Book review

What do you do when someone you love has a 'different mind'?

A book of intimately personal histories of people considered “abnormal” by conventional societal norms.

There are books of poetry, novels, short stories, memoirs, essays that we meet in our reading lifetime. They take us to places, pleasurable spaces, we are happy to travel to. And then along comes a book that we don’t quite know how to respond to. It is like entering a tunnel with no end in sight. But despite the despair it leaves us with, it is a book of light.

A Book of Light: When a Loved One Has a Different Mind is a collection of stories edited by Jerry Pinto. But these are not “stories” in the conventional sense. Rooted in painful experiences and precious memories, the book brings together narratives told by people whose loved ones have suffered from various kinds of mental illness. The accounts take us through the highs and lows of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression – terms that are still discussed in hushed tones in Indian society, leaving both the sufferers and their families despondent.

Preparing the reader for the despair of tormented minds is Pinto’s poignant introduction. Given how open he has been about his mother who suffered from bipolar disorder, an experience he wrote about in Em and the Big Hoom, his award-winning novel, I can’t think of a better editor for this collection.

The book is seminal for the questions it raises. Often, it is family we turn to for solace during times of pain. But what if it is family that is bringing that pain upon us? How do we deal with an “abnormal” sibling or parent or spouse? But then, what is “normal”? As Pinto asks in the introduction, “What of the family where someone commits suicide and leaves behind a vacuum, a space that seems to mock every attempt at love and holding on? What of the family which must institutionalise one of its members? How does it manage?”

Problems without solutions

Yet the book does not offer solutions – do not read it if you are looking for answers. Do not read it if you are looking for happy endings. These are 13 accounts of how the narrators, mostly from the Indian middle class, dealt with the pain. It takes extraordinary courage to relive those moments and share them with the world. Though some of the narrators may have used distancing techniques, the stories haunt us long after the pages have been turned. It is a necessary distance…The wounds are too raw to be described as they are.

Each of these stories talks to us in different ways. “Papa, Elsewhere” by Sukhant Deepak is about a celebrated author and father whose bipolar disorder spins out of control, taking its toll on the family. There are mothers fighting depression and giving up the fight – as told to us by a son or a daughter.

There is “Roger, Over and Out” by Lalita Iyer, which talks to us about schizophrenia and what it can do to relationships, raising another question: What if it is a fiancé who suffers from this dreadful disorder? Does one marry him anyway fully aware of his demons or does one leave him, knowing it cannot be a space shared by two individuals?

And then there is an occasional story of hope, like “Abhimanyu, Our Son”, told by a father who is proud of his son with autism, telling us how he wouldn’t have it any other way. There is also “Anna”, in which the manic-depressive states are “gently” expressed by the father perhaps because he does not want his family to suffer.

Comfort despite despair

It is difficult to pick out favourites from a collection such as this but for some strange reason, two accounts touched a raw nerve: “Daniella” by Patricia Mukhim, and “Some Questions For a Brother”, by Ina Puri. Utterly depressing, yet strangely comforting, these stories reaffirm the role of family and love. Family may not save you from pain but they do leave you with a lifetime of precious memories.

The Book of Light reminds us why we need more art and literature around the subject of mental illness. We need more authors, film-makers and artists depicting it. And we need more families coming out in the open to discuss it. There is no shame. Why is a disorder of the mind any more traumatic than a disorder of the body?

This could be why the book calls for more stories – and not just in the form of words but also in the form of pictures or any shape, as Pinto says in his introduction. In fact, the book’s cover has an interesting illustration by Pinto himself. It resembles the branches of a “mind tree” that is reaching out, perhaps to the reader.

The Book of Light is not something we would read for pleasure. But it is a book we must all read.

The Book of Light: When a Loved One Has a Different Mind, Speaking Tiger, 2016, Rs 399.


Anupama Raju is a poet, literary journalist and translator. She is the author of
Nine, a book of poems.

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