The recovery rate from childhood abuse is a figure that has never really been taken stock of yet, maybe because there is also no stock of abuses children face, sometimes at the hands of the adults surrounding them, and at other times despite them.
There are several accounts of abuse people have faced and how it scared them and scarred them that have been turned into books. But stories of healing and forgiveness are rare. Rituparna Chatterjee’s The Water Phoenix is the story of a girl who becomes Maa-haara Mein (motherless girl) at the age of four and makes her first suicide attempt at six. More such bids to end the pain follow as sexual, physical and verbal abuse meet Rituparna at every turn of life and even at times when she is sitting steady, not taking any turns. From a relative, to a father’s friend, to a school teacher, to unknown men on trains, the abuse continues.
The Water Phoenix by Rituparna Chatterjee, Bloomsbury, pages 288
The child turns into a prey and “preys attract predators”. Rituparna had so many, she is always on the watch. As you read the account, you remember this is a child always on guard. You remember, this is no fiction, but a memoir. A child lived through this hell and lived strong enough to tell her tale.
The plot is not static, you move from Calcutta, to Gujarat, to Mussoorie, to the ‘Silly Con Valley’ with the protagonist. She loses many things on the way, till she goes on to find herself. With a mother gone and father busy ‘saving the world’, the child has to save herself from the predators around. Her fears continue to gnaw on her.
Whatever they say about a carefree childhood is not known to this child. She smiles, scores and lives. Countless children do that despite the bruises they carry. The book compels you to think that all may not be well for them too. Rituparna doesn’t tell the grown-ups what she goes through. Sometimes they understand; mostly they don’t. She draws her own life lessons about how to face abuse and how to stay silent in the face of abuse.
The existential question the author asks and then answers through her journey: Does the past ever leave the tomorrow?
The Water Phoenix is not just a book for victims of sexual or physical abuse. It is a book for everyone who has been abused because it is a book about healing from your hurts. “Though sexual, physical and domestic abuse got trophies for being the most painful and long-lasting in their effects, the kind of abuse it was didn’t really matter. Even the so-called lesser forms of abuse – slaps, kicks, a mean boss, everyday gaslighting and emotional abuse – were just as painful,” the author writes.
The author’s healing begins many years after the abuse has ended. It is here that the magic of the book ends, but it is also here that the magic begins for the individual in Rituparna who suffered. There are unexplained experiences that the author goes through. She allows herself to open up to the surreal experiences and lets out the anger, frustration, hurt and agony.
It may prove difficult to identify with the author’s experiences if one doesn’t believe in surreal spiritualism, but it is the life lessons she shares through the process which make The Water Phoenix worth a read for all those who have been wronged. And who hasn’t been - one way or another?
The author takes her readers through her childhood not as an adult but exactly like the child in her saw, drawing parallels with Alice in Wonderland. The narration could be straight from a child’s daily diary.
You may smile at the many life lessons that kid Rituparna shares along the book, you may shed a tear at the irony of it all. As an adult, you will be compelled to wake up to how a child takes mental notes of how she is treated, why she refuses to trust adults, and how she tries to give them a clean chit.
But the most crucial lesson you learn is that which the author gives you after having gone through it all: Healing is important. More importantly, that healing is possible. You don’t always have to burn yourself to your regeneration. It is possible to be a water phoenix too.