says journalist, writer and author Jerry Pinto. This conversation is a part of our series on mental health and illness and we talk to people whose voices have brought to life, with empathy and without judgement, what is it to live with a mental illness or to care for someone who does.
What role could memoirs and books written around the topic of mental health play in bringing about greater awareness and understanding of mental health in the Indian context?
I think every book is a bridge. When we read a book, we choose to cross the bridge and we enter into another small world. We are now changed, slightly, ever so slightly but permanently, by the experience. We may forget the book, we may forget that we read it, but there will be a change somewhere. This is true of all books. It is true of all experiences. You may cross the bridge for your own reasons. Your crossing may be motivated by vulgar curiosity, your crossing may be larcenous in nature, your crossing may be a critical enterprise. It does not matter. The words will change you. There have been many ‘mad’ people in our popular storytelling. There have been lunatics and asylums aplenty in Hindi films, for instance. But there is now a genuine desire, I think, to understand what it is like to live with a different mind, to live with a person with a different mind. I think we are now beginning to understand that we may be deepened and widened even without ‘relatability’.
I understand that your debut novel (Em and the Big Hoom) touched a lot of readers. They could share with you their own stories and felt confident in sharing these stories with the world, and that is how A Book of Light came to be. Some of the contributors may have not shared these experiences ever before — in that sense, is storytelling an important tool in helping normalise and speak about mental illness, without sensationalising it or glossing over the realities of what it means to live with, or care for someone with a mental illness on a daily basis?
I do hope it worked that way. I offer you an image as an answer. Imagine that you are on a long trek and the backpack you are carrying is cutting into your shoulders. You stop for a moment and you take a sip of water and you ease your thumbs under the straps and you raise the backpack just a little. There is a great and beautiful sense of release, as the burden shifts and lifts. You savour that and then you let the backpack rest again, in a slightly different position. The old pain eases but soon a new pain begins.
Storytelling is one of the many things we can do to make things better for ourselves and others. But it is one of a menu and must not be fetishised. You have to choose to turn towards the light which means self-care, which means boundary building, which means healthy choices, which means … you get the idea. Depending only on the telling of your story to heal is to put too many expectations on a single act. It is one of many.
Would you say that by writing about a family member who had a mental illness, it also helps the greater narrative — from a sense of shame or outright denial — to one where you accept and understand it? (Like, my mother is blind and there is no way I can hide that or would want to do that, similarly if she had a mental illness, I don’t want to be in denial of that either.)
We all deal with difference differently. So, I won’t answer in a general sense but in the specific sense of my own experience. As a child, I longed for a normal mother. I did not know what a normal mother was, I could not know since I did not have one but I wanted a mother who would cook meals for me, who would stitch costumes so I could take part in the school play, who would turn up and look like a mother. My mother did none of these things.
Epiphany comes in streaks of dawn light, not in any great sun storm, at least in my experience.
For me, it began when I was teaching mathematics to young children; I was a private tutor and began to see how many parents who were ‘normal’ — in that they had no diagnoses, no psychiatric conditions — could still be terrifying parents. The mother who threw open the door and wept because her son got 97 per cent in mathematics. ‘How will he manage to get into medical college?’ she moaned. ‘Sir, only you can save him.’ The father who told me that his daughters should not study too hard because they would never get husbands.
And so eventually, slowly, I came to the conclusion that parenthood is far too steep a slope to climb for most people. And if you have not climbed that slope yourself, you should not judge.
This applies to all our responses to what we do in the family. The space of the family is truly non-replicable. It is easy to slip into judgements about what we should or should not do. I try not to but it is very difficult
Do you think media houses, and journalists in training can benefit from trainings or by reading memoirs and books written in the Indian context, when it comes to reporting on, or writing about mental health and illnesses with balance, empathy and sensitivity?
Media training is very important but far more important is the notion of ethical media. I think most people would be able to do the right thing if they simply thought: How should I like to be treated in this situation? Instead of which they have their bosses telling them: How should you like it if we sacked you? Bring in the dirt. Do your best to raise the TRPs. Shout. Scream. Rant. Rave. It saddens me but each time I say to myself: You got lucky. You worked in the media when it was not like this. How do you know you would not be muckraking with the best of them if it were about keeping your job, paying your EMIs and keeping your children in that upscale school?
But what we can do is vote with the remote. Turn off the channel. Do not subscribe to the newspaper. Find an alternative. There is quietness out there. Seek it out.
(This interview was conducted via questions sent through an email.)