In conversation with Jerry Pinto: How mental health and illness is perceived in India

Jerry Pinto has many feathers to his cap: The translator extraordinaire has worked on books like Cobalt Blue, Baluta and more recently I, The Salt Doll (from Marathi to English) and also written the National Award winning book Helen: The Life and Times of An H-Bomb.

His novel Em and the Big Hoom, published in 2012, won him Yale's Windham-Campbell Literature Prize. The book is almost autobiographical and tells the story of an unnamed narrator's life in Mahim with a mother who has a bipolar disorder 'Em', his father 'The Big Hoom', his sister, and explores the impact of mental illness on family.

Pinto's latest project — A Book of Light: When a Loved One Has a Different Mind — is a collection of 13 stories from people who recount their lives with loved ones who have had mental illnesses. It's befitting that Pinto curated and edited these stories.

Pinto spoke to us about his book, his views on mental illness in India and what needs to change, just before he flew out of the country to be conferred the prestigious Windham-Campbell prize at Yale University. Edited excerpts:

 In conversation with Jerry Pinto: How mental health and illness is perceived in India

Jerry Pinto and A Book Of Light: When a Loved One Has a Different Mind.

What inspired you to write the book?

Since the time I went to college, I had decided that I would talk about my mother’s mental illness without allowing myself to feel ashamed about it. If anyone judged me or laughed at me, I said to myself that they were the people who should be laughed at instead, they were the people who should be mocked.

I talked about it freely and openly, so I had inevitably set myself up as a forerunner, when anyone had a problem, they would come and talk to me; not for help, but a sort of ‘what would you do in this case situation’.

I am worried, will she hurt herself
I am worried, the doctors said shocks would be the best way to treat her
I’m worried that these pills have made a zombie out of her former self but I dont like what she was before

So very often it was easy to approach these people because I knew they had these problems. But this didn’t mean that everyone of them agreed to write. Many of them just stonewalled; I sent them an email saying I am doing this book etc etc, and they just wouldn’t reply.

Some people said let me think about it, and disappeared; while some people made attempts to start. Sometimes what happened was that the family just refused to co-operate. They just refused to give them information.

Making first contact was like tiptoeing around, I would initiate conversations about mental health and ask them if they would write about it.  Like, 'Remember the time you told me about how your father ran after your sister with a meat cleaver.' They would say, 'Ya, ya what a memory you have'. I would say 'Could you write about it?'

Many people would say no, but then some did say yes. They are the brave ones who actually really put themselves out in the light.

Did they want anonymity, because all of these subjects are really personal accounts?

A couple of them wanted anonymity. One is Annabelle Furtado and the other is Leena Chakraborty.

I  told them in the beginning, if you feel anybody will be hurt, if you feel your family will be hurt, its not worth it.

Be comfortable with what you are writing, and if you are not comfortable and you still feel you should write about it, you can always write it under a pseudonym.  I wanted this to be a nonconfrontational space of sharing.

When it comes down to how mental illness is perceived by pop culture and mainstream media, do you think the portrayal is right ? Isn't it romanticised to an extent? 

Oh, it’s horribly romanticised.

The thing is, a large majority of mental illness is boring and repetitive. Like if you get up with a fever, you are going to be in the same state for the whole day.

If you have depression, you are going to feel the same way for the majority of the time.

So these portrayals (in mainstream media) are dramatised. Apparently, these mentally ill people go throwing their arms up and shouting and screaming. They show the whole illness as a series of high moments but it's not like that. In fact, what is most painful about mental illness is the sameness of the act. The inevitability of it, its return, its coming back, these are the painful parts of it.

In the book I have tried to stay with that idea, not to dramatise, romantise or seek sympathy; but just to say this is what happened.

But people do have more information about mental illness, don't they?

Certainly people have more information, even a simple thing like Deepika (Padukone) coming out and talking about her depression has been really important in spreading awareness in the country. There is too much silence.

