I have been writing since 1982, mostly in Odia, my mother tongue. Somehow I did not get around to doing any substantial work in English, a language that I have been comfortable with since my childhood. It only remained a dream for a long time. Two weeks ago, my first novel in English was published. It is a novel on mental health. How my debut work in English finally happened is a story by itself.
Mental health is not an easy subject for a novel. When I was growing up, I had no clue about it. All I knew was that in our world most people are “normal” and then there are some who are not. These are the “mad” people.
When Subroto and I decided to get married, he told me that there was something I should know: his father had schizophrenia. I had no real idea about the disorder. In those pre-internet days, all I knew was that it was something serious and scary. But as I actually got to know my father-in-law, I was pleasantly surprised. He was brilliant, affectionate and kind hearted. Where was the shadow of schizophrenia? Soon I realised that the schizophrenia was managed well because he was under periodic psychiatric care. Most importantly, the family was not in denial; they loved him and supported him. No one hesitated to talk about his schizophrenia and were always watchful.
As time went by, I became more and more aware of mental health issues. By 2003, I had realised two things: first, that there is a wide range of mental health issues and, second, that just about every family, not just mine, has someone impacted by it in one way or other. I felt a tug in my heart: I should write a book on the subject. But I am not a psychiatrist or a psychologist. So how, I wondered, could I do justice to such a topic? But the subject continued to haunt me for years, so much that I finally decided to talk to a psychiatrist friend, Dr. Vivek Benegal.
Vivek, like some other committed psychiatrists I know, is very passionate about the subject of mental health. Over many hours and days, we talked about the spread of mental health issues. He also steered me towards meaningful research. What I discovered in the process was mind-boggling. The conversations with Vivek and the research reinforced my assumptions about the spread of mental health problems and the ignorance, denial and stigma surrounding them.
At the end of eighteen months, I had the data and the validation that the book should be written. I shared my thoughts with Subroto. Though he was more aware of mental health issues than I was, he was stunned with many of the facts I had gathered. He said that I would be doing a great disservice if I didn’t write the book that could reach a large set of readers.
I got to work. The voyage began.
Let me confess that it wasn’t easy. The usual high and low tides were normal, but what I had not anticipated was the emotional upheaval that I would have to go through. I would have to relive the lives of most of my characters, who were so real to me. All these things are familiar parts of the writing process, for any author writing any novel. But with this novel, I felt my characters’ pain more keenly. There were, of course, smiles and soaring of the spirit, but those were few and far between. Even then, I did not give up, because retreating was just not an option.
And so I continued the journey.
‘Beneath a Rougher Sea’ is the result of that journey.
longingpanda on Remembering Gopinath Mohanty Lola on Beneath A Rougher Sea susmitabagchi on The Sound of “Music” Prashant Mehra on The Sound of “Music” Anu Partha on The Stranger