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An inner world of one’s own

Sandhya Mary’s protagonist, Maria, is confronted with the predicament of overlapping binaries between the normal and all that is not deemed sane, albeit much later in life

Shaoli Pramanik Published 08.03.24, 11:21 AM
Illustration of a girl suffering from hallucinations

Illustration of a girl suffering from hallucinations Getty Image


Author: Mary Sandhya


Published by: Harper Perennial

Price: Rs 499

“We’re all mad here,” the Cheshire Cat had apprised an Alice grappling with the peculiarities of Wonderland. This seemed to have assured Lewis Carroll’s seven-year-old protagonist about the existence of a non-normative, alternative realm down the rabbit hole where the unreal can coalesce with the real.

Sandhya Mary’s protagonist, Maria, is also confronted with the predicament of overlapping binaries between the normal and all that is not deemed sane, albeit much later in life. The novel begins with one of Maria’s feverish dreams after which she finds herself sitting in a psychiatric ward probing the cause of her insanity. But Mary quickly shifts the narrative to Maria’s childhood to help readers unravel the mystery behind her “abnormal” mind.

Born in a family of Syrian Christians based in Kerala, Maria was raised in Kottarathil Veedu — her maternal grandfather’s place. Kottarathil Veedu’s motley crew of eccentric residents and its strange atmospherics leave an indelible mark on Maria: the residents include Appachan, her grandfather, who feels claustrophobic within the confines of ‘home’; Ammachi, her grandmother, who holds her husband responsible for Maria’s “madness”; Anna Valyama, her dementia-ridden great-aunt, who seeks solace in bodily pleasures; Neena Aunty, who locks herself in her room most of the time; and also an anthropomorphic dog and parrot that converse with Maria and some of the other inhabitants. Characters who are long dead and religious figures also saunter in and out of Marialand, such as Mathiri Valyamachi, her great-great-grandmother who used to tell prophecies, Geevarghese Sahada, the deceased patron saint who slips into the dreams of people until they grow tired of him, and Karthav Esho Mishiha (Jesus Christ) with whom Maria hatches a political rebellion as an adult. This rich but also unsettling inner world provides Maria with the munitions to not only question societal impositions but also be aware of the potency of things that elude the reach of the rational: “[R]eal life is boring and madness might add a bit of interest to it.”

Mary’s prose is lucid. Jayasree Kalathil, the translator, captures the nuances of Mary’s prose, retaining some Malayalam words to communicate the essence of Maria’s surroundings. Mary dexterously etches the porous borders between the real and the imaginary in Maria’s mind. She also consciously allows Maria’s narration — despite its unreliable, hallucinatory edge — to take precedence over other voices, such as those of the narrator, Appachan, Arvind, her lover, or Mathew, her brother. This arms this intergenerational story with the power to introspect on insanity.

The non-linear narrative structure is also justified given that the novel stitches together disparate episodes of Maria’s life and her scattered thoughts. For instance, a hilarious incident involving Appachan, Ammachi, Maria and the dog chas­ing Neena in circles is revealed seve­ral chapters later to be a figment of Maria’s imagination. It is this constant negotiation between the realms of real and unreal, sanity and lunacy that makes Maria’s story poignant.

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