“You didn’t know her when she was normal”
An excerpt from A Book of Light

In 2012, Jerry Pinto published his debut novel, Em and the Big Hoom, which drew upon his experience of living with a mother who was bipolar. It touched thousands of readers, among them many who also had a loved one afflicted with a mental illness or infirmity. Some of these readers shared their stories with Jerry, and agreed to share them with the world.

A Book of Light : When a Loved One Has a Different Mind collects these harrowing yet moving, even empowering, stories—about the fragility and immense strength of the human mind; the bleakness and unexpected grace of life; the terror and majesty of love.

The following is an excerpt from Parvana Boga Noorani's story in the book.

Image courtesy Speaking Tiger

I must have been fifteen or sixteen years old then. The long holidays had brought me to Ujjain. I was the oddity, a girl from the city, a girl in trousers. It was a place of multiple eyes and constant surveillance. I had not chosen to come to Ujjain; I was there because my parents had settled there. My father moved there when my mother had caused some disturbances with his business partner in Bombay.

The three Boga children did not move with them. My eldest sister, Nivedita, had been adopted by my mother’s sister; she was given away when she was a little over two years old. The next sister had just been born then, and after a gap of three years, I was born. That summer in Ujjain, I was in between school and college, happy to spend time with my father, happy to get on to his motorbike and see the sights, happy to curl up with a book and read through long hot Central Indian afternoons. By this time, Nivedita was in Elphinstone College; my other sister in Calcutta.

I knew, we all knew, Mummy was ‘not well’. When we were very young, we were told she was suffering from ‘sunstroke’, something that had happened to her in Delhi, where summers were terrifying. 

My dad, I think, went to Delhi and brought her back. I really don’t remember much about this except feeling very left out as the adults tended to huddle together for discussions in hushed tones. Otherwise, it was just the way she was—she was mummy and we had to look after her. We had to bear with her. Once she even flooded the house, convinced it needed cleaning. It took us ages to get all the water out and the place dry enough to use. We knew she was not the standard-issue mother.

I remember her stomach being sensitive to the slightest bit of chilli; but one summer day she took a pound of grapes and put them in a bowl and announced that she was making wine. She stuck the bowl on a shelf and ignored it. The inevitable happened in the heat; a fungus grew over it and the whole thing fermented horribly. ‘This,’ she said, ‘is wine,’ and when we laughed, she sat down and ate it all. I remember watching her with horrified fascination; she was going to be ill, horribly ill. But she wolfed it down, fungus and all, and nothing happened. No, she was not the standard-issue mother.

One afternoon in Ujjain she seemed to want to prove it. I came home to find I had been locked out of the house. It was an old-fashioned house, full of connected rooms. Mummy didn’t have to do much to keep me at bay.

‘Do you want to come in?’ she asked me. ‘Of course I do.’

‘Jump in over the balcony then,’ she said.

It wasn’t as if she was asking me to do anything athletic. The wall around the barsaati balcony was just a couple of feet high. I stepped across it, aware that everyone was watching me, the downstairs neighbours, the young men with unsettling eyes lounging in the street…

Then she threw open the doors and shouted, ‘Look, look, my daughter is completely mad! She’s jumping over the walls even though the doors are open! She should be put in a mad house, poor thing.’

I went in and pushed her inside and slammed the door on those eyes and those neighbours.

You are mad,’ I shouted, ashamed and enraged. ‘I’m not. You’re the one who should be in a mad house, not me.’

For years I shouted those lines at her and then I realized there wasn’t much point. My mother was not going to a mad house. My father was having none of that. Kobad Boga had wooed his Dolly with love letters and poems; he had won her reluctant heart and he was not giving up on her that easily.

‘Beta,’ he would say when I stormed at him about something she had done, ‘You didn’t know her when she was normal.’

I had some hints though. Dolly was born into a family of teachers. Her sister, Shirin Maneckshahna, had studied teaching under the legendary Madame Maria Montessori herself. Dolly was a mathematician; a gold medallist who would take nothing less than full marks in arithmetic from her children. She’d worked at Queen Mary’s School and at the Delhi Public Library and the Tata Demographic Institute at Trombay. When I was four she had gone off to the US on an exchange programme for a year. She was selected to represent India—one of five people selected from different countries. She worked at the Minneapolis Public Library in Minneapolis, Minnesota for most of the time and then travelled all over Europe before she came back to Bombay. She was even interviewed by the Milwaukee Journal and told readers that children in India ‘had a great thirst for reading’.

