Virginia Woolf has written thus about the dilemma of being ‘locked out’ and ‘locked in’: “I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse, perhaps, to be locked in” Naina, the protagonist of Shefali Tripathi Mehtas “People on Our Roof”, feels very much akin to being locked in, as she spends her entire lifetime taking care of her family members – both elders and youngsters, at the cost of her social life, love, and everything normal.
In a once-grand, now down-at-its-heels bungalow in a South Delhi neighbourhood, Naina lives with her mother, sister, and the stigma that madness runs in the family. “People on Our Roof” (Niyogi Books) traces her undying commitment to her kin, her struggle with relationships, and a heart-wrenching story of indestructible love between two people.
Born of a mother who suffers from chronic schizophrenia (Naintara, or Amma, as she calls her), Naina is exposed to social embarrassment from an early age – whether Amma walks in naked into a house party, dresses Naina in the wrong uniform to school, or gives birth to a second child (Tara) who happens to suffer from Rett syndrome.
Unable to cope, Naina’s grandfather (Nana), takes his own life — shoots himself in the head, and leaves his wife (Nani) the task of keeping together the family – a family that is already broken. Naina’s Papa, unable to take care of a schizophrenic wife and an autistic daughter, while maintaining a job and the facade of a ‘normal’ life simultaneously, leaves little Naina with Amma and Tara at her Nana-Nani’s.
Soon after her Nana passes away, Papa leaves them too — abandons them — as Naina recalls, to escape from it all. The art of taking care of people tirelessly is what Naina inherits, when her Nani passes away due to old age. On her young shoulders lies the heavy responsibility to feed the family of four: herself, Amma, Tara, and the brother-like house help, Raju.
While Amma remains preoccupied with imaginary figures on the roof (hence the title), the real people from Naina’s life either disappear, like Papa and Deepak (her lover), or simply grow distant. Their house is marked as a ‘Pagalkhana’, a madhouse; she loses all grace at her potential in-laws’ for the absence of a patriarch in the family and a disinterest of forming any association with a family that has a history of mental illness.
She even receives a marriage proposal from a man with mental health issues, arranged by her so-called well-wishing neighbour, Gupta Aunty, as Naina already has a lifetime training of a caregiver.
She is ‘locked out’ from the external world of friends, acquaintances, and romance, as she is ‘locked in’ in a long, trying life of being the primary caregiver and caretaker of her family. Thus, adult Naina’s story is about how she turns her life around, manages to find her own place in the world, and establishes her own identity.
Finally, Naina as she gets a new job, meets new people, supports her family, experiences love and rejection, and beautifully finds a balance between the weight of her past and the pace of her present.
While this is a fictional rendition, this novel paints a portrait that is very real. Naina’s life is the life of those who have to shoulder the responsibility of looking after family members whose minds are wired differently, and are ‘other’-ed for it. The purpose of this narrative is to voice their experience in the battle of what is ‘normal’ and what should be.
A very sobering read, it is.