Event

The Monsoon Reading of Mohan Rakesh’s ‘Ashaad Ka Ek Din’

The Monsoon Reading of ‘Ashaad Ka Ek Din’ —the first modern Hindi play by Mohan Rakesh held at Jindal Mansion on Friday, July, 5, 2019 was attended by a motley group of theatre lovers and some renowned artistes. Sangita Jindal, Amrita Somaiya, Ashwani Kumar, Anuradha Parikh — the core group members of Indian Novels Collective, were all present to support and conduct the evening’s proceedings. Ashwani Kumar began the event by shedding light on the iconic play by Mohan Rakesh and introducing the performers for the evening with verses from Kalidas, celebrating clouds and rains in the city. He also thanked veteran actor, Saurabh Shukla and curator of Literature Live, Anil Dharkar for gracing the occasion. Mrs Sangita Jindal, chairperson of JSW foundation, extended a warm welcome and spoke passionately about JSW foundation’s association with Indian Novels Collective and the group’s translation project that aims to make Indian language classics accessible to English readers and popularise readings of classic Indian literature. She urged the audience to make the effort to broach Indian languages and keep the traditions and cultures flourishing, with adequate support.

Dolly Thakore — well-known and respected senior theatre artiste and critic, began by paying tribute to Girish Karnad and spoke of her association with the playwright and her privilege of getting to work with him. Ram Gopal Bajaj, legend of Indian theatre and former director of National School of Drama, spoke of his fond memories of Karnad. He hailed him for his plays like ‘Tughlaq’ that made a mark of excellence in Indian theatre and literature. He then went on to speak of Mohan Rakesh’s ‘Ashaad Ka Ek Din’ and his experiences with the work.

The play reading began with Meeta Vasisht — versatile actress, director, producer and Priyanka Setia — another noted actress, playing the parts of Mallika and Ambika, respectively. The performers tried to give a sense of the Vachika Abhinaya(or spoken word) to the audience, which was beautifully conveyed through their camaraderie and expressive reading. The audience was also regaled with songs sung by Priyanka Setia at intervals, to match the theme and mood of the reading. Meeta Vasisht vivaciously contrasted the melancholic mood with a lively folk song, tirading her lover for leaving her. She spoke about the beauty of diverse folk traditions across India which have enriched art.

Ram Gopal Bajaj personified Kalidas with his mesmerizing performance. The fluidity of shifting characters was almost child’s play to this master performer. Meeta Vasisht also spoke about how she was moved to tears, the first time she read Malika’s monologue of ‘Ashaad Ka Ek Din’. The reading ended on a lighter note with her encouraging the audience to join in a song.

The audience got a feel of the greatness of Mohan Rakesh’s work with the guest artistes urging them to go back and read more. Mrs. Sangita Jindal felicitated Dolly Thakore, Meeta Vasisht, Priyanka Setia and Ram Gopal Bajaj – thanking them for enthralling the gathering with a rich sense and feel of this masterpiece by Mohan Rakesh.

Tribute

Goodbye, my dear friend

We met in 1965, remember? In the MA English Literature class, taught by many luminaries, among whom the most brilliant were Nissim Ezekiel and Dr RB Patankar. You and Yasmeen Lukmani and I would traipse over to Dr Patankar’s room in the university building at Fort to hang around. That’s what it was. Hanging around, with cups of tea, and Dr Patankar sitting across the table, his fingertips together, and a characteristic half- smile lighting up his face. Often Dr MP Rege dropped in too, and our debates rose to some other level. How we argued. We were allowed to do that in those glorious days when ideas could be freely exchanged and challenged. You once said to me, “I wonder how you would look with your mouth shut.”

I could have said the same to you. We all talked too much, testing our ideas, revelling in new ones that the professors so generously shared. Dr Patankar and Dr Rege both wrote incisive blurbs for your first novel, Saat Sakkam Trechalis.

