Doing our bit to spread mental health awareness …

In 2020, an actor’s death and what followed thereafter gave us an immediate impetus to do a series of interviews on
mental health. We wanted to share real, lived experiences of people as well as mental health professionals.

The ongoing series is a pool of resources. Come to these interviews as and how you like — to hear voices that speak to you, to find shared, common ground, out of curiosity, to explore your own self, or to broaden your horizons. There’s no judgement here or an attempt to preach.

Follow this link to read all the stories that we have published as part of our mental health series: https://bit.ly/3BEEQ0Q

If you want to share your mental health journey, write to us at contactgoodstories@gmail.com

Kiranjit’s father, a farmer, died by suicide. What she has done after that is incredible

On April 23, 2016, Kiranjit Kaur’s father Gurnam Singh, 48, a farmer living in Katra Kalan village in Mansa district in Punjab hanged himself by a tree as he was unable to pay the debt of Rs 8 lakh. Kaur was just 23. After struggling emotionally and financially for two years, she formed the Kisan Mazdoor Peedat Parivar Committee to help the families of farmers and farm labourers cope with suicide, grim reality in Punjab and the rest of the country. Today, 6,000 people are a part of the outfit. The members include families of farmers and farm labourers in Punjab who could not cope with the pressure and chose to take the extreme step. The committee members not just provide moral and emotional support to widows and mothers; they also fight for the government compensation that the victim families are supposed to get and ensure that children from such families do not drop out of schools and colleges. As September is observed as suicide prevention awareness month, reading and sharing such stories is the need of the hour  

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One telephonic conversation with Kiranjit Kaur, 25, is enough to understand how hectic her life is. During our 28-minute-long conversation, Kaur had to hang up twice as she was getting other important calls. Every time she would diligently message me to call her back and politely apologize. In between she also had a quick conversation with her mother to discuss dinner plans and instructed her brother to quickly collect clothes from the clothesline as it had started raining.  

The conversation started with small talk and exchanging pleasantries, but once she started talking about farmer suicides, the sufferings of widows and other family members, the lack of proper compensation, and the absence of suicide prevention and rehabilitation strategies, the passion in the voice of activist Kaur was unmissable. Kaur’s story is a perfect example of how sometimes adverse situations are capable of making us stronger.

“My father was my friend. He was my everything. There were no signs. So, that day (April 23, 2016) when a neighbour came and informed us that he had hung himself by a tree, it was beyond shocking. Yes, we were struggling at that point in time, but we could have never imagined that he would end his life,” said Kaur, the only time during the entire conversation when her voice choked with emotions. She added: “It was later that we came to know that he had to pay back a debt of Rs 8 lakh, including a loan taken from a government-owned bank and other lenders. Our real struggle began when we came to terms with the fact that he was no more, and we still had to pay the debt.”

Her father, Gurnam Singh, owned a three-acre family land and he had leased an eight-acre land for additional income. They would grow cotton and wheat. In 2015, a terrible pest attack damaged the entire cotton crop after which Singh’s debt kept mounting. He, like many farmers in the country, could not cope with the pressure and chose to put an end to his miseries by ending his life.

Kiranjit Kaur joins a group of widows making rotis at Singhu protest site. The 2020–2021 farmers’ protest is an ongoing protest against three farm acts which were passed by the Parliament of India in September 2020. Image credit: Salimah Shivji/CBC

“Our lives changed after his death. I had to drop out of college and my brother had to drop out of school (Kaur has one elder sister and a younger brother). My mother had no idea about any paperwork or bank work, so we had to figure that out. After a while, relatives stopped coming by as they feared they would have to bail us out financially. The lenders, however, never stopped knocking at our doors. I asked my brother to take up farming and I took up stitching work. I would work from morning until midnight and earned Rs 200-250 per day. I sank into depression. I would not talk to anyone. I would not step out much. It would have continued this way had I not met that elderly lady at the market that day,” said Kaur.

Kaur met an 80-year-old lady at the market who was buying sugar worth Rs 5. Kaur got curious and asked her how long it would last. “She told me that’s all she could afford. Her son, a farmer, had died by suicide after which her daughter-in-law abandoned the family and their two children, a daughter, three, and a son who was 1.5-years old. The 80-year-old grandmother was looking after the grandchildren. She took me to her house which was nearly collapsing. It made me realize that her condition was worse than mine and that’s when I decided to do something for such families,” said Kaur.

Soon Kisan Mazdoor Peedat Parivar Committee came into existence.

“The problem was far more serious and multifaceted”

The initial days were unstructured. Kaur would simply visit farmer families who had lost a loved one to suicide. She would listen to their problems for hours. That was crucial. Kaur noticed a typical pattern. The widows were not even aware that they could get a compensation, the children would drop out of schools and colleges, the families would not get any help from the government or relatives, and no one would listen to the victim families. The last problem was a serious one, so Kaur decided to give them a platform. All the victim families would gather at one place from time to time to share their problems and together they would find ways to deal with them.

“When I started paying door-to-door visits and listening to their issues, I realized the problem was far more serious and multi-faceted than what I had imagined it to be. We realized that the authorities were too busy and a bit indifferent to take up individual cases. So, we would go and meet the local MPs and MLAs in groups. We reversed the roles. We made sure that at such meetings widows and families got an opportunity to do the talking and the elected representative listened to their problems. We would then ask them for solutions. This boosted the confidence of victim families,” said Kaur.

Gradually, as more and more victim families started joining the outfit, they started visiting villages in districts of Punjab where farmer suicides were more rampant. They would tell farmer families that suicides were not a solution and offered to help victim families. There were two things that needed immediate attention. The first one was to ensure children from such families got adopted (their education sponsored) so that they didn’t have to drop out of schools and colleges. The committee reached out to the press, got many stories published that highlighted the plight of such families and children after which many influential families came forward to support the education of such children. Kaur herself is a beneficiary and is presently pursuing a correspondence course in journalism from Punjab University.  

The second agenda was to help widows and families get compensation from the government. In 2015, the Punjab government had raised compensation for families of debt-ridden farmers, who committed suicide, from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 3 lakh. But the families didn’t know how to go about claiming that compensation. The committee members help them with the paperwork.

