Bapu, in Rachel Aviv’s Strangers to Ourselves

Self has been entirely absorbed by the case studies in Strangers to Ourselves. She was trying to compare her responses to these essays to her responses to Oliver Sacks. Both Sacks and Aviv are struck by the strangeness of the human psyche. Each of their cases offers glimpses into lives of confounding mystery. Self would have posted earlier about Strangers to Ourselves except that there was a power outage that lasted three days. She had to go to the library if she wanted to post, and couldn’t really let it rip.

Power was restored today, however. Hallelujah! Now she can express some thoughts on Strangers to Ourselves.

She’s on the essay “Bapu,” and it’s about a woman in India who keeps running away from her family. She was in an arranged marriage, her in-laws were mean, and she still had to serve them. Somehow, she began to write poetry (how she found the time, I do not know). People began to come to her home to discuss the contents of her poems. Then she began to have visions of Krishna as her “surrogate husband.” She began running off to temples. Her husband and his family searched for her and brought her home, time and time again.

For one three-month period, she was home, in a house her father had given to her after her marriage. Her husband and children lived in a separate house, a “short walk away.” “Her husband and in-laws instructed her children not to visit her. They weren’t even supposed to say her name.”

“Bapu cooked a small dinner every evening, hoping that her children would join her. Her son, Karthik, would defy his father and sneak to his mother’s house to eat. One day, however, Karthik found the door to his mother’s house left wide open. She wasn’t inside.” Karthik knew: his mother had escaped again.

Then a friend of the family said that he had seen Bapu in the Kanchi monastery. “Karthik, who was ten, convinced his grandmother to send him there.” When he arrived, “Karthik searched for his mother, walking through a grassy courtyard with water taps for devotees to wash their legs before praying.” He saw “a person with a shaved head, sitting under a tree . . . Instead of a sari, she wore a saffron robe wrapped around one shoulder and her waist. She had taken off all her jewelry.” Karthik said, “the only thing I cared about was that I had found her. That was the prize. I was desperate to sit on her lap.”

It hurts to read that! The mother was so driven, but her son wanted only “to sit on her lap.” Meanwhile, his father’s family calls the mother names, such as Paithyam — the Tamil word for “insane.”

The range of these stories is incredible. Oliver Sacks used a clinical approach (albeit, in simple language). He has only one concern: treatment. Aviv’s stories are much more intimate.

Stay tuned.

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