Sepia Leaves : Book Review

I recently found an old copy of the book “Sepia Leaves” in my office and was pleasantly surprised by what a great read it was.

The back of the book invokes a onerous atmosphere with a few references to the “Nehruvian” ideal of India, which I thought was a little disconnected from the topic of mental illness. The book is an autobiographyical retelling of the authors experiences growing up with his Schizophrenic mother.

However both the author and his mother are not the most intriguing characters though they drive much of what is described. The book lives up to this great expectation set by it’s back cover, by being a potrait of an newly independent country with it’s setting in factory towns and amongst a great range of people from the lower and middle classes.

His father in many ways is a deeply fascinating, meek and private man who is a perfect recipient for the nation’s propaganda about itself. He lionises Gandhi and struggles to live up to the ideal as the many strains and limits of what the middle classes of the day can aspire to rein him in. I am also tempted to call him a memeber of the labouring classes not merely because of his back breaking employment in the mining industry but because of his work ethos and the way his progress is stimied by unscrupulous middlemen native to all third world projects who so callously oversee exploitation in service of the national project and their own advancement.

You’ll have to read between the lines for this of course, because his father’s main labour that occupies him is to raise a child and look after his unwell wife with the limits and lack of understanding that everyone of the that time seems to embody. He is rather masterfully exposed in his weaknesses, his ambitions and limits. Yet he is also shockingly adacious, with his many acts of defiance and toughness. He is also unusually open minded for that day and age and for this day and age.

The friends and their families the author describes along the retelling of his childhood are also deeply fascinating. In a private age where most recollections are about as colourful as black and white photos, the authors memories give a silent generation very human colours of anger, lust, ignorance and discontent. He even manages to reach further back and hints in a grasping but effective way at the effect that the world wars and service to the British crown had on his mother’s father.

This frozen shell shock embodied in his grandfather’s anger, his tough and inaccessible exterior is in many ways what forges his mother’s condition; with the rest of the patriarch’s family embodying the unfortunate discretion or indifferent attitude towards the mother leaving her with very little in the way of help when she might have needed it the most.

His father is admirably kind in certain ways. The kindest and most patient of them all however is his maid, who becomes a substitute mother, sister and at one point an object of desire. Remember, this is after all a mining town, which employes in it’s official registers the middle classes but is permitted only by the labour of the lower classes. His maid embodies another cruel fact of our national project since she is among the many displaced tribal peoples of the region who regularly lose the most and gain the littlest.

Her story has many tragedies and many exploiters which I shall refrain from detailing because I think it would be a little distasteful to summarise it without context and also because I hate reviews that bother with discription. If you want to know what happens read the dam book. The book is most like a key-hole into the private lives of people in the past when reading about the maids and newspaper man. The stories the author mentions capture the rough open mindedness and kindness you don’t usually see. It’s rather different from bourgeois sensibilities.

There are many other aspects worth mentioning, such as the overt political dissatisfaction that captures the mining town since the book is set duringthe emergency or the nature of the boarding schools of yore but since they’re a bit more obvious I shall refrain from describing them.

I also found that the writing and narrative really came into it’s own towards the end of the book. It was a rewarding read that I’d recommend to anyone who wants a truthful potrait of mental illness and the struggles of caring for a mentally ill person.