When Poonam Chawla quit her job to look after her aging mother-in-law, little did she expect a book like “The Slow Disappearance” to come out of it.
Dementia is an agonizing experience for everyone. It is exhausting to care for the sufferer as they slowly disappear into the chaos of memory loss and rioting emotions.
It is complex, sometimes ugly, and thankless. As Chawla admits, it’s “no mean task when one has to do it day after day for seven long years, with little to show for it but the smell of piss diffused with Lysol.”
But in the hands of a writer like Chawla, it can take on new meaning, beauty even.
The book is written almost entirely from the perspective of three women and one young man: Annika, an Indian immigrant in the US, Ma (Annika’s mother-in-law), Malavika (Annika’s estranged rebel sister), and Samir (Malavika’s socially awkward and angry son).
Annika begins as a reluctant caregiver and eventually becomes joined at Ma’s hip as she learns to appreciate her mother-in-law’s beauty and richness of character, a journey similar to Chawla’s.
The book has resonated with many readers of all backgrounds and has been received positively.
One reviewer said of the book: “(The book) makes you want to go to your nearest nursing home and start giving out hugs and a thoughtful ear.”
SEEMA sat down with Chawla to learn more about the three-time writer and her book.
Tell us a bit about yourself – what was it like growing up, and how did you become a writer?
I was born in Mumbai, India, and raised in a joint family environment. We were fit to bursting in a tiny apartment – parents, three brothers, two aunts, an uncle, and little ol’ me doing her darnedest to just be.
My mother was our primary caregiver. Dad was a lexicographer, a Sanskrit scholar, and a part-time lecturer.
I was an introvert, constantly looking for a corner to curl up and step out of the chaos. Reading became a coping mechanism. It was also my first step toward becoming a writer.
We had our share of financial and other issues. But despite all disturbances and recurring crises, my father found the focus of a yogi. It made me want to be like him. Still. Focused. Remote. And always with a pen poised between thumb and forefinger, as if about to solve the world’s riddles.
One day, I picked up a pen for myself. That was my second step toward writing.
In school, the nuns encouraged me to write. I remember being asked to read aloud my essay on “A flight to the moon.” In essays, poetry, reading, English, and regional languages, I absorbed and regurgitated words with great enthusiasm. Besides, I was useless in every other subject.
After I moved to the US after marriage, it was lonely. I wrote letters home, and journaling became a way of venting. I continue to read voraciously. Journaling was my final step toward becoming a writer.
“The Slow Disappearing” is my third book.
Why did you decide to write about dementia? What were the experiences that inspired it?
In 2012, I took voluntary retirement from my role as communications manager at a telecom company. My mother-in-law, who lived with us at the time, was an octogenarian and was getting increasingly seriously ill. I quit my job because it made sense for our family.
I went from noting her presence for a few hours in the evenings to being joined at the hip with her. Over the next seven years, I saw her in all her loveliness, slovenliness, sweetness, and sadness.
I saw her clothed and naked. Vulnerable and strong. And I was filled with a sense of privilege laced with resentment and even disgust.
When finally, she went from comedic forgetfulness to dementia, I had to write about it. It was a way to cope. A way to vent. For me, It was also time to rethink human relationships.
However, I want to stress that “The Slow Disappearing” is only part memoir. There are other characters besides Ma, and they have fascinating stories.
Who is the intended reader for this book? What are you hoping to elicit in the reader with “The Slow Disappearing”?
My intended readers are definitely caregivers and the recipients of care. The Sandwich Generation. Working women. Mothers. The Indian diaspora. Immigrants and the families they leave behind.
As for what am I hoping: Once you write a book, it is no longer your own. The alchemy between a book and its reader is unique.
I hope my book gets them to a place of empathy, compassion, and healing.
I hope caregivers look with fresh eyes at the elderly and realize that they are so much more than their illness. They are the amalgam of myriad hopes, dreams, tragedies, longings, failures, and successes.
I am sure they will no longer think of them as a chore. Caregivers will cross over from dutifulness to love.
Tell us a bit about the protagonist and the other main characters. What’s her primary motivation and journey in this story?
Mainly, it’s the story of Annika, who goes above and beyond to take care of her elderly mother-in-law, who suffers from dementia.
While there are equally well-developed characters, Annika evolves most as a person.
She goes from reluctant caregiver to anticipating Ma’s every need.
She aches to be free. Yet, it is love that binds her to Ma and her family. The trick is to learn to exist with contradictions. That is her journey.
Then there is Ma. She is a matriarch who has lived a whole life and now struggles to cope as all her faculties and dignity slowly disappear. She must now depend on someone who sees her as a chore and be grateful for it.
What was the writing process like for you? How long did you take to work on this novel?
Writing the book was very cathartic. It forced me to look at myself, my life, and my relationships with a historian’s clear eye. I wanted to be as honest as possible and meditated daily to find the courage and resolve to be my authentic self. I knew there were excerpts that my family might find offensive, and I had to get past that fear.
When my mother-in-law was resting, passive, non-agitated, or hospitalized, that was when I made time for my writing. It took me about two years to write the book.
How has the reception been so far?
Heartening. Rewarding. Humbling. The book was featured extensively and received positive reviews in India. What is gratifying is that my readers are of all ages and come from diverse backgrounds.
Yes. I have one book with my literary agent as I speak. I hope to shed light on the subjects of misogyny and teen suicides. It is not a YA book but will surely resonate with young adults and parents.
“The Slow Disappearance” is available on Amazon