Review: Shreevatsa Nevatia’s ‘How to Travel Light’

A person with short black hair, glasses and stubble leans against a balcony railing, looking down. We see the orange walls of a room behind them. Trees and plants grow around them, and there are buildings in the background.

If there is a central theme to this book, it is how misunderstood and isolating the individual’s mental health experience can be in a society that is so ready to attach stigma.

While casual readers may be tempted to pick up How to Travel Light by Shreevatsa Nevatia in part due to its clever title, it must be noted that the book is neither a ‘how-to’ or a travelogue, despite the fact that the author (forcibly) embarks on a significant journey about two pages into the first chapter.

This is because in February 2016 at 2 am, Nevatia reveals he was taken from his home by eight people, strapped to a stretcher, and brought to a mental health facility, after experiencing a manic episode earlier that evening. He was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2007, and this was the culmination of a decade-long situation during which he periodically went off his lithium medication, exacerbated by the insomnia and substance abuse that usually accompanied the onset of his mania.

We soon find out that this is not the first time he has been forced into a mental health institution. As Nevatia skips rapidly across the minefields of memory in subsequent chapters, the details emerge with unambiguous clarity, each episode of difficulty or despair because of his mental health laid out in precise language and wry humour.

In 2007, with the advent of social media and the creation of a Facebook profile, the book goes into considerable detail about the amplifying effect of online behaviour on incipient mania, culminating in a binge of 56 posts by the author on 28 February 2016, the harbinger of his subsequent 2am ambulance ride that starts off the book.

Bipolar disorder is defined by the Mayo Clinic as ‘a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings that include emotional highs (mania or hypomania) and lows (depression).’ For Nevatia, it often manifests as his self-exaltation in godhood; as the Second Coming, as Krishna, Shiva, Vishnu, Kalki — followed inevitably by rage and a depressive trough.

He traces the inception of this self-mythologising back to a childhood spent watching popular television dramas of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. There is also the presence of a grandmother who was called ‘Sati Dadi’ owing to the ‘spirit possession’ she undergoes, from which the author infers ‘that these visitations were, in fact, the manifestation of a mental affliction that was genetic.’

From the very first page and appearing regularly through the book, the longing to be with or to become these two symbols of his childhood are not insignificant portents whenever he is about to crest the wave of another manic episode.

Further along, another crucial moment emerges when the author presents the situation and circumstances in which he was sexually abused as a child by an older male relative. As Nevatia says, ‘My adolescence came to be subsumed by a single, stubborn question — “Why me?”’ In the twenty years since, the author says his attempts at forgiving his abuser have failed dramatically.

There is frequent suicidal ideation interspersed throughout the book, but one chapter in particular details a graphic scenario of suicide-as-revenge. This may be triggering for some survivors to read. However, I could perhaps understand that this was the author’s way of using language and imagination to directly address his pain and trauma when others would not, particularly when we see how, heartbreakingly, he is later told by a doctor that his account of being abused as a child is a construct, that he was a consenting partner because he never said no. Another doctor suggests he join a gym when he brings up the subject of his abuse.

The cover of How to Travel Light. Yellow text on a blue background, with a red glass pill bottle on the left

Credit: Penguin Books

If there is a central theme to this book, it is how misunderstood and isolating the individual’s mental health experience can be in a society that is so ready to attach stigma. Some of the mental health professionals and institutions that Nevatia crosses paths with are not exempt from these dismissive attitudes towards his condition, ranging from ignorance to gross incompetence all the way to actual medical malpractice. Some of his recorded interactions with doctors and therapists take on an almost farcical quality when he tries being vulnerable and honest.

‘Aditi, who was training to be a doctor at Starlight, once asked me, “Is there anything you’d like to talk about?” I said, “I’d like to talk about loss.” She was quiet for some time, and then said chirpily, “We have a lot of activities here. I’ll ask Jayant to give you a part in that skit he’s directing.”’

The book is most direct in its indictment of those facilities for patients that required mental health treatment which did double-duty as de-addiction clinics, infantilising and separating their patients from any form of agency. The other patients that he meets in these places all have their own stories of institutional apathy, which prior to the passing of the Mental Healthcare Act in 2017, did not empower the patients with the right to provide advance directives in how they would prefer to be treated in the event of institutionalisation.

Further, since mental health was not covered by insurers, an illegally confined patient calls out the systemic imbalance in a conversation with Nevatia, ‘Who do you think they’ll listen to, the “deranged” patient or his adulterous father who’s coughing up the cash?’

In his book, Nevatia has acknowledged how it is only through the financial and emotional support of his parents, sisters and close friends that he has been able to make progress towards recovery. When he acknowledges through anecdotes how the contributions of each person have helped him manage his condition, this book comes into its own as a roadmap for those future readers who could possibly be reading in an attempt to better understand how they can be supportive towards their loved ones who have also been diagnosed with a similar condition. For those attempting to fathom their own situation, this book is a much more accessible and immediately personal narrative to read, which ends on a note of comfort and acceptance.

According to the National Mental Health Survey of India 2015–16, 15 crore Indians require mental health care at any given time. If anything, these statistics are on the conservative side and likely under-reported due to social taboos. Additionally, 80% of people living with difficult mental health do not receive any treatment despite the presence of illness for more than 12 months. The mental health workforce in India includes 0.3 psychiatrists, 0.12 nurses, 0.07 psychologists and 0.07 social workers per 100,000 population, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates. These are staggering statistics in a country of over a billion people. And yet, there is a dearth of first-person accounts like How to Travel Light, which is an unhesitatingly frank, warts-and-all look at the ethical and morally ambiguous situations we often find the author in, because he lives with the ‘oscillation between mania and depression’ in a world that is notably reluctant to co-exist with those who exhibit these symptoms. We empathise with Nevatia even when he is, through his own admission, ‘an unreliable narrator.’

Nevatia writes, ‘When you’re manic, you do everything to avert the end of the world, but when depressed, the pieces of your apocalypse prove too heavy to pick up. Depression seldom gives your hopelessness a narrative, and without a story to tell, your improvisations, you find, are as awkward as the smiles you manufacture.’ However, Nevatia does have a story to tell and he does so powerfully, in the process teaching us one way in which one can eventually begin to heal is through candour and the sharing of stories.

Nevatia says that while ‘lithium, therapy and the kindness of my family and friends had helped me arrive at a point where I could think without interruption’, it was ‘by finding myself in books and films, I made sense of my condition.’ Scattered through the book, we find allusions to literary, cinematic and mythical surrogates, be it Bradley Cooper or Apu from Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar, Kundera or Knausgaard. In these stories he found solace and perhaps a sort of redemption in identifying with those central characters who seemed to be like him.

Writing this book has been cathartic for Nevatia, by his own admission, though living with bipolar disorder means continually learning to manage the condition through life’s constant vagaries. Through his keen recollections, he has provided testimony of a life lived in the intensities of mania. In his doing so, How to Travel Light is a map illuminating the hitherto relatively uncharted states of bipolarity. And while Nevatia warns us that ‘Here be dragons’, he is also more Virgil than Dante, guiding us towards changing attitudes towards open discussion of mental health in India.

Sharon Irani lives in Bombay. She is the co-editor of Dissent: The Helter Skelter Anthology of New Writing Vol. 6.


Featured image credit: Upasana Agarwal