Book Review


Review of A Book of Light: When a Loved One has a Different Mind, edited by Jerry Pinto

Wafa Hamid

Publisher:  Speaking Tiger

Genre:  Short Stories, Fiction, Autobiography

Extent: 175pp

Price: Rs 399

A Book of Light: When a Loved One has a Different Mind by renowned author and critic, Jerry Pinto, is more of a sombre ballad. Taking us through a journey which is ‘harrowing yet moving’, the book isn’t your usual run of the mill short story collection. Grappling with questions and experiences surrounding mental health, the stories or rather accounts with their dark humour and true to life descriptions leave the reader overwhelmed and affected even after one has finished reading. However, underneath all the grief and loss, these very accounts and narratives, by being about the ‘same hurts and vulnerabilities’ through ‘the terror and majesty of love, the bleakness and unexpected grace of life, the fragility and immense strength of the human mind’, lead us to light.

The book, a collection of thirteen short stories written by multiple authors, and edited by Jerry Pinto, is a follow up to Pinto’s debut novel, Em and the Big Hoom published in 2012 which, through its autobiographical elements, talked about his mother’s bipolar disorder and its impact on the family. Em and the Big Hoom prompted, as Pinto describes in his introduction, a pouring in of many similar stories by the readers, some of whom were willing to share it with the world.  The book grapples with the much stigmatized reality of mental illness and vividly captures all the complexities of negotiating loss and grief along with moments of sheer happiness and love.

The stories sway between emotions of terror and the pain of describing the son who kept an iron rod under his bed in case his father came back, to those of the ‘clumsy kindness’ of friends or ones that leave people wondering whether they what they did was enough. It is a coming to terms with ‘loss’. This very loss, although painful, can at times also lead to reconciliation or realizing the strength of relationships and bonds of love.

At the very beginning Pinto admits that this book is limited, aimed at and talking about middle-class people and families as the primary medium of writing is English, which comes with its own set of privileges. By no means does the book claim to represent everyone’s stories, experiences and opinions. He also dwells on the reason behind choosing the subtitle ‘When a Loved One has A Different Mind’. Rather than being a necessity of political correctness, it acknowledges the violence of language itself.

Although the book leaves one overwhelmed, its true power lies in the many unanswered questions it leaves us with. Isn’t the very terminology used for mental ‘illness’, the disorder, disease, etc, a kind of verbal violence in itself? By bracketing people, who go through such experiences in life, aren’t we othering and alienating them? Can such a person be seen as lost to us at all? How do we not stigmatize psychological illness? Even though it does not provide us with all the answers, the book surely leaves us on a path of recovery. One way of answering these questions is to start a conversation, to empathize in this world filled with apathy, to listen rather than being caught up in our self-absorbed struggles.

It presents us with an insight into the varied perspectives and experiences of care-givers, family members or loved ones who have experienced a shared grief and reconciliation. The reader isn’t expected to agree with all of the responses in the accounts, neither is she/he burdened with reflecting all of the experiences and emotions in the act of reading. However, instead of silencing these responses, the book, by virtue of providing a space to voice them, acts as an important landmark in starting the conversation. It provides a coming to terms with loss, grief as well as memories both good and ugly. Rather than alienating or ‘exorcising’ people with mental health struggles and their families, this is an attempt to present them as loving people; people who have themselves suffered but nonetheless are not solely defined by such afflictions. The book makes one reflect at the reason why mental health and illness is such a taboo and is seen as much more of a trauma than physical disease. However, it does not stop there and suggests that maybe all that is needed is ‘someone to open a window somewhere’. A compelling read, well crafted that leaves you revelling in the richness of its experience.

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Wafa Hamid is currently Assistant Professor, Department of English at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi.