FINDING NEEMA – by JULIET REYNOLDS - BOOK REVIEW
On my walks on the seashore I have come across challenged children being escorted by their parents or caretakers for an outing on the beach. I have seen a father and son running alongside. The son, a handsome young f ellow taller than his father, was obviously autistic. But what attracted me to them was the care and love for the son that seemed apparent on the father’s face. Often I have wondered as to the travails that parents of such challenged children have to face, the sacrifices that they have to make in the process of ensuring that their child is brought up in the best possible manner within the limitations imposed. I have also tried to place myself in the position of the autistic child and what the world means to him. There is a passage in my book ‘I am just An Ordinary Man’ which I take the liberty of quoting here – “That night I had a dream. I was a young boy on the beach, holding my father’s hand lost in my own world. The people who passed by, looked at me strangely. I wanted to talk to them, but they moved away. I did say something but they seemed not to understand what I was trying to tell them. The gentle pressure of my father’s hand comforted me.” That, I agree really cannot give the actual picture. But that’s how I felt. Of course subsequently I read somewhere that ‘People with autism have said that the world, to them, is a mass of people, places and events which they struggle to make sense of, and which can cause them considerable anxiety.’
Ever since, I have tried to read about autism, but these were all technical, describing the disorder and the various methods and avenues available for dealing with this condition. I was on the lookout for a book which would give hands on experience in dealing with it. That is when I chanced upon ‘Finding Neema’ by Juliet Reynolds, on the recommendation of a friend.
To place the book in the right perspective it would be necessary to reproduce here the blurb that appears on the back cover –
“Honest and unsentimental, yet funny and compassionate, Finding Neema is the story of an autistic boy from the eastern Himalayas, brought up by the author and her husband, a gifted Indian artist.
Set against the backdrop of the art world in India, and interwoven with reminiscences of her own unusual life and marriage, Juliet relates a compelling story: the couple’s unplanned adoption of Neema, son of their maid, Poonam; their endeavors to have his autism diagnosed and treated; and Neema’s emergence into adulthood as a valuable – though still dependent – human being. The book also delves into Neema’s background and tormented early life with his dysfunctional family, thereby touching upon some of the more lurid aspects of developing world poverty and introducing into the narrative an assorted cast of characters, some appealing and some appalling, but all of them colorful. Poonam’s story of abuse, self-destruction and faltering redemption – at once poignant and astounding – forms an important strand of the book and is related with special insight and frequent exasperation. Not only does the author tell a story of autism quite unlike the many already told, she also places it in an Indian and South Asian context.”
The author who is of a mixed Irish and English descent decided to make her life in India and has settled down here and shuttles between Delhi and Dehradun where she has her home. She is a writer and art critic specializing in Indian art and cultural and political issues. An occasional film maker and married to the reputed Indian artist Anil Karanjai (who died in 2001), apart from writing in various publications in India and abroad, she has authored another book ‘In the eyes of a Rasika’ a book for the lay reader on the relationship between art and politics and art and science.
‘Finding Neema’ is a poignantly written book where the author sketches her unusual life in this country of her choice, blending with its various colors and smells, customs and practices and above all choosing to remain and live here. Neema forms a very important and integral part of her life and therefore though this book comes out as an autobiography, it is all about Neema. In a sense one comes to feel that in him Reynolds has found her calling for therein lies the authenticity of her life. There are portions where she has been brutally frank about her own feelings of desperation and helplessness in dealing with Neema’s condition and his growing up. There are times it appears, where she subconsciously feels whether the agony of it all was worth it all. But her fortitude and single minded purpose sees her through. One of the most poignant portions in the book is when her husband Anil passes away suddenly leaving her all alone.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and restricted and repetitive behavior. Autistic people suffer from impairments from to severe and have difficulty with social communication, social interaction and social imagination. This of course does not mean that they lack imagination as many people with autism are very creative and may be, for example, accomplished artists, musicians or writers. As they are prone to cycles of progress and repression, it becomes all the more necessary for the parent or caretaker to be accustomed to such ups and downs.
‘Finding Neema’ gives us a caretaker’s account of bringing up an autistic child and in the process discovering that innate compassion lying deep inside us and the inner strength for finding a true meaning in life. I am quoting portions from the last lines in the book, which serve to summarize the author’s feelings –
“Neema lives in his own special world – free of ideological angst, innocence of humanity’s follies, not fearing cataclysmic events – he restores to me a sense of optimism, keeps me anchored in a saner reality. I couldn’t have asked for more from a child of my own”