To hell and back

Tags: News
Here is a book that makes you wish there were many more like it. Shadows in the Sun takes on a subject that is still in the shadows in our country: mental illness. Gayathri Ramprasad talks with great candour about what it’s like to be an Indian grappling with a disease of the mind— namely, clinical depression.

Devastating to the core, the book traces her life from childhood to the present day — a tale where, in her own words, she is both the dragon and the dragon slayer. We accompany her on a journey which would be familiar only to those who share her agony; it is vital, then, that more and more people witness this suffering —the road to hell and back. Ramprasad’s condition ostensibly develops when she fails a grade during college, but the disease had been taking root for long: through the confusion created by the conflict of tradition and modernity and her persistent desire to please her family. (It’s also genetically inherited, as she discovers later.) From there onward, it is a rapid descent into darkness — even her wedding, usually a memorable time in a person’s life, is marred by bouts of uncont­rollable nausea, feelings of wort­hl­essness and terror at her ‘secret’ being discovered. Life with her husband in the US provides a brief respite, but her sickness returns in the form of post partum depre­ssion, and things move downhill from there.

Ramprasad takes you inside mental hospitals and terrifying seclusion wards. The most important place, however, where she takes us is inside the mind consumed by depression — a gut-wrenching place to be; your heart aches for her and for the millions affected by it. Ramprasad’s narrative plays an extremely important role, therefore, in bringing mental disability out of the Indian closet, for it is the stigma and the inability to share one’s plight that cause the most damage; as she quotes the philosopher J Krishnamurthy: “It is not a sign of good health to be well-adjusted to a sick society.”

“What are we going to tell our friends?” her husband’s question makes her blood boil, and yet, it is the truth about Indians: we cannot accept diseases of the mind with the same sympathy and understanding that we would give to diseases of the body. Mental patients are considered ‘freaks,’ sentenced to a life of shame and isolation.

Ramprasad’s style is lyrical and full of images, meticulously detailed. Faith and religion play an important part in her upbringing — but it is the same faith that infuriates her when she is told that her sickness is the result of ‘karma,’ or that she ought to ‘pray with a purer heart.’ She brings a unique cross-cultural view of the disease — how it is treated in India and the US. Hers is a perfectly objective point of view: While she condemns Indian superstitions and talks of the agony of being abused by shamans in the name of cure, she explains that western medicine isn’t necessarily effective in curing depression — as the psychotropic drugs just made her worse. What helped her were meditation and pranayama —and the gradual ability to manage the illness like any other.

Ramprasad rises like a phoenix, organising walks for ‘the mind’ in collaboration with the US’s National Alliance on Mental Illness, getting a second undergraduate degree and a master’s degree, collaborating with experts and giving numerous talks on mental illness — finally founding ASHA, an NGO that provides support to patients.

Shadows in the Sun is a must-read for all. It doesn’t just promote sensitivity; it offers that vital life ingredient: hope. You need not forever be a hostage of the debilitating disease. It’s a battle that can surely be won. zz

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