Mental Hai, So What? The Yellow Wallpaper Raised This Taboo Subject More Than A Century Ago

Posted: April 23, 2019

The recent controversy around Kangana Ranaut’s upcoming movie, Mental Hai Kya? gets this author talking about The Yellow Wallpaper, a critical book that took up the issue of mental illness, far ahead of its time.

Recently, Rangoli Chandel, Actor Kangana Ranaut’s sister came out to support her on Twitter while responding to reactions against the poster Kangana’s latest movie, Mental Hai Kya? Rangoli claimed that the movie would raise important issues around mental health and that it was too early to judge.

The buzz or the lack of it around mental health (especially in women) makes one wonder whether it is all in our minds. The silence from important quarters when it comes to discussing the mental health of women is deafening. A few celebrities have come out and discussed their mental health issues and have received tremendous support from people. On the other hand, there are also people who still feel that anything related to the mind must be a figment of one’s imagination, which can be cured by a good night’s sleep. Can it be so easily cured? I wonder.

During such times, a book written long ago becomes an important read. The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), written by Charlotte Perkins, is a work of genius,  and provides a valuable, shattering insight into someone rapidly descending into psychosis, under the pressure of a restrictive, patronising, and patriarchal society.

The public dialogue around the mental health of women in the century when this book was written is slightly fuzzy. Though it is of no particular significance as to how and when I came across this book, it does seem important to me to share it here. I am part of a reading group, which I visit often to check out the suggestions for my next book to read. In one such group, I saw this mentioned.

When I started reading it, I was enveloped by a very strange feeling. It was as if the book called out to me. I simply had to pick it up. You know, many times I have this feeling that I can talk to inanimate objects. But, then who are we to decide whether non-human objects can send out any signals or not? There I was, with a copy of this book on my Kindle, on my Kindle app, and on my mind.

It is a short story, just about 31 pages long and I read it over a period of a few days. I could have ideally completed reading it in under an hour, but I didn’t. There is this thing about such books. You have this desire to extend the moment and keep at it till you can extend no more. That is what I did. I kept postponing the completion. It gave me a strange satisfaction. I wanted the short relationship to go on. The woman in the book was reaching out to me. I simply had to hold her hand for as long as I could.

The Yellow Wallpaper has haunted me, stayed with me, made me ponder over many concepts surrounding mental health like no other book has. It was written at a time when mental health issues did not enjoy the attention they seemingly receive nowadays. In that era, any discussion around such issues stayed under the carpet and physicians often suggested some rest (within the confines of a room, of course) and some social exclusion to solve the problem.

In the book, the protagonist is barred from writing, which seemed to have some positive impact on her ailment. The relatives figure that her writing was making her ‘go crazy’ and some solitude would do her good.

But, I was so taken aback by the way it ended (though I did guess it but I still wasn’t prepared for the impact):

Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!

The book has many such nuggets, which make a lasting impact and prove that narration is everything. As modern writers, aren’t many of us paying too much attention to characters and how they should be named and so on? With a nameless protagonist, Charlotte has kept the narration going with aplomb. Moreover, she has named the husband and his sister as John and Jane. To my mind, nothing could be more inclusive. John could be any husband and Jane, any woman with a task of taking care of a mentally unstable relative.

The contemporary awareness about mental health issues is much higher than in the decades before. In today’s world, the protagonist would have been immediately diagnosed as ‘Psychotic’ or ailing from ‘Post-Partum Depression’. Awareness about an issue often is the first step towards dealing with the consequences or its after-effects. We, as a society, tend to sweep all of this under the carpet and sit pretty. In today’s world also, many women reel under the effect of Post-partum depression.

Back to the book. The way the psychosis creeps up on the protagonist and finally engulfs her kept me hooked. The fact that the whole story is narrated in about 31 odd pages itself is proof that this book is a very important one in the scheme of things where it brings to light the plight of women in that era when nobody wanted to recognize mental illness.

Rating: When it comes to giving a rating, I feel, The Yellow Wallpaper has given me so much more than I can ever possibly give it. To show my appreciation for this short effort, all I can do is recommend this book to everybody I meet. Every human being must read this book.

5/5 – A five star rating, because it is a very important, must-read book.

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