Photography by Rumela Basu
There was an entire week that he went without a wink of sleep. During that time, he read 13 books simultaneously, an unimaginable, hedonistic indulgence that let language turn him on. There was also a time he butt out his cigarette on his bed and woke up in Dante's hell, and many a time, he has proposed his love to barely familiar women all who seemed perfect to his mind in that moment. That could be any writer you’d say, but in this case, it's a more serious condition—Bipolarity. So what does Shreevatsa Nevatia, debut author and editor of the National Geographic Traveller India, do with all that mania that comes with his condition? He makes light of it, and takes me along his journey that he chronicles in his amusing, also deeply educating memoir, How to Travel Light: My Memories of Madness and Melancholia.
Take me back to the beginning of writing in your life.
I think it began with the school essay. I studied in St. Xavier's Collegiate School in Calcutta. I hated exams like any child would, but the one exam I used to look forward to, was English Language. We had two exams – English Language and English Literature. The Language exam allowed you to write an essay. What did you do during your summer vacation…what would you do if you were the president of the country… of course, if you were the president, you’d just have a good life! I used to find great delight in trying to articulate what I felt, trying to give voice to what I saw.
Later on in life, the literature I read was very contemporary. I have not read Harry Potter. I know my education is incomplete [without it], but I’ve not. I like reading about worlds that are of course imagined but that locate me in the real. I got deeply interested in stories, and went for a writing workshop when I was 16. There, I found books and I found writers that I had absolutely begun to adore. It was through these things that I realised that the only thing I wanted to do was to write. Like any writer, I wrote some maudlin poetry when I was young. It was terribly mawkish and far too sentimental, and I’m not usually one for sentiment. But when you’re 16, your parents really want to know what kind of stream you’re going to get into. So my mom asked me who or what do you want to be when you grow up, and I said I want to be a writer. Mom turned around and said she’d failed to raise me as a child. But I wanted to make sense of how we think. Of who we are and how we live, and to answer the question, what am I doing here?
What inspired How to Travel Light: My Memories of Madness and Melancholia?
I wrote an essay around the time that the Rajya Sabha had passed the mental healthcare bill, and I found it very easy to write about my life. I usually abhor the first person but that essay came very easily to me, I found it therapeutic. I guess the one kind of reaction to the essay that a lot of people had, that really also annoyed me a little as much as it amazed me, was when people called it brave. I don’t think it’s ‘brave’ at all. I thought I was afflicted with a condition; most people knew I was bipolar and I found little discomfort in talking about my life as someone who is suffering from bipolarity. Penguin got in touch with me and asked if I’d like to pen my memoir. They thought I’d lived a life perhaps interesting enough if not entertaining to make for a decent book. And I was freelancing at the time. I wasn’t really bogged down by a job or anything like that, and I just told myself I’m going to give this six months and see what happens!
Where does this book take us?
It takes you to various places. It takes you to my childhood. I was abused as a child for four years. I talk about that because there are many mental health practitioners who feel that if you’ve suffered as a child, the chances of you being diagnosed bipolar later in life are greater. It takes you to happier parts. It talks a lot about the last ten years, when I was hospitalised and institutionalised. I have been depressed. I have been euphoric. I have been manic. I have been aggressive. I have thought I was Shiva, the God of Death. But I must reiterate, while I try and take my reader into the insides of my mind, I want my reader to also know that I make sure I spend a lot of time to make sure I’m entertained.. So despite the content being a bit heavy—this is about learning to travel light, how to discover lightness in order to be able to be happy, in order to be able to smile, in order to be able to enjoy things and shed that baggage.
I think that after 10 years with this, I like to travel physically more than I like to travel mentally. Because when my mind travels at the speed of light, there is no break that I can hit. I just accelerate and accelerate and accelerate until there’s an accident. And I get we’re all accidents waiting to happen, but that kind of accident is not very pretty.
But no matter what your mental condition, it is possible to have a good time. The responsibility of the people around a person with a mental condition is that they should allow the person to have a good time and that’s what I write about.
How is being bipolar in India different from being bipolar in any other part of the world?
Nobody’s bipolarity is similar to anyone else’s because none of us have lived the same lives. I’m informed by my socio politico cultural context. And this context is unique. It’s just that nobody really talks about it here, and that is the difference. I didn’t even know what bipolarity was when I’d been diagnosed. And because it came to me without much warning or knowledge, it was difficult for me and because of this context I think people in India take longer to come to terms with their bipolarity. I think if mental health gets discussed more in living rooms, people would perhaps be a bit healthier.
Take me through some of the most amusing portions of the book, almost going up in flames in Benaras to proposing indiscriminately to women…
Let’s talk about Benaras, and my bed catching fire experience. I had gone to meet this friend and while I am manic, I’m attracted to every woman I see, so there was this former colleague and we were having wine and the conversation was effortless and we laughed and joked. And though that didn’t lack decorum, what happened was that this entire thing was interrupted by this American journalist who had come to meet this friend of mine and he was a bit patronizing and I got very annoyed. I was fairly drunk and I came back and my mind was tired and I wanted to sleep. I was smoking a cigarette and I thought I had butted my cigarette in an ashtray, but I had actually butted it out in my bed because I was partly manic and partly drunk. And, I woke up and my back was burning and it felt like it was on fire for like, two hours! I got up instantly and I saw that it was all aflame and like an idiot, like a pretentious, complete asinine fool, my reaction to this was ‘oh my god, Dante!’ I thought it was the inferno and then I thought it was the crematorium. It took a lot of buckets of water to douse the fire but it was funny, it was a great story to tell people the next day.
And yes, I have proposed to a few women while I’ve been manic—because every woman in that moment seems perfect. Your mood is so elevated that there is, in your mind, no possibility of rancor, no possibility of disappointment.
“If you were bipolar, you would have a week where you wouldn't be able to sleep. You would have a week where you'd read 13 books simultaneously. I have been euphoric, depressed, manic.”
A lot of us think we’re bipolar. What is that red alert?
I think I can say this very safely, people who think they might be bipolar, that they have mood swings and they’re sad one day and happy another day, are actually not bipolar at all. Bipolarity is something very chemical; there is a chemical imbalance of the brain [which inspires the cover of this book]. If you were bipolar, you would have a week where you wouldn’t be able to sleep. You would have a week where you’d read 13 books simultaneously. Language would first be kind and generous and unanimous and allow you humour, and then language would just become oppressive because everything would be about you. And that kind of self centeredness is terrible.
There is no real cure to bipolarity, but I manage it with seven hours of sleep, medicines on time, and no pot. You just do the right thing and do the best and hope that mania does not arrive again. Mania is more destructive than depression because it makes you quit jobs, it makes you say ridiculous things, it makes you get on strange flights, it makes you go broke—it’s quite terrible.
What’s a tougher hat to wear—the writer or the editor?
The writer, for sure. You feel like an exhibitionist. When you’re an editor you can easily say, that hat doesn’t go with that shirt and there’s great ease when you say something like that. When you’re a writer, your hat doesn’t fit on your head most of the times. And it’s a bit uncomfortable until you get the swag right.
What are you currently working on and what is next?
I would love to write another book. I don’t have a concrete idea but I’ve wanted to write fiction for a very long time, so maybe I’d have a crack at that. Currently my only project is the National Geographic Traveller that I edit. I’d want to be able to enjoy these last few days of print and hopefully ensure that may be something can be saved!
Text Soumya Mukerji