Society and mental health

Book excerpt: Beneath a Rougher Sea

Beneath a Rougher Sea is a work of fiction that is centered around mental health issues and the social norms and perceptions on this subject.

Susmita Bagchi

Aditya’s intercom buzzed. It was Aruna, his receptionist.

"Sir, your next patient is here."

Puzzled, Aditya glanced at the clock. It was 1 pm –time for lunch; there were usually no appointments at this hour.

"Who is it?" he asked.

"Her name is Tanushree Mallick, sir."

Tanushree! Yes, of course, she was Dr Rao’s referral. When he had been negotiating the crazy Bangalore traffic to get to his Jayanagar clinic that morning, Dr Rao, once his favourite college professor, had called to request him to see a patient immediately. Aditya knew he had a busy day ahead of him but he could not turn down Dr Rao’s request. He agreed to see the patient on his own time that afternoon. Usually this was when he spent time reading, documenting reports and putting his thoughts together on different cases. The time was sacred to him and he did not like to give up any part of it, except on rare occasions. Like today.

"But isn’t the appointment for 2 pm, Aruna?" he asked now.

"Yes, sir. But the patient has already turned up and wants to know if you can see her now. I told her you were busy but she is most insistent," Aruna replied in a hushed tone.
Aditya stopped eating his sandwich, put aside the scattered papers he was working on and quickly scanned his inbox. Dr Rao had said he would send the patient’s case history right away. He probably had, but the email was buried somewhere under a pile of junk medical mails. He’d have to search for it later.

"Send her in, Aruna."

The door opened and a strikingly beautiful young woman walked into the room and smiled at him.

"Good afternoon, doctor. I’m Tanushree. Thank you for accommodating me at such short notice. Dr Rao told me to be here at 2, but I have a very important meeting at 2:30, which I really can’t miss. It’s at the other end of town, in Whitefield. That’s why I took a chance and came early. It’s kind of you to see me."

Though he did not show it, Aditya was rather perplexed by Tanushree’s exuberance. Usually, his new patients were wary and apprehensive when they came to see him. He could not remember if he had ever seen anyone talk so much with a psychiatrist at their first meeting.
Tanushree sensed his bafflement and quickly asked, "Did I catch you at a bad time, Doctor?"

"No, not at all." Aditya pushed his lunch aside.

This did not escape Tanushree. In an embarrassed voice, she said, "Oh my God, I interrupted your lunch! I’m so sorry."

"There’s nothing to be sorry about. I just have a sandwich for lunch anyway. It can wait," Aditya replied dismissively.

"But…" Suddenly Tanushree’s face brightened. She pulled out a plastic box from the big brown bag she was carrying. Opening the lid she offered the contents to him. "Here, doctor, please have a piece of my walnut cake."

Aditya was taken aback. He was a reserved man even in his interactions with familiar people in social settings, and here was a perfect stranger – possibly a patient – offering him food. Aditya did not know how to react.

"Thanks, but I really don’t eat cakes or desserts," he finally mumbled.

But Tanushree was insistent. "Please doctor, have a small piece. It’s homemade. My mother-in-law herself baked it this morning."

Aditya curbed his irritation. To discourage further conversation on the subject he broke off a small piece of cake and put it in his mouth. Hmm, it wasn’t bad at all.

Somewhat abruptly, Tanushree too, picked up a piece of cake and started eating. "Isn’t it delicious? My mother-in-law makes the most amazing cakes. When Rajeev and I got married four years ago, I had fleetingly mentioned that I was fond of cakes. And ever since, she bakes something for me almost every week."

"That’s really nice," Aditya said, observing her.

"Doctor, how can you say it’s nice?" Tanushree was indignant. "My mother-in-law looks after the house and our young daughter. Should she really be putting so much effort into baking cakes? Isn’t it too much for an elderly lady?"

"You’re right," Aditya agreed easily, wondering why she had come to see him. Was she suffering from some mental ailment? What had bothered Dr Rao so much that he had insisted Aditya see her right away?

Tanushree’s eyes softened as she spoke. "Our daughter, Rini, is three years old. I have not seen a more active child! Forget me, even my husband Rajeev finds it difficult to handle her. Of course, he’s busy with his work; he’s a software engineer and spends 15 to 20 days a month travelling abroad. And my life is spent shuttling between Bangalore and
Chennai on work. So it is my mother-in-law who shoulders the responsibility of managing things at home."

Aditya waited patiently. Tanushree took a deep breath and then said, "Let me tell you why I’m here. I’ve come to discuss my mother-in-law’s health. Rajeev and I tell her to take it easy, but she doesn’t listen to anyone. Now she’s not in the best of health and has many medical issues. Still, she doesn’t seem to care. That’s why I go to Dr Rao occasionally to discuss her problems. But this time he insisted I meet you. He said you would definitely be able to help me."

Aditya was surprised. Why had Dr Rao, an experienced specialist, directed her to him? Why
had he sent her to a psychiatrist for what seemed like ancillary geriatric issues? Or did the mother-in-law show symptoms of a psychiatric disorder? Now that was a possibility.
Tanushree noticed that Aditya was distracted. "I hope I haven’t inconvenienced you, doctor," she said gently.

"No, not at all. But you’ll have to start from the beginning and tell me everything in detail."

"Sure," Tanushree responded swiftly. "Before we begin, could I wash my hands, please?"
"Yes, of course. There is a restroom near the reception. You can ask Aruna, she will show you."

The moment Tanushree stepped out of the room Aditya searched his inbox for Dr Rao’s email. When he located it, he immediately clicked it open. It was important to know what Dr Rao’s concerns were before discussing her mother-in-law’s health with Tanushree.

The introductory mail from Dr Rao was brief. It said there was no problem with Tanushree’s mother-in-law.

In fact, there was no mother-in-law, no Rajeev, and no Rini.

Tanushree was not married.

Edited excerpt taken from Beneath a Rougher Sea by Susmita Bagchi with permission from Leadstart Publishing. 

White Swan Foundation