Years before it was published, you had called me. Come and spend the day at my place you had said. You had sounded secretive. When I arrived, you took me directly to your writing desk. You pulled out the chair for me. You said, “Sit and read this. I’ll give you lunch. Then you can go back to it.” “This” was a sheaf of some hundred pages of Saat Sakkam Trechalis. I’m not sure the title was in place, but everything else was. I was bowled over by what I read. Was it a novel? I didn’t know. You didn’t know. But it showed signs of being one.

Saat Sakkam Trechalis was a tough novel to write and an equally tough one to read. I was teaching at HR College when it was published. You stood outside the staff room door beckoning to me. You were distressed. Nobody had reviewed the book. Could I please? You had already talked to the editor of a mainline daily who had agreed to carry the review. When it was published, Kumar Ketkar wrote a letter to the editor telling us both off for being so “bourgeois” and “out of touch with things that really mattered”. He was at IIT then and an already fullblown or blossoming Marxist.

Years afterwards your cousin Shobha offered to translate the novel. She had already done two drafts. Both had left you dissatisfied. You came to me with the third. For seven days we sat together going through her translation word by word, phrase by phrase. It is a good translation, I said. You sighed the sigh of every author who finds the translation of his work not quite there. But it can’t be Kiran, I argued. Language isn’t a neutral medium. A language brings in its own tonalities. You sighed again, but called it a day. Shobha was taken off the hook, the translation was published and you and Tulsi gave me a lovely doria sari, which I wore for years afterwards.

Those were years when the cultural agencies of Britain, America and Germany held interesting seminars and book discussions. We were invited to one such discussion with the American theatre director and critic Harold Clurman. Mahesh Elkunchwar was also there. The participants were seated in two rings round an oval table. You and I were in the outer ring. In front of us in the inner ring was Pearl Padamsee. In the course of the debate you got very agitated and wanted to have your say. You took a long stride over the inner ring to grab the mike on the table, creating in the process a bit of slapstick comedy, which left everybody bemused. First, in your lunge for the mike, you dropped your chappal in Pearl’s lap and then went on to express yourself at great length in a mumble that nobody understood. Forty years on, I still felt a trifle nervous when you got up to speak at a St Xavier’s College seminar. But I needn’t have worried. For by then you had become an international figure and learnt that the first step to being understood was to open your mouth when you spoke. Your speech that day was brilliant.

Like Dilip Chitre, Arun Kolatkar and many of us back then, you were bilingual. Your next book Ravan and Eddie was in English. Nobody else writing in English could have given us such a consummately tragi-comic view of chawl life. Indo-Anglian writers did not know the Bombay you did, nor did they have your inimitable way of looking at life and its absurdities. No wonder you made it your mission in recent years to fight for the health of the BEST bus service. The BEST bus was uniquely Bombay. Your Bombay.

Your wit was always irreverent, and bawdy to boot. I remember the first reading of your play Bedtime Story at Dr Shreeram Lagoo’s place in Worli. Nothing like it had ever been written for the Marathi stage before. We laughed uproariously. We loved the wit, the crazy ideas, the tremendous scope it would give to directors and actors. But no directors and actors were forthcoming. The Marathi stage, even the experimental variety, tucked its tail firmly between its legs and fled. Did you learn your lesson from that experience? I wish you hadn’t. Because the play you wrote after the destruction of the Babri mosque had neither the delicious surprises nor the wit of the first. Rekha Sabnis put a lot of life into her production of it, but it still didn’t work. I told you so and you were hurt. Even offended. But perhaps I was forgiven when I loved Cuckold and said so in black-and-white.

The last book I read of yours was God’s Little Soldier. It was perhaps your first book to be panned. You were distraught. You asked me to write about it and I did. A book that large might not work as a whole, but might have large chunks that do, illumining the whole. I found many such in the book and wrote about them showing how the novel could be read through them.

