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Book excerpt: Depression, anxiety and talking about it with Deepika Padukone

In his memoir How to Travel Light, journalist Shreevatsa Nevatia writes about living with bipolar disorder. In this excerpt, he describes meeting a kindred spirit also struggling with depression who also happens to be a celebrity.

books Updated: Oct 10, 2017 08:20 IST
Shreevatsa Nevatia
Deepika Padukone, who founded the Live Love Laugh Foundation to spread awareness about depression, speaks at the India Economic Summit 2017 in New Delhi on October 5.
Deepika Padukone, who founded the Live Love Laugh Foundation to spread awareness about depression, speaks at the India Economic Summit 2017 in New Delhi on October 5. (PTI)

In November 2015, waiting to interview Deepika Padukone and Ranbir Kapoor, I stood in the lobby of a Bombay luxury hotel, surrounded by mirrors. My reflection did not flatter or assure me. In the five months since I had moved to the city, I had gained three kilos. I felt obese. To cover my belly, I hadn’t tucked my shirt in. My stubble had grown scraggy. Though I was always fated to bald, the cocktail of drugs I’d been prescribed had only hastened that inevitable recession.

When I called my sister to tell her I was about to meet her two favourite stars, she first asked, ‘What are you wearing?’ The call was something of a ritual. Demanding an exhaustive account of my few encounters with film celebrities, she’d once said to me, ‘It is the only time I feel like living vicariously through you.’ My mania often gave my sister and me a lot to talk about. We would reminisce and laugh. She’d be protective and comforting. ‘I think you like to call me only when you’re losing it,’ she had said. She was not wrong. In times more lucid, I found her vigilance overbearing.

As a child, I would devour my sister’s glossy movie magazines for their steamy pictures, but as a teenager, I took to reading the interviews of actors with some avidity. I was fascinated by a very obvious idea—emotions like ecstasy, pain, ennui, anger and bemusement only had to be performed for them to be real. To fool audiences, you only had to entertain them. Though a string of auditions for school plays had proven I was a terrible actor, I was never dissuaded. In order to guarantee the affection of my parents, teachers, friends and my sister, I simply had to tell them the few things they each wanted to hear. Mania, I later found, would hand me an already written script. Always the protagonist, I would also at times play the superhero. I would save the world and leave it confounded with my ability. I’d send it rolling in the aisles with my puns. The depression that inevitably followed sought a more laborious performance.

When you’re manic, you do everything to avert the end of the world, but when depressed, the pieces of your apocalypse prove too heavy to pick up. Depression seldom gives your hopelessness a narrative, and without a story to tell, your improvisations, you find, are as awkward as the smiles you manufacture. It becomes hard not to ham your way through the drama of despair. Deepika Padukone, I assumed, knew this well. Earlier that year, in March, I had seen the actor break down on television while detailing her struggle with depression. ‘I woke up feeling directionless, I didn’t know where to go, I didn’t know what to do and I had these bouts of feeling so low that I would just start crying at the drop of a hat,’ she had said. Strangely, one of India’s biggest stars had become relatable only after she confessed that she’d often escape to her vanity van to sob helplessly. It had been estimated that 36 per cent of the country was afflicted with depression, and Padukone was not just a mascot, she had become our spokesperson. When depressed, Padukone was filming Happy New Year, a goofball comedy, and I desperately wanted to ask her the most hackneyed of all journalistic questions—‘So, how did that feel?’ My sister was not impressed when she heard of my intent. ‘Listen to me and keep it light,’ she warned.

Film stars were hard to interview, as I had confessed to her once. Their celebrity invariably punctured my journalistic cool, and even though my questions never pandered, I feared my manner did. Regrettably, they also had the habit of making you wait. I looked at my watch to see that my interview had already been delayed by an hour and a half. But I found I could forgive Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone their lack of punctuality. Actors can, of course, easily get carried away. They don’t always know when to stop. Suffering from what can perhaps be termed an opulence of beauty, Padukone, for instance, had spent a fair part of her early career acting in films that each reduced her to a pretty face. It was only when her characters became vulnerable to hurt and bruises, when they started having sex out of wedlock, that she confirmed her reliability as a performer. She was again doing a film with Kapoor, her ex, with whom her relationship had been as public as her break-up. The questionnaire I’d recently printed had typed itself.

