“I don’t want to write about my illness”, says Swadesh Deepak, the celebrated Hindi playwright who has recently re-entered the world of the sane after being a “prisoner of a mental illness” for seven years. “I don’t remember the events in any order.”

“When did I say you have to describe your illness?” replies the writer-editor Giridhar Rathi, “You have to say what it feels like to be crushed by a mountain […] Write it down as it comes back. Genre, style, forget about these things. If you want, write a poem; put in dialogue as if it’s a play – a fractured prose for a fractured autobiography. And then we will have the first book that is like us.”

And so Swadesh Deepak wrote a memoir of his descent into madness – a journey that supposedly began when a woman (whom he calls Mayavini, or seductress) asked him to come to Mandu with her.

Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha, published in 2003, includes an account of the above conversation with Rathi. By the time the reader arrives at that self-reflexive passage – on page 119 of the English translation by Jerry Pinto, I Have Not Seen Mandu – it should come as no surprise. Because by then we know that this frightening, unclassifiable book is not just a tour through the darkest corners of a damaged mind, it is a tour conducted by that mind itself (which, as it happens, was not fully healed after all. Three years after the book was completed, Swadesh Deepak, his condition having deteriorated again, left his Ambala house and was never heard from again).

Time and again

In telling his story, Deepak moves feverishly between past, present and future: the meeting with Mayavini after a Calcutta performance of his play Court Martial; the time spent in the ICU, and later in the general ward, of a Chandigarh hospital after a suicide attempt; conversations and encounters with friends before, during and after his illness; the growing despair of his family – his wife Geeta and their children Sukant and Parul. Doctors ask him questions. (“I was tired. I was answering like a telephone. I was in a country where no one spoke my language.”)

Mayavini comes to visit him, sometimes accompanied by three white leopards. He shrewdly conceals her existence from others. (But when she laughs too much, the religious books in the room frown at her.) The wind is personified, it whispers at him. He rants about “destructive women”, from Draupadi to Helen of Troy. A badly burnt arm heals very slowly. Other patients jabber around him.

There are time lapses in the telling. In one passage, he and Mayavini get into her “long foreign car” and begin chatting; a short while into this conversation, with no change of setting mentioned, a woman comes in with a tea tray. The effect is a bit like surrealism in fiction – in a Bunuel film or an Ishiguro novel where space and time don’t follow the usual rules – except that here one can believe Deepak is simply recording what he experienced as faithfully as possible.

At times the section transitions are haphazard, as if mirroring the random workings of a disoriented mind (the section head “The Present” might be followed by another “The Present”), but at other times there is writerly method, or sense of structure, in the madness: Deepak ends a brief section about his first meeting with Soumitra Mohan with the line “Now I understand that his sthaayi bhaava, his permanent aesthetic mode, is a fear of his wife”. The next section, “the present” in the hospital, begins with “Today I am afraid of Geeta.”

Attempting to capture the entirety of a work like I Have Not Seen Mandu in a review is impossible, but here’s a catalogue of some of the things this book is.

It is (obviously) a chronicle of madness, a mind trying to make sense of itself, and using writing – the only available tool – to do so; while perhaps being aware that obsessively writing down everything one can think of is also a type of mental illness. (“Yeh dard bhi hai, yeh hai dawa bhi,” to misquote the lyrics of a popular Hindi song.) Like many people who feel things are constantly slipping away from them and that they must make a special effort to stay tethered to reality, Deepak remembers and cites specific dates even for mundane incidents. (“On 20-02-2000 Nirmal Verma asked me…”).

Words and wisdom

It’s a story about language and its many uses – by a Hindi writer who was a professor of English. “When I speak English continuously, I have retreated to my secure country. No sorrow there, no joy. A limbo of the half-dead,” Swadesh says, but he also calls it “the language of lies”. He makes references to William Blake, Shakespeare, TS Eliot, sometimes misquoting them or rearranging the words in the awkwardly pedantic way in which some people who are proud of their knowledge of English literature – despite English not being their first language – do (and Pinto dutifully notes the correct versions).

So this is also, in a very real sense, a book about writers and writing. At times it reads like a Mad Hatter’s account of a tea-party populated by the cream of the Hindi-literature fraternity – gossiping, encouraging, ribbing each other, being friendly, envious, vindictive in turn. Here is the great Krishna Sobti, saying characteristically naughty things (after glancing at Swadesh’s wife: “Yaar, to look at her taut body, you’d think you hadn’t even raised the wedding veil”) – he clearly reveres her, describes her with awe, and but also accuses her of hiding behind her pseudonym Hashmat “like Arjuna hid behind Shikhandi” to mount a premeditated attack on him in print. And here are other writers and creative people in extended cameos – Nirmal Verma, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Jehangir Sabavala, Soumitra Mohan, Ebrahim Alkazi, Gyan Chaturvedi, Sheila Sandhu, Nadira Babbar, Piyush Mishra.

Some of them speak words of wisdom, which Swadesh seems to recognise as such, even if he can’t really make use of them. “You should always be afraid of someone,” Alkazi tells him, “It keeps your mind intact.” (This is a thought that finds a strange echo elsewhere in the book, in the idea that those who most believe themselves to be impervious, like a Karna protected by his kavacha, may be the most vulnerable.) Theatre director Ranjit Kapoor advises him to make friends with women if he wants to lessen his rage. Again, unlikely.