After that I lost track of your work. We continued to meet on and off at various events. The last time we met was at Darryl D’Monte’s funeral, in March this year. We grieved over his going and recalled the time when he and I were putting together a special issue of the Times of India devoted to Bombay in commemoration of the newspaper’s sesquicentennial, in 1998. Among the writers we had invited to contribute to the issue was you. You did what only you would have done. You sent us an essay about Mumbai’s lepers. Darryl was horrified. We can’t use that in a celebratory issue he said. I returned the essay to you with great regret. You were not amused.

A #MeToo cloud was hanging over you when we met. I couldn’t pretend it wasn’t there. As a friend I had to hear what you had to say. You didn’t know what had hit you. You defended yourself with conviction. I reached for your hand and held it tight. I am happy that, for once, I allowed the friend rather than the critic in me to respond. The body memory of our clasped hands consoles me now.

Shanta Gokhale is an acclaimed novelist, playwright, translator, critic, columnist and theatre historian.

The above tribute was originally published in The Mumbai Mirror on Saturday, September 7, 2019

 

 

BOOK EXCERPT

Indian Writing: History and Perspectives

An eminent poet, critic, translator, playwright and travel-writer, K. Satchidanandan is often regarded as a torch-bearer of the socio-cultural revolution that redefined Malayalam literature. His first collection of poems, ‘Anchu Sooryan’ (Five Suns) came out in 1971 and since then he has published more than 20 collections of poetry. He has also authored an equal number of collections of essays on literature, philosophy and social issues, two plays, four books of travelogues and a memoir in Malayalam, besides four books on comparative Indian literature in English. He has won 51 awards including the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award and National Sahitya Akademi Award, Knighthood by the Govt of Italy, Dante Medal by Dante Institute, Ravenna, International Poetry for Peace Award by the government of UAE, and Indo-Polish Friendship Medal by the Govt of Poland.

His latest work, ‘Positions: Essays on Indian Literature’ features a careful selection from his essays on Indian literature, written over the past 25 years. The book contains essays that look for paradigms based on Indian textual practices and reading traditions, while also drawing freely on Indian and western critical concepts and close readings of certain texts. The first part of the book discusses questions on the idea of Indian literature, the poetics of Bhakti, the concept of the ‘modern’, the location of English writing in India, the conflicting ideas of India, projected especially by the subaltern literary movements and the issues of literary criticism and translation. The second part of the book discusses the work of individual authors including Sarala Das, Mirza Ghalib, Kabir, Rabindranath Tagore, Saratchandra Chatterjee, Sarojini Naidu, Kedarnath Singh, A.K. Ramanujan and Kamala Das.

‘Positions’ contribute to the growing, yet insufficient, corpus of literary studies in India.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

THE PLURAL AND THE SINGULAR

The Making of Indian Literature

Whenever I think of Indian literature, a story retold by A.K. Ramanujan comes to mind: Hanuman reaches the netherworld in search of Rama’s ring that had disappeared through a hole. The King of Spirits in the netherworld tells Hanuman that there have been so many Ramas over the ages; whenever one incarnation nears its end, Rama’s ring falls down. The King shows Hanuman a whole platter with thousands of rings, all of them Rama’s, and asks him to pick out his Rama’s ring. He tells this devotee from earth that his Rama too has entered the river Sarayu by now, after crowninghis sons, Lava and Kusha. Many Ramas also mean many Ramayanas and we have hundreds of them in oral, written, painted, carved and performed versions. If this is true of a single seminal Indian work, one needs only to imagine the diversity of the whole of Indian literature recited, narrated and written in scores of languages. No wonder, one of the fundamental questions in any discussion of Indian literature has been whether to speak of Indian literature in singular or plural. With 184 mother tongues (as per Census, 1991; it was 179 in George Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India, along with 544 dialects, and 1,652 in 1961), 22 of which are in the Eighth schedule of the Indian Constitution; 25 writing systems, 14 of them major, with scores of oral literary traditions and several traditions of written literature, most of them at least a millennium old, the diversity of India’s literary landscape can match only the complexity of its linguistic map. Probably it was this challenging complexity that had forced an astute critic like Nihar Ranjan Ray to conclude that there cannot be a single Indian literature, as there is no single language that can be termed ‘Indian’.

