A welcome take on troubled minds

A welcome take on troubled minds

This novel explores the world of the people who are "wired differently" and the lives and losses of those who take care of them.

People On Our Roof

Naina Singh doesn’t have it easy. She’s juggling two low-paying tutoring jobs when we first meet her as an adult in the opening pages of Shefali Tripathi Mehta’s new novel, People On Our Roof. She’s aware that things need to change, that her circumstances need to improve so she’s trying to find a better job — hopefully one in an ad agency that can lead to better things for her and her family.

That family comprises her mother and younger sister. They live together with a loyal caretaker named Raju in a rundown bungalow in South Delhi that used to belong to Naina’s maternal grandparents. Her father is no longer around and this is the late 90s before the advent of mobile phones and social media.

Naina’s difficulties are soon made clear — her mother’s got mental health issues (schizophrenia to be exact) and her sister is autistic. Coupled with financial constraints and the pressures of being a young, unmarried woman in a social milieu that looks askance at women who seek to be independent, it’s a wonder that Naina is able to keep it together.

Tackling stigma

But keep it together she does. In recent years, there’s been a welcome trickle of Indian literary fiction addressing the issues surrounding mental health and how it goes unaddressed in most Indian families. The stigma that any kind of disability brings has been examined by some very fine writers and this has resulted in wonderfully empathetic and moving stories that ask what it means to be a human with frailties in an unforgiving society.

People On Our Roof explores the world of people “who are wired differently” (as one of the characters in the book puts it) and more importantly, the lives, losses and loves of those who take care of them. While Naina’s sister and mother are pushed away by society to live their lives out of sight and out of mind, they are clearly the reason for which she struggles through each day.

Naina eventually gets a job that offers the prospect of steady pay and a promising career in a small tech company that will be familiar to those who remember the heady days of the Indian IT sector of the late nineties and early aughts. Mehta wonderfully captures the optimism and innocence of that era when the internet had not yet made inroads into almost every aspect of daily life. Characters still use public call booths. Telegrams are not yet extinct.

As Naina gains more of a social circle and falls in and out of love, things at home don’t remain peaceful for long. The unpredictability of her mother’s illness coupled with the external triggers and pressures that are always ready to invade a house occupied by three women threaten to cause disruptions at any moment. The reader too ends up questioning the motivations of the many male characters that appear in the narrative once Naina makes her way into the larger world. There’s a sense of things being slightly off-kilter even in the way the story swoops back and forth between the past and present.

Those flashbacks, to Naina’s troubled childhood in the very same house where they now live and where she was taken by her grandparents to escape her parents’ volatile marriage, come upon you without much warning and you need to pay close attention to the text so that no detail goes amiss. It’s not clear if Mehta intended this by design — while we are following the story from Naina’s point of view and we are so often in her head, the suddenness of these time jumps often distract from the flow of the story. Mehta also drops clues to Naina’s own state of mind when she too sees the people on the roof that tormented her mother. But these are not explored further and are not completely convincing.

This is Mehta’s fifth book and she has written about disability awareness and volunteers for the cause — it’s an issue she’s clearly passionate about. People On Our Roof is a welcome addition to the ongoing and much-needed national conversation about mental health and disability — and more importantly, it is an evocatively written work of fiction that does not sacrifice narrative and storytelling for polemics and political debate.