More unexpected guests – leopards aside – glide through these pages too: during one of his episodes, Swadesh is visited by WB Yeats, who speaks to him in Hindi and explains “I made friends with your poet Nirala in Heaven”. On another occasion Krishna – the god, not the divine Sobti – shows up and, during a philosophical conversation, makes a casual reference to August Strindberg. Of course, we can reflect that someone as widely read as Swadesh Deepak would be susceptible to such visitations. As Pinto puts it in a footnote, it may or may not be a measure of Deepak’s disorder that he can move from Gogol to the potboiler-writer H Rider Haggard in the same passage. This is a condition that is at least partly shared by many prolific readers, writers, movie-nerds, critics. When you have a large swathe of cultural references, highbrow and lowbrow, to draw on and be stimulated by and obsess about, is such “madness” far away?

Family struggle

This book is also about the tragicomic effect of Swadesh’s illness on his family, and about the neglect of mental disease in India – the lack of acceptance that adds to what is already an intolerable situation for afflicted as well as caregivers. A few years ago Swadesh’s son Sukant wrote a piece titled “Papa, Elsewhere”, for the Pinto-edited anthology A Book of Light: When a Loved One Has a Different Mind. Here is Sukant’s account of the family’s reaction to the disappearance of Swadesh in 2006:

“When we – my mother, my sister and I – were convinced that he was not coming back, there was a collective sigh of relief. There was almost a celebration.

‘I hope we never see his face again,’ my sister said. I hoped so too. So did my mother…”

Read in isolation, this might sound callous, but what it won’t tell you is how much the family had to deal with during Swadesh Deepak’s long period in the wilderness – and how an apparently unfeeling reaction can be a survival technique, a distancing device, as well as a genuine expression of relief. In the same piece, Sukant also writes with affection and concern about being the first to listen to chapters from his father’s memoir as it was being written. “He would spend hours in his study working on the book at a pace we had never seen before. Maybe he knew he was going down again.”

Revisiting Sukant’s piece after reading I Have Not Seen Mandu, I found it even more poignant, partly because its lucidity is in such stark contrast to Swadesh Deepak’s writing. Taken together, these two works – one a short essay by a “sane” son, the other a long and rambling memoir by a “mad” father – offer a complementary view of what losing one’s grip on oneself can be like, and what the continuum between “normal” and “crazy” might look like for those who have to constantly stare such things in the eye.

Both Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha and the story surrounding it (with Deepak’s relapse and eventual disappearance) are cautions against our tendency to build comforting or affirmative narratives, to tell ourselves that an illness can be meaningfully conquered with the right amount of care, with the right people doing or saying the right things. Life – and certainly the caregiving life – shows us repeatedly that such narratives are flawed; that very often you might do your very best and it still might not amount to much.

Contradiction and cure

There are questions that any reader of this book might have. If (to simplify things a bit) Deepak is writing this memoir during a period of relative lucidity after having moved past the worst of his illness, then how does he remember and objectively describe details that were symptoms of that madness? Such as watching a politician’s photo in a newspaper turning into that of a lizard (“slowly his tongue began to extrude”).

On the one hand, Swadesh says he doesn’t remember anything from his days in the ICU, that he has to rely on other people’s accounts; yet he also describes seeing the goddess Durga in his wife when he turned to look at her from his ICU bed. Deepak does try to explain in his own Introduction – “Many years later hazy and fractured memories began to return, but not in sequence. I began to make notes” – but some of the specifics are still mysterious to someone attempting to understand his condition and how it is expressed through writing.

One does, however, get a definite sense – especially near the end of the story – that some of Swadesh’s experiences helped him to slowly come out of his seven-year writing paralysis and find new muses and inspirations, which would lead to such works as the play Sabse Udaas Kavita after his temporary recovery.

Some sections of I Have Not Seen Mandu are not easy to get through – and not just because of the morbid subject matter. When Swadesh describes his experiences in the hospital, with other patients, doctors and nurses, page after page full of staccato exchanges, it reads like part of a play set in a madhouse; you almost expect these people to address us directly and put on a performance, like characters in Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade or some such work. But fun though that sounds, it can become stifling in ways that might be too much for many readers (even those who are interested in mental illness or have encountered it up close).

This is a narrative that is riveting and exhausting at the same time, with many passages that are precise, moving or illuminating, and a few that are incomprehensible (and can only be comprehended, if at all, by Deepak himself). In its rawest, nastiest passages, it reaches places that few other books can. I was often confounded, but wanted to reread it immediately – even without the hope that I would be able to understand everything in it.

If it’s possible to “sum up” a book like this, one might say that it is as fragmented and as full of contradictions as the human mind is; and that it makes most other memoirs – however self-aware they might seem – look polished and contrived in comparison. Perhaps that’s what Giridhar Rathi meant when he said “And then we will have the first book that is like us.”

I Have Not Seen Mandu: A Fractured Soul-Memoir, Swadesh Deepak, translated from the Hindi by Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger.