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On Mental Health

| Updated: September 17, 2021 18:20

Let me start by telling you that I’m not qualified to speak about mental health from a medical or a psychiatric perspective. I also do not possess a degree in psychology, nor did I formally study it as a subject in my college as a young man. However, I do speak from personal experience, as also personal scholarship, and from distilled interactions with several qualified professionals over many years. The reason why I am going to speak about mental health is that there is a pressing need to remove the stigma around the subject, more so in our country. I’m going to look at the issue from a social and literary point of view. This is what I know best. 

I distinctly remember that the Hindi movie, Taare Zameen Par dealt with the issue of dyslexia a few years ago, which is a learning disability and is quite distinct from mental health. It is pivotal to know these differences and not to use ‘madness’ or ‘lunacy’ as a trope or even as a descriptive term. A former student of mine, Vismaiy, who passed away last year, suffered from dyslexia. When he took admission to BA (Hons) English many years ago, an applicant with a learning disability or dyslexia was not even considered ‘disabled’. So, he cleared the entrance examination and after a couple of months into the course, he trusted me enough to tell me about it. He asked if he could be given extra time for the term-end examination but there was no such provision then. Still, Vismaiy coped very well, he was brilliant and got excellent grades. He was socially well-adapted and one of the best that I ever taught. I would like to underline the fact that people with different disabilities do lead perfectly normal lives. The same is true of mental illnesses too.

I would like to first talk about John F. Nash Jr (1928-2015) who received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1994. He received it for “pioneering analysis of equilibria in the theory of non-cooperative games”. Do read about him on the Nobel Prize website.

John Nash, the mathematician, was a brilliant mind of the twentieth century.  In 1951, at the age of 23, he was already serving as a faculty member at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is famously known for the Nash equilibrium and his contribution to game theory is considered seminal. On the Nobel Prize website, he talks about his struggles with schizophrenia, which first appeared in 1959, when he was thirty-one years old. Do read about him there.


“Then gradually I began to intellectually reject some of the delusionally influenced lines of thinking which had been characteristic of my orientation. This began, most recognizably, with the rejection of politically-oriented thinking as essentially a hopeless waste of intellectual effort.

So at the present time I seem to be thinking rationally again in the style that is characteristic of scientists. However this is not entirely a matter of joy as if someone returned from physical disability to good physical health. One aspect of this is that rationality of thought imposes a limit on a person’s concept of his relation to the cosmos. For example, a non-Zoroastrian could think of Zarathustra as simply a madman who led millions of naive followers to adopt a cult of ritual fire worship. But without his “madness” Zarathustra would necessarily have been only another of the millions or billions of human individuals who have lived and then been forgotten.”

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1994, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1995

Taken from The Nobel Prize website.

John Nash’s contributions are considered so seminal that they do impact studies in marketing, management, politics, along with his original discipline, mathematics, and economic sciences for which he received the Nobel Prize. In 2015, John Nash also received the Abel Prize, awarded by the King of Norway, for his work on nonlinear partial differential equations. He is the only person to have received both the Nobel Prize as well as the Abel Prize. By the way, Nash has also contributed immensely to cryptography, where it is understood that he had anticipated many concepts of modern cryptography. The NSA (National Security Agency), US Govt website has letters sent by John Nash as part of declassified documents as exhibits to that effect.  So, in John Nash, we are talking about a ‘multi-disciplinary genius’. 

Sylvia Nasar wrote an excellent biography of him, A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, New York, 1998. Ron Howard directed a Universal Studios production, a movie based on Sylvia Nasar’s biography, in which Russell Crowe played John Nash. The movie, A Beautiful Mind, went on to win four Oscars, including the Best Picture of the Year (2002).

On a different but related note, I would like to talk about my friend and author, Amandeep Sandhu. In 2010, I had invited authors Amandeep Sandhu and Daman Singh through Professor Alok Bhalla to address my students at the University. They had spoken on Mental Health and the Indian Novel. Amandeep Sandhu, I understand, has lived through the horrors of the Sikh riots of 1984. But we have never discussed this directly. His novel, Sepia Leaves, (2008, Rupa Publications) is a novel that all of you should read if you have missed reading it. Sandhu’s latest book is Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines (Westland/Amazon, 2019), which is “part-reportage, part-memoir, part-contextual history” (“About Me” from Amandeep Sandhu’s official website ). In this column, I would like to draw your attention to Sepia Leaves

Sepia Leaves is about Appu and how he tries to deal with his dysfunctional family. It is also about his mother’s schizophrenia, the same illness that John F. Nash Jr also suffered from, about whom I just wrote above. The novel is also about how one copes with such life situations. It is also about how the protagonist and his father deal with Appu’s mother. One of the criticisms for the movie, A Beautiful Mind, on John Nash was that it left out some of the difficult periods of Nash’s life. Difficulty is a part of life. But how we cope with it and emerge triumphantly is more about hope. This hope is what makes life beautiful. Empathy and human understanding play a central part in this process. 

Amandeep says that he wrote Sepia Leaves “to find hope”. I would like to end with some quotes from his novel. And as a final note, by talking about my former student, Vismaiy, Nobel Laureate John Nash, and Amandeep Sandhu’s Sepia Leaves,  I wanted to tell you that each of them has been dear to my heart. For me, each of them is equally important. And yes, with empathy, understanding, and hope, we can lead good lives.


“Sepia Leaves is a true story. It is called fiction because the time line of the story is not entirely real and I have merged some characters while, in other places, I created more than one character from one person. Yet, the events and the emotional content of the story is absolutely and honestly true.”


“Our pursuit of happiness need not be shallow. Sepia Leaves is a book of hope. I survived, my parents found dignity, Mando came to Delhi and stayed with me, life goes on.  Life can sometimes be hard but we can resist being crushed. …By reading my book you have touched me, let me find enough material and time to keep writing and may you keep reading. Together let us make sense.”



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  1. Arin

    I read Naqvi’s article in mental illness. The problem is, he goes off on a tangent on dyslexia, and Tare Zameen Par, for a major part of the article, even though he does acknowledge that doesn’t count as a mental illness. My feedback to him would be to keep a tighter focus on his subject and not go all over the place. He could write a separate article just on dyslexia.

  2. Iqbal AZIM

    Not too often I read from Roomy Naqvi’s columns, but as I get fully engaged with words and expressions leading to ideas, whenever I happen to read his works.

    #MentalHealth is ever important issue in growing complexities of modern days societies, especially in advanced and matured economies. Views and thoughts expresses from academic’s perspectives – worth referring and reflecting in pure literary sense.

    Overall good coverage and quotes, but central idea of #MentalHealth finds its least weightage here.

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