Film portrayals of mental illness have certainly come a long way since the time Guru Dutt portrayed a mentally ill person who ends up in the asylum in Pyaasa. There have been portrayals of mental illness as all about hitting out and being wild, which is just wrong. For them it's like 'Mein pagal hu iska matlab, mein raani ma, mein bhagwan, etc, etc.'

I even applaud films like Barfi! (Priyanka Chopra played a woman with Autism) which are sympathetic towards difference, which are good.

The sad thought is, if you do walk into a mental hospital, what you see is a series of patients who have been stunned into silence by electroconvulsive shock therapy. They lie there, quiet, grim and silent for long. It's terrifying.

So Deepika's depression, Priyanka Chopra's portrayal of an autistic woman, and things like Jessica Jones having PTSD have made mental illness more accepted in India? 

No, actually I don’t think it's accepted so much in society yet. For instance, say, there is a marriage proposal for a girl, who has a bipolar disorder. The person is not going to say, 'oh that's nice, that's fashionable', rather its going to be like 'oh what have we got here'.

It's nice when it happens to someone else, and it's great to abstract certain elements out of it.

Like it's nice to wake up one day and say, oh god, I'm feeling bipolar today.

You can take on some of its glamour, but the actual events surrounding mental illness are about as de-glamourised as possible.

Glamour means taking the center stage, being in the spotlight; while mental illness is kept concealed, swept under the rug and not talked about in general.

Whatever little acceptance of mental illness there is in India, do you think it is because it's known as an upper middle class affliction? 

No, not really. The difference is how you deal with it. It turns up whether you can afford it or not. So people think that people say that mental health is something that the upper middle class can afford but, no, if you are poor, and if you get ill, you will only end up losing your job. Maybe your home. It's a tough thing to handle when you don't have monetary resources to rely on.

The problem is that we think of mental health as an upper middle class and middle class phenomenon, because that’s where we see it.

It happens in the lower orders but they are taken to excorcists, they are taken to dargahs and are tied up, and all kinds of things are done to them in the name of cures.

It does seem to be a pop culture phenomenon. Like 'oh my god, I am depressed' is it cool now?

If there is a slight suspicion that it can be cool, then you cannot possibly know what depression is

Do you think there is more prejuidice towards women as compared to men who have mental illness?

Oh, hugely!

Look at the word hysteria. The etymology points it out to meaning 'from the womb'. Look at how we talk about PMSing, it's just really terrible. Women have a much, much, worse time, seeking psychiatric help as compared to men.

Socio-economic class also comes into play here. Like consider your domestic help has a mental problem. She goes to a general ward psychiatric facility and they start by taking her sexual history and ask her questions like 'Do you masturbate?' How is she to comprehend this question?

Some amount of education might make a woman feel a sense of outrage, but think, she might be able to place these questions in a Freudian context. But here, what is this woman going to feel when a doctor asks her this question? How does she even begin process this. You are constructing a situation in which the woman can only clamp down and withdraw further. But here, the woman is also wondering, if I tell him, what will he think of me, will he think I am a slut?

There is so much that is working against her seeking proper mental help. A man might be able to say whatever he feels like, in comparison.

But don't you think the whole 'macho Indian man' construct works against men for seeking help for their mental afflictions?

This is the other thing. There is a complete manifestation as a complete and magnificent macho man unaffected by trouble. A man will think: 'Worry, me, of course not!' Or 'Of course I don't have depression!'

But I think it is more difficult for a woman to be in the psychiatric system  than it is for a man

Do you have a few favourite books and authors who have written about mental illness?

The book by Swadesh Deepak, Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha is just terrific. It's a must read, and it is in Hindi. It's one of my next projects to translate into English. Mark Haddon is another great author, his book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, written from the perspective of a boy with Asperger's Syndrome is great. Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale is also a good read. Amandeep Sandhu's Sepia Leaves is a must read too. The classics are Mary Barnes' account of the anti psychiatric moment, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and Darkness Visible by William Styron.

Updated Date: Sep 11, 2016 08:21:49 IST