There are two ways to read this slim book. One is to dig in and read the baker`s dozen at one go, then shut the book and exhale. Deeply. The other is to dip into the accounts (for these cannot be called tales or even stories), a couple at a time, interspersing the reading with everyday tasks, with a walk outside, a cup of hot tea, a snatch of music, even some yoga.
A Book of Light is a slim volume of heavyweight accounts by the kin and caregivers, by those who live in the same house, by those who are impacted directly by the very existence of those with a different mind, which is editor Jerry Pinto`s evocative term for people suffering from mental illness. In his moving introduction, Pinto salutes those who wrote up the painful narrative of their brush with mental instability; as the author of the prize-winning Em and the Big Hoom, where he chronicles the downslide of a feisty yet manic mother, the Em of the story, Pinto knows just how hard it is for people to part the veil, even for a short while and let others get a harrowing glimpse of lives as complex as these.
Which is why some of the writers here take recourse to the third person, to put that necessary distance between them and the unstable one. There is a twisted kind of love, under severe pressure from day- to- day coexistence with unmoored ones, there is anger, resentment, a sliver or more of real fear, the immense outpour of love, and all of it comes together in one thick deluge. We are looking at the mother, the uncle, the brother, the sister, the father and most devastatingly, the lover of shifting mind, and it is not the chronicler but the reader`s gaze that has to occasionally shift, focus elsewhere, then return to the printed page.
And of course there are lessons for those who would learn.
Sukant Deepak covers his pain by adopting the direct unsentimental gaze trained on a father who inflicts much misery on his family, as he slides deeper into the maws of mental illness. Nirupama Dutt `s story deals with a woman adopting a little girl who carries her own tumult within her, occasionally lashing out at the older woman. Leela Chakravorty sifts through the many truths that are told her by her `ill` mother, wondering all the while if not forgetting also means not forgiving. Amandeep Sandhu has an epiphany about the terribly destructive powers of anger, of words spoken in the white-hot heat of the moment. Patrica Mukhim tells us that she learned that empathy was what mattered most to a person with depression, not being given advice.
This of course, is easier to hear than put into practice as she discovered when faced with her lovely, luminous, bipolar daughter Daniella.
Annabelle Furtado unflinchingly details the traumatic impact of dealing with family members of unquiet mind, and how the external family just stood around, did nothing and yes, judged them. Sharmila Joshi tries to make sense of an uncle who was ostracized by the family, even as he could have done with both sympathy and support. Madhusudan Srinivas plays it light, even cheerful, on the care-giving of an autistic young son. Lalita Iyer recounts how an intense if not actually promising romance is derailed by schizophrenia. Shashi Baliga tries to join the dots, and says that many a normal person suffers from disorders of some kinds; that everyone has eccentric aunts, uncles, teachers, colleagues who don’t quite fit into accepted configurations of behaviour; that many great creative minds displayed this very disorder. In the end, though, she asks what many in the same boat invariably ask: Am I going to get it too?
It’s a life of helplessness, incomprehension, pain. It`s constantly learning on the job, becoming adept at reading signs, expressions, riding the highs as well as the lows. It`s attempting to run away from the churning. The contributors to this anthology display some amount of defiance, some amount of despair but all without exception reveal a brutal honesty. The book was hard to read, so one imagines how much harder it was to set down.
And yes, as Jerry Pinto writes, this is a set of narratives by people whose biographies and destinies have allowed them to write in English. What of those who, when loved ones become afflicted, turn to the exorcist or the priest? Maybe someday their stories will be told, too.