. The story also includes Aisha’s two kids and how they are deal with the onset of their mother's mental illness.
The highlight of the book
We know that in today’s world, depression and emotional stress are on the rise. The author chose this aspect of life for her latest book is remarkable. We as a society do not talk enough about mental illness. In fact we treat it as something to be ashamed about and so try to hide it. Most of us will know families that do not acknowledge that a member may be in need of professional help. Aisha treads the fine line between sanity and insanity. She has inherited the mental demons from her mother, she knows what the mental state did to her and Aisha seems to be going down the same road yet she has not control. How beautifully insightful are the descriptions of paranoia as experienced by Aisha and her mother. If someone wants symptoms of what insanity is, it’s right there. We get to know how mental illness can systematically erode a marital relationship.
Deals with women and relationship issues
The book not only deals with mental illness but other issues affecting women. Like there is the issue of women and depression, women’s struggles with body image issues, postpartum depression and more. There is a delicate moment in which the author describes how Prithvi is put off by Aisha’s body after the birth of her second child. This is also the point at which their relationship as lovers comes to an end. From this point onwards Aisha’s mental condition also takes a down turn. The book also makes a point that women are more prone to depression and are less likely to get help. I just hope that the book becomes a starting point for conversations about why it is important to care for one’s mental health, as an individual, and as a parent, and also acknowledge how difficult it is to live with and care for someone with a mental illness.
What worked for me
I could visualise each written character, events and incidents very clearly; I could feel the power of her written word. I conjured up a small hill-town devastated by rains and landslides. Heer appearing at the doorsteps of the 'kothi', Aisha's medical shop and her disappearance, the ferocious dogs at Daljeet's 'kothi', the outhouse of Daljeet’s ‘kothi’, the old faithful watchman in the second 'kothi' that Aisha had inherited- it was as if I was watching a movie. The author deserves kudos for enabling a reader like me to awaken my sense of visualisation.
The author truly has the gift of wielding the pen to create magic. She is able to effortlessly blend in the characters as well as the story line. As a reader, I was caught in the fictitious web she has created. What I admired the most about the book is that the author has ventured out of her comfort zone and explored mental health, a zone not many Indian writers have written about. But she manages to keep the pace racy while maintaining substance in the narrative. At the end the author leaves the story open for interpretations. This book is cleverly crafted by the author which is both gripping and disquieting at the same time. Highly recommended.
Author speaks to Bookaholicanonymous…
How much research did you have to carry out about mental illness as you were able to beautifully describe what Aisha and her mother went through?
I can't really quantify the research, but it was many many conversations with both men and women who have been diagnosed with various mental ailments ranging from depression to bipolar and more. I also spoke with their families to get a sense of what it takes to live with a person who is suffering from a mental condition. And of course, there was the reading up about it, lots of it.
How much time did it take you to write this book?
This novel was done as a novella in 2013. Then I went back to it and expanded it. Which took around a year, I would think. Then came the rewriting. I think I rewrite more than I write so the rewriting would have been a couple of years at least. It hasn't been an easy book.
You have left the story open in the end...did you want us to draw our own conclusions? Can we expect a sequel?
Yes, I would like every reader to come up with their own interpretation of what could have happened. I think that's always much more loaded than presenting everything as black and white, and as a fair accompli. Also I would like Aisha to linger in the reader's memory, unresolved. A sequel, gosh, I don't know. Writing this one has drained quite a bit from me. A sequel I need to gather my courage for.