Is All Well At Home?

Talking about the elephant in the room — mental illnesses in the family

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Published: September 3, 2016 12:08:33 am
jerry pinto, jerry pinto book, jerry pinto new book, book of light review, book of light, jerry pinto book of light, jerry pinto books The shameful thing that we usually keep in darkness becomes the light-bearer here.

Name: A Book of Light: When a Loved One Has a Different Mind
Author: Jerry Pinto (ed)
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 175
Price: Rs 399

If Jerry Pinto’s multiple award-winning Em and the Big Hoom were a blog post, the 13 accounts in this slim anthology would have constituted the comments and discussion section which followed. Pinto’s book, which described life in a family with a manic-depressive parent, appears to have opened the door to a place which all good Indian are taught to keep mum about — mental disorder in the family. It is a strange paradox, a nation of hyperactive hypochondriacs (have you ever seen sales graphs for antacids?) who are eager to consult top specialists for complaints of the heart, liver, kidneys, tonsils and tarsals, go undercover the moment they discover a screw loose in the family. Even if they know that the “normal family” is absurdly normative.

The shameful thing that we usually keep in darkness becomes the light-bearer here. The tone of the narrators, in response to mental illness in the family, ranges from wistful, guilt-laced elegy through deadpan tales of the unexpected to half-comic catharsis. The last rings best. Even when the comedy is black, it sheds a cheery light, as in Sukant Deepak’s account of his father, the bipolar author and playwright Swadesh Deepak who, one day in 2006, went for a walk and never returned. Swadesh’s short stories were so edgy that they themselves constituted a symptom of his illness. In ‘Papa, Elsewhere’ Sukant, a former Indian Express journalist, explains why he still sleeps with an iron rod under his bed. It is not for fear of the dead. That would be the easy answer. Too easy.

The contributors are urban, progressive and well educated, a minority which can shrug off the powerful social taboos which keep mentally ill relations hidden away in the upstairs room or the garage at the end of the drive. Even so, some of them must seek distance to tell their tale. ‘Mothers and daughters’ by Punjabi poet (and another former Indian Express hand — we are legion) Nirupama Dutt is told from the point of view of her daughter. ‘The Man Under the Staircase’, Sharmila Joshi’s account of her alcoholic uncle, whose allotted space in the home shrinks until the man disappears altogether, is told in a voice that’s partly an observer’s, though she is an actor in the drama. In a postscript to his introduction, Pinto regrets his inability to include stories of families which cannot take their mentally ill to a doctor, but must turn to the exorcist instead. Those, unfortunately, remain confined to minimal, exoticised media reports.

A Book of Light instigates personal re-examination. Is all well at home? Is the eccentric aunt, a staple of popular literature, actually schizophrenic? Is Granny slinging the gangajal about more freely than usual? Is the family drunk only a neurotic waiting to be diagnosed?

I am pleasantly intrigued to find that I know a large number of the narrators and actors in this book. My own family, like the ones described here, like families everywhere, sports a fine collection of drunks, disorderlies and suicides. And a good number of these unhinged people believe that I should have my head examined.

Perhaps I shall, one of these days, and then someone close to me can contribute a chapter to the next edition of Pinto’s book. I shall eagerly await its publication, for every family’s story which is told, in the teeth of family values, brings us closer to an open society at peace with itself.

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