What would you do when the family who you cannot be with anymore, comes back to you? What will you do when their ghosts join you in the garden for a conversation? Will you flee them, or will you think that you need medical attention? The ghosts of Thomas Eapen’s family came to him, and he sat down to have a chat. The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob has an interesting premise to say the least.
When Amina’s mother tells her of her father’s conversations with his dead mother, she flies home to Albuquerque to check on him. Life at home is not easy. It’s difficult to convince Thomas, a brain surgeon, that his hallucinations are enough cause to not put the lives of patients in his hands. Her mother Kamala however has better things on her mind, like the long pending marriage of her daughter. However when Thomas begins to become consumed with visions of their dead son Akhil in their garden, even Kamala is forced to make decisions.
Life has not always been easy for the Eapens. When Thomas brought Kamala and Akhil to America for a better future, his polarized his mother and brother. A family visit to India for a vacation leaves sour taste as the differences between them only seem to grow larger with the amount of time spent away from each other. A violent outburst leads to early departure for the Eapens, but comes back to haunt Thomas when a fire razes down the house with the family in it. His last memory of the family is the fight that made him leave mid-vacation.
Akhil is a headstrong teen who cannot come to terms with how things are. He continues to grow emotionally detached from the family, and finds comfort in his girlfriend, who sees the caring heart in him. Good times however are not long lived as an accident takes Akhil away from the family. His death becomes the start of the transformation of the family members.
The story jumps between three different times, with Amina being the constant point of view through them all, a reference through which we can see how the family members change. Amina is however not without demons of her own. A professional photographer, her claim to fame was a perfectly timed picture of a man jumping to his death. Her dealing with this brings back memories of her dealing with Akhil’s death when she had started to learn photography.
The story interweaves the three times intricately. Which is why when the story moves from Thomas and his brother Sunil’s fights in 1970’s to present day hallucinations of Thomas in the 90’s, and back to Akhil’s death because of Narcolepsy in the 80’s; it seems like a natural interweaving of story arcs. A river breaking into different branches, which along its length continue to meet and move away on their paths.
The book is an emotional telling about family. One of the key emotions in the book is that of regret. The regret of not being able to be a brother or son’s keeper, of not being able to pursue something of passion, and even the regret of not being understood. The reader goes through the same emotional turmoil as the characters in the book. A turmoil that takes seed and slowly grows till it begins to throttle them slowly.
The slow descent of Thomas into rejecting medical cure and accepting his hallucinations as a cure to his personal demons is moving. Within itself it is a moving tale of what a straight thinking person is willing to give up, but to look at how his decisions affect those of his family, and peel away the layers to their core, is nothing short of brilliant.
I will leave you with some select quotes from the book:
“We are all we have here. Do you understand? That is it. And we can all talk about old times and Campa Cola and wouldn’t it be nice if we could go back, but none of us ever want to go back. To what? To who? Our own families can’t even stand us for longer than a few days! No, we are home already, like it or not,”
“Weddings are about fantasies—you understand? Your job is to photograph the fantasy, not the reality. Never the reality. If I ever see another picture like that, you’re fired.”
“He’s fine,” Kamala said. “It’s not like that. You’re not listening.” “I am listening! You just told me he’s delusional, and I’m asking—” “I DID NOT SAY HE IS DELUSIONAL. I SAID HE WAS TALKING TO HIS MOTHER.” “Who is dead,” Amina said gently. “Obvious.” “And that’s not delusional?”