BENGALURU: I have been writing this column for more than two years. Since it’s called ‘Urban Bourbon’, it mostly dealt with idiosyncrasies of urban life –stray dogs, food, and mangoes. When discussing issues, like an expert pun-wallah I added a layer of sarcasm, sprinkled some veiled references, and wrapped it up with wordplay.
But today, I want to speak about a topic that is getting louder in public space – mental health. Discussions always help, but one gets a feeling they are being driven by the experts at Whatsapp University. The most common solution offered is “Pick up the phone and call a friend”. But most of my friends are ill-equipped to discuss mental health. It’s like saying “You have a lump on your neck? Go see a barber!”. What are friends for, you ask? Certainly not to discuss important mental health issues.
In films, the hero’s friends would inspire him, question him, even give their life for his cause. My friends look at life as a series of ‘beer treats’. Like me, my friends are hedonists who live for life’s banal pleasures. I am no expert, but I think mental health requires the intervention of professionals, not my friends who possess the sentimental repertoire of ant-eaters. If I spoke to them about mental health, they would quickly steer the discussion to cricket, and then expertly maneuver it to a barter between beers and herbs!
There’s also the vocabulary around mental health. The word ‘mental’ in India is used as an umbrella term for every psychological and psychiatric situation. “Are you mental?” is an insult our teachers used for decades. The depiction of mental health patients in films hasn’t helped, either. When Kamal Haasan went through turbulence in Sadmaa, we attributed it to another feat of ‘good acting’.When Salman Khan in Tere Naam is shown to suffer from mental illness, he is chained.
Then there are the words associated with mental health like ‘depression’. Words that begin with the letter ‘d’ cast a long shadow – death, decay, drugs, destruction, dystopia. Honestly, a better word – a lighter word– could have been chosen. When ex-Australian captain Steve Smith was caught illegally taking instructions from the dressing room, he referred to it as a ‘brain-freeze’ – a cute word that made people smile and move on.
The word ‘depression’ doesn’t do itself any favours. And we Indians are experts at inventing words. Take the word ‘cushy’ that comes from the Urdu word for happiness. ‘Chutney’ is another delightful word, as is ‘gymkhana’ – which strangely does not refer to the food we eat at the gym. We have also adopted the tongue of our colonisers and adapted it as per our convenience. We ‘pass out’ of colleges, and have no qualms asking friends to ‘enter from backside’.
As long as we use words like ‘depression’ and ‘mental health’, the images they conjure will be of Salman Khan chained in an asylum, screaming at the heavens. We need new words, and new references. We are a nation with a billion people that speak hundreds of languages. Thediscourse around mental health will never change, as long as the vocabulary around it remains the same.(Views expressed are the author’s own)