There have been times when the world has come to a standstill, when the world as one has known it seems to be coming to an end and another, an unknown and terrifyingly new one, is waiting to be born. Novelists have seized on the possibilities such a scenario presents and located some great writings in the times of the Great Depression in America, the October Revolution in Russia, the Black Plague that trampled across Europe as well as several dystopian, imaginary scenarios. The Covid-induced pandemic of the past year, too, will no doubt go down in history as an apocalyptic era and great works of fiction will emerge in the years ahead capturing a time when a deadly virus held the entire globe in its thrall making businesses and lives come to a grinding halt.
Namita Gokhale’s The Blind Matriarch will be ranked among the earliest literary responses to a ‘new normal’, a way of life brought on by curfew, lockdown, self-isolation, fear and panic. At the same time, it is not merely a pandemic novel for running with the weft of the strangeness of our times is the woof of multiple back-stories about a family that lives under one roof.
The stoic, indomitable Matangi Ma lives in the top-most flat of C-100, a well-to-do house somewhere in Delhi; her two sons live on the second and first floors and her unmarried daughter on the ground floor. While the lockdown of early 2020 confines them to the house, their stories spill out defying time and circumstance.
The family saga is interspersed with vignettes of a volatile world outside the relatively safe confines of C-100: a mass migrant exodus, extended curfews, the threat of job losses, a spate of natural disasters such as earthquakes, cyclones, floods and locust swarms not to mention China’s territorial aggression, disease and, yes, death.
Or as Gokhale lets quietly slip in: ‘The casual hatreds that flare up so randomly. The unease that sits within the privileged, the terror lurking with the less fortunate.’ The Blind Matriarch is by no means blind to the world despite its seeming gentle, upper middle-class savoir faire.
Beginning from March 2020 when the world ground to a standstill to the hot summer, the easing of restrictions, the uneasy calm that marks the lull before the storm and finally the Dance of Death during of the Second Wave of 2021, The Blind Matriarch provides a series of snapshots of the strange, bewildering year that was. Flashbacks of a darker past, grimmer in some ways than the vulnerable present, leaven the narrative. Snatches of poetry too appear and reappear—fragments from Ramdhari Singh Dinkar and Walt Whitman.
While the world turns and turns in a widening gyre and an anarchy of disorder is let loose, Matangi Ma is at the still centre of this complex web of many stories. While others rail against the oppressive quiet of life in lockdown, little has changed in the rhythm of her days except that now her flock is close beside her. Diagnosed with macular degeneration while still not old, by now she has had ample time to learn to live with her blindness. If anything, the blindness has honed her senses to see and feel what those with sight cannot, or do not, see.
Always deft at depicting the human condition, Gokhale brings alive each of her characters in this book. As in her previous novels such as Paro, Things to Leave Behind and most recently Jaipur Journals, it is the tiny detail, the individual quirk, the ability to delineate the small joys and the big sorrows that mark Gokhale as a writer of immense skill and sensitivity.
Read The Blind Matriarch as a chronicle of an annus horribilis that has left virtually no one untouched. Read it also for its life-affirming gravitas.