Just after two years of its inception, the Kisan Mazdoor Peedat Parivar Committee was a success story. Today it is a 6,000-member strong outfit. They work in seven districts of Punjab — Mansa, Sangrur, Bhatinda, Barnala, Patiyala, Moga and Faridkot — and the cotton belt of Malwa where farmer suicides are more rampant. They are also working closely with similar outfits in other states. So far, they have taken up compensation cases of 16,606 victim families in Punjab out of which nearly 6,000 families have got full compensation. Also, thanks to their direct intervention, nearly 300 children have been adopted and their education is being funded.

To change the system, join the system  

During the 2019 Punjab assembly elections, two widows from the Kisan Mazdoor Peedat Parivar Committee decided to take the plunge. The members felt that in order to make their voices heard, it would be better to try and be a part of the system. Hearts of hearts they knew that they did not have a chance, but it was important to make an attempt. “All sorts of things were done to discourage us. We were not given our choice of election symbol. They tried to bribe our candidates and pressurized them to withdraw from the nomination process. We persisted and the media continued to highlight our stories. That was important. We wanted to show them that ordinary men and women can put up a fight too. The most touching part was the donation that we got from the victim families. Some gave Rs 5, some Rs 100, some Rs 500. That’s how we collected Rs 84,000 and that’s how much we spent on the election campaigning. The other parties must have spent in crores. We would move around in autos while campaigning and when we got media traction because of that, the other candidates started copying us. It was quite funny,” said Kaur.     

These days many members of the Kisan Mazdoor Peedat Parivar Committee are camping at the state border or are in Delhi as part of the farmers protests. The 2020–2021 farmers’ protest is an ongoing protest against three farm acts which were passed by the Parliament of India in September 2020. A stalemate between the central government and the farmers has been seen for the past few months. Farmers, farmer unions and their representatives have demanded that the laws be repealed. Kaur was at the farmers protest too. “It is a good platform where we can put our points across,” said Kaur. Yet another important call cut short our conversation … thankfully at a point where the telephonic interview was nearing an end.  

(Disclaimer: The feature image is a collage of images that accompanied new reports featuring Kiranjit Kaur published in [clockwise] The Times of India, CBC and AlJazeera)

Read Mumbai-based Psychiatrist Shyam Mithiya’s interview where he talks about suicide prevention. You can find the other stories that we did as part of our series on mental health here. If you need to get in touch with mental professionals, dial these verified helpline numbers. NIMHANS: 080-46110007, AASRA: 9820466726, Talk to me: 9372909321/9820235880, iCALL: 9152987824

The voices among us – a series of interviews on mental health

Actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death and what followed thereafter gave an immediate impetus to do this series of interviews. We wanted to share real, lived experiences of people as well as mental health professionals.

The conversations that followed the actor’s death were certainly shocking, especially ones on the lines of ‘A person who has everything, how can he or she be depressed?’ But I did not have to look far, I had to only look within. Just a decade or so ago I had met a man on a date, and he had revealed in the course of that evening that he was bipolar. My own knowledge or the lack of it on what it means to be bipolar, was embarrassing to say the least.

I asked him – ‘You mean, you wear bifocal lenses?’ I do not know, how, after reading Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, I could have been so ignorant. What I found helpful at that point in time, were blogs, books (memoirs and first-person narratives) that told the story of what it meant to have a mental illness with honesty, without judgement and with empathy.

I loved reading Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom, and followed it up with A Book of Light, The Bell Jar, Prozac Nation, Mind on Fire, I’ve Never Been (Un) Happier. I kept adding blogs and books to my to-do reading list and with every book that I read, I found my understanding of mental health issues and sense of empathy growing several inches.

I also learned a lot from my relationship with the young man and from what he so honestly shared with me.

So think of these interviews as a pool of resources. Come to these interviews as and how you like — to hear voices that speak to you, to find shared, common ground, out of curiosity, to explore your own self, or to broaden your horizons. There’s no judgement here or an attempt to preach.

The voices are so clear, brilliant, and brimming with the poetry of life — I found myself richer for having had these conversations with each person I interviewed.

In the series, you can read the following stories and interviews:

Jerry PintoAmandeep SandhuShampa SenguptaShyam MithiyaAnjana DeshpandeTanika GodboleKarishma Upadhyay and Kiranjit Kaur

Prerna Shah

Do I look like a person with mental illness in this photo?

I have been working for more than three decades in the disability sector in India. There are many issues in the sector which are very close to my heart. However, the invisibility of mental health issue is something that hurts me the most. Misinformation on mental illnesses and psychosocial disabilities are galore in our country. Reasons may be manifold. One of them might be that one cannot ‘see’ a mental illness?

Shampa Sengupta raised a very pertinent point by posting this image on her Facebook page

I lost my mind (pun intended) and became furious when in the month of August I saw that there were thousands of tweets showing a photo of Sushant Singh Rajput, saying he cannot be mentally ill as he is smiling in the photo and along with that photographs of another actor who was wearing flamboyant clothes, (some not-so-typical outfits for men) and with captions that said ‘this is mental illness.’ Basically, implying that a person who is smiling or good humored cannot have a mental illness and the people who do have a mental illness look a certain way.

This article is not about whether Sushant Singh Rajput was ill or not, the highest investigation agencies in the country are trying to find reasons behind his tragic death and we, ordinary citizens, should not get involved in presumptions on the same.

I got angry and took a selfie ( smiling at the phone) and posted in social media saying “Do I look mentally ill” and elaborated how even with my mental health conditions, I am working and smiling – one can never see a photo and judge the person’s mental conditions. This is not the first time I had to assert my health issue; this has become routine for me.

I work in the cross-disability field, advocacy is my area of work. Unfortunately, even my colleagues from this sector do not understand my kind of disability. So, every time, there is a press-meet or open public meeting, they will say, “We will have someone with a disability as a speaker and make a list of possible speakers.” This list would obviously include those with a ‘visible’ disability, and they would conveniently forget to add my name. Another colleague once told me after I failed to attend a workshop, “Shampa is unpredictable, we should not recommend her name to any seminar workshops anymore.” This happened even though I had texted her in the morning of the workshop saying my depression is in terrible stage today. But she did not take it seriously and called me unpredictable in an office meeting. Would she have said same if another colleague with mobility impairments had said that he could not attend a workshop because his wheelchair broke down? Or a hearing-impaired person said that her Sign Language Interpreter was not available, so her attending workshop is futile? If this is the level of understanding within disability movement, what do you expect from the general public?

