How to Travel Light review: Shreevatsa Nevatia’s memoir is an informed take on bipolar disorder
Shreevatsa Nevatia's debut novel How to Travel Light is a memoir of being bipolar, of travelling a route suffused with mania, cannabis, caffeine, and nicotine.
When Shreevatsa Nevatia's roommate tells him that she'll never forgive him if he gives up writing, Nevatia replies, "If I had to be reincarnated, I'd like to be born as a lady-boy in Bangkok."
Welcome to the world of Shreevatsa Nevatia whose manic mind once resembled a rollercoaster track — sometimes it would dip itself in depression, sometimes it blurted out random rejoinders.
Nevatia's debut novel How to Travel Light is a memoir of being bipolar, of travelling a route suffused with mania, cannabis, caffeine, and nicotine.
The opening line of the novel acts like an inviting apercu into Nevatia's mind — no one quite knows what's going on. Nevatia says he was accustomed to being dressed up as Krishna multiple times; he was "used to playing God," he writes.
In Class III, however, he played the role of Barabbas, a thief, in the Passion of Christ. And it is from here that Nevatia's writing truly comes to life. A smooth transition can be seen when he decides to improvise the role of Barabbas and takes it a tad too far — his teacher says: "You just had to act mad! Now I know you really are insane."
From then onwards, Nevatia can be found in every word, on every page — inviting us to his expanse of mania and genius.
How to Travel Light stands important as a novel because it throws light on a seemingly misunderstood topic in India — bipolar disorder. Nevatia is extremely clear as to what happened with him, and his sentences are reflective of experience: "The lies you tell when you are manic are rooted in delusions." Moreover, Nevatia truthfully comments on bipolarity without being an authoritative figure, which makes the book compelling.
A devourer of good literature and movies, How to Travel Light makes several references to other books and films. Nevatia seems to be fascinated with bipolar characters both in celluloid and through language.
He reveals "it is in language" that his doctor "has found symptoms of my mania and my depression make themselves apparent."
The novel is peppered with Nevatia's take on films, and he gets it right all the time. At one instance, he quotes from the movie Garden State: "The only thing I ever liked doing is pretending to be someone else, but the only parts I get are that of handicapped people."
Although bipolar disorder might be an unfamiliar condition in India, Nevatia uses accuracy to convey facts about mania; his impulses, repartees, and multiple episodes of insomnia provide exceptional insight into the disorder.
While narrating his expedition to Varanasi, it is as though Nevatia becomes one with the divine, only to have a certain misinterpretation ruin his truth. When he equates death with sex, a mystical bent of mind comes to the fore. And it is this that makes How to Travel Light more than just a collection of incidents.
Nevatia scores full marks when it comes to using metaphors to indicate transition. A sense of nostalgia can be detected in his writing.
When he talks about "material signifiers" for "middle-class families in Calcutta," he writes about his childhood trips to "the beach in Puri." His mother scolds him for wading too deep into the water: "I'm scared of not being able to find you," as though she would be unable to rescue her son from a mental illness.
In another instance, Nevatia uses a quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Double to caption his new display picture of Tyler Durden. The result: an insightful, accurate portrayal of Nevatia's thoughts, seemingly bordering on the morbid.
Towards the end of the novel, Nevatia writes about his sisters — sentences dripping with nostalgia, emotions, and truth. He then moves on to write about a certain character, Natty, who graduated to reading "Herman Hesse and Jack Keroauc."
It is perhaps with Natty that Nevatia felt he had found home — here he wanted to travel the world with Natty and be a "dharma bum." Here he finds a warm haven for his love for language and films. Here he finds a refuge for his raw intellect.
Describing How to Travel Light with words like fascinating, insightful, humorous would limit the scope of the novel. Words, sentences, ideas can be moulded as per our thought process, as per our interpretation — so can this memoir.
How to Travel Light is written by Shreevatsa Nevatia and is 238 pages long. The book will be published by Penguin Random House; it is priced at Rs 399 and will be available after 25 October.
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