Shiva, Vishnu, Literature and Lithium

Shiva, Vishnu, Literature and Lithium

A searingly honest account of one man’s struggle with bipolar disorder

How to travel light, Shreevatsa Nevatia, Shreevatsa Nevatia, how to travel light review,
Nevatia’s secret is his bipolar condition, and he writes of it with unflinching honesty, an honesty that is lacerating, entertaining even, but never boring.

Title: How To Travel Light
Author: Shreevatsa Nevatia
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Pages: 248
Price: Rs 399

When a bouncer and a doctor barge into Shreevatsa Nevatia’s bedsit to take him away to rehab, he grabs a copy of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Boyhood Island to take with him. At the rehab, he lends the copy to a fellow inmate who returns it the next day saying: “Honesty is boring, man.”

Nevatia epigraphs his book with a Raymond Carver quote: “Write about what you know, and what do you know better than your own secrets?” Nevatia’s secret is his bipolar condition, and he writes of it with unflinching honesty, an honesty that is lacerating, entertaining even, but never boring. That the writing bores into you like an electric drill is a different matter altogether.

‘The highs and the lows/ And the to’s and the fro’s/ They left me dizzy’, sang Pete Doherty in ‘I No Longer Hear the Music’. In How to Travel Light, Nevatia describes both the delusions of mania and the inevitable crash that follows in clear, unadorned prose. This is a beautifully structured, skilfully nuanced and flamboyantly written book. It’s the message in the bottle that’s washed up on the shore, after the turbulent waves have receded.


Nevatia uses cinema, literature and Hindu mythology to come to terms with his condition. Shiva stands for anarchic lucidity. Vishnu brings order. Literature is as important as lithium in the Nevatian scheme of things.

He examines an episode of childhood trauma when he is sexually abused, over a period of time, by a family member without sentimentality or judgement. He is uneasy with easy cause and effect scenarios. There is clarity in ambiguity.

He describes doctors both good and bad, rehabs that are like ‘dictatorial kindagartens’, where social workers come to test the general knowledge of inmates (one test involves naming India’s state capitals) and therapists who think his problem will be solved by reading Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. But the writer is on a level a few notches higher. As he’s dragged to a doctor for the umpteenth time, he enters the clinic raging: ‘So, what’s it going to be today? Freud, Lacan, Jung?’

When having a manic episode, he becomes a smooth operator with women, enters Internet chat rooms with multiple fake identities and spends money like water, once buying two hundred pounds worth of books as a student in England. He leaves the choice of books to the assistant who happily introduces him to the Complete Stories of Flannery O’ Connor, among others.

He leaves 56 posts in 24 hours on his Facebook wall, feels he’s being followed by intelligence agencies and when hospital bouncers come to get him, is convinced that they have been sent by Narendra Modi. He colour codes his books: “To mark something vital, I used my purple pen. If I came across prose I envied, I brought out my pink highlighter. Black was used in the margins of books, and green always meant ‘rework’.”

Nevatia writes with tenderness about his relationship with his parents, the helpless cycle of anger, outburst, remorse and crippling guilt. As the book ends we find him in a better place, aided by friends, family, medication and therapy: “There was suddenly more joy in the mundane than there was in Kafka. I grew averse to drama. The turbulent events of my life were best related with a smirk. Almost 10 years after I had been diagnosed as bipolar, I was no longer a victim of my affliction.”

How To Travel Light heralds the arrival of a brave new voice in Indian writing in English. The only quibble — in a book brimming with literary references, why no mention of that great poet of manic depression, Robert Lowell?