Life less

Abantika Ghosh

Nihar’s tale told through his father, is beautiful in the empathy of the story and haunting in its realism. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

For millions of Indians and perhaps the world, it was the story of Charlie and Ray Babbitt in the film Rain Man that unravelled the mysterious world of autism. It is almost deja vu as architect Suhasini Malde describes in her book Innocentism, about how the story of her friend’s son Nihar first introduced her to autism and from there on, truly “a story of grit and autism” unfolds. The story of commitment and compassion, translated by Dr Priyadarshini Nitin Gokhale, that led to Ashiana, a school for autistic children, is a compelling read both as a personal journey and as one of the professional achievements. That one line to a college mate at a reunion sums up the essence of the book: “I have 40 children.”

That sense of achievement comes through in the very opening pages as Malde starts off describing an “urgent” call from the school on her 50th birthday, the journey there imagining all kinds of mishaps, only to find that it was a surprise birthday celebration with the teachers and children — clearly the highlight of her day, much more than the dinner party with her swish set of friends who sing songs till 3 am. The story is told in many layers, questioning complicated social issues such as the importance of girls being “pretty”, the travails of an inter-caste marriage, the expectations from an unwanted daughter-in-law in a conservative family, the tryst with depression and the tribulations of women undergoing cycles of in-vitro fertilisation, are all dealt with a simplicity that defies the inherently complicated nature of these issues. The choice between adopting one child and 40 is described just as simply.
Nihar’s tale told through his father, is beautiful in the empathy of the story and haunting in its realism. It has traces of ‘Ray’ Babbitt but you realise with a pang that the director is not going to say “cut” here, and Hoffman will never emerge from behind Babbitt. The dedication of the book itself is a statement of the importance of Nihar in the story: “All of our children who have autism and are therefore so special to us and to Nihar.” To have a child who cannot tell you what is bothering him and pulls your hair instead or one whose bouts of laughter are as intriguing as his quietude, is one of the most striking portions of the book, as is the story of the six months of her life that Malde lost to depression after her abortion. The “near-death” or out of body experience belongs perhaps to a book on spiritual rebirth than one on the establishment of a school for children with autism, but then maybe the latter would not have happened without the former.

Innocentism by Suhasini Malde.

The story of the ugly duckling (who eventually does become the swan, and is compared by the thespian Dilip Kumar to the legendary Nargis), the daughter who is constantly compared to her prettier sisters is seminal to the eventual birth of Ashiana, perhaps as much as the “near death experience” Malde described. The story flows easily, Malde’s personal life, a bit of her love story, merging seamlessly with the emergence of the “stylish” woman who dismisses the offer of a pair of Rs 37,000 Salvatore Ferragamo shoes but uses every bit of the goodwill she has built up in her professional life to make Ashiana bigger and better, until it even spawns a copycat. Imitation is the best form of flattery.
The book’s importance cannot be overstated, especially in an inherently restrictive society like ours where toleration of the other, even when that is just people with different languages or taste in food than our own, is abysmally low. Here, we are talking about human beings whose very interface with the world around them is flawed. In the words of one of Malde’s friends quoted in the book: “Indians are in general selfish. They have no compassion towards such kids. Though structures like McDonald’s and supermarkets have surfaced in India, it is doubtful if these places will offer any jobs (to autistic people). There would be very few people who would let them work in their style and accept it. These children look so normal that people around them may not perceive any problem. Nowadays, everybody seems very impatient. If these kids make a mistake or have a slower work speed, they will be scolded and pulled up. It is doubtful if these children will be offered a job at all in India.”