In her thick glasses, Sneha Rajaram looked deadpan as she listened to a question. She said “Doctors do not own mental illness,” in a conversational albeit annoyed tone, “I don’t know if I’m comfortable with how soberly they use it,” she added.
In a panel titled Madness as Metaphor, Rajaram (writer, and winner of the TFA awards, 2007) sat in conversation with Sandhya Menon (blogger, who writes about mental illness), Radhika P (researcher at NIMHANS), and moderator Nitya Vasudevan (course convenor at Badaku Community College) in a full room. The panel addressed several questions in their discussion, attempting to draw a line between madness and mental illness, and looking at representations of madness in art, literature and society.
They referred to using madness in the narrative. “A mad character can do anything. Madness is an excuse for a writer to do whatever they want with their character. Therefore it is a metaphor,” Rajaram said. Radhika said that mental illness is not always looked at pathologically in medicine. She referred to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and said that many medical textbooks like this give mental illness a range of meanings. Very often, depression or melancholy was linked to lovesickness. Despite there being symptoms and diagnoses for it, the description of melancholy in some medical texts were similar to what you’d find in aesthetic texts as well. “In these realms, the sadness is no longer pathological but often something you derive pleasure from”, she said. Within the realm of madness or mental illness, the distinction between pleasure and pain is not a clear one; very often the lines between them are blurred. “It feels good to be sad sometimes,” added Menon. Rajaram pointed out immediately that the word for suicide is “khudkhushi.”
Rajaram described a night she spent at a psychiatric casualty ward. She remembered a patient there who would wake up at night yelling. However, in the morning, the patient refused to take her medicines and was restrained and force fed. Rajaram said, “The patient was by far my favorite. She was mad and cool”. In an attempt to define what is insane or mad, one often wonders if it is different in writing, and in everyday life. Rajaram’s anecdote suggested that it was. It changed quickly from the writer’s romantic idea of it at night to a doctor’s ‘practical’ definition in the day.
There is a manner in which language must be used responsibly. Menon said she is careful when she writes about madness, especially in a country where mental illness is stigmatised. She was diagnosed with Bipolar and Borderline Personality Disorder and writes about dealing with mental illness in her blog, The Restless Quill. “I neither want to glorify or rationalize my illness. I write with caution now, though there is less freedom in that,” she said. She also said she had never considered using a medium other than writing. The immediate responses allowed by blogs, and Twitter, made it almost overwhelming when she started getting stories back from her readers.
The audience seemed to be asking a collective question by the end of the discussion. Who is “mad” and how mad is “too mad”? How do you differentiate between craziness or eccentricity, and mental illness that needs attention? The panellists criticised the way a part of the medical community defines mental illness and “functional behaviour.” In Rajaram’s case, she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder when she was 20. She was later put on medicines after she did not brush her teeth for two years. Menon said that she felt like her illness was a burden to her family. Rather than getting annoyed with them, she felt guilty because she thought she was making their lives more difficult. She said that mental illness can often be dealt with Aon your own, but very often it becomes stronger than you and is self-defeating. That is when you need help.