By Aminah Sheikh
It is early winter, but the October heat in Ambala Cantt is making me visibly drowsy. “Do you mind some Tulsi leaves in the chai?” he asks. I nod in the typical manner in which we Indians do. “Well, go on then, pluck some leaves from the plant. It’s right opposite the gate,” he prompts. Sounds of chirping birds, sunlight that warms the linen clothes drying on a wooden hanger, happy plants and a few flowers break the monotony of green. The garden is perhaps the only ‘lively looking’ corner of this ageing home.
Sitting opposite each other, with a table that holds a bowl with floating roses, we sip chai. “My father loved roses,” he says breaking the silence. And even before I can acknowledge by saying – Yes, that’s what I gathered from the story “Papa, Elsewhere” he has written in A Book Of Light, Sukant Deepak offers to give me a tour of the place that is home to famed playwright and short-story writer Swadesh Deepak, his father.
Within the confined walls of this house are stories, like in any house – some pleasant and some mired with painful memories. Sukant now lives alone in this house that stands witness to almost two decades of suffering that his family went through after Swadesh was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the 1990s. This phase of the Sangeet Natak Akademi award winner’s (2004) life finds its spot in A Book of Light: When a Loved One Has a Different Mind, among twelve other stories edited by Jerry Pinto and published by Speaking Tiger.
Although Swadesh left his home one monsoon morning of 2006 never to return, his house breathes nostalgia. “I love staying in this house, that’s why I stay here,” says Sukant, adding that he’d wanted to tell his father’s story for a long time. “I wrote it because it had to be written. Some things have to be done. It was a ruthless decision.”
Each of the 13 writers have come out of their shell, perhaps, to tell a tale that has affected them deeply. The process of writing, not so easy at times. Yet they did write!
“Many of us have family histories that contain very troubled moments, that have had people whose lives, their joys and struggles, the love we felt for them or the dislike, remain within us long after they are gone,” shares Sharmila Joshi, one of the 13 contributors to the book. Her story “The Man Under the Staircase” speaks of her uncle shunned by his own brother (her late father) then a Judge at Nagpur High Court. “My uncle Vinay was one such person from among various complex characters in my family – some of whom I have for long wanted to write about. His story just came to me first. Telling it is an attempt to record and then purge maybe, an attempt to look back without too much sadness.”
Lalita Iyer, writer of “Roger, Over and Out” shares the story of her former love interest Roger, who she believed was her companion for life but things didn’t quite go the way she had imagined they would. By sharing their story, Lalita wanted Roger to find a voice. She says that for the longest time, her backstory always preceded her. She was that girl who called off her wedding to a ‘psycho’. She was ‘that poor thing’. She finally reached that place of numbness when she stopped talking about it and pretended it never happened. “But in the last few years, I have had many friends ‘coming out’ and talking about their journeys with loved ones who were mentally ill. Jerry’s book Em and the big Hoom spurred me to unlock the past that I had so carefully guarded,” she says. “I felt that the world (my family and friends) always looked at the story from my point of view, and Roger was always the ‘other’, the ‘outsider’, and I thought that was really unfair. Sometimes I wonder if he had written his story, what would it have been? He never got to share his story and probably never will. I also feel hopeful that with me sharing my story, there might be other people who are willing to share theirs, or at the very least, people will learn to approach mental illness from a place of compassion than a place of anger or wronged-ness. I hope more people are motivated to seek help and be more empathetic to those afflicted by mental illness.” At times when alone, Lalita sees Roger’s face. “It’s often an ethereal image, of a face in the clouds, like an angel. This also makes me feel that perhaps he has left this world.”
Most stories are of dear ones who’ve passed away and maybe it is easier to write when the person isn’t around, but two writers –Madhusudan Srinivas and Nirupama Dutt- have written about their children. Children they live with and face each day, even today. While Madhusudan through ‘Abhimanyu, Our Son’ shares his journey as a parent of an autistic 23-year-old son, Nirupama chose a unique way of telling her daughter’s story. Nirupama’s “Mother and Daughters” has been written from her daughter’s point of view. “We share a very intense relationship of co-dependence. Even though it is a troubled one, we know each other’s mind well, so I just narrated what goes on in her and my mind. That was not difficult at all,” says Nirupama. However, writing as a mother was not an easy task, she adds. “I wished to tell the story, more so for it touched on the status of the girl child in India and the damage that is done just because she belongs to the second sex.”