For most people, ‘mad’ people are those who roam in the streets, with untidy clothes and matted hair. Some avoid their path, some others throw stones at them, children are taught to laugh at them calling them ‘pagla,’ and very few really understand their pain. The media also uses this image of ‘madness’ very cleverly and reinforces the stereotype. How many movies can one recall where a person with mental illness is shown as studying in college or working in an office? Once, a journalist, after, I mentioned in a meeting that I have a mental illness, asked me “Why did you say that? I have never seen you talking irrationally, so you can’t be mentally ill.” I told him, “You might call me tomorrow 50 times and get no response, because the days I am more depressed, I cannot find strength to take a phone call.” He looked and smiled. Did he believe me? I am not sure. Interestingly, he was there to talk to primary stakeholders in a disability advocacy meeting. So, he interviewed my blind friend and wrote about his journey in the next day’s paper.

My journey within the disability sector itself is quite interesting.  I started working as a professional in early 1990s. I became a caregiver of a person with schizophrenia after my marriage. Though professionally I knew how to deal with different kinds of disabilities, I was not aware of how to take care of my own self in this new role. This is an area where most caregivers fail. Our health system, and government does not provide the necessary insights, training, or financial support to the caregivers. Balancing professional life, taking care of a person with a mental illness took a toll on me. I did not even realize at which point in time, I became the primary stakeholder in this ‘disability sector.’

I do not want to discuss my diagnosis or medical history here. For me, the medical part of my disability does not consist of a lot of space. What I believe is the social acceptance which would have made things easier for me. When I talk about mildest physical discomfort, there will be relatives or friends asking me next day how I am feeling. When I talk about my mood swings or depression, there’s complete silence. I do hope by continuously talking about same, I will be able to bring some change. And in future, people will not say “If he is smiling, he can’t be mentally ill.”

Shampa Sengupta is an activist working on gender and disability rights. She is the Founder-Director of Kolkata based advocacy group named Sruti Disability Rights Centre and is working as Joint Secretary of India’s largest membership based cross disability network National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD). 

(This conversation is a part of our series on mental health and illness, as 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.)

Related interviews: Jerry PintoAmandeep SandhuKarishma Upadhya, Shyam Mithiya, Anjana Deshpande, Tanika Godbole.

“My comics have done wonders to my mental health and given me sort of an unshakeable self-esteem”

Tanika Godbole is a journalist and a comic artist, who started making doodles in 2017 to get out of a bad phase and randomly shared them on social media platforms. She was surprised that people found her work relatable and funny, and her Instagram followers kept on increasing. In this interview with Swati Subhedar, she talks about how ‘missfitcomics’ has helped her deal with her emotional issues and how art can be a saviour during the pandemic

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“No matter how bad things get, there will always be art” … reads the caption of one of your latest doodles. The image is that of a street in Germany that you had visited, a trip, which, in your own words, seems fictional in the current times. Take us through the thought behind that doodle.

I was going through old images of a work trip to Germany that happened in February, just before the lockdown. That made me think about how different things were back then, and how no one could have ever imagined that we would be living in such a different world in less than a month. While looking at the pictures, I also thought about things that have stayed stable and continued to provide joy to me, such as drawing. I wanted to express the need to know what makes you happy and keep doing that regardless of what is happening in the world presently.

Tanika’s recent doodle. The caption read: “A drawing of a random street I had taken in Germany, from a trip that seems increasingly fictional. No matter how bad things get, there will always be art”. Credit: missfitcomics

We have been living with the virus for nearly nine months now and there is no expiry date. In such uncertain times, do you think art and creativity help in coping with extreme emotions?

I always try to express my true emotions through comics, and that has changed a lot through these nine months. From feeling numb and uncreative, I have now reached a stage where I feel the need to make positive comics. There is already so much negativity. I used to want to make comics that would make people think about issues. But, nowadays, I only feel like making comics that will make people smile a little.

As an artist, how do you perceive the pandemic? Does it affect your thought process?

I had a hard time in the beginning because I found no inspiration to make comics. I also felt out of touch with my thoughts and feelings. But I am slowly starting to get back to feeling like myself again, and finding inspiration in normal, everyday things.

Do unprecedented situations like a lockdown have an adverse impact on artists and their creativity? Did you suffer a creative block when you were locked up inside your home during the lockdown and there was stillness all around?

Yes, I did. I also used to think that I’m someone who can survive pretty well without real human interaction. But the pandemic has humbled me. I realized the importance and value of human interaction and human touch. I also think just drawing without a message or comic idea has helped me calm myself. It could help others who are dealing with anxiety and loneliness.

A lot of your posts are about social anxiety and you being a “misfit”. Do you think expressing yourself through art has helped you overcome your fears and inhibitions? Would you advise others to do the same?

My comics have definitely helped me become a better person. I sometimes get to understand myself better through my comics. I know I always had this personality, but my drawings have made me so much more confident. I was always afraid of being my authentic self in front of people because of fears about how I would be perceived. My drawings have done wonders to my mental health and given me sort of unshakeable self-esteem.

Keep swiping right to see this slideshow of Tanika’s artwork.

Take us through the journey of ‘missfitcomics’. 

I started making comics during the beginning of 2017, to get out of a bad phase. I was suffering from very low self-esteem and needed a space to be more assertive and express myself without fear of how it would be perceived. I had decided right from the beginning that this would be something I would purely do for myself. I didn’t want to care or think about anyone else’s opinions. I was surprised that people found my work relatable and funny. I still have no plan or agenda, other than expressing myself.

Humour and sarcasm are the hidden layers in all your doodles. While the art is really simple, it’s the punchline that has the desired impact. Take us through the process. Do you draw first or think of a punchline first? 

There’s usually a joke which starts the process and gives me the idea. I sometimes ponder over it for days before I make it, because humour is the most important aspect for me. The drawing then materializes around the joke.

You touch upon a range of topics, including politics and religion. How do people react to contentious posts?

Some appreciate them, some are angered by them. I try not to let comments get to my head, positive and negative ones. I want it to be something I do for myself, and not let others’ opinions influence it much.

