Literary Review

A journey at many levels

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing; Mira Jacob, Bloomsbury, Rs.599.   | Photo Credit: Scanned in Chennai R.K.Sridharan

Mira Jacob’s The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is a journey on many levels: the physical travel that opens in Seattle, meanders to Salem and finds its final destination in Albuquerque (New Mexico) and the inward journey of Amina Eapen, the narrator. With her, we travel back and forth between the past and the present, privy to a life-changing episode in the Eapen family home in Salem and which, in a sense, becomes the marker for a series of tragic events that unfurl in the Eapen home in Albuquerque leading to the quiet crumbling of Amina’s four-member family.

Her father, Thomas, a medical doctor, is warm and gregarious but succumbs to bouts of hallucinations and slowly shrinks both emotionally and physically before dying. Kamala, Amina’s mother, is the classic matriarch; her solution to all problems is an abundance of food. Akhil, Amina’s brother, a teenager whose angst is a dull aching pain, and whose death in a freak accident, leaves a sense of void not only in the Eapen household but also in the mind of the reader.

Jacob is a master of portraying pain, not merely the physical. The vein of the book is a palpable sense of loss. It is also pungent; through words, Jacob allows us to smell pain; the flavours ooze from the elaborate meals that Kamala rustles up in moments of crisis; you can smell it in Akhil’s room, which is preserved as it was; you feel pain’s presence in the porch and the couch where Thomas spends his final days, blissfully unaware of the goings-on in the house, chatting away with his son, re-visiting his own childhood and all the many people who were part of his growing years. We also meet Bala, Chacko, Sanji Aunty, an extended, ever-ready adopted family that comes and goes in times of good and bad, filling the pages with chatter, life and reinforcing the need for comfort in a home grappling with silence and a sense of loss. The occasional bursts of sunshine come in the form of Dimple, Amina’s cousin, and Jamie, a childhood crush. In the latter, Amina finds the comfort of sex, love and, finally, the possibility of coming to terms with her own reality. We see her traverse a painful journey where she deals with and buries the many ghosts from her past.

There is also a lesson in the Indian philosophy of Karma. We are reminded about life’s favourite lesson — what goes around comes around. On a family visit to Salem, an explosive argument ensues between Thomas, his brother Sunil, and mother. Thomas and his family leave home in a jiffy. As the car pulls out of the gate, Sunil, runs after the car, “banging the flat of his palm on the trunk. ‘You wait. Your own children will leave you and never come back’.” Those ominous words set the tone for what is to come. “But it was Sunil’s parting words that had done the most damage, and more than once, Amina turned to find her father staring at her and her brother as though they had become unfamiliar to him already. Four years later, when Akhil died, she knew her uncle’s words were ringing in his head much louder than any consolation the minister offered.”

In pain, there is also poignancy. Relationships and their complexities are tackled with grace and dignity; the father-daughter bond that gets stronger when Amina moves back in to Albuquerque temporarily tugs at your heart. In Kamala’s never-say-die attitude, we recognise the eternal continuity of life; in conversations between Amina and Akhil, we think of our own siblings and our foolishness at how, more often than not, we take life for granted.

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Printable version | Apr 12, 2021 6:39:04 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/the-sleepwalkers-guide-by-mira-jacob-book-review/article6471253.ece

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