Excerpt published with the permission of the publisher: Niyogi Books Pvt Limited.

BOOK REVIEW

Non Fiction: Manto Unvarnished

If asked to describe Saadat Hasan Manto in one word, this reviewer would unhesitatingly call him an enigma. Strange as it may seem, Manto, arguably the greatest short story writer in Urdu, failed in Urdu in his high school exams. What is no less surprising is that, incurable alcoholic that he was — he asked for whiskey while being driven in an ambulance to the hospital on his fatal journey and was obliged by his family members — he always wrote ‘786’, the numerical symbol of Bismillah ir Rahman nir Raheem, at the top of his writings, be they for broadcasting, publishing or films.

‘Fraud’ was his favourite word. He called many people — including his own self — a ‘fraud’, but as his childhood friend and biographer Abu Saeed Qureshi says, “He was a very transparent person and there appeared no gap between his internal and external selves.”

Manto Saheb: Friends and Enemies of the Great Maverick, featuring translations of articles by fellow writers, publishers and two close relatives on the enigmatic personality is, by and large, quite absorbing.

The first piece is by Saadat Hasan, the ‘twin’ of Manto the writer, who predicts — and quite rightly so — that the man would die but the writer would live on. But then that is applicable to all distinguished men of letters, be they William Shakespeare, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib or Rabindranath Tagore.

One feels strongly that the finest piece on Manto should have been by his devoted, and often deceived, wife, Safia. He may have remained in love with her, but she was the one who suffered endlessly on his account. Every contributor to the volume under review has nothing but words of praise for the lady.

Writes their second daughter, Nuzhat: “My mother’s experience of life as a writer’s wife was far from pleasant. She never accepted Manto saheb’s habit of drinking excessively. And to top it all, he gave away money without hesitation … My mother used to often complain to him about his habit of frittering away money, especially when there was not enough to run the house.”

Nuzhat further reveals, “Ammi jaan used to be the first reader of father’s stories. She told us about our father’s exceptional talent. There were times when he would verbally dictate three different stories to three different people.”

The biggest tragedy in Manto’s life is recalled by his friend Krishan Chander, another well-known fiction writer. It was the death of his eldest child, a year and a half old son. Writes Chander: “The armour of cynicism that he had built up all around himself was smashed to smithereens.” According to Manto’s eldest daughter Nighat, the loss affected her father so much that he was transformed from a social drinker to an irreversible alcoholic.

The longest piece in the book is by Urdu/Hindi writer Upendranath Ashk and is rightly titled ‘Manto, My Enemy’. While admitting that Manto had an inflated ego, one cannot ignore the fact that Ashk — a less accomplished writer — liked to provoke him. Once they even exchanged blows. Ashk was Manto’s contemporary at All India Radio (AIR), Delhi, and later at Filmistan Studios in Bombay [Mumbai]. Their skirmishes were a source of amusement to those present in the rooms. Not surprisingly, Ashk and his wife were admirers of “Safia bhaabi.”

When Manto got Ashk invited to join Filmistan, he hosted Ashk in his Bombay flat for a week. A fact that Ashk ungrudgingly acknowledges is that, whether at home or outside, Manto was invariably dressed in spotless and well-ironed clothes. Manto liked to dress in a lounge suit and matching necktie as much as he enjoyed sporting kurta-pyjamas, with or without covering himself with a sherwani.

His papers were well-stacked and his books properly shelved. Everything was placed in great order in the room of a person who otherwise led a disordered life.