Any particular feedback or comment you remember that touched your heart and made the journey worthwhile? 

I had reposted some of my comics on Game of Thrones and Harry Potter from last year. And someone messaged me saying: “Thanks for making my night, from way back in 2019.” It made me so happy! I also get a lot of warm feedback for my comics on mental health. Many people tell me that the comics help them understand their social anxiety better and that they feel a little less alone after seeing the comic and comments of other people going through the same thing. 

Any message for artists who are extremely talented but hesitate or don’t bother to make their work public. What are the advantages of making your work public on social media? 

I think they should just put their work out either way. The worst thing that could happen is that you don’t get followers, which is fine. It makes no difference to your life. At least you know you put yourself out there. It requires a lot of vulnerability to be open and real on social media. We always need more artists. I’d rather see more art on my timeline than influencer content.

Do you know writing poems can help you get out of an emotionally draining phase? Read Anjana’s Deshpande’s interview to know more about journal and poetry therapy.

This conversation is a part of our series on mental health and illness, as 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.

Related interviews: Jerry PintoAmandeep SandhuKarishma Upadhyay Shyam Mithiya and Shampa Sengupta

“As a journal and poetry therapist, I highly recommend therapeutic writing as a way to manage emotions”

Anjana Deshpande, a licensed clinical social worker based in the US, tells Swati Subhedar in an interview how we can use our rich tradition of art, storytelling, and poetry to heal from the collective trauma that we are experiencing presently because of the coronavirus pandemic and elaborates on how, as per a study, people who wrote for at least 15 minutes a day about a painful moment are better equipped to deal with painful circumstances

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The pandemic has affected each one of us in some way or the other. Most importantly, it has drained us emotionally. What long-term impact will this have on our society per se given the fact that many countries may not even have enough counselors and therapists to deal with this unprecedented situation?

The world is currently in chaos. Masks have become the new normal, and we are “touching elbows” instead of shaking hands. While the virus snakes unrelentingly through our lives, we are constantly devising ways to manage it. Even though this struggle is emotionally draining, it is also forcing us to grow, adapt, and change. The theory of Post Traumatic Growth, propounded by Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the early 1990s, posits that humans demonstrate the capacity to evolve after distressing events.

“It is the realization that old meanings no longer apply, and the subsequent search for new ones that result in the psychological shift known as post-traumatic growth. The struggle to find new meaning in the aftermath of trauma is crucial to positive psychological growth, as well as the acceptance that personal distress and growth can co-exist and often do while these new meanings are crafted —“Tedeshi, 2004.

This theory also identifies the concept of “expert companion”. This companion is able to provide support to those who are suffering, without getting overwhelmed themselves. While a counselor/therapist would be an ideal expert companion, at this time, we can cast our net wider. We are facing “collective trauma”, collective helplessness, collective grief, and I believe that healing can also be collective.

We can make meaning out of this experience by asking ourselves what have we learned, how will we change, how did we cope? To do this, we will need a safe space, and creating that safe space becomes our next task. We have a rich tradition of art, storytelling, poetry and other modalities to hold the space for this. I already see the Durga puja pandals telling the story of the pandemic. Our healing lies in this retelling of the story, in making meaning of this experience.  

Post Traumatic Growth is said to occur in five domains:

  • Appreciation of life
  • Relationships with others
  • New possibilities in life
  • Personal strength
  • Spiritual change

If you look around today, you might notice changes already happening in these domains. We are not taking anything for granted, have survived almost nine months of this pandemic, have adapted by working from home, and are using technology in innovative ways.

A Durga idol wearing a mask. Image credit: Director, producer and author Ram Kamal’s Twitter account

The brouhaha around the pandemic may have subsided, but the virus is still lurking around. People are feeling more anxious than ever. Thoughts like “what if it’s me”, “What if it affects my parents/children/partner?” must have crossed everyone’s mind. How should people deal with such extreme emotions?

I have tested myself for COVID multiple times during the past year for the usual reasons … “What if it’s me? What if it affects my family?”. At this time, we can do two things — engage in what is known as “reality testing” and identifying what is in our control.

I have not done enough research on this, but the Spanish Flu of 1918 was considered to be the deadliest epidemic faced by humans. A strain of that virus survives till today and is known as the “common flu”. We get vaccinated for it every year, but the vaccination varies according to the predominant strain that year. Today we are more medically advanced than we were in 1918, and pharmaceutical companies around the world are working round the clock to identify treatments for COVID. Thoughts like these, which are reality-based, and challenge the narrative of fear, are called “reality testing”.

Other reassuring and believable thoughts could be “I have done well till now. I take proper precautions” etc. If we start thinking about things that we cannot control or predict, we slide deeper into helplessness and terror. Establishing routines that protect us and using safety to create structure is also a way that we can manage our emotional reactivity and increase distress tolerance.

When COVID claims someone, their family is not even allowed to go near them, for fear of contamination. There is no time for proper goodbyes. This in itself is traumatic. Photo by CDC on Pexels.com

There have been too many casualties around the world.  All of us have seen images of mass graves and overflowing burial grounds. At least one person known to us may have succumbed to the virus. This is affecting the mental health of people. How should one deal with the fear of death?  

This is not the first time that humankind has come face to face with death in such a catastrophic way. In the past, we have coped with it by finding our strength and our compassion in the face of extreme events. What events like these churn up are values that we choose to uphold, and a decision of “how am I going to uphold that value in these times?” For some people, the value may be family, for some it may be spirituality or service to the community. For some, it may be survival. So, in this chaos, there is also an opportunity for growth.

We cannot minimize the pain of grief and loss that people have experienced. When COVID claims someone, their family is not even allowed to go near them, for fear of contamination. There is no time for proper goodbyes. This in itself is traumatic. What helps is again, expressing our feelings through various platforms and making meaning out of this loss. Coming together as a community and having pain acknowledged and shared by others will have a huge impact on the mental health of people.

The global media coverage is a double-edged sword. While pictures of death have been distributed swiftly, there have also been messages of hope. Again, we have control over what we see, and what meaning we choose to make out of it. Our brain has an inherent “negativity bias”, which means that we “velcro” onto negative facts, while the positive facts slip away. It takes effort to cling to the positive, and that is the effort we have to put in.