Finally ushered into a room the size of a school playground and with an obvious paucity of furniture, I found Deepika Padukone sitting on one of the room’s two chairs, getting her make-up touched up. Her stature and skin both seemed impossibly perfect. There was some solace in the idea that beauty, even Padukone’s, needed to be crafted.

The interview soon started to resemble the meeting of a mental health support group. When Padukone said, ‘It’s hard to pull yourself out of bed, to put on a front, especially when something else is going on in your mind,’ I said emphatically, ‘I know exactly what you mean.’

Half-sprawled on a lush white couch next to her, Ranbir Kapoor fiddled with his phone. His stardom, earned but also inherited, allowed him his mild disinterest. I waited to be acknowledged.

Padukone was apologetic. ‘You must have been standing outside for quite some time,’ she said. Disarmed by her unexpected kindness, I had to coax myself to stay provocative. ‘How is it that you, Ranbir, are always coming of age in the films you do with Deepika? And Deepika, how do you always manage to be such a rock?’ Padukone didn’t smile. In a tone that was almost stern, she said, ‘I’d like to believe that every film has its own journey; that every director is trying to express something very different.’ Kapoor soon softened to describe his youth as ‘mediocre’, and he and Padukone were both forgiving when answering the question, ‘Isn’t it strange to be performing love with someone you’d once practised all its rituals with?’ Kapoor laughed. ‘We’re not love gurus,’ he said.

Even though Padukone had made her depression public and talked about it with great candour, it took me half an hour to bring up the subject. Despair, I had learnt, is prone to relapse, and recollections often exaggerate one’s susceptibility. Just talking about it can be enough. In order to reduce my guilt about having to ask, I chose to preface my question with an apology. ‘Having grappled with depression for a while myself,’ I had started saying when Padukone stopped me. She sounded concerned when she asked, ‘You’ve suffered depression too?’ I wasn’t prepared for her sincerity. ‘Yes, for as long as I can remember.’ Inexplicably, she smiled. ‘It’s a funny thing because I could tell you have the moment you walked in.’ My disbelief made me squeal when I asked, ‘How?’ Her smile didn’t waver. ‘It takes one to know one, I guess.’ I somehow finished the rest of my question. ‘Does depression still leave you feeling anxious?’

My shoulders hunched forward as Padukone spoke. ‘There’s always that anxiety, and this is something that I keep asking my doctors: What if this happens again?’ she said. The actor then looked at me and her hand pointed in my direction. ‘You’ve experienced it, and it has probably been the worst experience of your life.’ No stranger had ever addressed my depression so directly, and I could only nod. ‘If you were aware of what your symptoms were, you’d perhaps have spoken to someone about it. For me, the scariest bit was the not knowing. I didn’t know what I was going through.’ The interview soon started to resemble the meeting of a mental health support group. When Padukone said, ‘It’s hard to pull yourself out of bed, to put on a front, especially when something else is going on in your mind,’ I said emphatically, ‘I know exactly what you mean.’ My last few questions were all trivial in comparison.

I called my sister from the foyer of the hotel. ‘Deepika Padukone and I had a moment,’ I said excitedly. ‘In your head you have a moment with every woman you think is pretty, but more importantly, what was she wearing?’ came her reply.

I was annoyed when I said, ‘Denim, from head to toe. But I’m not kidding you. It really was a moment.’ I could hear my niece cry in the background. ‘Great! I have to go now,’ said my sister. ‘I’ll call you soon.’ All the enthusiasm that had goaded me into calling her started to dissipate. The empathy with which Padukone had recognized me as a depressive was winsome, but it was also terrifying in its accuracy. I had begun to turn down every invitation I received from adamant friends. In three months, I hadn’t finished a single book I had started, and waking up in time for breakfast had become difficult. It was only my professional diligence that helped disguise my very private melancholy.

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India.

How to Travel Light: My Memories of Madness and Melancholia by Shreevatsa Nevatia releases on October 25.