I have waited a long time to read No Straight Thing Was Ever Made – Urvashi Bahuguna’s essays on mental health – but now that it’s in my palms, within reach, I find myself hesitating. I’m afraid of what the book bears between its covers, revealing things I’ve hidden in a box under the bed, of it hitting too close to home.
In late February, in the midst of a third national lockdown in the UK and a lingering winter chill in the air, I find myself drawn to it. I read it in the dark, on my phone, because on some days I can’t lift myself to leave the sofa and turn on the lights. On days like these, flipping page after page of a paperback seems daunting. And yet, my body craves a story. It seeks the comfort of this palm-sized gadget, and scrolls with muscle memory.
When I first read Bahuguna’s debut poetry collection, Terrarium, a couple of years ago, it shifted something inside me. Simply put, it made me fall in love with reading poetry again. I don’t mean one poem here, another poem there. It taught me to pause – to absorb poem after poem, to read a collection from beginning to end.
I read Terrarium very quickly. And then once again – this time slowly. Its assuredness startled, then disarmed, me. Its softness moved me. Sitting in a coffee shop, I cried into its crevices. I sought refuge in its bountiful imagery, in its beauty. I was smitten by this young poet’s ability to speak of big heartbreaks and bigger landscapes all at once; to speak of everything from the mud and the bodies we can hold and touch, to the histories and illnesses we cannot.
Asked why she titled the collection Terrarium, she said: “A terrarium houses living things, but it’s also a place of incredible stillness”. The images in these poems are memories “frozen in time”; “when I go back there, I can un-pause it and watch it over and over […] a microcosm of my life”. A handful of poems offer a home to talk about mental health.
In the poem “M For”, Bahuguna writes: “Lying down in a dark room with a headache / is a kind of female history”. In “We Are A Few Burials Overdue”, she writes “He thinks of my mind as a hurricane / in a landlocked country”. Elsewhere, she writes that she has “headaches the size of Crete”.
Another poem, “The First Summer After You” – about returning to writing and feeling healthy – was composed after heartbreak and therapy. In an interview she explained that the ten essays in No Straight Thing Was Ever Made are expansions of these earlier poems – especially the poems on mental health: “It felt like those pieces of writing wanted to evolve, say different things, even contrary things, to what they’d already said.” Bahuguna wanted to press “un-pause” – and pay attention to where the words were taking her.
To normalise mental illness
If her poems live and thrive in – forgive me – little glass terrariums of their own, through this book of essays the poet has moved on to greener pastures. In other words, the moods that stirred poems such as “In Sickness & in Health” and “Medical History” – alongside the aforementioned poems – were no longer still. They could not be contained.
“The illness talks constantly – like a roommate who will not shut up,” who follows her everywhere, she writes in one of the essays. If in Terrarium, she teaches herself “how to love this bruised and bumpy earth,” with No Straight Thing Was Ever Made Bahuguna learns to tend to, and to love, herself.
She clarifies, at the outset, that this is not a memoir; the essays are compiled “thematically rather than chronologically”. She confesses that working on these essays took far more from her than she could have foreseen. And, that of course, it’s “not a definitive account of mental illness” – merely her own experience.
She hopes her readers will see mental illness managed and demystified, destigmatised and normalised: “I knew that we could either live with the knowledge of the illness, or we could grow apart.” If your illness is invisible, how do you feel seen, heard – understood?
Bahuguna shares and bares unashamedly (“I cried at bus stops, in grocery stores, in libraries, on buses and planes”) and with self-awareness (“my therapist was not a friend; she was the other side of the chessboard”). She makes going to therapy and taking medication “matter-of-fact” – part of casual conversation around friends and family. She asks what illness requires of caregivers.
In the essay “When You’re Very, Very Tired, You Can’t Throw Your Tired Away” – where her mother expresses exasperation at her endless exhaustion – she writes of fatigue and how “there’s no reasoning with it”. In “Two Deer in the Headlights”, she writes of a romantic relationship – of dependency, exposed fault lines, and failures of the heart. She writes of how time – and hindsight – soften the memories of pain, making sharp edges less prone to prickling: “Looking back, I see us as not what we could have been, but what we were – two deer in the headlights.”
