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Neema: Muse and social glue (Book Review)

By Rosamma Thomas, Book: Finding Neema; Author: Juliet Reynolds; Publisher: Hachette India; pages: 340; Price: Rs.399


Reading "Finding Neema" is almost like living a life vicariously. Juliet Reynolds, the author of this memoir, has years still to go and some bit of writing still to do. Through the book, though, this filmmaker and art curator offers readers a candid and self-reflexive account of her marriage, her work and, most of all, her child.

Yes, her child. She is legally only the guardian of Neema, the autistic child of a Nepali mother, but it is clear that she derives much of her own sense of self in relation to him. In finding Neema, thus, it is almost like Reynolds finds herself.

The memoir is a linear narrative, beginning with Reynolds' acquaintance with the man who would be her husband, the one who would ultimately make her think of India as her own. Anil Karanjai is the not-so-widely-renowned painter of what is known as the Hungryalist school that took roots in the early 1960s in West Bengal, to shake off, once and for all, the colonial yoke in poetry and art. Reynolds would showcase Karanjai's works and find solace in his arms.

Karanjai appears, in this memoir, as a man only too willing to go with the flow, spontaneous in his expression and deeply perceptive, able to communicate with ease across cultures and continents. Not a man conventionally trained or educated and with little care for wealth. Precarious living seems to come naturally to him. And after his sudden death, Reynolds wonders if she knew all she should have about his visits to the doctor. Could he deliberately have left a condition untreated? Given the character portrayed in the narrative, that might well have been the case.

The couple remains financially insecure as Reynolds gives up a teaching position to explore other avenues and Karanjai's paintings bring them only an unsteady income. The portraits he paints are sometimes commissioned, but the flow of money is not regular.

So where does Neema fit in, one might ask.

Neema is the child of one of the people who serve in the Karanjai-Reynolds household. The couple has a steady stream of people hired for domestic labour and it is interesting what a range of experience these helps come with. Among the reasons Reynolds offers for continuing to live in India is the relative ease with which she could outsource some of her domestic work, especially with a child like Neema to look after.

The narrative about the domestic arrangements and the people who become part of the household take up quite a chunk of the book. The cross-nation mobility of domestic workers and the sorry tales of family instability are revealing.

There are also frequent references to friends, and an endearing portrait of Reynolds' mother, whose relationship with Neema is both deeply affectionate and unconsciously pedagogical, aiding him in developing motor skills by buying him simple toys.

Neema is the one bond between all the people who visit or work in the house. He is also the centre of much of Reynolds' striving and it is with some pride that she closes her book as she reflects upon Neema as a young man, taking young ones suffering, like him, with autism, under his wings.

This is a straightforward memoir and it does not pretend to be high literature. It is a tale simply told of a life in which many unforeseen things are accepted with grace. There is love, and anger; there is goodness, and kindness - ordinary, yet rare.

(23.08.2013 - Rosamma Thomas can be contacted at rosamma.t@ians.in)

--IANS (Posted on 23-08-2013)

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