It’s easy to see why Juliet Reynolds chose this title for her book. Almost a decade ago, Pixar Animation and Walt Disney released ‘Finding Nemo’ — a computer-animated tale of a plucky little clown fish Nemo, who is abducted, and the film goes on to tell the story of his rescue, with the forces of the seaworld working with his father to do so. An utterly fascinating tale, one that corralled a groundswell of fan support, not merely among children, for the utterly fascinating film.
Finding Neema is an equally absorbing tale about Neema, a goofy boy whom therapists have placed at some point in the wide range of Autism Spectrum Disorders. What is also interesting is how Reynolds works into this tale, essentially about Neema, nuances about the social (promiscuity, flesh trade, harassment of women, the Indian family structure) and cultural aspects of an essentially Indian life. With involvement and yet with the point of view as an outsider looking on with a tad more than mere curiosity of a non-Indian.
As you thumb through the book, you can’t help but nod along with what the blurb says, “Honest and unsentimental, yet funny and compassionate.” Reynolds tells multiple stories, of her own unusual life and marriage to an Indian artist (she herself is of Irish and British descent), the parallel, breathless lives of her household help, of the long-fruitless efforts to have Neema’s condition defined, the politics of the art scene in India, but more centrally, of the antics of Neema, sometimes endearing, sometimes maddening, often frustrating.
The book begins, appropriately, with a reminiscence of Reynolds first setting her eyes on Neema, hardly one, with his high cheekbones and narrow-set eyes, a colouring that clearly identified him as a child of the eastern Himalayas. It is packed within a narrative of the circumstances of the couple’s (the author and her husband the late artist Anil Karanjai) life in Delhi - “Not for us- Anil and me- the luxury of an air conditioner… ours was a life of relative simplicity, born partly of necessity and partly of choice.” In walks Poonam, Neema’s mother, arriving flashy, just as her presence in their lives.
In the very few pages of the book, nearly all the central characters are rolled out with effortless ease. And that familiar feeling of warmth that surrounds the cockles of your heart sets in. Reynolds is not Neema’s mother, just his guardian, right to the very end. Perhaps that’s the uniqueness of this book — she is unapologetic about his various faults, just as generous in her appreciation of his endearing quirks. She sets the tone quite early: “Childlessness wasn’t a prospect that troubled me a great deal, if at all. I’d always rebelled against the notion that unless a woman embraced motherhood she would remain incomplete.”
Reynolds is a ‘reluctant mother’ and that probably makes all the difference - she makes no bones about the fact that she sometimes wants to shake up Neema, and does too. A lot of mothers with kids with disabilities often feel that frustration, she says, but to put this frankness down in writing calls for some courage. “It was not that I always resorted to using physical force with Neema, but even when I didn’t, my tirades were sufficient to produce a terrible tension in him, aggravating his bad behaviour. Anil often berated me for this. I clearly recall his saying one day that he believed from my attitude that I hated Neema.”
Neema was a soundless child, and that must have provided indications of his autism early on. But then, he was born in an era when autism was perhaps not as finely defined as it is today, if at all it was diagnosed.
Autism is the term for a complex set of brain disorders that results in among other things, difficulties in social interactions, communication and repetitive behaviour. It can also be associated with difficulties in motor co-ordination, health issues like gastrointestinal problems, like Neema had.
But beyond definition, Neema, in Reynolds' book, is an impish boy, who found intense pleasure in social communication, loved turning the attention on himself, was capable of affection, was wonderful working with other children, and capable of shutting himself off completely too. The book traces his growth and development, how the family takes his rough patches along with the smooth ones.
While the book traces a lot of relationships, the most intricate ones are between the members of the family, including Reynolds’ closeness with her husband. Consequently, the play of emotions soon after the sudden death of Karanjai. Classically unsentimental, even at that point, at its most intense emotional moment, Reynolds retains the honesty that seems to be the cornerstone of the book. She and Neema keep losing and finding each other, she acknowledges that he restores her to a sense of optimism, keeps her anchored to a saner reality. Equally frank, then, is her confession “I couldn’t have asked for more from a child of my own.”