There was an article recently on the BBC website, reporting on research that had established that writers are more prone towards suffering from depression and other psychological maladies. What the BBC deserves credit for is highlighting the need not to romanticize people who suffer from it as reclusive geniuses, whose suffering is a vital but harmless component of literary output. I don’t claim to possess even a semblance of literary prowess, but I can’t deny that by nature I am a writer; and like many I have to endure periods of crippling depression from which there are two escape routes: writing or suicide.
Here’s the catch-22: I enjoy writing, but I don’t enjoy being depressed. And yet a necessary precondition for writing is for me to be depressed. Life would be relatively simple if I could summon at will, some prose, every time I sensed the weight of existence squeeze me till my body became rinsed of its spirit- but its not that simple. Writing isn’t a magic switch that you can turn on or off. When I can write, those are rare, treasured moments. Moments when, as if by divine inspiration, I conceive in flashes, forms of expression that lift the weight of darkness from my soul.
Although those moments are rare in proportion to periods of depression, there is a possibility that the path of despair opens up to me, leading to some form of insanity. That, I believe, is the ultimate destination for those whose lives have become too monumental a burden- so monumental, that they suffer total psychological disintegration. In the community where I live, I have seen real-life manifestations of this. Some examples come immediately to mind: Most recently there has emerged a white man who dresses in shalwar kameez and walks up and down the same stretch of road the entire day, picking up random pieces of debris which he collects in a box. The very first time I saw him, I saw him picking a piece of litter up off the street- and then another, and another. And I thought, what a wonderful man this convert is, putting into practice the prophetic injunction to care for one’s environment. But then I encountered him at close quarters. Two things make this encounter memorable:
1) He reeked of urine.
2) He kept asking how Ahmed was.
On all subsequent occasions I have encountered him, he has been just as eager to speak to me about Ahmed and just as capable of filling space within a 10 meter radius with the aroma of Eu(rine) de toilette.
Long before him there were other bone fide mentally ill citizens in our community. There was, for example, the man who thought he was a car- and at any moment he saw one, would run along with it, making beeping noises as he did so. Or the lady with a hunched back who, like the white convert man, would collect random objects from the roads. Her case was a particularly tragic one as she was (and probably still is) the victim of taunting by schoolchildren. You would shout ‘tin-lady’ and it was as though she had been literally pre-programmed to react by screaming ‘fuck of, i’m not a fucking tin lady!’. Every child in the vicinity would realise this, and the taunts would grow exponentially, until practically everyone in the neighbourhood knew who the tin-lady was. This culminated in moments when hundreds of wretched little voices shouting ‘tin lady’ would assail her. And the more those voices grew, the angrier she would get- which would only make those voices grow louder, and the more vehement her denials about being a tin lady would become.
At this time I also knew two perfectly normal gentlemen. They were just ordinary people, not quite family friends, but there was a level of familiarity between us that we would always stop to talk, laugh; and in general take an interest in one another. However, if you see these men today, you will seem them walking with arms frozen stiff by sides, wide-eyed, gaze fixed ahead, as though on something wondrous that the rest of humanity hadn’t seen. The look on their faces is a mixture of trauma, horror and deep resignation. They haven’t so much as acknowledged me in years. It is as though their souls had never been caressed by the warmth of humanity.
There are others too: among them, the schizophrenic; the man who stares at me intently and asks me frequently if I want to fight him; and the man who keeps asking the same questions, only to offer his own answers. And there are many more: too many I can’t recall; and many others I can, but whose actions and habits it isn’t easy to describe. I know too many people who- perhaps not yet mentally ill- are on the brink of that precipice; and it is rare to encounter someone who is not treading that terrible path.
This, then, is the alluvium in which I have grown. And it is a struggle not to decay into the soil that has nourished me, not to lose that fragile sense of self in a storm of dark thoughts. The mentally ill have already reached that formless, haunted destination, but there are many, many more, following in their path, whose spirits glow as dying embers turning to ash.
It is probably safe to say that my community does not have a disproportionately high number of literary geniuses, suffering for their art. No, their illnesses probably have external causes- they are products of the very peculiar environment in which they find themselves. But for me, it has long been a fear that these external influences (to which I am not immune) and the internal troubles I have to confront (by virtue of being an artist) will co-opt to form a force I cannot hope to resist; reeling me away to the unknown depths of mental disarray. I think it is no exaggeration to say that writing is the most potent weapon I have against the specter that looms over me. It is, however, an unreliable and often faulty defence; and so, like others, I know I must endure with courage and live with hope.