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Attitudes towards mental health voyeuristic: Jerry

New Delhi: The realities of living and caring for a mentally ill person, in a country where public attitudes towards mental health issues are either voyeuristic or simply get swept under the carpet, has now been dealt with in a new fiction by well-known author Jerry Pinto.

"I wouldn`t call myself a mental health expert but I do believe our attitude towards mental health is voyeuristic," says Pinto whose novel "Em and the Big Hoon," vividly sketches out the story of a middle-class Indian family with a mentally ill member.

In the fiction published by Aleph, Pinto has used an unnamed narrator and brilliant humour to unravel the story of Imelda Mendes known as `Em` to her children who have to deal with her frequent mania and wish to die.

Along with their father in a one-bedroom-hall-kitchen Mumbai house they learn to confront personal and societal pressures, stigma et all interspersed with frequent hospital visits and changes in medication.

Even though the book is semi-autobiographical, Pinto says there are similar stories all over the country but families are reluctant to talk about them in public because of stigma associated with the topic.

The author recounts a visit to a psychiatric ward in a hospital recently where he found out that a 14-year-old had been administered Electro convulsive therapy (ECT) or shock therapy.

"Which means that in cities and metropolises here under-qualified psychiatrists are using a 100-year-old therapy that has been discredited everywhere else in the world. Can you imagine what it is like living in a town with paranoid schizophrenia?" asks the author.

Compared to other countries where there is a richer dialogue and discourse about mental health and where people discuss openly about confronting issues such as depression, Jerry Pinto says in India the subject makes its way into "something that is whispered and covered up".

"It is a complex, complicated thing and sometimes one does not know how to handle it. Once people begin to talk about it, mental health is just like say diabetes. It is just another problem of a bodily function that isn`t doing its duty where it is hormones or neurons that misfire. The only thing is that its effects can be a lot more dramatic," says Pinto.

The author hopes the book would catalyse discussion on the sensitive issue and make it as widely talked about like AIDS or tuberculosis or polio. The book which took Pinto over 25 years to write also touches upon the topics of family and relationships.

"The story is set in Mumbai but basically the issues it is dealing with is the same essentially the question of how to try and love someone who is different. It might as well be set in London or New York or Jhumritalayia," says Pinto.

The author, who quit his job as a scribe to take up full time writing is also finalising plans to translate the book into as many languages as possible to reach a wider audience.

Next on his agenda is selected prose of Adil Jussawalla and he is also looking at writing about Birsa Munda, a tribal from Jharkhand who started a movement against the British.

Apart from tutoring children in mathematics and fantasising about a job as a train driver, Pinto essentially says he would like to write more stories. "I don`t think we tell enough stories …we have not even begun to do our duty by the people around us. I think it is time for everybody to start telling their own stories I believe there is lots more biographies and auto biographies to come out we have such a rich varied culture," he says.

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