In first glancing through Schizophrene by Bhanu Kapil, I hardly felt at ease in reviewing a book that depicts the sentiments of the 1947 Partition of India, the aftermath of violence, the displacement, and mental illness, all in the form of prose poetry. I know little about the topic and the genre. The sheer emotional impact of reading disturbing sections out of context left a pit in my stomach. I was afraid to read the account in its entirety, but also, I was ashamed not to. The tome—not weighty in size, but in content—sat on my desk for weeks, haunting me, finding its way again and again to the top of my teetering stack. I’d glimpse the bright, inviting image on the cover, yet worry. What frightened me? Why was the book still there?
The opening section, titled “Passive Notes,” tells about the author’s writing process, how she felt her original manuscript “had failed,” and how she “threw it—in the form of a notebook, a hand-written final draft—into the garden.” I related to the act of flinging art into the elements. But when I read how Kapil left the manuscript festering under winter’s snow until spring’s melt when she “began to write again, from the fragments, the phrases and lines still legible on the warped, decayed but curiously rigid pages,” and then continued to intersperse the narrative with reservations about the task she has set out to put into words, I knew that I held something extraordinary in my hands.
The process of how the book was written, the fragmentation of a work, the author’s ambivalence in expressing ineffable extremes into words, becomes a metaphor, then, of how the displaced might experience their displacement and their schizophrenia:
I was lying on my back in the snow, my notebook balanced next to me on the crust of ice, like a wolf. Like a lion. Like a cobra. Like a tiger. Like a schizophrenic.
Schizophrenic, what binds design? What makes the city touch itself everywhere at once, like an Asian city, like the city you live in now? What makes the wall wet, the step wet, the sky wet?
Every time I picked up the book, I felt more and more like I was looking into a kaleidoscope, fractals of light and edges tumbling onto one other, repeating, mesmerizing, and otherworldly. I imagined the segmented blocks of prose, seemingly random yet inextricably connected, to be the thoughts in the mind of a narrator who comes to rely on memory and dream to shape a tolerable reality, while relaying its horrible truths:
I dreamed of a tree uprooted by the river and instinctively, I climbed up. In the roots, I saw a velvet bag knotted with string, bulky with jewels. I wanted to give it to the family who squatted on the land. They were white.
But who was I to say? How could I possibly relate—an American-born citizen of middle-class privilege and religious freedom who never lived more than a half-day’s drive from her mother’s home, and equipped with an acceptable amount of sanity? I couldn’t say. So I decided to lean on what I know best and attend to the capacity of the prose.
Where an easily attained arc eluded my linear mind, scenes from various stages of violence and turmoil flooded my senses and gave me the story. Where I sometimes questioned the identity of the speaker, I always believed in the authenticity of the character’s experience. A flash of blue appeared amidst unrelenting grey, the scent of oranges would send me to my kitchen, fur would adhere to everything. I found myself wanting the words, despite the struggles. When content crossed a border into harshness, the narrator imposed her own need for distancing in that, throughout, she tosses away the “book” again and again:
I threw the book into the dark garden. A dotted line. A white hole. An unseen shape rotating and twisting on the icy crust.
Finally, in my attempt to relieve some of the trepidation that surrounded me in reviewing this book, I uncovered a bio about the author, Bhanu Kapil. By knowing more about her, might I better understand her story? I learned that she is a writer, a teacher, and a mother. She grew up in a middle-class family, has an old hound, and enjoys Earl Grey tea for breakfast. In all of these attributes, we are the same. The similarities closed the distance I had created with the frightening nature of the content. In the end, this book achieves success with an experimental form, but even more, it hones multiple levels of awareness in the reader.