Jerry Pinto's new book talks about people dealing with loved one's mental illness

Jul 24, 2016, 08:55 IST | Jane Borges

Jerry Pinto's new anthology tells the stories of people tormented by the experience of having loved ones with different minds

We are a couple of minutes shy of 6 pm when author Jerry Pinto walks into the café, seemingly dressed down because of the heavy showers lashing the city. With the rain witnessing a brief lull, the photographer steals him away for a few shots outside. Pinto returns a while later. "You should have warned me about the shoot," he says, and then stroking his fingers on his almost indiscernible stubble, jokingly adds, "I would have shaved."

A Book of Light took shape following the conversations that emerged after Jerry Pinto’s debut novel  Em and The Big Hoom, where he wrote about a family weighed down by the eccentricities of a bipolar mother. Pic/Atul Kamble
A Book of Light took shape following the conversations that emerged after Jerry Pinto’s debut novel Em and The Big Hoom, where he wrote about a family weighed down by the eccentricities of a bipolar mother. Pic/Atul Kamble

Later, when we are in the middle of our chat and Pinto tells us how his need for perfection could often be misconstrued as narcissism, he is quick to clarify that he is speaking about his writing. "When I am working on a book, the only thing I am thinking about is writing the best possible book there is," he says. "Because, I believe that when you produce good art, you produce great conversation."

Pinto’s semi-autobiographical debut novel, Em and The Big Hoom, which told the story of growing up in a fractured family, weighed down by the eccentricities of a bipolar mother, became the starting point of this conversation.

Four years on, this conversation has entered a larger space with his new anthology A Book of Light. Published by Speaking Tiger, the book is a collection of 13 real-life stories of people tormented by the harrowing experience of dealing with loved ones, who battle mental illnesses. It’s from the carers’ point of view, Pinto says.

The decision to gather these stories and compile them into a book happened accidentally, some time after the release of his first novel in 2012.

He recalls how the Q&A sessions that followed his book readings, often became a ground for "mass release of emotions". "People would stand up in the middle of the audience, as if it was this Baptist Church where you could confess your sins in front of everyone, and tell me their stories. A woman told me this chilling account about her mentally-imbalanced brother, who strangled his sister in a psychotic rage and caused her to develop a brain clot, making the sister bedridden for life. The woman would run to Pune to look after her brother, and then come back to the city, to take care of the sister," Pinto says.
Initially, the author remembers being overwhelmed by what he had unleashed. But, having witnessed how his own family struggled to retain its sanity around a mother with suicidal tendency, Pinto was also privy to where the angst was coming from. "The everyday heroism it takes to confront something like this in the family, when we have no systems to help, is remarkable," he says.

Over the next couple of years, Pinto emailed those he knew had lived with similar afflictions of a loved one, in order to put together this book of stories. "I did not want to tell a shocking story. I just wanted to say that right next door to you, there could be somebody who is going through this, so be sympathetic the next time," he says.

"I knew it was difficult ground; sometimes I was cutting close to the bone," he writes in the introduction of the new title.
When we ask him about this, Pinto explains, "When people told me their stories, almost 100 per cent of the time, I would tell them to go ahead and write it down for me. But, after they wrote the first draft, they were confronted with Jerry Pinto, the editor," he says.

"And, this was a stressful moment for me, because I was being presented with the raw material of their life, their pain and their most vulnerable moments. In trying to give it shape so that it could be read, I often had to ask uncomfortable questions. None of them came back and told me that I was trampling all over their life. But, I felt vulnerable doing it."

In the middle of all this, many people retracted. "One of the stories fell because the woman thought she was betraying the person she loved," he recalls. "But, what you have to see here is the bigger picture. You have to ask yourself if you will be reaching out to a family that is groping with a way to deal with a similar situation. So, the betrayal, if there is one, is for a worthy cause. And therefore, I would call it a noble betrayal," he adds.

The fact that people in India are uncomfortable speaking about the subject continues to puzzle Pinto. "Of course, there is a huge stigma attached to mental illness, mainly because its effects are so dramatic. But, I have a feeling that for all of us, any kind of illness is a form of defeat and failure. To admit to defeat, is to be vulnerable. And, our first reaction to vulnerability is to try and cover it up. We seem to feel that no pathology is ours, it all belongs to somebody else and we are clean, healthy and pure."

But, Pinto hopes that more people speak about this incomprehensible madness that pervades their lives, and more so, the patients themselves. "You may not feel better after talking about it. But, you will certainly suffer, if you don’t. If you are choosing to write or talk about it, you are choosing to say, that yes, I am wounded, but I am not going to be wounded forever."

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