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An unflinching account of seven years of mental illness

Swadesh Deepak’s tormented memoir, I Have Not Seen Mandu, is that rare book that tears into your very soul

Author Swadesh Deepak (Credit: Soumitra Mohan)

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Jerry Pinto, translator of Swadesh Deepak’s memoir, I Have Not Seen Mandu, begins the book with the dedication: To all those who have suffered from mental distress/ and to all those who have loved them.

This should have been warning enough as I turned the pages. In one word, the book is "painful". It stabs at your heart and gnaws at your emotions with every sentence. I Have Not Seen Mandu chronicles the seven long years of depression that Deepak suffered. It attempts to lay bare the prickly world of madness and despair where the writer found himself trapped. In his own stark words: ‘seven years of exile into a bottomless dark pit’.

Deepak, the writer of eight collections of short stories, two novels and four plays in Hindi, was a recipient of several awards, including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award 2004, for his writings. But the writer of I Have Not Seen Mandu is not the award-winning and celebrated author. This Swadesh Deepak is a different man—one who chooses his words almost gingerly. He places them on the pages in an uncertain manner. For instance: ‘There is no cure for my malaise, nowhere in the world. The green shoots have dried up in my brain. No birds either.’

This hesitancy makes the writing raw and vulnerable and also gives it the power to pierce your soul—something that as a reader I was most unprepared for. I had to close the book from time to time to breathe and to digest the hurt that the pages overflowed with.

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“His voice echoes from the bottom of well… I have not read anything like this, so completely naked, so dependent on the kindness of strangers, so raw,” writes Pinto in his introduction.

The book was first published in 2003, in Hindi, after being serialised in the monthly Kathadesh. This searing account of a battle with mental illness is the closest one can get of a first-hand experience of the pain a “fragmented” soul goes through. Or is one really back? Deepak—who was bipolar, from which stemmed his serious bout of mental illness—emerges from his “exile” (what he terms his seven years of mental trauma) a frail man who has valiantly fought and kind of won a battle that is just quietly waiting for its chance, gathering strength to pounce right back and devour his victim once and for all. It is a momentary win. And Deepak, the sufferer, knows it only too well. His wife, Geeta, and his son, Sukant, too know this.

I Have Not Seen Mandu, by Swadesh Deepak, translated by Jerry Pinto; Speaking Tiger, Rs. 499, 360 pages
I Have Not Seen Mandu, by Swadesh Deepak, translated by Jerry Pinto; Speaking Tiger, Rs. 499, 360 pages

How else does one explain these painful moments: A young Sukant sleeping with an iron rod under his bed—"just in case" (Deepak was prone to physically hurt himself and in the process others who were trying to save him)—as his father knocks repeatedly on the door of the bedroom urging his son to let him in. Or, the family almost heaving a sigh of relief when they realise that 63-year-old Deepak has gone missing, perhaps forever. Mental illness is collective suffering. It stretches thin, the limits of the very love that engulfs it and acts as a safety barrier. No man is an island, and a victim of mental illness, in Deepak’s case, is perhaps an angry ocean—greedily and ferociously devouring everyone and everything in its wake.

In 1991, Deepak began sliding into severe depression related to bipolar disorder. His account of the period shifts cagily in time and place with a fragmented, collage-like quality. This English literature professor (he taught at Ambala’s Gandhi Memorial College) is an admirer of another tormented writer—Sylvia Plath—who maneuvered mental illness in her own way and ultimately took her life. Pinto’s own introduction to him was through Deepak’s son, Sukant, a journalist who contributed a candid essay on his father to the anthology A Book of Light: When a Loved One Has a Different Mind, edited by Pinto. The son openly admits, “I respected my father as a writer, but I hated him as a person.” Deepak’s mental illness leads to him repeatedly trying to kill himself, experiencing hallucinations, quick to unreasonable anger, losing his friends and art, and later even treated with shock therapy.

But beneath all this is the story of a lonely man—someone who is exiled in a dark pit where demons run through his mind and create a tsunami of conflicting thoughts and emotions. He is haunted by the memories of a woman—Deepak names her Mayavini—whom he had once insulted publicly. Now, according to the writer, Mayavini is exacting her revenge, bit by excruciating bit. Deepak in his madness hallucinates about her. She is present—almost like surveyor—at each exhausting step the tortured mind of the writer takes.

I Have Not Seen Mandu is a courageous book, and a courageous read too. If the reader is shattered by the words, imagine for a moment the trauma of the writer who has lived through it all and is now recalling it and putting it down on paper. Pinto’s words sum up the memoir perfectly: “It was said of Swadesh Deepak that he hunted his characters with a gun. I suspect that in this book, he has turned his weapon on his readers.” At one point in the memoir, Deepak asks himself: “Where did my happy days go?” There may not be any answer.

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