Book review

This unflinching memoir of being bipolar will make you love those who suffer from it

Shreevatsa Nevatia’s memoir uses a light touch that humanises but does not gloss over the extremes of the condition.

Memoirs of illness have their work cut out. With the ailment and its survivor locked in a constant state of war, the conflict that drives any good book is ever-present, threatening to overthrow every seemingly peaceful moment. The reader, of course, is pre-programmed to root for victory over the illness. How to Travel Light: My Memories of Madness and Melancholia by journalist Shreevatsa Nevatia, however, is “not a story of survival, of beating the odds or of forbearance.” The only heroes in this story, he insists, are the members of his support system.

How To Travel Light is, instead, many other things. It is an ode to language, to literature, to cinema, to Hindu mythology and to living life on the edge one moment and feeling impossibly confined in the next. It is also about connecting the dots, past to present, present to future, about friendship, family and forgiveness. Nevatia has taken a deep, dark dive, detaching himself skilfully from the instability of his mind to mine its depths and come up with a compelling story that is rich in detail, almost too rich, told with the help of a remarkable memory (and journals) and mindboggling clarity.

The book is, despite its obvious heaviness, light on its feet. Humour is a constant companion, so is self-deprecation. “…[A]lmost completely naked” is how author Jerry Pinto describes the book on its cover, and I found these words coming back to me time and again as I read it over a six-hour train journey.

Shreevatsa Nevatia
Shreevatsa Nevatia

No control, but plenty of support

In 2016, Nevatia had written an unflinching, extremely moving essay in Open magazine on living with bipolarity for close to a decade, its publication pegged to the passing of the Mental Health Care Bill in the Rajya Sabha. He wrote about waking up in mental health institutions with his hands tied to the bed, of trying to scale the walls and failing to escape, about doctors who tried to tell him what he suffered in childhood was not sexual abuse but “incest”, about how it felt to live through endless cycles of mania and depression, and recuperating in Calcutta, where his parents live.

I found his writing absorbing and imaginative. So I turned to read more in How To Travel Light, which expands on the narrative of the essay. It is, in a nutshell, an achingly honest account of living with a condition over which you usually have little control, and how a good support system makes it possible to tide over the many frighteningly bleak episodes. I also felt a personal connection – with a close friend having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it helped understand the condition through Nevatia’s vivid accounts. It helped me join the dots as well.

Here, there and everywhere

Over nine chapters, we see flashes of Nevatia’s life in a non-linear fashion. Early on, he takes us through his days at rehab centres and mental health facilities – “part spa and part prison” – and life with other inmates in “Like a Starlight in a Black Hole”. What got him in there were always dramatic episodes of mania, sent spiralling downward thanks to marijauna or alcohol.

“For all of February, my mania had left me sleepless, but that night, adrenaline gave way to a rare exhaustion. I curled into a foetal position on the floor and howled inconsolably. Three quick pegs of single malt had done the trick. I was asleep when my doorbell screeched at 2 am. Eight people stood at my door. Five wore white coats, two looked sleepy and resentful, and the eighth, a burly bouncer, grabbed my arm and pushed me down on the bed….”

And then he found himself bundled into an ambulance:

“In all the symbols that Hinduism uses to explain the universe, the image of a sleeping Vishnu resting on a fire-breathing snake, at the centre of an endless ocean, is, to my mind, the most terrifying. Lying on a stretcher, I stared at the ceiling of the icy ambulance. Its many neon lights soon began to resemble the roof of the cosmos. There I was, Vishnu, prostrate, awake and ready to re-establish my order.” 

Later in the book, he turns into Shiva!

What it does to a love-life

In “Free Love and Other Stories”, we glimpse Nevatia’s adventures – before being diagnosed as bipolar – in Falmouth, his struggle to keep pace with a crumbling long-distance relationship, and even taking the unscrupulous route to mail his girlfriend Mallika, pretending to be a counsellor. As Dr Jane Allsopp, he writes in an email that Shreevatsa is either partially schizophrenic or suffering a borderline personality disorder, and in need of compassion and care.

“I gave myself my very first diagnosis, and even if the afflictions I had attributed to my mind were exaggerated, I suspected an inevitable comeuppance when I was told I was bipolar four years later. As a 17-year-old, wanting to emulate Earnest Hemingway and Sylvia Plath, I had told Mallika I wished I were mad.”

If Nevatia has the ability to write of mania in a most amusing way, treading a very fine line with just the right set of words, he devastates you with the vulnerability of his eight-year-old self in “The Invention of Sex”, where he describes the four-year-long sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of a trusted older cousin. How much did the abuse tip him towards a mental disorder, and how deeply did it affect his romantic relationships later? Nevatia indulges in deep self-analysis in “Difficult Loves”, where cinema and literature have starring roles as he slips in and out of relationships. He is constantly joining the dots, he admits, and to a reader, if this can seem overwhelming at times, Nevatia has possibly succeeded in telling his story exactly how he sees it.

How To Travel Light: My Memories of Madness and Melancholia, Shreevatsa Nevatia, Penguin India.

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