Growing up, I don’t remember hearing the word ‘dementia’. All adults were old. It was just that some had more teeth than others. The cluster of symptoms we’ve come to call dementia didn’t indicate a disease any more than a baby’s inability to control its bodily functions or crack a joke are symptoms of any disease. My experience is probably typical of a kid growing up in the seventies or the eighties. But Ranjit Lal’s novel Our Nana Was A Nutcase comes at a time when things have changed, or are changing, in the way in we view ageing and the aged. Lal’s novel is about a teen’s rejection of that change. The book’s heroine and narrator, Avantika “Gosling” Singh, chooses to see her Nana, not as someone afflicted with a degenerative “disease”, but simply as someone to take care of and love.
Nana is lovable because he knows how to love. Avantika and her siblings – Harshita (“Duckling”) and the much-younger twins Niharika (“Dumpling”) and Nihal (“Dingaling”) – are raised by their Nana, not their jet-setting diplomat parents. The kids aren’t unhappy. Nana, with his medical and military background, is the kind of nutcase role-model who can undo practically any damage in a kid’s life. It also helps that Nana is filthy rich and that they all live in a “huge old rambling bungalow” at a hill station, staffed by two Gurkha batmen, their wives/cooks, a large friendly dog De-Big-Bazooka, and an antique car collection. Shabnam-aunty, Nana’s de-facto main squeeze, and a couple of neighbouring kids, Sahiba and Arun, complete the idyllic setup. Theirs is an Anglicized existence, where cute nicknames are a must, there’s afternoon tea, and hilarious hi-jinks substitute for the lack of real problems. That is, until Nana starts to unravel.
Avantika’s parents, always busier than Boutros Boutros-Ghali on his busiest day at the United Nations, have no intention of giving up their busy lives. They want to place Nana in a nursing home, sell the house to a hotelier, get rid of the servants, send Avantika’s siblings to boarding school, and get Avantika married off to a rich old Orc. Okay, the last part isn’t true. But for Avantika, it might as well be. The remainder of the story is about how she handles the crisis.
It’s a refreshingly different set of motivations. Avantika is neither a vampire nor a vampire’s girlfriend; she doesn’t have to slaughter other teens to survive; she doesn’t swagger about in leather armour; and she isn’t destiny’s child. She’s just a normal teen trying to do what’s right in a complicated world.
The novel has an energetic style, but it began with too much narration. It made Avantika come across like the party bore; once she has a firm grasp of your shirt button, you’re in for it. She holds forth on the circumstances of her birth, her beloved Nana, her adorable family, her views on Shabnam-aunty and Nana, her passion for saving people, her love of photography, blah blah blah. She and her sister Harshita both evolve as characters, but the other kids don’t. The twins remain annoying, Arun remains bossy, and Sahiba remains a non-entity. Ditto for the Gurkhas; they’re basically clones of Kipling’s Gunga-Din.
I found the adults much more interesting. Avantika’s absentee parents are atypical characters for an Indian children’s novel. They reminded me of Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House, ever busy with saving the children of Borrioboola-Gha in Africa, but with no time for her own. Shabnam-aunty is also an atypical character. She’s a single mother with a drinking, drugging lout of a son, which suggests her old age will be far less secure than Nana’s. This lack of security is revealed when Avantika’s mother accuses Shabnam-aunty of having designs on Nana’s wealth. But Lal takes care to present different points of view and this gives the book a lot of depth.
Towards the end, there is a long, rather pointless interlude involving Avantika and Arun. It shifted the focus away from Nana’s situation and whether love and good intentions are enough when it comes to dementia. Nana doesn’t become the kind of dementia patient who shits his bed, flies into rages, gropes family members, and needs watching 24/7. Nana, for all his deterioration, remains recognizable as Nana. Unfortunately, dementia often makes the ones we love unrecognizable. The person we love, they’re turned into a memory. What do we owe a memory? At what point does self-sacrifice become a kind of suicide?
There are no easy answers to such questions. And that is fine. It will suffice if this novel and others like it help our youngsters imagine better answers than the one we currently have.
By Anil Menon
OUR NANA WAS A NUTCASE
Author: Ranjit Lal
Rupa Publications, 2015
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction