Norman Bates and Dr. Hannibal Lecter have burnt themselves into our minds, thanks in part to their brilliant portrayals on screen by Anthony Perkins and Anthony Hopkins.
However, these characters were not the focus of the lively discussion on mental health in literature at the NGMA recently.
“The idea is to understand mental illness and not demonise it,” said author Amandeep Sandhu, whose Sepia Leaves (2008) looks at schizophrenia from a caregiver’s point of view.
The discussion was the second in the three-part series, Moving Minds, by White Swan Foundation, that features public events on mental health using music, literature and culture. The first saw the release of a music video on the stigma against mental illness with music by folk-rock band Swarathma.
In her introduction, Dr. Prabha Chandra, HOD, Psychiatry, NIMHANS, listed 15 books that dealt with mental illness in a variety of ways. From Kay Redfield Jamison’s Exuberance: The Passion for Life (“because mental illness need not always be dark and gloomy”) and Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present by Lisa Appignanesi (“For a historical /anthropological gaze”) to Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project for “a lighter look at Asperger’s syndrome.”
Chandra said Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Chicken with Plums “is popular with young people for its vivid images,” and Unless by Carol Shields “helps one understand people who march to a different drum.”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward “explores the relationship between mind and body in the face of serious illness, while Chandra included P.G. Wodehouse for “the many eccentric characters that people his novels, including the pig-obsessed Lord Emsworth that proves that it is alright to be odd.”
As for Indian writing, Chandra mentioned “Mahasweta Devi’s Breast Stories for delving into motherhood and its relationship to mental health, and Suryakant Tripathi Nirala for exploring mental health issues in the Indian milieu.”
Subroto Bagchi, Chairman, White Swan Foundation, set the ball rolling in the panel discussion that followed, by asking psychiatrist Dr. Ajit Bhide, “What brought you to psychiatry?” “The short answer would be I wanted to do drama,” Bhide replied. When it came to compulsions to write, Amandeep said, he writes “To understand myself.”
On whether literature could be used to spread awareness on mental health, author C.K. Meena said, “Fiction has no purpose, if you want to spread awareness, use non-fiction.”
Amandeep, on the other hand, said there is no such thing as non-fiction, as everything one writes is coloured by what one chooses to highlight and what one ignores. “We should open stereotypes instead of perpetuating them, literature should be used to build bridges rather than exclude.”
Instead of setting out to deal with mental health, you could “sneak it in like in Hamlet or King Lear, where madness becomes the space to mirror society and is used to take the reader to different spaces,” said Meena, whose third novel, Seven Days to Somewhere, deals with a boy’s mental breakdown.
“Madness could be used as an allegory, as a metaphor. In Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , Nurse Ratched is the symbol of authority, which decides who is mad.”
Speaking about poetry as therapy, Chandra said, “Reading a book cannot reduce the dose of medicine, but does reduce the dose of suffering.”