Rituparna Chatterjee discusses her memoir The Water Phoenix, the complexities of child sex abuse, and healing
Chatterjee's The Water Phoenix is a disarmingly honest memoir, empathetic and nuanced in its telling, providing a space for the reader to reflect and grieve along with the writer.
The Water Phoenix, by Rituparna Chatterjee, is steeped in a dancing range of stunning visual imagery, emanating from the active imagination of an isolated but hugely resilient six-year-old child.
The book is a disarmingly honest memoir of child sexual abuse and trauma, empathetic and nuanced in its telling, providing a space for the reader to reflect and grieve along with the writer. The autobiographical account flows seamlessly from the time Chatterjee encounters her first big loss – the death of her mother – to the very specific, unique journey she undertakes to heal from her childhood.
The entire ecosystem of abuse, abandonment and loss that Chatterjee weaves through the various chapters in the book is predominantly situated within her family. The confusion and the bewildering sense of shame that descends upon her as a child, amid persistent bullying and harassment, enhances her sense of isolation in a world full of relatives and friends. It is a story that is achingly familiar, yet painfully under-explored.
Interestingly enough, Chatterjee did not initially plan to write The Water Phoenix, she shared in an interview with Firstpost, “I did not set out to write this book. I was actually working on a novel that was going nowhere, but once I began work on it (The Water Phoenix) I finished writing the book in five-and-a-half months.”
On the process of recollecting childhood memories for her book, she said, “I didn’t experience any significant emotional turmoil while writing the book. Even as I was revisiting many painful memories, I was alright – that could be because I had already healed and probably why I could write the book so quickly.”
Even though The Water Phoenix is a memoir and narrates a very particular story of child sexual abuse and its effects, it’s not an uncommon story. According to the data released by the National Crime Record Bureau, a total of 109 children were abused every day in India in 2018, which showed a 22 percent jump in cases from the previous year. But it is not just sexual abuse that rendered Chatterjee’s time as a child unbearable; a combination of abuse, neglect, bullying, lack of a close confidante and her socialisation as a “good-natured” girl are some of the things that pushed her into the depths of despair.
The Water Phoenix masterfully narrates the consequences of learning obedience before one learns how to articulate pain.
Chatterjee observed, “My story is the story of millions of Indians. Abuse is shockingly common, and many times, the elders in the family are aware of it but they prefer to ignore it because confronting abusers could jeopardise relationships within the family.”
In the book, the author describes childhood as ‘imprisonment, where freedom is doled out in penurious quantities, quite by chance.’ She says that children are entirely at the mercy of others for survival but often, adults – even the kind ones – have no idea about what they are doing, and why. “As a result, it’s easy to fall into a mindless and oppressive pattern of doing things. But having said that, as a parent, I know it’s not easy to raise children. Children are extremely emotionally demanding, and for parents living in nuclear families, it can be quite hard to manage their livelihood as well as raise children with sensitivity,” she explains.
She says the problem of childhood feeling like imprisonment has to be located in the nature of modern society itself, not so much in individual parents and families. “There are a few tribal communities in parts of Africa where while one woman is nursing a child, another one goes and fetches water, and once she comes back, she starts to nurse the same kid. A child in these villages is raised by an entire community of people. I think that’s so beautiful and loving.”
Interestingly, it was finally in an all-girls boarding school that Chatterjee experienced for the first time a long-term sense of stability and safety. But the constant policing of female sexuality and body within the school premises by the teachers reinforced feelings of shame and guilt. She said, “In India, puberty is everyone’s public business, especially if you are a girl. The constant policing of our bodies ultimately made us more conscious of it. As a result, by the time I left my school I only wore long shirts and jeans – meticulously covering every inch of my body. In a way, I was already a nun when I left school; I just needed to wear a habit.”
Unfortunately, several Indian schools continue to hold onto outdated beliefs and practices around sex and sexuality, perpetuating a culture of shame and silence. In a desperate attempt to break away from reality, Chatterjee immersed herself in the world of books. And it was finally at the intersection of life and fantasy that things started to gradually fall into place. She says, “Growing up I didn’t really have people, so books were the closest thing I had to a parent, sibling or friend. In some ways, I grew up with the stories I read. For example, I first read Alice in Wonderland in comic form, then later I read the abridged version, and then gradually I read the original book. So in a way, I grew up with the story, and that’s probably why I love it so much.”
The influence that Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland exerted on Chatterjee’s childhood psyche is strongly evident in the way the writer articulates her experiences. The sense of homelessness and the feeling of being stuck between two worlds dominate much of the sensorial landscape of the book. Alice at once becomes both an inspiration as well as the single most relatable character in Chatterjee’s life, from whom she derives the strength to plough forward.
She observed, “At first I thought Alice in Wonderland was a fascinating story in which all these magical things were happening to Alice one after the other, but I eventually realised, as I grew up, that she is actually going through one horror after another. There were also several lines in the story that just instinctively made sense to me. For instance: I am not crazy, my reality is just different from yours. Growing up I felt many of my friends didn’t understand my reclusive nature; they thought I was strange or weird. It is only after reading the book that many of them reached out to me and said ‘We now understand why you were the way you were.’”
The author dedicated her book to the survivors of child sexual abuse, to let them know that they're are not alone in their struggle. “When you are a child, sometimes you don’t realise you are being abused. It takes many, many years to process all the events and figure out that was happening to you was not normal. Books, in a way, gave me a template to understand the world around me and they also gave me an escape. I felt less alone."
The Water Phoenix does not shy away from discussing the impact of childhood trauma on the emotional and psychological well-being of adults. Chatterjee poignantly describes the insidious ways in which unresolved childhood anxieties manifested in her daily life as a young adult. The pain she endures as a result of once again not knowing what is happening to her is explored with heartbreaking honesty, and her decision to not pathologise her challenges sparked by a single moment of deep realisation about her own life opens the future course of healing. According to Chatterjee, The Water Phoenix is ultimately a book about healing and forgiveness.
She shared, “The path I chose towards healing helped me realise the power of our inner reality and its ability to shape our environment. The hallucinations that I had started to experience were a manifestation of my deep-seated fears. Once my inner reality changed, my visions became more positive and I was able to embrace them. There are many books on child sexual abuse but only a few on healing and what works, therefore, I felt a sense of responsibility to write about my own journey towards healing and forgiveness. What the book finally offers is a very kind perspective on forgiveness that has almost nothing to do with the abuser, but has everything to do with you.”
On the subject of how the family as a social unit can evolve to prevent violence against children, Chatterjee observed, “When parents follow their own joy, they teach their children to do the same, this leads to less suppression. But the more I think about it the more I feel that family, in any case, is not the answer. We need more intentional communities where individuals depend on each other and live collectively.”
In The Water Phoenix, Chatterjee captures a whole range of issues and emotions that gradually unravel and are then patiently explored. Hope and the human ability to heal from trauma is central to its narrative. But at its heart, it is a deeply sensitive memoir that extends a warm hug to anyone who has ever felt misunderstood, alone or hurt by others.
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