Book review | The Water Phoenix by Rituparna Chatterjee


Author: Rituparna Chatterjee 

Genre: Memoir, Literary fiction 

No. of pages: 282

Published on: 28th October 2020 

Published by: Bloomsbury India 

Format: Hardcover

My rating: ★★★★★

When Rituparna suddenly loses her mother at the age of five, she is shipped off to a trusted relative so she can grow up in a loving family. Instead, she finds herself bullied, sexually abused and has the first of several near-death-experiences. She grows up unsure of where love ends and cruelty begins and struggling to process the world without the dark lens of abuse. The acute anxiety, panic attacks, and severe depression follow her from boarding school to her move to Silicon Valley

After her sense of reality is shaken by series of unexplained events, she, an atheist, finds her way to healing in the most unexpected quarters - looking within and opening herself up to a series of surreal spiritual events. How does she cope with what has happened to her? And how does she heal and find her way into a truly fulfilling life?

Haunting, evocative and brave, Rituparna Chatterjee's groundbreaking magic realism memoir The Water Phoenix gives voice to the countless victims of abuse who still find it difficult to speak of their trauma in today's India. Most of all, The Water Phoenix is the story of transcending trauma and coming home to oneself.

The Water Phoenix is a powerful memoir of childhood abuse, anguish, and redemption. Rituparna Chatterjee narrates her painful memories as a motherless child and growing up amidst a lot of inner turmoil and ghosts of her abuse. After losing her mother at the tender age of five, Rituparna's father sends her off to her aunt. While her father entrusted Rituparna's care under her aunt, she was relentlessly abused and bullied in that house. The house which was supposed to be her safe house, became the very thing that harboured her nightmares.

Soon she was removed from the house, but the demons of her past didn't leave her. Her father being a busy bee, had no time to spare. She was taken from one place to another, from one ancestral house to another railway colony, from one part of India to another. But sexual abuse found its way to Rituparna. Her tiny self couldn't bear so much. Her traumas gave rise to her fear from any male figure, the constant alertness whenever somebody approached her, her reclusiveness and her yearning for just one adult figure she could lean on; and it leads to her abhorring green soaps (a triggering symbol of her abuse). A small girl, who should have been fearless and spirited, Rituparna was instead driven into being a lone child who could only find solace in her books.

Rituparna's story doesn't limit to sexual abuse, it extends to abuse of all sorts. When in a convent boarding school, she talks about how the superiors (be it the nuns or a senior school girl) took advantage of their power positions and used corporal punishment. This is something a lot of us can relate to. At the end of the day these are all scars that we'll never forget. When the author says 'abuse is the metric to measure all of life's uncertainties,' it really hits somewhere. As women we have all been through sexual abuse at least once in our lives. Even if not more, but to some extent I could resonate with the book.

As years pass, the author tells us how it takes her years and years of tolerance to finally find her way towards healing. Multiple abuse experiences and negligence gave way to depression, suicidal tendencies and schizophrenia. This book was painful to read. Even if you cannot wholly empathize, it will hit a nerve. It was make your heart ache, it will make you want to hug and give your warmth to a child who has been through so much that there's only a tiny place for happy memories in their life.

A major part of this book has been written from a child's perspective. As you read this book you'll get to view the author's world when she was a child. There's this melancholic undertone to the book. The writing style is almost delicate, as if the author doesn't want us to know it all at once. She'll slowly take you to her darkest memories. At least that's how I perceived it. When you'll feel happy that she is finally having a rare joyful episode, it will gradually turn into a sour memory. 

The book is neither slow or fast paced, but I'll suggest you to read it in according to your pace. At certain points, the events became too heavy for me to bear so had to take a break from the book.

Rituparna Chatterjee is a writer, journalist, columnist and a former foreign correspondent for The Economic Times. For the same newspaper she writes California Dreaming, a column about her life as an immigrant mother in America. Her short stories for children have been published in various anthologies. Her first book, An Ordinary Life, was based on the life of acclaimed actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui. The Water Phoenix is her second book. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her son, husband and Quoisey, their samurai fish, and the dogs they puppysit.

I received a copy of the book in exchange of an honest and unbiased review. 


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