Can recent Indian novels on subjects like schizophrenia and dementia help us deal better with mental illnesses?

I have long been interested in how all structures seem to be built around ‘difference’, and how we define the difference in terms of caste, class, ethnicity or gender and then take it further to define the ‘deviant’ so that we can self-define as ‘normal’…

These are the words of writer-artist Belinder Dhanoa whose recent novel Echoes in the Well (Zubaan, 2014) touched upon the theme of mental illness. In recent times, there have been path-breaking novels in Indian Writing in English that have not only raised raise awareness about mental illnesses but also hold up a mirror to the prejudices that accompany it and the difficulties in dealing with it at the societal and medical levels. Amandeep Sandhu dwelt on the trauma of growing up with a schizophrenic mother in Sepia Leaves (Rupa, 2007). Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom (Aleph, 2112) was a very poignant story of a mentally disturbed woman and its impact on a caring family that faces the dilemma with courage.

In India, the problem was dealt with by locking up the patient, denial or blaming it on black magic and spirits, followed by visits to the exorcist even by the educated. However, authors like Pinto, Sandhu and Dhanoa have with great courage broken the taboos and woven fiction inspired by the problems among their closest relatives.

Pinto’s novel is an amazing blending of art and craft and has been highly acclaimed besides receiving The Hindu Literary Prize 2013. When asked if the work was autobiographical, Pinto replied, “It is autobiographical in that my mother was mentally ill and it was a subject close to my heart but the rest is fiction. I made endless drafts and millions of words were keyed in before I could write a story that would reach out.” The story has indeed reached out to people and when Pinto is asked what he has to say on the subject, his impassioned reply is: “Even the mentally ill have families and people who love them. Say what you will to me but not to the person I love.”

Sandhu, on the other hand, says that his novel is a true story with some changes in the time frame. “It was the stigma attached to my mother’s illness that made me write it. Her illness and my being a pagli ka beta (a madwoman’s son) were always held against us. As if it was a personal crime. I primarily wrote to understand and accept my own life. Yet, the response has been overwhelming acceptance.”

Significantly, the protagonist in all three novels is a woman and it is her child telling the story. In Dhanoa’s sensitive rendering, it is the daughter who relates the story of her mother being different. When asked what about mental illness among women pitted as they are against a patriarchal society, her reply is: “Women are so often treated as ‘mad’ when they don’t conform to socially-accepted behaviour. Depression and other mental illnesses are seen as weaknesses and betrayals of the family. How easily we discard the mentally ill as less than human!”

If only fiction could re-mould reality. These books may not lead to the de-stigmatising of mental illness but could start a dialogue on how to deal better with the various aspects of the problem.

Recurring theme

Madness has been a recurring literary metaphor in world literature. Among the famous works that deal with the frailty of the human mind are:

Ajax by Sophocles (450-430 BC)

Hamlet by Shakespeare (circa 1600)

Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes (1605/1615)

Faust I by Goethe (1808)

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866).

Some of the best-loved novels of the last century on this theme are

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951),

To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee (1960),

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962)

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath(1963).

In his own words

When I was in the ICU, my family members were questioned daily about bits and pieces of my history. The file was fattening up.

Geeta was asked: Is there involvement with some woman? I mean the other woman?

Geeta: No, not at all. Deepak was never involved, even with me. He is involved only with his writing and fans, but no other woman. I have a feeling he doesn’t like women.

The simplest reason for my illness is ruled out. ‘Since he is a writer, does he have a feeling of being unsuccessful.’

Geeta: No, not at all. His play Court Martial is very successful. Ranjit Kapoor staged it at Delhi and Deepak was praised sky high. When Usha Ganguly staged it Kolkata, a Bengali critic wrote, ‘After Court Martial, Tagore has become irrelevant’. Deepak was happy, really happy, because for the first time in his life he got so much praise and affection.

The doctor seemed to realise that my history was not a simple one that can be copied into his file. Sometimes history keeps mum and, at other times, it tells plain lies.

Geeta: Something happened to him on his return from Kolkata. He stopped talking, eating, meeting people; the Deepak, who was always well-dressed, had to be pushed to change his clothes. He had lost all interest in himself.

Surgeon Naidu walked in. He stood staring at me for a long time. He took the sheet off and showed the scorched parts of my body to the doctor from the Burns Department. The psychiatrist showed him my file, which has still not bloated. Dr. Naidu read it.

Dr. Naidu: So he is a creative person. He is badly burnt. We will have to wait for further treatment. There is a danger of his turning into a vegetable for life.

Everyone talks of danger! My sun seems to be setting for all times. The horse-riders are aiming their spears. I can see them. They will hunt me. Their bodies are ready to attack. They are ready to kill. I am not afraid. I have waited seven long years. Yeats is my favourite poet. They sit by me reciting his verse: An aged man is but a paltry thing/A tattered coat upon a stick, unless/Soul clap its wings and sing.

How long will I take care of this tattered coat! I will cast it away. I tried thrice but failed.

An extract from well-known Hindi author and playwright Swadesh Deepak’s memoir Maine Mandu Nahi Dekha, translated by Nirupama Dutt.