Book review: 'Finding Neema'

Sunday, 22 September 2013 - 11:39am IST | Agency: DNA
A book that looks at autism with disconcerting interest, Finding Neema is also a memoir about the different things that have given the author's life purpose and direction.

Book: Finding Neema
Author: Juliet Reynolds
Publisher: Hachette India
Pages: 340 pages
Price: Rs 399

It may come as a surprise to those drawn by the cover portrait and the blurb at the back that Finding Neema is not, in essence, about “the autistic boy from the eastern Himalayas” whose name inspired the book’s title. Its opening and closing pages do focus on the child (now a young man in his twenties) whom Juliet Reynolds and her late husband, Anil Karanjai, had initially taken under their wing to rescue him from his traumatic home environment.

The further we probe, however, the more persuaded we are that this disabled boy is but one of the many concerns that have given Reynolds’s life its purpose and direction.

A memoir in all but name, Finding Neema is largely about the India-based author herself — her Anglo-Irish descent and upbringing, her social circle and her work and achievements as an art critic, writer, activist, occasional filmmaker and authority on Indian art.

There is also a great deal about her Bengali husband and his profession as an artist and about the series of live-in servants Reynolds came to hire and fire to find a reliable helping hand to look after Neema. The cameos of these individuals, laced with the author’s acerbic humour, are entertaining and the description of their grim earlier circumstances a telling exposé of the level of degradation to which poverty can reduce human beings.

Particularly moving is the story of Neema’s young Nepali mother, the ambitious but reckless Poonam, a sometime maid in Reynolds’s home whose propensity for laying herself open to abuse and exploitation by a series of unsuitable lovers evokes as much empathy as exasperation.

The apparent reserve with which Reynolds chronicles her interest in autism is disconcerting as a first-hand witness of the disorder’s heartrendingly crippling symptoms. Yet she is generous in her praise of those who helped her to cope with Neema and meet his needs, among them, Merry Barua and Saswati Singh, mothers of autistic offspring themselves, who fought insurmountable odds to do much for similarly afflicted Indian children.

It is not these portions of the book that contribute to its moments of emotive power but the author’s abiding love for her husband and the portrait she paints of him as a maverick who defied norms. In taking up the cause of the man who was ostensibly denied recognition for his talent because he refused to bow to the dictates of the increasingly commercialised world of art, Reynolds is at her gutsy and passionate best.

If Anil remains with us, however, it is because the author so fondly describes his compassion and patience in handling Neema’s autism, contrasting them with her own avowed discomfiture in dealing with many aspects of the boy’s disability, including incontinence and the sometimes publicly exhibited signs of his growing sexual awareness.

She is as brutally honest about her feelings of fury and frustration over having to often put her own life on hold for Neema’s sake and about her tendency to “frequently resort to force” in dealing with him. Few guardians would dare to make such admissions in print.

An autistic person can remain a lifelong liability, but Neema has apparently fared better. Declaring that he is now more of a “contributing member” in the institution where he has been placed, Reynolds takes comfort from the “sense of optimism” to which he has “restored” her.

It marks a closure of sorts to the story that began much before she and her husband took on a challenge they could well have done without, given their “unstable” financial situation and their
conscious decision of not having children of their own.

Neema may not constitute that story’s heart and soul, but interestingly, it is his presence that helps Reynolds hold
it together.

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