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A Book of Light review: No lessons. All you have to do is listen

books Updated: Oct 10, 2016 13:17 IST
Prerna Madan
Prerna Madan
Hindustan Times
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Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks hangs at the Art Institute of Chicago (Francis G Mayer via Getty Images)

What if a loved one suffered from a psychological disorder? What if you found her impossible to fathom? What if you reeled under the force of an ailment that wasn’t yours?

These aren’t questions that individuals routinely pose to themselves; A Book of Light does. And it does it without preaching and through accounts of ordinary people who have lived through extraordinary conditions. This is an honest book devoid of pretensions. Yet, the lack of frills doesn’t mean it is dull and the reader will occasionally feel the need to gulp down a sob.

Sylvia Plath was one of the more prominent 20th century authors to give authentic expression to her psychological suffering. Her depression, suspended over her being like a suffocating bell jar, pulled her into the abyss. But while Plath takes you into the mind of a ‘patient’, A Book of Light positions the reader outside. A book consisting of snippets of lives has to base its foundation on its voices, and the editor, Jerry Pinto, has done exactly that. The different narrators of these pieces describe watching loved ones battling psychological issues. They tell you how an ‘abnormality’ can complicate relationships and plant the seeds of both, love and hate. They shock you with confessions that are rarely spoken out loud. Here’s a daughter talking about her mother: “I was, depending on her mood, a daughter, a friend, a bitch, a whore and in her last days, her nurse, her nanny, her doctor.”

These stories tell of the hardships faced by families dealing with extreme mood swings, alcoholism, depression, schizophrenia, autism and suicide. They try to put into words the welter of feelings after it all ends: the initial relief, the creeping guilt, the anger, the regret, and the unanswerable questions.

Like an Edward Hopper painting that distances the viewer with glass windows and doors, as the narratives shift, the reader is always the outsider looking in on tumultuous lives. The changing voices in these pieces can be too intense to read in one sitting and occasionally, some are unreliable -- for how do you believe a narrator who describes being thrown off the train as a baby? But perhaps that piece is not about believing as much as about understanding the narrator’s story of being born to a family intent on killing her because she is female.

Read more: When things get too much to handle, don’t shy away from a therapy couch

The one element that’s common to most stories in A Book of Light is the realisation that Indian society has a long way to go before it arrives at a sympathetic understanding of people with psychological disorders and those suffering from substance abuse. The social stigma attached to mental illness means the condition often goes unnoticed, sometimes due to lack of knowledge and often, due to a conscious refusal to see. Luckily, the internet has inspired debate and given more people access to much-needed information.

It takes courage to write these stories, to lay bare these personal lows and highs. It also takes courage to gather them together. A Book of Light contains many worthy and interesting voices. The reader cannot help but listen to them.