Journeys Into The Mind – A panel discussion with this title has the widest canvas to work with – all of human life and its quirks are its mandate, because as Descartes said, “Cogito ergo sum, or, I think, therefore I am.”
It is our mind that makes or unmakes the world to us, and through our mind we come to terms – or not – with all that happens in life. Many a times, however, the mind does not think as it is expected to, as it is trained and taught to, and has a journey very different from the script handed out by social roles and structures, and accepted norms and value systems.
The three panelists I was in conversation with at SheThePeople.TV’s Women Writers Fest – Himanjali Sankar, Kiran Manral, Ruchi Kokcha, have written novels where the main protagonists struggle with issues of the mind; they think and act outside the normal range of behaviour, they end up on the margins, and their motivations and desires fall out the reach of the usual.
How the novels found their roots
In our conversation, we discussed where these novels found their roots in the authors’ minds. For Himanjali, seeing her own mother go through old age with Alzheimer’s was an experience that was connected to writing a character like Mrs Chatterjee in Mrs C Remembers. Seeing Dementia change her mother into a stranger was at once a deeply painful personal struggle and yet also the experience that gave rise to many questions and insights about the human mind and the idea of ‘normal.’ For Kiran Manral it was her interest in the facade of keeping up appearances in marriages at any cost that made her build the story of Missing- Presumed Dead around the psychological damage done to people when they couldn’t live as they wanted to, and weren’t offered the help they badly needed. For Ruchi Kokcha, Greek mythology and its deep involvement with the dark psychological crevices of human minds was the inspiration to write Obsessed.
"Mental illness in women goes neglected most of the time which is why I wrote about it so we treat mental illness just like any other illness" – @KiranManral at #WomenWritersFest @ruchikokcha pic.twitter.com/QAQUHEGUYh
— WomenWritersFest (@womenwriterfest) March 30, 2019
Lack of agency In Women’s Lives
The panel discussed the relative lack of agency in women’s positions as daughters and wives in patriarchal homes and in a patriarchal culture. The lens of dementia allowed Sankar to unshackle her protagonist from the norms that otherwise controlled her and kept her from expressing and acting on her deeply felt negative emotions. For Kiran Manral’s Aisha, the fog of mental illness is matched by the monsoon drenched location, and the timing of the main incidents which move the story forward. Ruchi Kokcha’s protagonist Ananki hold clues to a death and lives with the Electra complex. Mystery and suspense and incomplete information that the reader encounters in all these books appear to parallel the state of mind of these characters as well.
The writers stressed the need to pay more attention to women’s mental health, which is often ignored or sidelined, while they are expected to carry on functioning to perfection.
Along with the silences and secrets and mysteries that are part of the plot lines in the works we discussed, it was clear that the biggest silence and taboo is the issue of mental health itself, and specially mental health of women. The writers stressed the need to pay more attention to women’s mental health, which is often ignored or sidelined, while they are expected to carry on functioning to perfection. It is a double burden of an illness with the lack of treatment and help. There is a greater need for families and societies to accept, understand and seek support for those whose minds are on a different journey, so that they too can feel loved, and find help, without shame and judgment.
Kiranjeet Chaturvedi is a trained sociologist and a well-known author. She also facilitates writing workshops and courses run by Write & Beyond.