Back to Ashk, his judgement that “Manto didn’t seem to realise that the strongest adversaries of humans are humans themselves,” is far from the truth. Manto’s stories built around Partition are about killers, rapists and their victims. Likewise, in his tales of pimps and prostitutes, he mentions in no uncertain words that young girls are kidnapped or enticed to enter into the flesh trade.

Poet and critic Ali Sardar Jafri criticises Manto for writing “obscene stories”, but also compliments him for his ability to narrate a story effectively. Jafri eulogises Manto for writing such exceptional stories as ‘Naya Qanoon’, ‘Tarraqqi Pasand’, ‘Mootri’, ‘Khol Do’ and ‘Toba Tek Singh’, but he joins Sajjad Zaheer in condemning such “painful but irrelevant” stories as ‘Boo’ and ‘Hatak’. Jafri, however, concedes that, “From the perspective of art, Manto was unique and unparalleled. No other writer had the ability to create the impact that Manto could with the simplicity, dexterity and perspicacity of his language.” Jafri is also all praise for Manto’s “sharp and astute” characterisation and “well structured” plots.

Perhaps the most readable of all the pieces in the book is ‘My Friend, My Foe’ by Ismat Chughtai, herself a bold writer of fiction. Manto was a blunt conversationalist and Chughtai did not believe in niceties either, so when she goes to see Manto for the first time, she decides to “pay him back in the same coin.” The two start arguing with all their might. When he addresses her as ‘sister’, she protests. “If you don’t like to hear the word then I will continue you to call you ‘Ismat behen’” comes the provocative reply.

Writes Chughtai, “If Manto and I decided to meet for five minutes, the programme inevitably stretched out to five hours.” The exchange of fireworks is not to the liking of Safia and Shahid Lateef, Chughtai’s spouse.

Manto and Chughtai have to go all the way from Bombay to Lahore where the local government has filed a case against them for what they called ‘obscene writings’. Chughtai is under fire for writing one of her most popular short stories, ‘Lihaaf’, which has veiled references to lesbianism. The two writers have a whale of a time interacting with Lahore-based Urdu writers.

They lose touch when Manto migrates to Pakistan. Manto is nostalgic about Bombay and, when Urdu poet Naresh Kumar Shad visits from India, he finds Manto remembering the people and the streets of the city he had left behind, quite passionately.

Another noteworthy piece is by Mehdi Ali Siddiqui, a judge in an obscenity case filed against Manto for his controversial story ‘Upar, Neechay Aur Darmiyaan’. The accused is restless. He wants the judge to give his judgement soon. Siddiqui is, luckily, an avid fan of Manto and believes that after the death of Premchand, Manto is the greatest Urdu writer. A token fine of Rs 25 is announced, which is duly paid by one of the writer’s guarantors.

Manto and his friends later go to the judge’s room and invite him to meet the writer at the centrally located Zelin’s Coffee House, where the two strike up a friendship. Manto insists that the story is based on truth. Shortly before his death, Manto includes the story in his new collection, a collection he titles ‘Upar, Neechay Aur Darmiyaan’ and dedicates it to Siddiqui.

Noted writer and editor of the literary magazine Saqi, Shahid Ahmed Dehlvi makes a relevant point when he says, “Everybody used to be astonished by Manto’s pace, and what was even more extraordinary was that everything he wrote would be precise and accurate, leaving absolutely no scope to tinker around with even a little.”

Mohammad Tufail, editor and publisher of the reputed literary journal Naqoosh, claims to have come to Manto’s rescue more than once. Manto wants Tufail to bring out a special issue on him and says that he will contribute his own elegy. But Tufail is late; he tries to make up by writing a letter from Manto — now settled in the other world — in Manto’s style and publishing it in the special edition of Naqoosh along with several writers who knew the man who kicked the bucket at the young age of 42.

