Stories have a way of holding our hands in the most difficult times; and if the narrative brings with it the visibility some of us need to make sense of our struggle or that of our loved ones, it can be empowering. Mental health has been seen through a miasma of stereotypes and taboos for the longest time, more so in India, but stories with their hearts in the right place can change that. Here are some powerful books by Indian authors that help us locate the humanity in mental health narratives.
“Em and The Big Hoom” by Jerry Pinto
Simply put, Jerry Pinto’s debut novel is about a woman with bipolar disorder and her family, as their lives unwind in a small flat in 20th-century Bombay. But Pinto’s honest and humourous storytelling makes it relatable to anyone who has ever had an argument with their parents. The book, told from a caregiver’s point of view, will take the reader through a spectrum of emotions and leave them with empathy for those living with mental health illnesses and those who care.
“I’ve never been (Un)happier” by Shaheen Bhatt
First-time author and mental health advocate Shaheen Bhatt’s memoir is a very quick read. She effortlessly juxtaposes the puzzle of being born privileged and growing up with depression. This startlingly perspicacious book talks about the unpredictability of mental health in the most matter-of-fact way. Anyone who wants a moving personal account and an honest perspective on mental health can start with this gem.
“Sepia Leaves” by Amandeep Sandhu
Amandeep Sandhu’s novel is an evocative take on a young man’s understanding and acceptance of his mother’s schizophrenia as he goes through old family pictures. Readers looking for a sense of closure for unresolved trauma left from a troubled dynamic with a parent can find solace in this poignant coming-of-age tale.
“How To Travel Light: My Memories of Madness and Melancholia” by Shreevatsa Nevatia
Shreevatsa Nevatia was 23 when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This is his memoir, highlighting the highs and lows of his life as a journalist. The deeply personal book is not only a profound insight into what bipolar disorder entails, it can also be picked up by anyone going through moments of doubt while trying to juggle their mental health and professional needs.
“A Book of Light: When a Loved One Has a Different Mind” (Edited by Jerry Pinto)
As the name suggests “A Book of Light” shines a spotlight on topics that are usually left untouched. It is a collection of 13 real life accounts of caregivers who supported family members with mental health illnesses. The accounts are raw and honest, and will resonate with anyone who has had a similar experience and emerged stronger on the other side.
“Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha” by Swadesh Deepak (Hindi)
The memoir of Swadesh Deepak, a famous Hindi writer and playwright, is a fascinating look into a troubled mind, grappling with mental health challenges, but unyielding in its creative prowess. Unlike the classical memoir, Deepak’s narrative does not follow a chronological sequence but leaves a strong impression as a tale of a grit and survival against substantial odds.
“The Crazy Tales of Pagla Dashu and Co” by Sukumar Ray (Bengali)
Sukumar Ray’s collection of humorous short stories about a schoolboy’s adventures is a classic among Indian kids. But it was way ahead of its time. The book focuses on a different way of thinking through Dashu, a clever, perspicacious child, whose eccentricities are portrayed as funny escapades. His character can be a positive role model for children who can grow up to see mental health as a spectrum instead of a binary of good and bad labels.
“Side Effects of Living: An Anthology of Voices on Mental Health” (Edited by Jhilmil Breckenridge and Namarita Kathait)
An anthology of accounts, this book primarily holds space for those who have lived with a mental health condition and wish to gain more perspective. Through stories, poetry and art, the stories offer a panoramic view on the different shades of mental health. Anyone who has felt isolated and alone, or has cared for a loved one will benefit from the book and its insights on the conversations around mental health in India.
These works are a good starting point for those who read Indian literature. Readers will find many more books that lend their voices to this discussion, especially when digging into regional literature. Feel free to add your favourites in the comments.