Challenging the normal: A sensitive portrayal of a schizophrenic woman’s life and what she faces

Never stagnant, the story sets out to explore the unknown, both within and outside — the search for a father who abandons his mentally ill wife and daughters, a quest for answers, for closure.

By Reya Mehrotra

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Amma without her clothes. Perfectly still. Like a photograph. No one laughed. Except her. It is perhaps this scene in the story that stays etched in the mind, like the little green people on the roof that stay with the protagonist — for the madness that runs in her family. This is the story of a schizophrenic mother Naintara and her two daughters — an autistic Tara and Naina, who seeks closure.

If not for the multilayered approach that Shefali Tripathi Mehta comes forward with, People on Our Roof would have fallen flat on its face. But it doesn’t. The characters sit, comfortably in our minds, hidden deep in our subconscious, just nagging at us from time to time as we read about the experiences of living with those “not all there”, as the author points out, but in a parallel world of their own.

With a breezy feel, the novel talks about a storm that ravages a happy family. The protagonist Naina carries on as the lone breadwinner of her shattered family with A Suitable Boy’s Lata Mehra’s girl-next-door vibes. A Lata-like Naina explores the many suitors around her — Deepak, Michael, Anand, Uday in search of a shoulder to unshackle herself from her traumatic past and a troubled present.

The coming-of-age work of fiction makes you cry, sends chills down the spine, excites, piques curiosity and most important of all, explores the psychology of the family dealing with mental illnesses. One feels empathy for Naina until she admits seeing the ‘little green people’. “But it runs in my family,” she protests, while justifying their presence on the edge of her terrace. It is then that shock and fear grips the reader.

From the story of a survivor, Naina, untouched by the madness running in her family, the narrative melds into the story of the dreaded past —where the green little people (a product of Naintara’s imagination as she suffered from schizophrenia) come alive to haunt Naina. Perhaps one realises they were always there but not as acquainted with Naina as they were with her mother.

Never stagnant, the story sets out to explore the unknown, both within and outside — the search for a father who abandons his mentally ill wife and daughters, a quest for answers, for closure.

The work of fiction goes beyond the story of a mental health patient and makes us question saneness. “Who decides what madness is?” asks Uday, referring to the mad chaos of the world. It talks back to society at large that views mental health illnesses as a taboo — a society that inscribes ‘madhouse’ on the walls of Naina’s house or hurts her autistic and innocent sister, causing her to bleed or send Naina marriage proposals of mentally ill men because “who else would marry her?”

As Naina justifies the need for families to sterilise girls with neurological difficulties vulnerable to the horrors of the world, one questions the concepts of sanity. Is the insensitive mankind any saner than those diagnosed? One thinks otherwise. “It is not a casual decision for parents — or caregivers. They don’t do it for their own convenience. It is in the best interest of the girls… In our country where you and I, even with the help of all our faculties, education, lessons drilled into us, cannot protect ourselves from the perverts roaming the streets, in our own homes even, how do you think these girls would take care of themselves?” Naina retorts to her colleagues, mocking the process. And through her voice, Mehta speaks to a world that mocks, hates, pities and perpetuates crimes against those born with mental illnesses. If only we all had butterflies in our head and people on our roofs, we would all see what they see and experience what they go through.

People on our Roof
Shefali Tripathi Mehta
Niyogi Books
Pp 228, Rs 399

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