Book review

This deeply personal and unconventional memoir about depression, loss and abuse reinvents the form

Gayathri Prabhu’s ‘If I Had To Tell It Again’ shows us how many such stories must be out there and need to see the light of day.

Gayathri Prabhu’s unconventional memoir If I Had To Tell It Again reinvents the form, the way Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home did with its gothic comics or Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts that uses poetry. And like Nelson, Prabhu’s novels before her memoir – The Untitled, Birdswim Fishfly and Maya – are all from different genres, which makes the memoir a surprise. Prabhu admits that she wasn’t going to write it but all that changed after her father’s death in April 2014. For the following three years, what started as an outpouring of grief, transformed into her memoir.

A minefield of memories

In many ways, If I Had To Tell It Again is as much her father’s story as it is hers – Prabhu’s life is shaped by her father, a flawed and larger-than-life man who constantly fantasised about death but not dying, an alcoholic, depressed parent who heaped intense love and rage on his firstborn.

The title reflects how difficult it must have been for Prabhu, who teaches at the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, to revisit an emotional minefield of memories – there was the time when her father (whom she addresses as SGM) stubbed out a cigarette on her or when he told his younger daughter (Prabhu’s sister) that she he didn’t want her, or even when he spent lavishly on friends and strangers but rarely on them. But the same deeply-flawed man, as she remembers, was also philanthropic, organising many charity events and blood donation drives.

Her mother (who is mentioned once in parenthesis and later as anecdotes) remembers both father and daughter to be alike – generous, unattached and wild. And in passing on these envious traits, SGM also passed on his depression. The way each coped with it, however, couldn’t be more different. It is a splendid reason to read If I Had To Tell It Again, which brilliantly shatters our collective narrative and myths about depression – a much loved and popular neighbour can easily be as depressive as a high-achieving daughter. In the course of the book, Prabhu also tells us why she thinks there are such few memoirs being written in this country about families and suffering – because other families having to read it. But as she later admits, only writing can ease the grief.

Unconventional structure

The unconventionality of If I Had To Tell It Again lies in its haphazard structure. Part of it reads like a conventional memoir, a second part is written in the form of an imagined dialogue between father-daughter, a play. There’s a part that’s written in the third person and another that tells (or rather imagines) her father’s story. But Prabhu’s literary memoir flourishes even as we trace her story from one job to another and one continent to another, through physical abuse and sexual abuse, the death of her father and of her beloved dog, the end of a marriage, the fight against depression. One can argue that rigid, standard lines of prose here might just be too tame – the format works because it somehow mimics the protagonist’s own rocky life. She, and the book, emerge strong. When she writes in the third person, it’s almost as if Prabhu wants to be the observer along with us, looking at the past from a distance – here she isn’t a victim.

As this is a memoir of a daughter’s difficult love for her father, other characters don’t really find precedence here. Her sister comes and goes, but offers selfless love and support, there are one or two odd friends, a former husband and a current partner. But the arthritic labrador, Chinna, is very much a part of Prabhu’s suffering. In Chinna, Prabhu found a parental figure. The love between human and pet in this book could easily move you, as much as, if not more, than her emotion-laden passages describing her suicidal tendencies, her years of abuse and miscarriages. Chinna was Prabhu’s rock, one that stopped her from ending her life. Prabhu’s expression of love during Chinna’s last week alive, is so pure and deep that it’s hard not to be affected by it, if you’re a pet parent or not. Prabhu writes that depression has no spatial boundaries and it’s in reading this chapter you realise that love too does not, even if it’s between a pet and a human.

If I Had To Tell It Again is a deeply personal affair, filled with intimate details of Prabhu’s life. But we know that the personal is political, whether it’s in the abuse she had to face at home, her inherited depression and how both her parents brushed it aside, trying to convince her that the solution lay in being positive and thinking happy thoughts. Depression has been, and still is, a cultural and political phenomenon where women’s experiences are rooted in the quality of their lives, which are in turn determined by societal values and patriarchal beliefs. Prabhu’s severely troubled life mired in depression (one that few women in India acknowledge) and how she sought help and battled against it is a reminder of how many such stories are around us and need to see the light of the day. And this is why Prabhu says “one writes a memoir” – by talking about something invisible, so it becomes real.

If I Had To Tell It Again: A Memoir, Gayathri Prabhu, Harper Collins India

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