A piece by Balwant Gargi, a novelist and playwright who wrote in Punjabi, makes for interesting reading too. Gargi narrates an incident dating back to the time when both he and Manto worked at AIR. A programme scheduled on a certain day is in jeopardy because the writer has not sent the script. Gargi and other colleagues of Manto at the Delhi station know that he could suitably fill the gap. On their insistence, Manto writes a play called Intezaar and Gargi maintains that it ranks among the best plays broadcast by AIR.

Not much has been lost in the translations of Manto Saheb: Friends and Enemies of the Great Maverick, but what is irksome is poor proofreading. The names of eminent people are misspelled. Can anyone be forgiven for writing ‘Jinha’ instead of ‘Jinnah’? Gujrat, the city in central Punjab, is spelled Gujarat (which is how the name of Narendra Modi’s state is written). ‘Martial law’ is written as ‘Marshall law’. The perfectionist that Manto was, he would turn in his grave if he were to see the copy of this otherwise useful book for those who can’t read the script in which the pieces were originally penned.

The reviewer is a senior journalist and author of four books, including Tales of Two Cities

Manto Saheb: Friends and Enemies of the Great Maverick
Translated by Vibha S. Chauhan and Khalid Alvi
Speaking Tiger, India
ISBN: 978-9388070256
287pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 20th, 2019

BOOK REVIEW

The Man who learnt to Fly but Could not Land

Here is a novel that speaks to millions about the instability of our country’s current fragile condition. The death of democracy. The sweeping of power from the smaller public to transfer of it to the ones who control economy and government in their pockets. The Man Who Learnt to Fly but Could not Land is at once a whisper to the artistic society and a scream to the political pivots.

A poet and political activist, Kottoor was active in political and literary circles in Malabar but never moved centre stage to etch his name in history. He symbolises many such activists who are the lifeline of any movement. They remain anonymous or, at best, as footnotes in the pages of history. We don’t know their names or their achievements or about their families. But each person must have had his/her own story. KTN Kottoor, a fictional character, was one such person.

Through Kottoor, we step into the main political movements that rocked Malabar and meet the leaders who were at the forefront of those struggles.

The Man Who Learnt to Fly but Could not Land is thinly veiled fiction. It barely hides that the author borrows everything in its pages from real history and from the events of the Freedom Struggle. This is a book about India’s cultural history, and in that sense, it is a good one. For those who are familiar with cultural and political scene in the last century, it’s difficult not to recognize nearly every character as a real person or escape the novel’s use of inter-textuality. It doesn’t try and hide cheeky references either. This intermixing of fact with fiction is something that struck me right at the first sight. As the author goes on shifting voices, from active to passive, to passive to active, from second to third person throughout the book, you continuously question yourself what is real and what is not. It is almost a Ramachandra Guha biography stuck in an intermixing fiction like that of Thayil.

KTN Kottoor struck me at many different levels. His efficiency at judging political situations at a young age is something we can hope each one in the youth to have to save this country from doom. His poetic sense and his incredible clapback at stupid reviewers was such a spectacular scene to read. He laughs and says an incredible line which even today after a whole century is applicable at many levels, “….what they have read is not the poem. They have been reading the time and context of the poem. I am not a party to that.”

Though this book has a whole plethora of characters, a plate full of people who are different from each other in many many ways, yet this unusual satiable and acceptable protagonist is the apple of my eyes. I have not come across at such a dominating and strong protagonist presence in a novel in a very long time. Rajeevan’s style of storytelling and commentary has left me moved. There is not even a single moment in the book where you are not remembered of the protagonist. This is something that often only biographies have but to achieve this in a novel is really commendable.

One of the most striking scenes of the book comes right at the start when Kunjappa Nair, the father of Kottoor dies. The scene and it’s striking narration catches the breath of a reader. There is no gloom in the scene but rather a sensation of realisation in it. The way “independence” required a “sacrifice” is such a strong catchphrase. Rajeevan’s striking power of telling the scene with robust prose and ensuring that the reader gets not gloom but rather the sense of freedom and liberation after reading the part. The scene that made Kottoor who he is even the one that makes the reader cling to the book.