Children, the elderly, and those who live alone — irrespective of the circumstances and age group — are the most vulnerable right now. How to help children and the elderly sail through this phase? How much should we tell our children? How to be there for the elderly, emotionally, especially those who live away from their families. 

Yes, this is a real issue now, as these two populations are vulnerable and feel helpless. While there is no right answer here, open lines of communication and increased connectivity is key.

Children are constantly learning from adults. How we speak about this crisis and how we respond to it will impact how the children will deal with it. If a child is fearful, it is important to address these fears honestly, and in an age-appropriate way. While it is important to tell them the truth, how we word it is equally important. Sharing information gives children a sense of control and respect, and that seeps into their day to day lives, making them more resilient and confident.

The elderly are indeed suffering, and are in need of connection. For instance, the UK has lifted the ban on the elderly staying indoors, identifying that for this population, loneliness is perhaps worse than the pandemic. The connectivity is especially important for this group. There are many ways of contactless connections through deliveries of food, comfort packets, letters etc, which allow the elderly to feel as if they are cared for. The difference between being alone and being lonely is that of neglect. When we are lonely, we feel the absence of care, and eventually, stop caring for ourselves. This loneliness can be eased by providing care through the ways mentioned above.

Journaling/expressive writing is a proven way to manage our emotions. This is different from “normal” writing and is done with the intention of moving towards recovery. Photo by Julia M Cameron on Pexels.com

It may not be feasible for all to visit counselors/therapists as there might be other pressing issues to deal with; like a job loss or loss of business or loss of a loved one. What should people do to keep their emotions in check if therapy or medication is not the immediate option?

As a journal and poetry therapist, I highly recommend therapeutic writing as a way to manage emotions. Dr James Pennebaker, a pioneer of expressive writing, conducted a study about 30 years ago. The study proved that people who wrote for at least 15 minutes a day about a painful moment, reported improvement in the mental state and coped better with painful circumstances. The expressive writing model that he created has the following steps:

  • Write 15-20 minutes/day for four consecutive days
  • Write about something that is difficult to talk about
  • Write both about what happened and how it felt
  • Participants showed physiological improvement at the end of four days

In another experiment conducted among 63 recently unemployed professionals, those assigned to write about the thoughts and emotions surrounding their job loss were reemployed more quickly than those who wrote about non-traumatic topics or who did not write at all. Expressive writing appeared to influence individuals’ attitudes about their old jobs and about finding new employment, rather than their motivation to seek employment.

Therefore journaling/expressive writing is a proven way to manage our emotions. This is different from “normal” writing and is done with the intention of moving towards recovery. Reading Just One Thing by Rick Hanson, which is about mindfulness, could help you. 

Writing in a journal provides a safe release of emotions and aids in self-regulation. Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

What is poetry therapy? How does this medium help in managing bottled up emotions?

The use of poems to promote well-being, healing and recovery is known as poetry therapy. To find out more, you can visit https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/poetry-therapy and ifbpt.org.

Poems are uniquely positioned to become containers to examine and express emotions that may be confusing, overwhelming, or shameful. By its very nature, poetry is open to interpretation, and as such is good at hiding the secrets of the writer. Poetry is precise, layered, and delivers several experiences in a condensed form. The role of poetry therapy is not to “stir” emotions, but to “integrate” them and hold space for conflicting emotions. Poet Gray Snyder says … “poetry has an interesting function. It helps people be where they are”. Poetry also allows you to slip back and forth in time and space, and helps create a coherent narrative. 

I had written the poem below when I was new to the US and missing India terribly. In India, I was able to point out trees and would know their names. In the US, I was lost. Everything that I had known about myself had come crumbling down, and I was doing unfamiliar things such as waving to my Pakistani neighbour! The poem moves between India, Pakistan and the US (across timelines, continents and seasons) and helps me place conflicting experiences on the same page. Each word that has been chosen reflects my reality at that time. 

If I had chosen to write in prose about my experience, I would have spent a lot of time trying to capture what I felt, and would have probably felt more agitated. The poem allowed me to move in and out of my experience very quickly and helped me make meaning out of my experience. Here’s the poem:

Pakistani neighbour

The tree is heavy with dew,
drips and drips
What tree is this?
I don't know.
A foreign tree,
a foreign sky.
I sit at my window,
stare at my neighbour.
At home, it is spring,
our countries
are at war
Here, we wave across
an empty parking lot.

Doodling/sketching/drawing comics can also help in keeping your emotions in check. How? Read Tanika story.  

This conversation is a part of our series on mental health and illness, as 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.

Related interviews: Jerry PintoAmandeep SandhuKarishma Upadhyay Shyam Mithiya and Shampa Sengupta 

“A person never commits suicide. He/she dies by suicide”

Shyam Mithiya is a Mumbai-based psychiatrist and sexologist. In this interview, he talks about how the recent death of a Bollywood actor and what followed after that was an opportunity lost, in terms of starting an honest and open conversation on mental health

Was the recent death of a Bollywood actor and what followed after that an opportunity lost, in terms of starting an honest and open conversation on mental health?

Yes. We could have done so much in terms of spreading awareness and educating people. Many people got interested in his case because he was a well-known Bollywood actor. If you try to educate people about mental health issues without any context, it might not interest them. But if a mental health issue is associated with a celebrity, they would be interested in knowing more. In an ideal situation, therapists, counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and mental health professionals should have been invited to various forums, they should have had a nuanced and detailed discussion about mental health issues and busted various myths associated with these illnesses. But what followed after his death in the name of TRP (television rating point) was shocking and shameful. People were already going through a lot because of the pandemic and the lockdown. The media should have been a little empathetic and sensitive. There was no need to cash in on someone’s tragedy during such an emotionally draining phase.

His photos were circulated soon after his demise, which was such an unethical thing to do. Imagine the kind of impact it must have had on emotionally fragile minds. The headlines read “he committed suicide”, which is a wrong way of putting it. A person never commits suicide. He/she dies by suicide. By saying a person committed suicide, it, in a way, glorifies suicide. It may give people the impression that if such a successful, famous and financially stable person could commit suicide then, maybe, that’s the way to end your miseries. By focusing on this case in an unreasonable manner, and without balance and empathy, we are worsening the situation.

