Reviews

‘No Straight Thing was Ever Made: Essays on Mental Health’ review: Giving a chance to hope

This is not a memoir, Urvashi Bahuguna tells us, in the preface of No Straight Thing Was Ever Made. More caveats follow — the essays are not meant to be prescriptive; the book is not a definitive account of mental illness; what works for one may not apply to others; and one does not have it all figured out, is continuously learning and adapting. As the collection — a set of 10 personal essays on mental health — comforts, confronts and challenges a reader, it is the crevices of these reminders that they can retreat into.

Not a binary

“Mental health doesn’t exist in isolation. It changes everything it touches, and it touches everything,” Bahuguna, diagnosed with major depressive disorder in 2014 and later with generalised anxiety disorder, writes. Each essay is an attempt at demystifying one facet of life the illness has influenced. Through anecdotes, recollections and reflection, she exemplifies how mental health is not a binary between ill and well, but a spectrum. Carefully memorised experiences provide an annotated narrative on family, body-image, dating and writing with the illness, social media, the natural world as a space for healing, suicides, fatigue, and prospective parenthood.

Bahuguna doesn’t euphemise the periods of her mental illness. In repeated and casual usage of “illness” and “sickness” — “being ill is lonely”, “when I turn 20, I fall really sick — for the first time”, “your sick mind is trying to…” — she normalises mental illness. In an interview with SheThePeople, Bahuguna says the title of the book, part of a quote by Immanuel Kant, is a way for her to try and accept who she was and how ill she was. She compels us to look at actions and symptoms as the outcome of the illness rather than a personal shortcoming. “We don’t have to hold ourselves to unreasonable standards.”

Extension of poetry

Terrarium, Bahuguna’s debut work, is a collection of poems she refers to as “a microcosm of my life”. The essays in No Straight Thing Was Ever Made were written as an extension of these earlier poems, she has said in various interviews. As she clambers up the “mountain of accumulated memories”, in essay after essay, accosting her emotions, paring away the hurt, understanding perspectives, the book feels like an intimate exercise in exoneration and forgiveness, all for that elusive exult of catharsis. In an essay on family, she asks: “Why did my parents not do better?” Her parents honestly answer, “We did not know, okay? We didn’t know.” Bahuguna, in atonement, tells us she suspects that sometimes, one’s instincts aren’t good enough. That, over time, she has learnt to make the questions smaller and the heart a little bigger.

The author attributes the success of managing her illness, of self-awareness and circumspection — if not caution — to therapy and medicine. Acknowledging her privilege of having access to healthcare, she writes, “I wish these were not luxuries.” A diagnosis and a prescription are the first steps on the journey and not the end of it, Bahuguna tells us, charting her path thematically, rather than chronologically.

“The future is a nifty place for holding hope,” she writes while discussing why we endure or succumb. And that future, she tells us, with measured optimism in the departing chapter, can have lasting relationships despite the illness, for although the “illness cannot be wished away, it can often be managed.”

No Straight Thing was Ever Made: Essays on Mental Health; Urvashi Bahuguna, Viking/ Penguin, ₹499.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist based in Bengaluru.


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