Lit for Life

Love letters to my younger self

When pain, so sharp that it demands to be heard, tangible like an itch in the back of your throat, is given the face of words, will it dissipate? “We are deluding ourselves if we think writing will somehow provide closure,” says Gayathri Prabhu, who actively resists this idea.

The author of If I Had To Tell It Again, a memoir dealing with her father’s death and her relationship with him, believes we look in vain for catharsis in writing. “Good literature churns emotions, opens up some questions, even as it ties up some ends,” she maintains. Her memoir, published in 2017, which also talks about how she coped with depression and suicidal tendencies in the period before her father’s death, was widely lauded as a sensitive portrayal of a parent-child relationship. “My book is a love letter to a dead parent, to my multiple younger selves, as well as a reaching out to others like us” she says.

Gayathri will be part of a discussion, ‘The Silent Epidemic’ at The Hindu Lit for Life, in conversation with neuropsychiatrist Dr Ennapadam S Krishnamoorthy, about mental health and the need to speak up about it. Having dealt with clinical depression herself and having written about it, she is now part of an initiative in Manipal that encourages students to seek help from mental health professionals. “I will be speaking not just as a person who has encountered mental health issues, but as a writer,” she says, adding that we tend to be very reductive when we talk about people with mental health difficulties. “We label people as bipolar, or depressed, or alcoholic… But our identities are much more complex,” she says. Her book, she adds, isn’t just a narrative on mental health, it is about families, difficult love, abuse, and even about animal companions.

Multiple voices

When Gayathri’s father passed away in 2014 due to liver cirrhosis, she began thinking about everything she wanted to speak about with him — his addiction to alcohol, her own depression, how she was abused as a child. Some of these were conversations she’d had to the point of exasperation, and some that she never uttered a word about.

However, while writing it down, she was sure she did not want it to be a case of pulling skeletons out of her closet. “I did not want it to be a voyeuristic narrative of my pain. I wanted to revisit the past, and join certain dots in a way that I had not done before,” she says.

For this, she decided to employ different voices in the different sections of the book. So if one chapter is a single person narrative, the other is a third person narrative, and yet another, a play. She uses the literary tool of repetition to retell stories from multiple perspectives. “The question was, how do you write the story of someone who is dead, how do you tune in to their voice?” she says. Gayathri knew what her father would have said if he were to read her book, and she wanted to give him the space to respond to it — a philosophy that psychodrama too, propagates. Which is why the book isn’t a straight recollection.

Writing the memoir also meant treading on many toes. “But I couldn’t bear to be silenced one more time,” she recollects. There were times when she was wrought with doubts and possible regrets. That’s when she decided to go through every word she had written. “If I could stand by each sentence, it meant I stood by the book in its entirety,” she says. “When the book was finally in my hands, I knew I made the right decision. This is literature, not just my life.”

Tough love

“My father was a charismatic man, who loved to tell stories,” says Gayathri. “When he struggled with certain life events and situations, like most people, he did not want a diagnostic word, but some explanation for the struggle. For many people in such situations, substance abuse or dependence can become a way of coping.”

He would also talk about death quite often — “He longed for it”. So much so that Gayathri had hardened her heart a decade before his death. “I later felt guilty about mourning his death before he was gone,” she says.

Accepting her father’s choices was never easy. However, her father believed in making her independent from a young age. To her, both parents and children are adults with complex life narratives. You can reach out to loved ones, try to be part of their decision-making, but there is a stage when you need to accept boundaries and let go.

‘The Silent Epidemic’ will be on January 13, from 10.55 am to 11.45 am, at Lady Andal School, Harrington Road.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2021 3:51:02 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/lit-for-life/author-gayathri-prabhu-on-complexities-of-mental-health-issues-identity-and-the-craft-of-writing-a-memoir/article25959417.ece

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