Indian Teens' Mental Distress Was Invisible, Invalid Until A Decade Ago

Writer Himanjali Sankar says her book 'The Lies We Tell' emerged from wanting to understand difficult mental states in a socially and culturally familiar context.

Mental illness no longer carries the stigma it used to have even ten years back. But it is tagged by many ambivalences, ranging from disappointment to impatience and annoyance at what is perceived as self-indulgence at some level. When those in greater control of their mental states come face to face with it, there is a sort of floundering.

I have many loved ones who aren’t strangers to mental illness—some are completely in the grip of it and other inhabit its shadowy borderlines. But as always, it is the written word that I turn to. It is vis-à-vis literature that I find I am able to come to a better understanding of mental illnesses—its implicit disconnect with so-called reality draws it closer to the world of fiction than that of fact. A world where judgement is suspended, where human rationality cannot penetrate.

Mental illness abides by its own rules—it has its own organic and deep relationship with a world that is natural and so honest that it’s beyond our framework of ethical understanding. The strong social selves that we have, which morph and adapt to accommodate different viewpoints, dissolve and then struggle to form themselves again when confronted with the un-logic that accompanies mental illnesses. It’s powerful. It’s literary. Its natural home is fiction, which allows for the jostling of every kind of truth.

The Lies We Tell has emerged from such a world; from this nebulous and fragile balance that is the human mind. Young adults don’t always understand or accept the mundane and obvious parameters that define the jaded socialised behaviour of adults. The young adult mind is by definition a zone of mental stress which is why it surprised me to find that no books in India for young people address mental illness. Paradoxically, while everyone knows of teen angst at a theoretical level it is something we resist accommodating in our personal lives.

The reasons for this become fairly obvious when I look back at my own life and childhood. Children in India, till 10 or 15 years back, weren’t allowed the luxury of intensity and angst. Children were cherished and loved, and objectified – they were given no space for dissent or passion. Children were investments for the future, and badly-brought up children brought shame on their families. Teens, on the threshold of adulthood, were expected to behave; mental distress and trauma were invalid, and therefore invisible.

Personally, I was the poster child of chubby goodwill – this was the general verdict. Everyone loved me because I was no trouble. I belonged to a joint family where children were officially meant to be seen, not heard. I was exemplary when it came to such diktats. Except when I was alone with my mother or one or two select family members, I followed a personal vow of public silence, possibly stemming from a lack of confidence. But I wasn’t sullen. I was always smiling and nodding, which was perfect for those who prefer speaking to listening, a more prevalent category of humans than one sometimes suspects.

I believe I was a kind onlooker who withheld judgement on the stream of humans who passed through my life and reserved my deepest engagement for literature. It was the best way of making sense of the world. All those words—I tried to fit them into my life, into the crevices that wanted to understand what our time on earth was all about. And while I was a compliant, reasonable child, what I loved best was a damaged mind, thoughts that soared beyond reason and tumbled into zones that were incomprehensible to an organised world. The characters that drew me most – and no surprises here – were strong women, silent but willful, inwardly rebellious. By the time I was a young adult, I was self-identifying with distant icons from faraway lands – from less popular ones like Hester and Offred (The Scarlet Letter and The Handmaid’s Tale, respectively) to the more obvious ones like Jo from Little Women and Dorothea from Middlemarch.

In recent years, far away from those childhood days, I’ve read many wonderful Young Adult novels, by non-Indian authors such as Jennifer Niven, Patrick Ness and John Greene, which have captured the turmoil of adolescence and late teens through mental illnesses. I felt an immediate connect with some of those books – they spoke to many jumbled thoughts in my head and clarified them. It’s not so much a lacuna in Indian publishing that I was trying to address with The Lies We Tell as much as telling a story that I’ve seemingly always waited to tell, in some form or another. I wanted to understand difficult mental states in my own way – in a socially and culturally familiar context.

But, still, The Lies We Tell wasn’t an easy book to write – it often refused to come together, I didn’t have access to the minds of the young adults I was creating on paper, it was difficult to pin them down and make them real. I waded a little out of my comfort zone when I decided my protagonist would be a 17-year-old boy. Besides, I am far from my teen years with no idea of how it might feel to come of age in the India we live in now. Of course, I can claim some proximity to the passion and intensity of teen longing and angst because of my daughters, one of whom has reached adulthood and the other on the brink of it.

But more than anything else, it was Irfan. He grew in my head slowly over time, in strange and surprising ways – till I felt very sure I had to tell his story and let him out into the real world. This book belongs to Irfan and his friends and I hope I’ve done some measure of justice to their lives and the way they live and to the lies they must sometimes tell.

Himanjali Sankar is an editor and writer. The Lies We Tell will be published by Duckbill Books this month.