October 10, 2020

Sohini Banerjee & Mansi Dhanraj Shetty

Leave a comment

  • 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
    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
    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
    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
    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
    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
    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
    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

    Event update

    How inclusive are we? Explore opinions discussed in an Online Literary Festival hosted by Indian Novels Collective and Belongg

    On Saturday, 23 January 2021,Indian Novels Collective in collaboration with Belongg, hosted a day-long online festival on inclusivity in Indian-language literature. It witnessed sweeping participation from different quarters—from academia to literature, publishing to activism—giving rise to a dynamic, intellectually stimulating and creatively-charged interface.

    For the first session titled Same-Sex Love and Desire in Colonial India we had academic, activist and author – Ruth Vanita, unpacking the articulations of same-sex desire in literature, through changing trajectories of time-space, starting from pre-colonial India and moving on to colonialism, proper. Talking about how same-sex desire never faced any persecution in pre-colonial India, Vanita elaborated on how it is just one part of a vast spectrum of desires and pleasures. She further added, ‘Employing a range of different kinds of tones, major poets wrote about same-sex relationships without any embarrassment or inviting any trouble.’ Vanita also delved into the vilification of sexual and romantic love outside the institution of marriage. She referred to the ‘systemic erosion of cultural institutions as a direct result of colonisation of the mind’ and how ‘the whole vision of life and literature shifted, due to exposure to western education and laws. Pleasure, devoid of any motive or any prospect for social reform, was rejected.’ However, Vanita reassured her audience that the journey has commenced towards reclaiming the confidence that we previously had lost in our literary culture, post 1857.

    Moderated by the co-founder of Indian Novels Collective, Prof. Ashwani Kumar, the second session Sunrise Upon the Northeast: Literature from the Not-So-‘Mainland had three brilliant poets from the Northeast: Kamal Kumar Tanti, Sabreen Ahmed and Mona Zote, on the panel. Reflecting on the composite culture of Northeast India, Sabreen Ahmed spoke of how the aesthetics and ethos of reclamation of Miya poetry is more political than the humanist concerns, and cannot be limited to one single connotation. Kamal Kumar Tanti echoed a similar belief and went on to comment on how poetry is finding new publishing avenues in Assam. He added how both, physical spaces and digital media, are encouraging the circulation of poetry in Assam. For people writing in English, Sabreen emphasised that webzines are helping in creating visibility and scope for publishing in Assam. Addressing the lack of opportunities for Indian writers in regional languages, Mona Zote asserted, ‘If we want our literature to be read, translations should be the way forward.’ Going beyond the ramifications of the post-colonial coinage ‘Northeast’, the session celebrated the universal language of togetherness, as the poets recited their evocative poetry and reflected on the polyphony of their experiences, navigating through constant rupture, rapture, renewal and resistance.

    Shanta Gokhale’s iconic works Avinash and Rita Welinkar brought attention to mental health issues, way before its representation was normalised in contemporary literature. In the third session The Ocean in the Closet: Writing and Reading Between the Lines, the prolific writer and our revered mentor spoke to Shefali Tripathi Mehta. Reflecting on how creative writing has its roots in reality around us, Gokhale shared some of her experiences and foregrounded the lack of acceptance stems from the stigma attached to mental illness. Calling out the culture of exclusion endorsed by society at large, Gokhale underlined the need for open conversations to generate awareness and empathy. In addition to mental health, the veteran author also expressed her views about writing and translation. Upholding the belief that translated text should always remain accessible to readers, Gokhale shed light on the role of translation in engaging a new readership and the transference of love from the source language to the target language — a love that also becomes the building bridge between different cultures, languages and world views. As the insightful session drew to a close, Gokhale also treated the attendees to a lesser-known trivia by revealing that Avinash was never published in Marathi.

    For Holding up the Microphone: A Publishing Saga, we had four powerhouse women on the panel, which involved an in-depth discussion around the symbiotic need for independent presses to balance commerce and readership expansion. With Trisha De Niyogi of Niyogi Books moderating the session, we had Urvashi Butalia of Zubaan, Rita Krocha of Penthrill and Ruby Hembrom of adivaani on board (joining us via video messages). Addressing the shifting premises of the publishing industry, Urvashi Butalia mentioned how marginalised voices enrich our literature. She also added that dedicated readers and passionate colleagues act as great allies for independent publishers. For newer voices to be accepted, Butalia advised that readers ‘cultivate different curiosities’. Reflecting on the role of publishing in the dissemination of stories and preservation of knowledge for the next generation, Rita Krocha talked about the current publishing scene in Nagaland and how it has given a much-needed platform to emerging writers. Ruby Hembrom walked us through how she started adivaani for the preservation of Adivasi culture and knowledge, and the challenges of publishing adivaani books. Along with thought-provoking exchanges, the panelists also recommended some of their favourite titles, that would be great options for discerning readers to explore.

    With an amalgamation of depth, texture and analysis, the last session of the day The Way I See It: Conversations about Challenges in Writing focused on literature’s potential for empowering different realities. Tracing the dual processes of disability, ability and their interconnected overlaps, the discussion drove home how literature can help one empower oneself through alternative innovations. Poet Soni Somarajan advocated integrating compassion to our societal framework and reminded us how one can choose to be one’s own self. Writer-cartoonist Bnim created a life-affirming impact of resonance with —‘I cannot walk, I can run; I cannot play, I can make people dance.’ Shedding light on the travails of exclusion, triggered by able-bodied ideals, disability rights activist and founder of Revival Disability Magazine, Anusha Mishra spoke about the active process of unlearning and relearning, and how she finally came to believe in herself. As the conversation progressed, Bnim expounded on the inclusivity ingrained in Telugu literary culture. Citing the example of Shakuni in Mahabharata, he also revealed how the present-day nomenclature of physical disability had its roots in the cruelty of mind. Critiquing the problematic representation of disabled experiences in contemporary cinema, Soni Somarajan and Anusha Mishra pointed out how that often contributes to further alienation. Anusha further added, ‘When you carry out sensitisation campaigns, you have to be careful about not triggering anyone’s trauma’ while also voicing the necessity for passing the mic to more disabled writers.

    Literature performs as our elixir of resilience, a moral compass and coherence, helping us survive the worst of times and transcend the barriers that hold us back from realising our fullest potential of knowledge and humanity.

    As the festival mapped the all-encompassing galaxy of Indian literature, it also reminded us how it forges meaningful connections with its readers, replenishing fissures in the process.