Broken but whole

January 22, 2023

A tale of the resilience of the human spirit in the face of tragedy and calamity

Broken but whole


n her latest novel, The Blind Matriarch, Namita Gokhale delves into the intricacies of the joint family system prevalent in subcontinental societies. Through the eyes of the characters, the novel examines how the joint family can both bind and shape individuals and, ultimately, determine who holds power to break or keep the family together.

Matangi Ma, also known as the blind matriarch, is the eponymous character holding the family together despite her visual impairment, old age and weakness, inspiring everyone to look up to her as the thread that weaves the family together.

Matangi Ma resides on the fourth floor of House C100, a luxurious house in Delhi, accompanied by her caregiver, Lali, who has almost become a part of the family. Her three children live on the rest of the floors with their families. Although overprotective of her, the siblings mostly disregard her as a frail, old woman. All of them lead self-absorbed lives, but Ma has a way of knowing everything that is happening around her. While she is characterised by widowhood and blindness, her other senses have taken a heightened sensibility about everything.

Matangi Ma is a strong woman. She is aware that she has been wronged, yet strives to learn from her bitter experiences to nurture her offspring wisely, which is a rare in traditional Indian or Pakistani families. Despite her hardships, she emerges as a role model for how to raise a family differently.

As her children and grandchildren grow into the family dynamics, they become aware of the family secrets but still shower her with profound love. All is well in the house with two loving sons, a fond daughter, a dog named Dollar, and a cat named Trump until everything comes crashing down one day.

Covid-19 hits the world and everyone in the family is forced to rethink and reconfigure their world. As the world grapples with the web of confusion, and lockdowns, to contain the spread of Covid in India, Ma remains the epicentre of the house. Hardly anything has changed in her surroundings and being, except that her family is found more at home, next to her.

The book revolves around the lockdown and the pandemic and how it impacted the coping strategies of humans that no one knows will leave an everlasting mark on the family. Organised with the coil of memory and the spin of conjoined lives, the book delves into records of battles for individual development.

With simple, effortless language, this is one of the books that doesn’t keep you hooked to the last page. Still, it helps you appreciate certain elements of life that are generally difficult to process. 

Although the book lacks a bit in developing the characters’ background, it gives a fresh perspective. Gokhale beautifully handles the sensitive subject of the emotional sensibility required to cover empathy and mental well-being associated with the coronavirus. She also brings forth the gloom, despair and pause that the pandemic brought into everybody’s lives.

She examines what these accounts and developments translate to in our brains and bodies. The book thoroughly analyses how it is imperative to step back, once in a while, from our suffocating self-centeredness and cautiously look around.

A striking aspect of the novel is the portrayal of diverse characters. Each character is relatable and unique in their own way and the novel demonstrates how they cope and grow differently. The characters strive to understand and empathise with each other intellectually and financially. They put themselves in others’ shoes and look beyond themselves, showing that healing and reconciliation are possible.

What exactly is the book about?

“It’s difficult to explain or summarise what The Blind Matriarch is ‘about’. These lines from Toni Morrison’s Nobel lecture, which I read after I completed working on my novel, resonated deeply with what I had been trying to express: ‘Once upon a time, there was an old woman. Blind but wise.’ Or was it an old man? A guru, perhaps. Or a griot soothing restless children. I have heard this story, or one exactly like it, in the lore of several cultures. ‘Once upon a time, there was an old woman. Blind. Wise.’ This is what The Blind Matriarch is about. A timeless story, an ancient story, recognisable across cultures,” answers Namita Gokhale.

The story ends when the first wave of the pandemic subsides. The epilogue is set a year later at the onset of the second wave. When the lockdown isn’t as harsh, only losses are. Like all of us, the family doesn’t come through. Yet, the family remains. Fractured and ruptured. Like the nation.

With simple, effortless language, this is one of the books that doesn’t keep you hooked to the last page. Still, it helps you appreciate certain elements of life that are generally difficult to process. For example, how by concentrating on minute changes in our daily lives, we can allow our kids to embrace gratitude, kindness, candidness, and inclusiveness, which are integral beliefs for a happy family.

The Blind Matriarch

Author: Namita Gokhale

Publisher: India Penguin, 2022

Pages: 209, Hardcover

The reviewer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi

Broken but whole