Why to name the book with such a long title? The title strikes you as a lightning bolt after you are done with the book. Kottoor learns to fly, to fly till the sun and enjoy the fluttering winds of the higher skies, above the clouds. He gets up from stratch, from his father’s death’s misery, grows wings and flies at the highest points. But as the country is caught in chaos in its rebirth, the life of this idealist is caught in the maelstrom. Not knowing how to land properly, he goes missing into thin air like a kite lost after the string is cut.

The additional writeups are masterpieces in themselves. One is hit by a sense of conflict when reading it, is it the author speaking through the protagonist or is it the protagonist acting like th author? As one ponders over this fact and tries to unknot to the tight and complex knot, he is sucked into the short prose’s unimaginable beauty in language and it’s attachment to the realism and it’s sense of current timing. The poems etched to perfection, liked diamonds formed under pressure, present fractured and hidden within miles of paragraphs.

An essential quality of works like these is a kind of boredom with the sheer exhaustiveness of details. This results in a constant turning of the pages to the endnotes. As a reading experience, this book is exasperating as well as exhilarating. T. P. Rajeevan handles the jargon and maxims with quite an expertise, satisfying the need of the themes. His style, depending upon the demands of the mood in the stories, could be racy or reserved, flowing or laconic, narrative or symbolic. While weaving the language into the fabric of his style, he maintains a logical balance to form a regular pattern. A novel with a difference, it tells us very human stories that make us smile, laugh out loud and sometimes get jolted. Hard. At other times it evokes poetry that makes the heart sing. The book is part fiction, part biography and part cultural criticism and it’s through its irreverential blurring of these lines that the book delights. This is among the best historical fiction I have ever read. Complex and fascinating. A treat for globetrotters who like to get under the skin of complex places.

Disclaimer: Thanks to Hachette India for sending me a copy of this book in lieu of an honest review.

Originally published on A Hindu’s View

October 10, 2020

Sohini Banerjee & Mansi Dhanraj Shetty

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  • Listicle

    Explore mental health through these seven reads in Indian literature

    The ongoing pandemic has wrought a debilitating impact on the collective mental health of the global community. According to a survey carried out among health professionals by The Bengaluru-based Suicide Prevention Foundation observed that nearly 65% therapists observed an increase in self-harm and suicide ideation or death wish amongst those who sought therapy, since the pandemic hit. This alarming statistic of soaring mental health cases, due to a combination of factors like forced isolation, fear of the virus, financial insecurity, domestic violence and rising anxiety, have further aggravated the unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Now more than ever, it is imperative that we fight the stigma and backlash around mental illness, which has long been a cultural taboo in the Indian social context, owing to widespread ignorance, misinformation and lack of health care resources. Literature, as a domain, ensures increased awareness about mental health issues and challenges the problematic stereotypes which relegate them to the closet. It accomplishes this by providing a peek into the many-shaded contradictions, ambiguities and vulnerabilities associated with mental health crises, facilitating catharsis, healing and emotional empowerment.

    Indian literature’s nuanced exploration of mental health began much before it was integrated into our common vocabulary. Jayakanthan’s ‘Rishi Moolam’ and Shanta Gokhale’s ‘Rita Welinkar’ or ‘Avinash’ are striking examples of the same. This World Mental Health Day, we bring to you a diverse selection from the repository of Indian literary canon which reflect and address mental health. Although not an exhaustive list, these books enlighten us on how there is no one sanctioned way to engage with subterranean depths of the human mind.

    Rita Welinkar by Shanta Gokhale
    Marathi
    First Published 1990, translated into English by the writer herself in 1995

    Outside, the palm trees wail, with the wild monsoon wind in their hair. In her hospital bed, Rita lies still, her eyes tuned to the wind. Recovering from her breakdown, she sifts through seasons full of memories—of her self-absorbed, critical parents; her demanding role as family breadwinner from the age of eighteen; her secret for an understanding of the events that brought her to the breaking-point. This well-structured novel helps readers understand what leads to Rita’s nervous breakdown and how important it is to recognise and address it as it is. Translated by Shanta Gokhale herself from the Marathi original, ‘Rita Welinkar’ won her much critical acclaim and the VS Khandekar Award from the Maharashtra government.

