Even though the book is listed as “non-fiction/memoir”, the presence of a plot is unmistakable. Juliet Reynolds takes the reader through the journey of finding Neema and the various milestones she has encountered along the way. The book serves as a telling memoir of both the difficult and happy times she has had in India and around Neema. The prose is quite straightforward and details her experiences. The cover features an arresting portrait by Anil Karanjai, Reynold’s husband and legal guardian, of the subject in question, Neema. The lay reader has possibly not heard much of Karanjai, but is assured by the author that he is nothing short of a visionary devoted to his ideals.
The book details the life of Neema, the autistic child of one of the author’s endless line of maids, with a colourful rendition of the circumstances of his birth and the turmoil he faces in his early childhood which aggravates his condition. Being born to a mother he cannot count on to provide for his special needs, he is “adopted” by the Karanjai-Reynolds family and goes on to live with them along with a motley collection of cats and dogs.
Neema is described in equal parts of affection and exasperation, and serves both as a stress buster in the author’s trying times, as well as source of stress, because of the obsessive and idiosyncratic behaviours that autism engenders. Reynolds struggles to bring about his development into a productive person, and makes multiple attempts to channel his hyperactivity and endless energy to something constructive and as a result of this champions a non-profit autism organisation that helps spread awareness and therapies that benefit both sufferers and their families.
Neema is portrayed as essentially endearing, boundlessly cheerful and affectionate, but also difficult to handle at times and constantly needling his “mother”.
The author seeks no pity or validation, stating most of her ordeals matter-of-factly and is also able to honestly gauge her reactions to it and offers insightful analysis of her thought process.
Neema’s biological mother is Poonam, and she makes flying visits, as she does in the book itself, into Neema’s life and does feel the motherly affection. She, however, feels the child is tying her down, and sets out to make a life of her own, followed by a string of bad decisions, facilitated by her stubbornness and impulsive nature. The author is routinely exasperated by her, but cannot shirk her because of the “debt” the author owes her in lieu of Neema, and so continues to oblige her every time she lands with a new problem.
It is apparent that autism is one of the characters in the story. How it strains relations, but also strengthens it in times, is interesting to note. The initial difficulties of diagnosing it, due to lack of facilities in India, compound Neema’s woes.
Reynolds does seem to share the love-hate relationship that most expats seem to have with India. She is thoroughly engrossed in the ancient art tradition and the availability of cheap labour to look after household chores and care for Neema but concedes that it has spoilt her and that she has taken it for granted. She despises the inherent politics of the art world and stops short of naming names.
Karanjai also seems to be an immensely likeable person, with strong ideals and the means to enforce them though his art and activism and the book makes the reader take mental notes to check out his works of art.
Finding Neema is a surprisingly engrossing read, although a large part details the bevy of servants that frequent their household and their back stories of crushing poverty and their attempts to make the best of it.