Image credit: Ministry of Health Twitter account

When a celebrity opens up about battling depression, people say “how can he/she be depressed?” People often associate depression with extreme sadness. What should be done to bust various myths related to depression?

We tend to use the word depression very casually. Say, if India loses a match, people say, “Oh, we are so depressed that India lost”. People tend to get confused between sadness and depression. Depression is a clinical disorder wherein a person feels extremely sad, with or without a trigger, for 14 days or more. That’s the starting point. Then there are different types of depressions like unipolar, bipolar, mild, moderate, or severe depression.

A person who has everything going for him personally, professionally, financially, and socially, and his/her life is 100% perfect, even this person could be depressed. It is a biological condition wherein there is an imbalance in the neurotransmitters, and it can be treated with medication and by making changes in the lifestyle. However, we must also understand that by making lifestyle changes or by only doing yoga and exercising, or by developing a hobby one can’t beat depression. Yes, these are additional factors that help significantly, but you need to see a counsellor or a therapist and take medication if need be. People around a person who is dealing with depression should not give him/her lame advice like “watch a motivational video” or “listen to music” or “think positively”. These things will suffocate a person with depression even more. Instead, encourage him/her to see a therapist.

Please understand, a depressed person goes through a lot. People going through depression can’t help feeling sad and or crying non-stop. They know the ill-effects of eating junk food, yet they binge. They can’t sleep. They feel like going out, meeting friends, and living a regular life, but they are just not able to pull themselves out of their beds. Also, a depressed person need not necessarily be suicidal and those with mild or moderate depression can still function as normal human beings.

Mental health helpline numbers. (Right) Dr Shyam Mithiya

Often, people categorize those suffering from complicated mental health issues like mental disorder, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia as “paagal” (mad). How should we address this issue? 

Unfortunately, all mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobia, panic disorder, social anxiety, dyslexia, learning disability, attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity disorder, mental disorder, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder are categorized as “pagalpan”. People say things like “arey ye to paglo ke doctor ke paas jata hai”. People having schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are often termed as “possessed”, are ill-treated, chained, burnt with match sticks, or taken to faith healers. When nothing works, their families bring them to us. When the families see a considerable improvement in the patients after we prescribe medicines to them, they feel guilty, especially so when they realize that these illnesses are treatable. There are many such misconceptions. We need to spread awareness at the ground level or at the school level. Only then the next generations will be more aware, more accepting, and ready to seek medical help.  

A large section of society has access to the internet. People often google their symptoms and arrive at a conclusion, rather than visiting a therapist. They read about the side effects of medicines and either stop taking the prescribed pills or don’t start the treatment at all. What should be done to change this?

It is dangerous. Let me tell you why. If you Google “headache”, the third option is tumour! Now, imagine a person having anxiety googling his/her symptoms, reading about the medicines and the side effects. That person will get petrified and not even come to a therapist. This worsens the situation. Visit a therapist, talk to him/her, understand your situation, take medication, if need be. That’s the proper way. Don’t try to be a doctor. You are not an expert.

Video credit: Ministry of Health Twitter account

Mental health is still a taboo in Indian society. Even educated families are not willing to accept that their children could be having mental health issues. Very few are open enough to take their children to a therapist. Casual reactions like “oh, it’s nothing” or “it’s all in your head” can do a lot of damage.

Yes. If someone is having a heart problem then we don’t tell that person “heart se nikal do”. So, why tell someone having anxiety or depression that “dimaag se nikal do”. I feel people who recover from mental illnesses should share their success stories on social media so that more and more people read about their experiences. This will help others. This way, those dealing with mental health issues will not feel awkward about their situation. This will give them the courage to open up and discuss their options with their families or friends. But, it’s a vicious cycle. People don’t share their stories because they fear that others will brand them as “pagal”.

The pandemic is having an adverse impact on the mental health of people. What should be done to be mentally and emotionally fit during such difficult times?

As per the statistics, one in seven people in India is dealing with some mental health issue or the other. That comes to 15-20 crore Indians and this means almost every family has one person who is dealing with a mental health issue. We never had enough psychiatrists, psychologists, or mental health professionals. Now, the pandemic has added to this burden. There is too much anxiety. Today, a family visited me for therapy. I asked their nine-year-old son to wait outside while I spoke to the parents. Fearing coronavirus, he kept standing for 15 minutes and didn’t sit on the sofa. That is a reflection of how anxious people are. Yes, there is too much coronavirus-related grim news floating around, but if you are a parent, remember, your kids are watching you and they are going to replicate your actions, so react to a situation in an appropriate manner.

These are the seven things you must do to keep your mental health in check during the pandemic.

(1) Sleep for at least eight hours a day
(2) Eat healthy and balanced meals
(3) Exercise … meditate for sure, yoga rebalances the nervous system
(4) Don’t live in a bubble … communicate (5) Don’t suppress any kind of emotions
(6) Develop a hobby
(7) Do something for someone or society. There’s nothing more satisfying than that

As told to Swati Subhedar

This conversation is a part of our series on mental health and illness, as 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.

Related interviews: Jerry Pinto, Amandeep Sandhu, Karishma Upadhyay, Anjana Deshpande, Tanika Godbole and Shampa Sengupta

‘Punctual, extremely courteous, with a photographic memory – Babi was all this and more’

Karishma Upadhyay is a veteran film journalist, a specialist on Bollywood. Parveen Babi – A Life, is her first book, for which, she interviewed the star’s former friends, lovers, and colleagues to build a portrait that is rich and multi-layered. Upadhyay spoke to Prerna Shah about the research that went into making the book, as well as about bringing to light several lesser-known facets of Babi’s life and personality.

Diving straight in – a project like no other

When a very dear friend at Hachette told me that her editor had a project that I might be interested in, and that it was about Parveen Babi, I was at first, taken aback. I had actually never thought I would write a book.

I knew truly little about Babi. One of the first few things that I did was to talk to a friend who is an encyclopaedia on Bollywood and knows so much about the early 70s and 80s. He told me that this was indeed a wonderful opportunity to take on.

And then like anyone else, I looked Babi up on Wikipedia and realised that they had gotten so much so wrong about her and that I could make an honest attempt to bring out the real her. What fascinated me was the fact that she had quit the industry twice and came back both the times, pretty much at the top. I have been writing on Bollywood for 20 years and this is rare.

