Bridging the chasm in mental health

A review of 'Beneath a Rougher Sea', Susmita Bagchi's novel about mental illness

Amandeep Sandhu

Noted Odia writer Susmita Bagchi’s latest novel, her first in the English language, Beneath A Rougher Sea, is a refreshing and important addition to the books in the field of mental health. In our society there exists a chasm right in the middle of the field of mental health. It is the chasm of ignorance defined by the walls of stigma. There is a great need for better communication and dissemination of knowledge to bridge the chasm between those who need care and the spaces where the professionals operate. Over the past decade or so there have been some accounts, texts and testimonials depicting the struggle of sufferers and caregivers. Yet, the third of the triad – the mental health care professionals – remain out of the ambit. Psychiatrists and other professionals, on whom the society finds it so easy to pin blame, do not narrate their stories.

Beneath a Rougher Sea  is the story of Aditya, a psychiatrist. The novel advances the narrative through dextrous use of Aditya’s medical cases. Given that it is about mind spaces and the plot line twists and turns with each case, a detailed summary will be a spoiler. The primary storyline is: Aditya is a successful doctor with private practice in Bengaluru. When he was a medical student, Aditya had feelings for Deepa. Deepa had married Naren and moved to London. Naren passed away suddenly. His young son Raj took the death badly. Deepa and Raj return to Bengaluru and Aditya treats Raj. Raj recovers. Deepa moves back to London. A while after all this, Aditya starts feeling a sense of loss and inadequacy. Does Aditya manage to recover? What does he do?

The strength of the writing lies in its simplicity and transparency. It is clear that behind the ease with language is the hard work Bagchi must have done during her extensive research on the symptoms, diagnoses and social aspects of each of the cases she depicts. Though the cases are complex and impact the world of the character, they do not overwhelm the readers. The narrative pull is in the reader wanting to know what happens to the characters and seeking resolution to their histories.

The range of cases is diverse. While Tanushree lives in a make believe world, Satish rues the loss of profits from his godwoman mother’s treatment which cures her of her mania. Das is one of the brilliant cases who manages not only his life but his work as a mental health activist by following the strict medicine regimen. Ali’s case is not solved because he abandons treatment. Smitha’s father worsens because his caregivers do not co-operate with the treatment process and listen to the doctor’s advice. Through the novel Bagchi walks the razor edge a psychiatrist walks in daily life. She ends up drawing out a balanced picture of the mental health profession. What comes through is the lonely battle each psychiatrist fights to keep the sanity of the world. Through dialogues between characters, without seeming forced, she brings to light the information patients and caregivers need to be able to handle their topsy-turvy lives and make decisions and break the shell of stigma around mental health.

There is a second narrative pull: now that Aditya is successful, what should he do next? He is married to Prachi who is also a doctor. She wishes that he expand his work, set up an institute, employ more doctors and experts. Aditya hesitates and silently even questions why Prachi and Das are being ambitious about him. This question lurks at the heart of the mental health practice in the country. That we have so few experts in the field and the issues and cases are growing exponentially, how can we, as a society, address the challenges in the field?

Beneath a Rougher Sea is also a deeply Bengaluru novel. It has a slightly lopsided but very healthy representation of different communities: Odias, Bengalis, Malayalis, and religious minorities. It is refreshing to note the story taking place in familiar locations like Koramangala and Bull Temple road. This too is essential in these times when not only our rural but even urban discourses are shrinking. In terms of style and language the novel works well. Though I would have sought to peep into Deepa’s recreated journal instead of it being summarized. I feel it would have created an interesting layer to the narrative. Overall, Beneath a Rougher Sea is a valiant effort and Bagchi deserves credit for bringing to light the untold side of psychiatric care in the society by featuring its heroes and basing a novel on them.

Amandeep Sandhu is the author of Sepia Leaves.