    Rishi Moolam by Jayakanthan
    Tamil
    First Published 1969

    In his preface, Jayakanthan writes, ‘an individual devoid of a healthy orientation towards the man-woman relationship cannot be considered a properly developed person.’ In ‘Rishi Moolam’ Rajaraman, the protagonist, suffers from a psychosis about his sexuality. Not being able to forgive himself for thinking and acting in an unscrupulous way with his mother-like figure, the story captures his inner turmoil, self-denial and self-perception. The success of Jayakanthan lies in evoking in the reader a profound empathy with the tragically ‘deviant’ character who is a victim of a psychological malady arising from his suppressed libido and Oedpius complex rather than condemning him to moral policing.

    Swadesh Deepak by Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha
    Hindi
    First Published in 2003

    Swadesh Deepak, Hindi novelist, Sahitya Akademi winning playwright, short-story writer is remembered for his memoir ‘Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha’, an account of his seven-year battle with bipolar disorder. First serialised in the Hindi monthly, ‘Kathadesh’, the book accounts for shifts between time and space showing the reader the fragmented, collage-like quality of Deepak’s life as he dealt with his inner demons. The searing 331-page book is also being translated into English by Jerry Pinto.

    Raat ka Reporter by Nirmal Verma
    Hindi
    First published in 1989

    Set during the Emergency (1975-77), Nirmal Verma’s ‘Raat ka Reporter’ addresses the theme of totalitarianism, oppression and violence that marked those 21 months. The protagonist Rishi is a journalist who gets warned about government surveillance and the possibility of his arrest at any time. By offering a lens into Rishi’s sudden realisation of impending custodial torture accompanied by his anxiety inducing self-reflexivity being targeted as the ‘enemy’ of the state—‘Raat ka Reporter’ lays bare the pervasive climate of state-manufactured paranoia through a psychological analysis of a fear-stricken chapter in Rishi’s life.

    Herbert by Nabarun Bhattacharya
    Bengali
    First published in 1994

    Set in a corner of old Calcutta in May 1992, when communism was collapsing all around, Nabarun Bhattacharya’s Sahitya Akademi winning novel ‘Herbert’ introduces us to the titular character Herbert Sarkar, sole proprietor of a company that delivers messages from the dead. The ‘scathingly satiric and yet deeply tender’ portrayal of a doomed young man through a mosaic of manic and immersive episodes, also holds a mirror to the city struggling to resist the same forces as him, that prove to be entirely beyond their control.

    Avinash by Shanta Gokhale
    Marathi
    First published in 1988

    Unfolding at a relentless pace over a tight span of twenty-four hours, Shanta Gokhale’s Marathi play ‘Avinash’ is an intense family drama in which the tensions between various members of a middle-class family over the mental health of the eldest son escalates to a tragic climax. Talking about the text, Shanta Gokhale mentioned, ‘A character in my 1988 play ‘Avinash’ says the depression his older brother suffers from may not be the result entirely of some inborn psychological tic. Its roots might also lie in economics, in the social structure and the political system.’

    Brink by SL Bhyrappa
    Kannada
    First Published in 1990

    SL Bhyrappa’s epic Kannada novel ‘Anchu’ or ‘Brink’ portrays the sensitive relationship between Somasekhar—a widower and caregiver, and Amrita—an estranged woman with suicidal tendencies. An important and timely book — ‘Brink’ raises the question of mental health awareness by addressing depression from the point of view of the person suffering as well as the caregiver and meditates on the moral, philosophical and physical aspect of love between a man and a woman.

    Originally published on Belongg