The Way We Were: Fragmented tales from a beautiful mind
With mental health a growing concern in the pandemic, it’s worth revisiting a writer’s searing first-person account.Updated: Jul 05, 2020 07:50 IST
In June 2006, a 63-year-old man walked out of his rambling old house in Ambala, Haryana, and never returned. To this day, no one knows what happened to him.
The man was Swadesh Deepak, exceptional Hindi novelist, playwright, short-story writer and author of a searing 331-page book titled Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha, an account of his seven-year battle with mental illness. The book was published in 2003, after first being serialised in the Hindi monthly, Kathadesh.
Mental health has become a greater global concern amid recent tragic suicides as well as reports of people buckling under the stress of trying to cope with the pandemic. It’s a time to value precious first-hand accounts of those who have gone to hell and back. Nothing can give one insight into mental health the way an unvarnished personal account can.
Deepak’s account shifts in time and place and has a fragmented, collage-like quality. The Sylvia Plath-loving English literature professor (he taught at Ambala’s Gandhi Memorial College) wrote dark, violent stories (fellow writer Mannu Bhandari once asked him, ‘“Swadeshji, why do you always walk behind your characters with a loaded gun?”) and thought of himself as a cruel man, quick to anger.
In 1991, he began sliding into severe depression related to a bipolar disorder. He started withdrawing from everyday activities — going to work, bathing, writing. “We couldn’t understand what was happening to him,” says his son, Sukant, a journalist who contributed a poignant essay on his father to the anthology A Book of Light – When A Loved One Has A Different Mind, edited by Jerry Pinto. (Incidentally, Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha is also being translated into English by Pinto).
“Physically, dad was fine,” Sukant says. “We were a modern, upper-middle-class family; my mother was a painter and a teacher. We knew about psychiatry. But even we didn’t understand what he was going through.”
The writer accused of remorselessly killing off his characters tried to kill himself too. On one occasion, he slashed his wrists with a blade. Another time, he set himself on fire in the kitchen. His chest and one arm were completely burnt. In hospital in Chandigarh, his family were told he probably wouldn’t survive. But doctors in the burns ward, along with specialists from the departments of neurology, psychiatry and cardiology, came together to save him. He stayed in hospital for five months. He lost 15 kg (his wife Geeta jokingly said, ‘Don’t become the Invisible Man’). He had skin graft surgery. He had shock therapy. He lay silent on his bed in the psychiatry ward. His psychiatrist told him: “Unlike other doctors, we can’t take the help of blood tests or any other tests. Only when you talk to us and tell us your dark secrets can we help you.”
Deepak did have a secret. He was haunted by a woman he called Mayavini, whom he had met twice when he was in Calcutta in 1991 for the staging of his play, Court Martial. Now, he hallucinated that she came to see him at night. Sometimes, with three white cheetahs. Deepak was convinced his suffering was her way of paying him back for having insulted her at their first meeting. Was Mayavini a real woman? “Yes, she was,” says Sukant.
He remembers the unravelling well. He was just a schoolboy, but he and his sister grew up fast. “I respected my father as a writer, but I hated him as a person — though we were also very friendly,” Sukant says. “My mother stood by him like a rock. She loved him.” That love too was stretched to its limit.
With the dedication of the doctors, the support of his family and friends and his own effort, Deepak emerged from his dark place. He went back to writing. And he wrote Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha, a one-of-its-kind book in the annals of Hindi literature. At one point in the memoir, Deepak asks himself: “Where did my happy days go?” There was no answer.
But ten years after he went home from the hospital, he left home again. This time he didn’t return. “Today, when I look back at those years,” Sukant says, “even if I couldn’t fully comprehend what was happening to him, I wish I had been kinder.”