As a writer, sharing your own personal story can be a challenge; being objective and less dramatic is a challenge when dealing with a story that touches your emotional quotient. Each of these brave storytellers had their own mechanism to overcome this dilemma. Sukant says, “I was being very unsentimental while writing the piece. That’s not really the way I write. In the magazine/newspaper features I write, I tend to involve myself — intentionally or unintentionally. In this piece, I intentionally stayed away from any emotions.”
Nirupama says, “When Jerry Pinto asked me to write the story to be shared with others, I was wary. Also, I feared it would be like passing judgment. Finally, I thought that justice demanded that I write from her perspective. How she has perceived and dealt with minds that are different. I think it was better to distance myself and then write. Also, some fiction techniques have been used to highlight the malaise of abandoning the female child.”
For Lalita, the primary challenge was: how to step outside her own story and be an observer and yet not be so objective to lose the place of pain it came from. “I thought it would be less painful to write from a third person’s point of view; I was wrong,” she says.
There is always a fear when we write about our wounds — that we are exposing them to the world. Did these writers feel vulnerable while putting their stories out in the open? Nirupama puts it aptly, “If writers cared for the world or worried about hiding wounds, there would be no literature.”
Sukant says some of his relatives didn’t like the fact that he wrote the story, but that doesn’t bother him.Sharmila’s situation was a little different. “The Nagpur I wrote about is from 40-plus years ago. None of the same people are there anymore – even the neighbourhood has completely changed. And a few minor details in the story are fictionalised to avoid any real recognition. What I did wonder about was putting something so personal into a book – I don’t usually talk openly about personal histories. But a book like this is like an enclosure, the story feels ‘safe’ there. . . .”
While the objective of these storytellers has been to create awareness and somehow evoke affection towards ones suffering from a mental illness, the question remains — has telling these stories opened a window for discussion with their families?
Sukant says, his sister did read the story, and liked it. But they did not have a dialogue on it. “We generally don’t talk about our parents.” Nirupama hasn’t shared the story yet with her daughter. “Not yet as she is going through a very difficult time emotionally. But maybe some time later.” Lalita isn’t sure if she wants her family to read the story. “They should read me before they read my story and we are still a long way from there,” she adds.
Sharmila was estranged from her father for decades before he passed away. Her mother did read the story. “It was painful for her to recall those times with the reading. “We have, over the years, in bits and pieces, talked about Vinay – as also about other family members who I hope to write about too someday,” shares Sharmila.
A thought that comes to mind having read A Book of Light is – Are the writers now at ease? “It was actually great to write it out. With it came some pain, some ruffling up of nearly-lost memories, and I suppose some relief. It took half a night to write it,” shares Sharmila. “I felt sadness at his life, at the loss – I hope that came across. So many families are pierced by violence, by abuse, by just plain unkindness and harshness – and that sorrow always remains in one form or another.”
Lalita isn’t sure if she has found peace after writing the story, but she does feel lighter, she says. “And it’s not about closure as I don’t think there can be such a thing, but more about hope of other people finding their voices through my story. I feel somewhat naked again. I cry a lot, I cry easily, my dormant vulnerability is back and in a good way. I think writing this story softened me and I can recognize myself again. It was as though I had turned into a hardened version of myself that had forgotten how to be vulnerable, how to receive love. I had become too cynical for my own good.”
Nirupama’s story hasn’t been some secret, closely guarded. “It has always been in the open to friends, acquaintances, schools, doctors and so on. But now it is a piece of literature,” she says. “We are a normal mother and daughter with our highs and our lows, with our differences and our arguments. But I feel a little more at peace for accepting the situation as it is.” Does it urge her to write a longer piece/novella? “No, I think I have said what I wanted to say and so has she. Once she was grumbling about something and I told her: “You have had such an interesting life, why don’t you write a novel based on it?” She winked and replied: You write the novel and give me the money! Jokes apart, I don’t think I will write a piece longer than this. Maybe on my granddaughter, if I live long enough to tell.”
When asked if Sukant feels he has preserved his father’s memory by writing, he disagrees. “No, his memories, like any father’s/mother’s memories would have stayed. To stalk, maybe.” He is certain that his father would have loved the story he wrote. Especially, the parts where he talked about women.
Sukant continues to keep the house close to what it once was, keeping a bygone time alive. Has he made peace? He says, “Frankly, there has been no peace after writing. I don’t think there will be, ever.”
Aminah Sheikh is the Online Editor of Kitaab