Random House India 2012
303 pages, humor, romance, other way of looking at the world
Mallika, an autistic 18-year old girl, likes to have everything stay exactly how she wants it. If there is no soap in her bathroom, she can't use it. She does not speak to strangers, which includes everyone outside of her family, her teacher, and her only friend.
She remembers everything that she sees and reads, and loves to recite information to the people in her circle. She is not stupid, as some people call her; she just thinks differently than other people do.
When her parents want her elder brother Ananth to get married, she refuses. No strangers in the house! No matter what they do, she does not want things to change.
Meanwhile her brother is arguing with their parents about the arranged marriage. It turns out he loves someone else. But her background might be a bit of a problem...
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From the Eye of my Mind
This book is told from the point of view of the autistic young woman. Although Mallika notices everything that people do and say, she doesn't understand what their words or actions mean. Since the reader is privy to all of her thoughts, we get to see how she gets confused. She often wonders why someone is, for example, crying and smiling at the same time. She thought that you cry when you're sad and you smile when you're happy, but this new action frustrates her because it doesn't follow the rules.
Although I admit that very little experience with autistic individuals (I met some who were working in a store once...), the way Mallika sees the world meshes with my understanding of how their brain functions. More importantly, the book asserts the importance of viewing everyone as an individual whose brain works in a unique way. My brain, as someone who is very empathic and deals with anxiety and depression, also works differently from others' in ways that are relatively predictable. I am just now learning about these differences and how to work with them.
From Mallika, we can learn that people whose brains work differently are not better or worse - they're just different. If they are treated as individual adults, rather than examples of a disorder, everyone's life will be better.
Sexism in the love story
I was most disappointed by the ending of the novel, in which Julie, the main character's sister-in-law, quits her job in order to be Mallika's caregiver. This follows a series of fights between the newlyweds in which Ananth tells Julie to help his mother in the kitchen(!), despite the fact that she needs to get to work. When the shocked Julie tells him that he knew before their wedding that she would continue working at her job, Ananth disregards everything that she says.
When Mallika accidentally gets involved in the spat (she doesn't understand what's going on or how to deal with it), Julie accidentally makes her very angry. This escalates into Mallika getting into a traffic accident that lands her in the hospital, with the remorseful (?) Julie quitting her job to take care of her.
Why, Mr. Prasad, why? I was really rooting for this couple, who seemed like very progressive people until after they were married. Why did you have to make Ananth turn into a sexist jerk at the last minute?
After talking to my husband, I think I have a somewhat better grasp of what the author is trying to do with the plot of this book. Apart from Mallika's presence, the story of the marriage follows a set pattern that is very common in India: parents want to arrange a marriage, boy actually has someone in mind, there are problems because of religious differences, boy is stubborn, parents meet girl's parents, the wedding is arranged, and after the marriage the husband suddenly becomes possessive and controlling and wants her to stay in the kitchen.
According to Tintin, this is a common phenomenon. Whereas before marriage the men are on their best behavior, afterward they fall back on cultural understandings of gender roles.
I have heard of the boy's parents doing the same thing. The couple were childhood friends from the same neighborhood, and his parents always treated the girl well. Then, after they were married, the parents suddenly became very demanding and abusive toward her.
In this context, I kind of understand where the author was coming from. He was trying to portray a "normal" Indian relationship through the eyes of the autistic sister.
I still don't like the fact that Julie quit her job to care for Mallika. That was completely unnecessary.
Despite my immense disappointment with the ending (which very nearly ruined the book for me), I highly enjoyed this peek into Mallika's quirky, interesting brain. It was refreshing to see her "disability" treated with respect as just another part of her character. It is a (mostly) amusing and cute story that highlights the lived experience of autism for adults in India.
"When Children with Autism Grow Up" by Bob Plantenberg (Buzzfeed)
"Autism's First Child" by John Donvan and Caren Zucker, about the life of the first person diagnosed with autism in 1943 (The Atlantic)
An interview with the author (Hindustan Times)