Why did all the producers, directors and actors of her time wanted to work with her even if she had quit the industry twice? It piqued the interest of the reporter in me. I decided to jump straight into the project.

Finding Parveen Babi – one painstaking detail by another

I didn’t know where to start from. No one from her family was around, and even though I did not want to start from the big names, there wasn’t any other way. But once I did, one person led me to another, and I found out that there were so many people who retained so much respect and warmth for her even today.

Ved Sharma, her secretary was no more but his son Lalit Sharma and Xerxes Bhathena, who was Babi’s costume designer and friend –- they were incredibly kind and shared so much with me, helping me put the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that was Babi’s life, together.

I wanted to know about her life in Ahmedabad, where she studied at St Xavier’s for her Masters in English Literature. Donald Marks, (the son of a family friend and Babi’s close friend throughout her life) put me in touch with his ex-wife Jyotsna Odedra (who was Babi’s senior and roommate at St Xavier’s), who, in turn, put me in touch with Parizad who was married to the late Neville Damania (Parveen’s first boyfriend.) Slowly, but steadily, I was able to gain a clearer insight into Babi’s life and personality.

The one thing that I was steadfast about was that I would verify each and every piece of information and anecdotes pertaining to Babi with at least two other sources. There were so many things that I eventually did not put in the book because I wasn’t 100 per cent sure if it was true; as a researcher I tried to be a 1000 per cent true to her story.

Not just pretty, punctual to the core

Punctual, extremely courteous, with a photographic memory — Babi was all this and more. Discovering these facets of her personality became extremely important to me. I knew that what was written about her was so overshadowed by her mental illness, almost eclipsing everything else. But there was a reason why people were so keen on working with her.

Ravi Tandon who directed her, including in the film Majboor, reminisced that at 7 am, there used to be two other cars apart from his, that would arrive on the dot at the location. Babi’s and Amitabh Bachchan’s.

Manoj Kumar told me about how non-fussed she was. He spoke about an incident when they were shooting for the film Kranti. It so happened one day that by the time her scene was completed, there was almost nothing left of the lunch laid out for the cast and the crew. There were no plates left even. Babi simply put some subzi over a roti, using the roti as a plate, and had her lunch. No fuss, not a word of admonition for anyone. 

Ranjeet, who worked with Babi in many films, spoke of a scene with her, in which the script demanded that he assault her. In doing so, inadvertently, her clothes went haywire. Again, she wasn’t upset or furious, she simply readjusted her clothes and they went on with the scene.

Her driver Hamunan had the nicest of things to say about her too – how she took care of people around her. The cinematographer for Shaan, S M Anwar, revealed how Babi would always remember the names of spot boys and technicians on the set, courteous with everyone around her. 

There was also a magazine interview in which the late BR Ishara, director of Charitra, had described how Babi, (who must have been 16 or 17 at the time he had approached her for the movie), was keen to know what her character was really like and did not shy away from playing a character that would portray the role of a woman who would become an unwed mother. 

Adventures and anecdotes

This book took three years to research and write. It took me on different journeys. I went to Ahmedabad to research her university days, and after I had spent this afternoon with Odedra talking about Babi, I went back to my hotel. I found to my dismay that my Dictaphone had run out of battery and those conversations were not recorded! I had a flight back and couldn’t prolong my stay in Ahmedabad. This led to a wonderful weekend with Odedra at her farmhouse near the Maharashtra border and I had a lovely time besides rerecording all the anecdotes about Babi.

Getting Danny Denzongpa to agree to speak to me was also quite an adventure but so worth it. After the 70s and 80s, he did not talk to the press about his personal life a lot and he’s an intensely private person. When I finally got a call after six to nine months of corresponding with his secretary, I got on the next available flight to Gangtok. He was the loveliest, spoke candidly, with so much warmth and his insights about Babi were the highlights of the research for this book. At one point, while we were talking about Babi, his wife briefly came in, and remarked that she was so glad that there was going to be a book on Babi.

The missing pieces in the puzzle

There are these three years where she lived in Houston and not a lot is known about those years. I contacted the Indian consulate in Houston, expats, journalists but nothing much emerges of that period in her life, except for what Bhathena and Babi’s cousin’s son Javed could tell me.

I was also curious about how she paid for her three years there; she had only taken whatever little money was in her Bank of America account. So, if some more information comes out, I would love to add that to my book, update it.

However, in relation, more is known about her later years. Yes, she was mostly home bound, didn’t go out. But she did have her church group, I think it became a place of solace for her. She invited Reverend Dyvasirvadum and his family for meals, she celebrated her 50th birthday and had Ved Sharma’s family over for that.

Sense and sensibility – empathy and balance in reporting on mental illness

During Babi’s time, there was a certain lack of empathy in the way how the press reported on her. Calling her ‘mad’, ‘cracked up’ and such. Only a few interviews were done with sensitivity and I mention Rohit Khilnani’s interview in the book, which was one among the few that had balance and empathy.

Now it has been 30 years or so and not much has changed. The timing of the book, when it came out and the parallels with how the press reported on Sushant Singh Rajput’s case are uncanny. It’s not just the media, it’s how the audience, the industry folk, fans and alike reacted to the Rajput’s death that tells us that we seriously need to have these conversations (about mental health and illnesses) both in the media and the society at large.

Schizophrenia – a doctor speaks on record

When I started researching and writing on Babi, I had not previously written (in my capacity as a reporter) anything on mental illness. I wanted to approach this with awareness and understanding. I reached out to the psychiatrist (Dr Ashit Sheth) who had treated her once briefly and he told me what he had diagnosed back then and on record (that she was, at the time he saw her, psychotic, hallucinating, and feeling persecuted). I also wanted someone who lived with a mental illness, (so to speak), to read through my work and give me feedback but eventually there could be no time for that.  I couldn’t do it in detail – like getting a psychiatrist to read all of what I had researched and written but I tried to give the readers an insight into her whole personality, and not just focus on her illness.

A lot of people would say, oh she was so beautiful and talented, how could she have schizophrenia? Similar to the conversations about Rajput.

I did not put in any details that I couldn’t substantiate. Like if there was a talk about a genetic link, I didn’t put in who in the family was rumoured to have a mental illness if I had no means of double checking or authenticating it.

