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'Our interest in the mentally ill is largely voyeuristic'
Mental illness is a rare theme for a first novel. And yet, this is precisely what writer and journalist Jerry Pinto has chosen to focus on in 'Em and The Big Hoom', an autobiographical novel about growing up with a mentally ill mother. The mother in the novel suffers from bipolar disorder, an illness characterised by phases of extreme depression and periods of mania. While she grapples to understand herself in her lucid moments, her husband and children find their lives revolving around her mood-swings, frequent suicide attempts and phases of madness. Pinto talks to TOI-Crest about how Indian society views the mentally ill.
Is there ever a completely normal day in the lives of those living with the mentally ill? During regular, normal, happy moments, is there a fear that this is simply the calm before the storm?
At one level, while dealing with something like this, you are really trying to live in the moment. Philosophy tells us that what is gone is gone, you can't be sure of the future and so all you have is the present moment. On a theoretical level this is very easy to say, but as soon as you try and implement it, you find it near impossible. You know you only have this moment and so you must enjoy it. Yet if you're a diabetic, your way of enjoying yourself for the moment might mean eating a piece of cake, while you know what that could result in the next day. And so it's a constant negotiation of the past present and future.
If you have an alcoholic father, there will be moments of tenderness but then you know there will be moments that trigger drinking outbursts. I don't think that living with a mentally ill person is very different from what many other families live through. Most families have a Sword of Damocles hanging over their head. That sword is love. If you don't love the person in distress, you can easily deal with alcoholism or cancer. It is when you love the person that you become vulnerable.
Your book talks of how the periods of mania are awful, but the periods of depression are even worse. Could you comment on this?
In both phases what is really painful is that you can do nothing but stand by and wait till it's over. In the mania phase, there is a complete breakdown of communication, where the person is listening to a script that comes from somewhere else. And depression is a solitary universe that encloses the person and cuts them off from you. You lose your loved one in both phases.
During the mania you say: 'Why can't you just be depressed' and when the person is depressed, you say 'I promise I'll never hope for this. Just come back and start raging again'. You keep making promises to yourself, only to break them.
What would you say to the family members of those who are mentally ill and who may well want to hide the patient in a closet?
Would you hide someone who has diabetes or a thyroid problem? It's the same thing here - just a bunch of hormones and chemicals in your bloodstream that have gone wrong and cause things to misfire. The only way to de-stigmatise mental illness is to tell oneself constantly that it's as simple as having diabetes, though the symptoms may be more dramatic than diabetes. Everybody finds their own way to deal with the situation. It's a negotiation between rage, vulnerability and a feeling of 'Why me?'
You've used the word 'mad' so many times in the novel? The mother in the novel calls herself mad. Why?
Families have various ways of dealing with such situations. One such method involves confronting the problem and dragging it out in the open. Using the word 'madness' lightly and tossing it around is a way of trying to defang it and turn it into something ordinary, which it is not. This is a rather ironic way of dealing with the situation. Because it's said as a joke, it's also terribly serious. It's a turning point in one's life when a person says 'I am mad'. When Em (the mother in the novel) calls herself mad, she is challenging people to examine what they are saying about her. At some point in time, every one of us has felt that we are not in tune with the universe.
While your novel shows how normal people with mental illness can fall in love or worry about a household, do you feel mental illness is dehumanised in India? The word 'paagal' is used to define a whole range of conditions.
India is a hundred years behind the times in its discourse on mental health. Not long ago I saw a 14-year-old boy in a mental hospital because he was hyperactive in class and would hit fellow students. The boy said he was being administered electric shocks. When I questioned the nurse, she said his parents had agreed to it.
People believe this is necessary to cure the patient. It's a case of conquering the illness but allowing the patient to die. This is not something that's happening only in small towns but in the country's largest metros.
Psychiatric social workers in mental hospitals are found handling psychotropic drugs when they are not supposed to. And yet the argument is that there are so few trained psychiatrists in the country compared with the population of people who need treatment. There is no time to have therapy sessions with all those who need help and so shocks and pills are often used to cure the symptoms.
In Indian society, the interest in a person with mental illness remains largely voyeuristic. In Bollywood, there's usually a comedy element to it;the mad man is shown jumping about, dancing by himself and talking to God. The other set of mentally ill patients are depicted as psychopaths and murders. This is really sad. In India it's easy to dehumanise anyone who is not like oneself - someone from another caste, religion or sexuality.
The book talks about how during the mother's funeral, for the first time, the house is flooded with guests. Is this another fall-out of a disease like manic depression - that friends, relatives and neighbours don't drop by?
While it's extremely uncomfortable for other people to visit, the person with the mental illness may have problems with other people around. In the depressive phase, the patient refuses to meet anyone. During the manic phases, it may be very disconcerting for other people to hear someone who is their mother's age talk about their sex life.
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