'Mirror Made of Rain' looks at how patterns of self-destruction are inherited
Indian author Naheed Phiroze Patel says she's always been drawn to unlikeable characters.
So it's not surprising that Noomi, the strong-willed protagonist of her debut novel Mirror Made of Rain, has a lot of negative qualities.
Noomi tends to do things that can be self destructive – in part due to a painful family history and parental neglect. Her parents' friends include high powered lawyers and business tycoons, whose children know no boundaries. When lines are crossed, elders often look the other way at any misdeeds. It's the kind of India where you can be demoted in social circles if not invited to a high society party.
Patel makes difficult topics like addiction, rape, and shame front and center in her novel. She spoke to NPR's Morning Edition about the book, which came out in India last year and makes its U.S. debut this week.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On writing Noomi's character
Noomi is a young woman who grows up in an upper-middle-class Indian family. Her family is ostensibly very modern. The women are allowed to drink. But she has a mother who has not had the support that she needed for her mental health, and she kind of passes down that trauma to her daughter like an inheritance. And Noomi [has to] navigate this really constricting social structure of small-town conservative India and she tries to break free of that mold. [The book] is also about how a person like Noomi is encouraged all the time to look at herself through the eyes of of people watching her, because in India – and I'm sure in other places as well – we have this phrase log kya kahenge, which is basically "what will people say?" And that's such a determining factor for a lot of young women growing up in India and elsewhere.
On portraying women in her book
When we talk about patriarchy or the rights of women, or the state of women in India, we think of the bigger and more ostensibly horrific things like "dowry" that capture the headlines. But there are these small, everyday violences that occur to women, which nobody really talks about – these small microaggressions and the way that society fails women like an undercurrent of patriarchy. And I couldn't stop noticing it. For example, the way society treats female addicts over men. Or the extent [to which] women's anger – and Noomi is a really angry character, and I think her mother is also a very angry person – the way that their anger is pathologized and negated while the anger of men, to a large extent, is kind of mythologized, or deemed righteous.
On Noomi's relationship with her mother, who struggles with addiction
One of the questions I really wanted to explore in the book was how to "mother" when there is a vacuum of support and care. I think that Noomi's mother is left to the wolves in the sense that she's not provided with the support that she needs from her family, and from society in general, to be an adequate or good mother to Noomi. The novel kind of explores what failure to "mother" means, and why it is such a lonely failure. I feel like, when men fail at parenthood, society steps in to help, or there's a lot more empathy. But when a mother fails, she kind of fails all by herself. And Noomi blames her mother for everything and kind of joins in not having any empathy for her mother. Yet she is, in a way, slowly turning into her mother. I felt like that was the most natural organic way to write this relationship.
On how the book was received in India
I was actually really surprised – pleasantly surprised – at how well it was received, but there was also a diversity of opinion about the book, which is also interesting to me. Because some people just really, really did not like Noomi and they felt so angry at her that they wrote in their reviews that they would like to physically assault her. And these were written by women. I thought that was incredibly interesting because I think that Noomi kind of evoked a lot of internalized misogyny. And I found it really interesting to see it bubble up to the surface in that way.