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Exploring Mental Illness through Literature: An Interview with Rosheena Zehra

Mental illness has always been a contentious topic in mainstream literature and media. Writing about it has meant either romanticising it or stigmatising it. Very few discussions have managed to balance the tight-rope between those two extremes, and victims’ voices have been lost in the melee. Writer and journalist Rosheena Zehra hopes to undo this deplorable state of issues with her book, ‘Dreamcatcher’.

“In the last five years, I’ve worked on three major pieces of writing, and incidentally, and definitely not consciously, all three have been about madness,” says Zehra, who works at The Quint. “Something about the twisted, dark aspects of our lives and personality has always fascinated me, and this fascination will continue to be manifested in my writing in the future as well. And since art for me is about reform, I will continue to use madness to comment on issues relevant to our everyday life.”

In her debut novel, Zehra has explored the pressures with which women are oppressed in a patriarchal society. “I wrote about a character who has lived her entire life as the conventional, normative society expects her to,” she says, “This kind of society is predominantly patriarchal, allowing less space to women, as compared to men, to express opinions or to make life choices. And it was this societal oppression that I have attempted to talk about in Dreamcatcher”

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Rosheena Zehra

Zehra’s protagonist, Zoya, is a girl tortured by the repercussions of her choices. While she makes one bold decision that changes her life, for the most part her personality is severely repressed. She is unable to experience emotions in her bid to be the perfect girl: she cannot feel grief, express anger or understand her desires. “For a girl like Zoya, her life has always been controlled by the diktats of the world around her,” says Zehra, “which inadvertently takes her down the alley of clinical depression and eventual madness.”

When asked if a woman’s experience of madness is especially difficult in our society, Zehra answers without hesitation, “Yes, very much so.” But, she adds, the illnesses of both genders are often dismissed or ignored. “It’s brushed aside as something inconsequential, or even supernatural,” says Zehra.

This reality is hard to argue with. There are still cases of mentally-ill women being taken to ojhas (spirit doctors) or being denounced as witches, instead of being given proper medical care. Even in homes which have been privileged enough to receive science-oriented education, the stigma persists.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect to the narrative of mental illnesses, however, is the one that stands at the opposite extreme. Illnesses such as depression are often glamourised. Multiple famed works of art, including ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath, have been accused of making mental illness look like an indispensable part of the creative process, thus somehow making it desirable. Discussions often interpret the illnesses of creators such as Vincent Van Gogh, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf and Plath herself as being an asset rather than a burden. This is quite possibly the result of the romanticisation narrative.

In Zehra’s book, Zoya specifically says in the epilogue, “I know what it’s like to be mad and to be in love with that madness. If this is schizophrenia, so be it.” Was Zehra not worried about her book giving the reader the same impression?

“I dislike my protagonist,” replies Zehra. “I do not want anybody to make the same choices as Zoya. I want her to serve as a warning against repression, and what society is capable of doing to us.”

Mentally-ill women are doubly oppressed in society, especially if their economic condition is unstable. Such women are more vulnerable to molestation, rape and ill-treatment, not to mention dire poverty and all its accompanying ills. It’s astonishing that in the face of this monumental reality, the mental illnesses of women are not talked about in society. The condition of mentally-ill men is similarly appalling. Under patriarchal society, apart from lack of access to treatment and medication, they have to deal with issues of toxic masculinity. To experience mental illness is to be thought of as ‘weak’ and ‘unmanly’, just as to express emotion is seen as being feminine. This is as much an issue of gender roles as it is about personal struggles. Does Zehra think that mental illness is a political issue as well as a personal one?

“I completely agree,” says she. “This is one of the concerns I am trying to draw attention to through my novella… There are several forces pulling it away from the attention it desperately needs in our country, and gender dynamics are definitely one of them. Additionally, in a country like India, detection and treatment of mental disorders are a luxury allowed only to the financially strong”.

“It’s definitely a personal issue (as well),” adds Zehra. “Yes, it is a medical condition triggered by chemical imbalances within the body, but that in no way means it’s not intimate, which is one of the reasons why clinically depressed people find it so hard to come out and talk about it openly. It also differs from person to person. Apart from some broad categories, its symptoms vary for different people.”

This ambiguity leads to much confusion surrounding the basic idea of what constitutes mental illness, especially schizophrenia. In popular culture, schizophrenia is frequently confused with multiple personality disorder. Zehra herself has mentioned that she is not medically qualified to diagnose depression. She has described the illness in the book according to her own experiences with it. Did she never fear that this could lead to the generalisation of a personal experience?

“There is no originality left in art anymore,” is Zehra’s rather startling reply. “We keep telling the same stories over and over again, but what differs is the manner in which we tell them. The moment we bring our subjectivity, our personal experiences, and our thought into it, we give it whatever little originality is possible in this world. And it is perhaps this originality that I consciously or unconsciously attempted to bring to the discourse of madness through my writing.”

It is an interesting defence of a tricky issue, no doubt.  Zehra’s book is written along the same lines: an interesting, subjective exploration of an issue scores of writers have struggled to deal with. The book may not be for everyone, but everyone will surely glean a thought or a lesson from it. The most significant of these is the need for dialogue about mental health issues in everyday culture.

“We need to talk more about depression,” says Zehra. “Things are improving and more and more people are coming forward with their personal experiences or (that) of their loved ones.” She points out that the problem with mental disorders is that they often do not have overt physical symptoms. “People don’t consider them to be a legitimate illness (as a result),” she says. “It is not uncommon to see them become a source of laughter, a comical object to be made fun of.”

The idea of a person suffering from mental illness needs to be normalised, considered as understandable as having a fever or a headache. “You can always call in and say, ‘Hey, I have a stomach-ache. Can I not come to office today?’” says Zehra. “But can we ever say, ‘Hey, I am feeling too sad to move out of bed today. Please give me a day off’? This is perhaps what needs to change.”

Dreamcatcher is an interesting, lucidly written novel. Zoya’s slow, almost imperceptible descent into what the normal, able population refers to as ‘madness’ has been delineated skilfully. The same subtlety is discernible in the descriptions of her emotional landscape.

“I will not be able to convey what I intended to through Dreamcatcher to everyone, but I am sure some will be able to grasp it,” signs off the author. “And the thought of latter is sufficient to comfort me and to take care of all fears and apprehensions.”


Written by Rushati Mukherjee & edited by Pallab Deb

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