March 28, 2021 6:30:38 am
The 10 essays in No Straight Thing Was Ever Made expand into an unexpectedness and generosity that is belied by the physical lightness of the volume. The two attributes mentioned here — unexpectedness and generosity — have been chosen after much consideration and must be explained, because only through such an explanation can the value of this book be conveyed.
To begin with, then, the unexpectedness: as I began reading this book, I thought I would be plunged into a series of revelations about how or why the author, Urvashi Bahuguna, came to be diagnosed with major depressive disorder (later, generalised anxiety disorder). To put it plainly, I suppose I was expecting all the “dirty” specifics of who inflicted what psychical wound and how and when and why. But this is not a memoir and so, what I got, instead, was a series of meditations on what it feels like to live with a mental illness: the ways in which many days of bad or low mood, sudden rage at perceived slights and a desperate craving for external validation can coalesce into a concrete diagnosis that simultaneously makes things clear — “So, that’s why I feel so upset when X mentions Y” — and shifts the ground from beneath one’s feet.
Unerringly, as if with a scalpel, Bahuguna (a poet) peels back what little we know of depression, anxiety and other disorders, to show how they can affect everything, from work to physical health to relationships. It can estrange us from what we had always thought we wanted. In Bahuguna’s case, as she explains in the essay, ‘Buoyancy’: “The desire to write, to do anything but lie in bed, ebbed away. When I did manage to put my resistance aside and attempt, I found I did not have anything to say except — I am tired, I am tired. The wisdom, with writing, is that one must write from one’s core. But what lay at my core at the time was anger, fatigue and profound reluctance”.
Such an exploration has a value that is usually lacking in the bare — all memoirs of mental health that one has grown accustomed to (although they have their own value, too). In skirting around the specifics (How? Why? What? Who? When?), and diving right into an attempt to understand the contours and radial effects of the illness, Bahuguna offers a mirror in which to examine our own undeniable frailties. Just as she once clung to a bad relationship despite its obvious impact on her spiralling mental health, perhaps you did, too? Or, maybe, like her, you also reconnected with nature after a period of turmoil and found a fallow space in which you could rest, recuperate and find a steady centre?
This is where the generosity also comes in. As she makes clear in the Preface, there are no villains here, metaphorical or otherwise. In thinking about all the ways in which mental illness affected her, her relationships, goals, dreams and expectations of herself, Bahuguna has found a space that allows for imperfections and mistakes to exist alongside gentleness and compassion.
She writes: “I found that one can love what one does not love all of.” There is a large-heartedness in that sentence which is also reflected in the title of the book, taken from German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s quote: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made”. Of course, to be human is to be flawed. But that’s a truth we forget especially when we allow ourselves to be swept up in expectations. To pause, to reflect, feels like a luxury when forces beyond our control seem to always work against us. But with these essays, Bahuguna offers us some ways towards that reprieve.
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