While she was on her UNESCO-funded trip, my sister and I were looked after by my dad and Sunder (aka Sunni), our maid. I remember seeing Mummy off. She was going by ship and we went to the docks to see her off. When she came back a year later we went to the airport to receive her. I didn’t recognize this person with short bobbed hair, in a black dress with huge flowers printed on it and high-heeled white shoes. Where was my mummy of the crisp cotton saris, hair neatly tied in a bun and an amazing bindi on her forehead? This was some strange-smelling woman who came back. Even her bags and clothes had that ‘foreign’ aroma for a long time, all of which have lingered in my olfactory memory. When she went to sleep, she put rollers in her hair and tucked everything into a nightcap, which made us laugh like mad.

She told us she had dolls for us in her luggage that was to follow. When that luggage did arrive, by steamer, we went to Ballard Estate and onto the ship to pick up the largest ‘bag’ I’d ever seen. It was a cabin trunk with wooden slats and brass rivets all over it. My sister got a walkie-talkie doll and I got one that drank water from a bottle and promptly peed. (I was determined to find out how this happened and swiftly proceeded to rip the head off the doll to check the insides. Needless to say that was the last time the doll peed.)

So who was my mother? The caring woman who taught several generations of women mathematics? Or was she the woman who cornered me one day when I came out of my bath, a wet and skinny ten-year-old, saying, ‘Your sister’s not here to protect you now, what are you going to do?’

I can’t remember what it was about but I do remember my mouth going dry with fear and I remember yelling at her, ‘You’re crazy. Get out of here!’ I remember running out of the bathroom and straight to the neighbour’s house where I stayed until Sunni came to get me.

What do I tell you about her that will convey who she was? Do I tell you of the time I flippantly said to my dad, ‘Why don’t you divorce her?’ He just looked at me and repeated that I hadn’t known her when she was normal and I had to make allowances for her illness and understand. I also remember my dad teaching me to treat it as a joke and laugh—I guess just so that I wouldn’t cry.

But what do you do, laugh or cry, when your mother is holding a knife at your neck and threatening to kill you when you’re lying on the bed? It was a very sharp knife, its edge honed in the factory. I remember looking her in the eye and saying, calmly, very calmly, ‘Now don’t be stupid, just give me the knife.’ Where did that calm come from? Looking back now, it must just have been the instinct to survive. If I had reacted abruptly, that knife might have slipped. The tension was incredible but I kept looking her in the eye, forcing her to maintain eye contact, forcing her to recognize me as the child she had named. Finally, she did give me the knife. I don’t know if it was minutes or seconds; it seemed like hours. She made me promise I would go back to Bombay as soon as possible and not ‘come between my husband and me’. I also remember my heart threatening to burst out of my body while trying to look and sound calm. Putting this down on paper right now my heart is hammering—and she’s been dead over twenty years.

But again I also remember her when she was depressed. No amount of cajoling, yelling or coaxing could get her out of bed or get her to eat. At times like that she would lose weight and become half her size. She wouldn’t talk, eat, bathe or read though ours was a house that was filled with books and we all read, all the time.

There were highs and there were lows and we knew how to deal with them…or at least learned how to deal with them—a lot of that learning was ‘on the job’ as it were. Over time we became adept at recognizing the different phases; all it would take was a twitch of the eye, a change in handwriting and we knew which stage was coming next. Somewhere inside of her she too knew. She always kept her meds handy and knew what to take when. Medication in those days was very primitive. When she was high they gave her downers and when she was depressed she was given uppers. When I look back upon this pill popping I guess she was a junkie on prescription meds, before it was fashionable to be so.

I also remember her when she was given electro-convulsive therapy, ‘shock treatment’ as it was called. She would come out of that Bellasis Road Nursing Home like a zombie, her words slurring, her eyes crazier than normal. Those were truly terrifying days.

This is an excerpt from A Book of Light : When a Loved One Has a Different Mind edited by Jerry Pinto and published by Speaking Tiger. Republished here with permission from the publisher.
Parvana Boga Noorani has worn many hats in her life: daughter, sister, niece, lover, wife, aunt, airhostess, banker, caterer, food writer, friend. But the one she cherishes most is friend.
Jerry Pinto is the author of Em and the Big Hoom (winner of the Windham-Campbell Prize, the Hindu Literary Prize and the Crossword Book Award for Fiction) and Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb (winner of the National Award for the Best Book on Cinema). He has also translated several Marathi books into English including Sachin Kundalkar's eponymous debut novel Cobalt Blue, and Baluta by Daya Pawar.