Freshly released People On Our Roof is a coming of age story by author Shefali Tripathi Mehta, it also explores the world of people whose minds are wired differently. In a once-grand, now down-to-its-heels bungalow in a South Delhi colony lives Naina with her mother, sister, and the stigma that madness ‘runs in the family’. It is a portrait of one woman's undying commitment to her kin; her struggle with relationships and a heart-wrenching story of indestructible love between two people. Smita Singh speaks to the author to know more about this soul-searching book.
What motivated you to write on the theme of mother-daughter-sister bond and the stigmas and struggles that people dealing with mental health issues have to face, along with their loved ones?
I’d like to say that didn’t choose the theme; the theme chose me. I’m drawn to how our minds work – all minds, not just those that function differently. Even no two neuro-typicals think, consume information or emotion and react in the same way – there are hundreds of things that colour our perception – love, anger, jealousy, education, appearance, our deep-rooted, biases being the most barefaced ones.
Caring for a person with mental illness is more extracting physically and mentally and added to it is the world outside that is ready to label you ‘mad’ as well: Shefali Tripathi Mehta
My other fascination is with relationships – the subtle undercurrents and nuances that shape these. So yes, I wanted to portray a strong woman at the centre of this whorl, with the immediate family around. And just because these two people, her mother and her younger sister are tethered to her, the rest of the world sees her with different eyes.
The character of Naina is so relatable. She's a woman of today. Managing a job, running a house, looking after an ailing parent and a vulnerable sibling, getting over a break-up, all with no real support system to speak of. Naina keeps many balls up in the air, trying not to let any of them fall. How did you conceive this character?
Once I contextualised the character of Naina, she became a real person who grew up alongside me – together we read and made sense of her mother and sister’s minds and the reactions of the world around them. I felt her every need -- of love, friendships, independence, career. So, there was no plan to show her in a particular light, except that I could not let her be bogged down by her circumstances. She has her moments of weakness, when she feels vulnerable, helpless; but it was clear in my head that she would rise, wipe her tears and get on with the job at hand, always. That’s how life is meant to be lived.
What I like about Naina is that she is not drawn as a tragic figure. That's the strength of the book as well I feel. She is a feisty woman dealing with all the curve balls that life has thrown her way in the best way possible. Though she has her moments of self- pity, she never wallows in it. Is there a message you were trying to give?
I’m glad you think she’s feisty! How wonderful is that! And although I did not intend to give a message; but if there is one that the reader gleans from it, I hope it is a message of hope, of courage, of living the best life we can in our circumstance and to live with compassion and kindness.
You have dealt with the responsibilities and tension of a caregiver. Whenever there is a talk about a person who is mentally unwell...all talk about that person and her issues but nobody talks about the caregiver. Caregivers face issues of their own. The loneliness, guilt, sadness and trepidation of having no one to share the burden. All this is well brought out through Naina the primary caregiver beautifully. Was that your intention?
Yes, caregivers’ lives are completely overshadowed by the suffering of those they care for. Imagine not having a single Sunday in your life! They just have to go on and on. Caring for a person with mental illness is more extracting physically and mentally and added to it is the world outside that is ready to label you ‘mad’ as well, and in Naina’s case, ‘loose’ too. The compulsion for me to write about this, at some subconscious level, has been to hold up a mirror to us all.
Talking about caregivers, don’t you think the responsibility of caregiving falls on the women in the family more than men mostly? Why do you think that is? Is this why you have shown that Naina’s father abandons them, but she takes up the responsibility of caring for her mother and sister.
Yes, women do end up being the primary caregivers. But having said that, I know of men who have left everything behind, even their marriages to care for their ageing or ailing parents or siblings. Also, I would attribute this to our deep-rooted stereotypical mindsets that would also, for example, not accept a man to not be the primary bread-earner. Imagine, a young male being told that you don’t need to worry about a job or career, we will get you married into a rich family (or a kamane-wali biwi)!
In this story, there is this factor of Naina’s father being kept in the dark about her mother’s mental illness. And for that too, we have our collective ignorance, the denial of our acceptance of mental health issues to thank for. Even those that can be helped, and most can be, are not receiving the psychological and medial attention that they should. In his defence, Naina’s father felt cheated and therefore, not duty-bound. And that’s what makes Naina’s character special; she takes it in her stride.
There is a stigma attached to Naina’s family- that people madness runs in the family. Isn't that the reality, if one person in the family is mentally unwell, people very easily say 'it runs in the family'?
When it comes to the stigma attached to mental health, it runs deep. Which is also the reason why people do not seek help because it cannot be outed. So, you see, it’s a vicious circle. Notice how Naina avoids talking about her mother and sister initially – to her colleagues, to Deepak’s family? Gradually she gains the confidence to talk about them and I think that was very intentional – she did it unapologetically. But also, what happened when Deepak’s family finds out?
When it comes to the stigma attached to mental health, it runs deep. Which is also the reason why people do not seek help because it cannot be outed: Shefali Tripathi Mehta
It’s been a harsh year. The loss of livelihoods in all sectors, across all industries is a more visible fallout but the abuse inside homes, especially of women, elderly, people with physical or mental health issues, house-helps is not being talked about. If there is something we must constantly strive to learn, to open ourselves to, it is compassion.
You are associated with Arushi in Bhopal, an organisation that works with children with disabilities. How did your work with the organisation shape the sketching of Naina's bond with her specially-abled sister?
There is so much to learn from the work of Arushi. The first is acceptance – of everything, everyone. Then, to learn to live life in the best possible way whatever, however grave your challenges. Miracles first materialise in our minds. I have seen miracles happen. And finally, the most important lesson, live with joy. Be happy, take happiness with you wherever you go.
The men in Naina's life are not viewed as saviours in this story; they may come to her aid, even lend her a much needed helping hand, but ultimately, she makes her own way. What made you portray Naina's relationship with the men in her life in such a way?
Women depend on men too much is my all-time lament. From small things to life-changing decisions, we think, we need the validation from a man – father, brother, husband, partner. Some men seem to like it, but I can bet a lot of them would be so happy and so proud to see women own their lives and their decisions. I don’t say this as a point of contention in homes but as something freeing for both men and women. Isn’t it so beautiful that Naina goes off in search of the mysteries of her past on her own? She knows she has the support of Uday if she were to need it. That’s the support we need – man or woman.
Tell us a little bit about your previous book Stuck Like Lint.
Stuck Like Lint is a story about stories. It delves deep into relationships – author-editor at the frame level, and husband-wife, employer-employee, lovers as the fifteen stories that form the sub-level narrative. There is a twist in the last story that the reader will only get if they read through. I loved writing it and I wish that the short-story genre got better recognition.
Feature Image: Niyogi Books/Shefali Tripathi Mehta