The exact calibration of normal

A Book of Light: When a Loved One Has a Different Mind, edited by Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger,  a recently published anthology edited by Jerry Pinto, reveals the experiences of people living in close proximity to mental illness and addiction. While the thirteen stories highlight several common experiences – the difficulty of gauging when it is the ‘illness talking’, for instance, or the second-guessing that people inevitably subject themselves to after a loved one’s suicide – each chronicle of a family member’s collapse has a unique texture. In some cases the illness slides quietly, insidiously, into the person’s life and is initially misread as ‘malingering’ or self-indulgence, in others it arrives in a more dramatic fashion. The bipolar cases obfuscate the lines, which were thin to start with, between moodiness, eccentricity and illness.

The pairing of madness with exceptional creativity – the melancholic writer figure, the alcoholic musician – is by now a well-worn trope that has been backed by several psychiatric studies. The first story in the collection ‘Papa, Elsewhere’, an account of the renowned author Swadesh Deepak’s struggle with bipolar disorder, is a testimony to this phenomenon. His son’s impatience with the periods of high productivity that were abruptly interrupted by debilitating lows provides some insight into the strain of living with such a figure. Shashi Baliga’s story ‘Anna’ offers a different perspective on the condition. He describes it as the key to his father’s magnetic personality, his repository of wild stories, ‘unending supply of jokes’ and tendencies towards quirky wordplay (a known characteristic of mania)[1]. Access to medical information later nuances his understanding of the disorder, but there is nonetheless a poignant quality to his representation of the mood fluctuations as a roller coaster ride which made his father, and by extension, his childhood remarkable: ‘So we rode the highs with him happily. They could be exhausting, but they were fun; it was like being on a prolonged family picnic.’ Describing another bipolar parent, Parvana Boga Noorani’ in ‘You Didn’t Know Her When She Was Normal’ explains that her family gradually developed a strong intuitive sense which helped them anticipate the changing phases, ‘a twitch of the eye, a change in handwriting and we knew which stage was coming next.’cmygdhvzts-1470479836

The anthology does also show that being a carer can mean an inordinate amount of hard work, particularly in cases where physical deterioration accompanies mental illness. A parent of an autistic child who needs watching over practically around the clock mentions the routine of sleepless nights in a throwaway comment. Amandeep Sandhu’s essay, ‘My Mother’s Breast’, an epilogue to his novel Sepia Leaves, details with brutal honesty his mother’s long ordeal with schizophrenia while grappling with cancer. There is a point in the story where he recalls that whenever his aunt insisted that cleaning up in the bathroom was a job for a girl. His reply ‘I would say I was a daughter to Mamman’, points to the (still) absurdly gendered world of caring for invalids. It’s hardly surprising, then, that many of the stories describe how the mothers spend a lot of their time as attendants, but the stories do subvert traditional roles. This is mainly because they rarely depict functional nuclear families – there are single mothers of five like Patricia Mukhim, who explains that her instinctive reaction to her daughter’s diagnosis was ‘Depressed? What do these doctors know? We’re Khasi women. We’re strong’ and Nirupama Dutt’s story is written from the perspective of a person rescued from female infanticide (which was ordered by a father-in-law) and then by adopted three different women. By contrasting a withdrawn alcoholic uncle’s capitulation to his addiction with her successful father’s persistent physical abuse of other family members, Sharmila Joshi contemplates how certain habits are stigmatized as illness while others are made macho and normalised.

At times, the anthology does fall into romanticisation of mental illness, but perhaps this has something to do with the struggle to articulate the torture that the writers think is going on in other people’s minds. For instance, what do they really mean when they say that he had a hole in his heart which got bigger with time as he struggled with sorrow, that she was like a zombie, that he was in one of his moods, that he was trying to hold all the quivering pieces together? Shashi Baliga mentions that ‘snap words’ like down, low and fog were replaced for him with disorder, manic, depressed and hyper after his exposure to psychiatric literature on the internet. This trajectory, along with the assumption that the internet ‘exploded with all the answers’ is apparent often enough in the stories and American psychiatric research has a monopoly on all the behaviour classifications that are discussed (one mother even recalls overhearing the term bipolar disorder for the first time on a campus in Pennsylvania), which indicates the exclusivity of the narratives. Although Jerry Pinto acknowledges in his introduction the limitations that the upper middle class slant imposes on the anthology, he does not mention the tone that the uncritical embrace of a diagnostic approach to mental health treatment brings to some of the stories. It is heartening to see more discussions on the subject being brought into the open but while we wait on the Mental Health Bill of 2013 (which will decriminalise suicide but also fails to note the role of non-psychiatric treatment) to be discussed in the Lok Sabha, it is evident that we have a long way to go in expanding the conversation on mental illness.


[1] Darian Leader, in his book Strictly Bipolar, discusses several instances showing the tendency towards verbal dexterity and punning during the manic phase.


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Maya Palit Written by:

Maya Palit is a researcher and editor based in New Delhi. She used to study literature and might go back to that someday.

One Comment

  1. Maya Palit
    August 26, 2016

    A couple of oversights – attributed the wrong gender to Shashi Baliga. The title is also a phrase from her story, ‘Anna’.

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