How do you write about your own ‘madness and melancholia’ when you aren’t sure if it is behind you?

Even after writing ‘How to Travel Light: My Memories of Madness and Melancholia’ Shreevatsa Nevatia knows there is no forgetting.

Shreevatsa Nevatia was thirty-three when he needed to find his place in the world again. After ten years of being diagnosed manic depressive, treated pharmacologically and with talk therapy, he sat down to write his memoir, How to Travel Light: My Memories of Madness and Melancholia. The way Nevatia puts it, it appears that he approached it like a savant: “Remembering helps in the fight against repression. That fight, I think, is the good fight. I’d argue that forgetting makes closure impossible. If you haven’t processed sentiment, it’s hard for feelings to lose their collective weight.”

For all the psychiatry-speak in this emailed answer, his book is surprisingly free of such cant. Yet, the reader is unable to debunk the spectres of Freud, Jung and Lacan – and nor is the author. The hard processes of recovery are all named: remembering, repression, forgetting, closure, sentiment, feeling.

Some say forgetting is the law and remembering, an excuse for bad behaviour. But Nevatia says Freud helped him understand why, like a child, he shall remain forever prone to disaster. It is with Freud that he traces a map across the troubled geography of his mind, a la-la land when on some days he is the chosen one, and on another, padding self-pityingly up and down his small Bandra flat, uttering Munch-like screams. He is charming and courteous, then he dysfunctions from time to time.

Memory has been an enabler of the good kind, “but there are times when I am manic and misremember fact, but I feel I remember everything. There is little difference between the authentic and the fictional. So memory for me is sometimes unreliable too.”

When the wall crashed

The central horror of Nevatia’s book is the description of him performing fellatio for an elder cousin, a lying gasbag ironically named Satya. Like all abusers he has a psychic hold on the abusee. Nevatia intermittently believes, correctly, that his cousin is a pervert and at the same time feels attracted to him, confusing all this for romantic love. Or, as he also calls it, incest.

Before he sat down to write the chapter that detailed graphically his sexual abuse as a child, Nevatia listed everything he remembered about those four years. Once done, he bawled like a baby and rang his psychoanalyst in Kolkata who soothed his nerves, the way they do. He flies to see her once a month. “We have talked about your abuse for hours in my chamber,” she said, “yet there was always an emotional wall you refused to break. It came crashing down today. Isn’t that a good thing?”

Writing good sentences, ones he could be “half proud of”, was a different business. He tries to write unsentimentally and almost always succeeds. His jokes work. He is clever and engaging, and offers literary bait with high brow and pop references. But above all he is unrelentingly honest in his writing.

When himself, he looks to have shaken off his childhood naivety. On bad days he has about five years on Peter Pan. But bad behaviour is a funny thing among artists – this includes writers of prose or poetry. They are wont to misbehave to the extent that onlookers are convinced their insanity is a function of art. Is this true in Nevatia’s case? Who knows.

So what does being 33 mean? Psychologists say it is the time we are happiest in our lives. We retain the wildness of teen-aged years, an enthusiasm of youth. By one’s mid-30s innocence is lost but hope is not. A sense of reality is gained, also a belief in our talents and abilities. After that we age and approach cynicism and finally, world-weariness. If all goes well we become stronger and learn to forgive, and accept that we cannot forget. As Nevatia does.

Talking about it

In a chapter about his meeting with the actor Deepika Padukone, Nevatia is embarrassed to see his bulky reflection in the hotel lobby – his medicines have caused him to gain weight. She is having her makeup touched up after making him wait for 90 minutes. He puts his questions to her, none of which are answered as cleverly as they are asked. Even with her impossibly perfect face and skin, her beauty has to be crafted for presentation and he feels consoled. In the book he waves away her behaviour. Actors get carried away, he writes.

Bollywood, stubbornly uncosmopolitan, caters to uncosmopolitan consumers (which doesn’t necessarily make it bad entertainment). It took a beauty queen and a mainstream actress to confess her anxiety and directionlessness in a much-publicised TV interview for the masses to become prepared to discuss mental health-related suffering more seriously.

It didn’t matter before that people had been vanishing from family albums with no discussion of why. What was it that went missing, since depression usually follows loss? The life cycles of grief are still so little understood. But families come with default settings: preferring silence, homogeneity and the status quo. They focus on the similarity of their noses, and their values – which isn’t a bad thing – but what when something discomfiting crops up?

Something like a gay son, an underperforming teenager, the poor divorcee, the one who sucked embarrassingly at her thumb in her 20s, the one who was not bright at all, the wayward, pretty one – all examples of attempted or successful suicides I have known, second- or first-hand. It’s carnage then. Families are often the problem, but also potentially, the solution. As is the case in Nevatia’s life.

Never under control

Mental illness is hard to treat but impossible to cure. This memoirist of madness and melancholia still takes lithium everyday, and still sometimes gets paranoid when he remains unslept: “There is no cure for my bipolarity. It’s just taken me ten years to learn how to manage it, to draw a line of sorts. Despite the efforts, I could go manic again. That is a possibility, though not an inevitability.”

Nevatia kept notebooks to mine this book from, but they were memos, only directional. The book is not written chronologically. Recovery occurs one day at a time, but the years gave his narrative themes, and resisted being told chronologically.

“Epiphanies take time to register, you get better slowly and also suddenly.” Sadly, recovery is a lot of hope and very little consistency.

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