Book review: ‘No Straight Thing Was Ever Made’ normalises talking about mental health

Through ten essays, Urvashi Bahuguna takes you from gentle spaces to really uncomfortable ones and from frustration to cautious hope.
Shadow of side profile of a person standing against a read background
Shadow of side profile of a person standing against a read background
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In her new book of essays, No Straight Thing Was Ever Made, poet, and debut memoirist Urvashi Bahuguna writes with striking honesty about the ways in which she’s been dealing with everyday life, work, love, friendship and other relationships (with herself and those around her), following “six years of being immersed in the language of mental illness, coping and recovery”. And there’s much that feels familiar in her journey to those of us dealing with some form of an invisible illness.

These self-aware, sometimes indulgent (in a good way) essays on mental health written by a woman author hold special significance, as they challenge the cliches that exist in popular culture around the ‘woman-with-mental-illness’, even as the person dealing with the illness takes charge of her own narrative. The very fact that such a book exists, the space for someone to speak like this exists, was somewhat baffling to me at first, when I received the book.

Urvashi’s book of essays does the difficult job of introducing living with a mental illness and dealing with it with the help of doctors and therapists, to those who may not know much about it. It goes further by normalising, freeing up and making space for others, especially women, who come after her to find space to speak and write about it, to leave a record.

In these ten essays, Urvashi goes from gentle spaces to really uncomfortable ones, from making peace with a ‘new normal’ to disconcerting facts about suicide, from frustration to cautious hope. She does this relying on facts sometimes, and most times on great writing – her own and that of others. As a result, the essays feel both urgent and immersive.

While reading about someone’s experience of panic while snorkeling, you hardly expect to laugh. At your own self. Yet, that’s what I did while reading Urvashi’s experience, because just a few months ago I went through the exact same thing. It was a laugh of reassurance, of incredulous ‘so it’s not just me?’, and of feeling seen. And there are several such moments in the book that are likely to make others feel seen. Especially, when Urvashi writes with candour about being concerned with weight gain while on medication, about feeling lonely while in a relationship, about the guilt one feels while saying one is unwell and is unable to show up for a loved one.

The essay on virtual spaces, ‘In the Weeds’, for instance, is something all of us dealing with questions of who and what to respond to on social media can relate to. ‘In Waiting for Sunbirds’, as Urvashi writes about birding and gardening, one can almost sense the relief it gives her, for even the writing feels comfortable, there’s a palpable shift in the tone. Given what has unfolded over the last year with the pandemic, so much of what’s in this essay feels true for a lot of us, even on our ‘good days’. On the beauty of returning to nature and being rewarded with a childlike sense of wonder.

Urvashi’s book, however, is not an easy read. Not only are you reading about someone’s most difficult days, but if you’re on a similar trajectory, you want to both read and stop. (There were days when I had to pause and lose myself in K-dramas, before I could return to the book.)

Published by Penguin, No Straight Thing Was Ever Made begins with a chapter on family, and ends with a meditation on the possibilities of a future family. Urvashi’s parting words, the last lines meant for her possible future offspring, also feels like a reassurance to anyone that’s journeyed with her through the book, and has a somewhat similar story.

‘…a worthwhile existence is attainable and within your reach,’ she says. Is it not in this hope that we wake up each day, despite it all?

Krupa Ge is a writer based in Chennai.

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