Of the body and beauty
In “Everything for This Beauty” – perhaps my favourite essay – Bahuguna shifts from the first-person perspective and personifies the body. Here, we meet the uncomfortable body, the contracting body, the body “the stops or starts eating for reasons that have nothing to do with hunger”, the unbelievably thin body, the wasting-away body, the wondering body, the accommodating body, the bloating body in the “summer of heavy antidepressants and mood stabilisers’’, the body “in withdrawal, internally screaming”…
She writes about the unreasonable and unhealthy beauty standards she sometimes holds herself to – and that society holds bodies to. She writes about self-perception and judgement – of staring into the mirror and being unable to live with the reflection she beholds: “I found that one can love what one does not love all of.”
She quotes the title of Ali Akbar Natiq’s short story collection, What Will You Give for This Beauty? Then poses the question to herself. “Anything, everything” comes the reply. She writes about disagreements with her doctor, who wants to prescribe the medicine that’s best for her, whereas she wants the one that won’t lead to weight gain: “Because the thinner I am and the less convex the stomach, the fewer anxieties I hold.” And anxiety, we’re told, “is a blue pool the body swims laps in”; it’s a “pool of water prone to raising waves”.
Midway through the collection sits the essay “Buoyancy: On Writing”. Here, Bahuguna begins her struggles with self-doubt and stringing together sentences. She then takes the stereotype of the “tortured artist” or the “mad genius” and stomps all over it.
In the second half of the book, she writes about being on the brink of life – ending and birthing life – and about the simple things – bird-watching and gardening – that give her the strength to stay. And although she’s not at the end of the road – “recovery is a series of loose bolts clattering about inside me – some I have not yet met” – she writes from a place of gratitude for surviving the journey – with gentleness and without guilt.
At the close, in “Ammahood: On the Possibilities of Parenting while Ill’’ – as in the poem “Medical History” – Bahuguna talks about her family tree and its tangled branches of illness. In Where Reasons End, Yiyun Li documents a mother’s grief in the form of a dialogue with her son, whom she lost to suicide.
Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir Good Talk – a book about raising a mixed-race child in a white, politically precarious world – ends with a letter to her young son. The final paragraph of Bahuguna’s book looks at the possibility of new life – and addresses any future child she may have: “Know that I come with baggage. Know that I will put it down and hold you…”
So much about coping and living with mental illness is about forgiveness and remaining afloat. So much about No Straight Thing Was Ever Made is about healing and hope. This “hope doesn’t have to be a meaningless abstraction,” writes Bahuguna, “it can be a radical engine geared to propel a life to a different moment in time.”
It is hard for me to read these essays. It becomes harder still to write about these words. Late February turns to late March in the blink of an eye, but my body doesn’t notice. My state of mind, as described in the book, remains “listless, tired and unwaveringly melancholy” from season to season. At this moment, every month feels like “the cruellest month”.
Illustrator Manjit Thapp’s new book, Feelings: A Story in Seasons, arrives at my doorstep – alongside the smell of spring. I return to Bahuguna’s book and these words: “One of the reasons I believe mental illness has a tough time being seen as a medical condition is because feelings are involved. People imagine that because they have experienced sadness, worry, anger (and so on) and still manage to carry on with life, they understand what a mood disorder does to a human body.”
In Thapp’s world – structured like the six-season calendar of some South Asian countries – we’re told, “moods change as quickly as the weather” – from the peaks of summer to the dips in winter. Each season comes with its signature colour palette – and its own “shade of anxiety”. She lets herself feel (blue, then brighter), learns to let the light in, to grow and nurture, to breathe in, breathe out.
Our plant, Mafalda, fills herself with little white flowers that fall away quickly. I watch Minari – Lee Isaac Chung’s Oscar-nominated film – and think about the eponymous plant. “It’s a poetic plant,” the director has said, which will “grow very strongly in its second season, after it’s died and come back”. I still find myself caught in the ebb and the flow. But for now, the promise of spring – of another season – is enough.
No Straight Thing Was Ever Made: Essays on Mental Health, Urvashi Bahuguna.