The end – a life and a dream

During the last years of her life, Babi allowed only a few people in her life. She had figured out a way of life that worked for her. It was not that she was deeply unhappy about her life. In 1997, she was baptized at the All Saints Church and you will find out in the book how she reached out to Reverend Dyvasirvadum.

You ask me if there are any paintings that she had painted and if these are preserved? All the material possessions were taken away by the cops and each item was photographed. From what I saw of the photographs, there were diaries, tapes and newspapers strewn about, broken glasses but no proper, finished paintings to speak of.

(A previous version of this interview had two mistakes which had crept in from our side. These have been corrected: the late BR Ishara quote about Babi has now been correctly attributed to a past interview, as also the bit about Jyotsna Odedra who connected Upadhyay with Parizad who was married to the late Neville Damania.)

Related interviews: Jerry Pinto, Amandeep Sandhu, Shyam Mithiya, Anjana Deshpande, Tanika Godbole, Shampa Sengupta

“Growing up, I was called pagal ka bachcha (child of a mad woman)”

says Amandeep Sandhu, author of the novel Sepia Leaves (2007), Roll of Honour (2012), and Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines (2019). 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.

When did you first decide that you wanted to write about your mother’s illness (schizophrenia) and your own experience of it — and how easy or difficult it is do so in the Indian context?

As a child, when my parents used to fight, I used to hide behind the sofa and read comics. Somewhere at that time, I realised that books are safe, books are home. As an adolescent, I was in a military school, where, I used to hide in the library to escape corporal punishment. As I grew up, there was a pull to either go into the Army or become a doctor, but I am glad that I did neither.

When my parents joined me in Bangalore, where I was working in the IT industry as a technical writer, I knew I wanted to put down what I knew about my parents. All my earlier life, I was a holiday child in the sense that I only went home for holidays, and now before I was to live with them, I wanted to put down my memories, and thoughts, know my parents better.

This was early 2000. And there was really nothing in the Indian context or Indian writing in English on the subject that talked about the caregiving aspect of the mental health pyramid. A lot of reading that I did, from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, to Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden to Dom Moraes’ My Son’s Father, I couldn’t see the caregiver’s point of view. I wanted to read something else than madness as a spectacle, madness becoming ‘the other,’ madness as ‘coveted’ – as in, yes, the artist or the poet suffers but look at the beauty of the work they produced as a result of that suffering.

I wanted something which spoke to me about the everyday grime of living and caregiving, so vastly different from the beauty of painting and poetry of the world of ‘coveted’ madness. That was the beginning and making of Sepia Leaves.

And what was the response to your writing?

It has been 13 years since the book has been published. And I still get messages from readers. Some of them simply say ‘thank you.’ They say, thank you, we did not know that we had a story. In the triage of mental health, there’s the patient, the psychiatrist and the medical practitioner, and the caregiver. While the patient suffers, the power in the triage – to diagnose, label and prescribe medicines — rests with the psychiatrist. The caregiver often doesn’t have a voice in spite of the fact that he or she suffers as well for they do the caregiving out of love, affection, or a sense of duty. It happens many times that these care-givers’ lives revolve around the patient, and they don’t live their own lives.

What resources can one turn to as a caregiver? How have things changed from the time you wrote your book to now?

Growing up, I was called ‘pagal ka bachcha’ (child of a mad woman). Nobody wanted to do anything with my mother, it was like she is your problem, deal with it.

There is more sharing happening now. Recently, there are groups like the White Swan Foundation, the Banyan, SCARF, Sanjivni, Anjali and many more. Publishers are also more open to publishing books on this subject; Amazon recently commissioned ten essays, and one of them was about mental health during Covid (Bravado to Fear to Abandonment: Mental Health and the COVID-19 Lockdown). I did that essay, and, in a way, it speaks about a shift in the publishing mindset too.

Books and memoirs like mine give a reader tangible proof that there are others who suffer like them, and that they are not alone, and their voice and story matters.

There’s still a whole lot of things that need to be done. The new Mental Healthcare Act 2017 of India, which still doesn’t solve all the issues with the previous Act (1987), but the Indian Psychiatrist Association, made an estimate of how much money was needed in order to do all that the Act suggested. It estimates that about Rs 93,000 crore is needed to implement it, and in the last budget, we reduced the outlay from 50 to 40 crores (for mental health). So yes, we need to tap and act at various levels – from education, the voluntary sector, journalism, CSR partnerships.

How do mental health professionals benefit from a resource of Indian writing on mental health?

When I was writing my book, I showed it to three psychiatrists that I knew and respected. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t misrepresenting the illness. One of the psychiatrists wrote a review of my book in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry and recommended that colleagues read it.

I think every arm of medicine is based on care and affection and more so the one in psychiatry. Memoirs give the medical professionals an insight into what life really is like on a daily basis and changes the degree of kindness and compassion for the kind of work they do, and this, in turn, helps create kind and open spaces.

The recent death of a Bollywood actor and what followed in its aftermath, was that an opportunity lost, in terms of starting an honest and open conversation on mental health?

Any denial harms the larger narrative. When we accept things, we acknowledge that, yes it happens, we don’t know how to solve it, but this is what happened – it is honest, and it creates a space to remove some of the stigma. In the context of the actor’s death, there was one brief moment when there was hope that the narrative would focus on meaningful conversations. But it was lost. It became political and the media was also compromised in the way it reported on the issues and continues to do so.

Even now, our public speakers use grave terms from the mental health terminology as jokes, as insults. The ‘pagal ka bacha’ might not be a refrain one hears very often, but there is still so much learning and work to do.

(The author spoke to Prerna Shah)

In case, you missed the first interview (of author and writer Jerry Pinto) in this series on mental health and awareness, you can read it here. You can also read Karishma Upadhyay’s interview in which she talks about the research that went on behind her book on Parveen Babi and how almost everything that was written about her previously was overshadowed by her mental illness, eclipsing everything else.

Related interviews: Shyam Mithiya, Anjana Deshpande, Tanika Godbole, Shampa Sengupta

“As a child, I longed for a normal mother. I did not know what a normal mother was”

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.)

Related interviews: Amandeep Sandhu, Karishma Upadhyay, Shyam Mithiya, Anjana Deshpande, Tanika Godbole, Shampa Sengupta