We all have a tenuous relationship with our past. Sometimes we look back at it with a deep sense of nostalgia, sometimes it is a clutch of happy moments, but there are chapters in our lives we bury and hide somewhere in the trenches of our memory. To be forgotten and never spoken about again.
Gayathri Prabhu’s memoir If I Had to Tell It Again bravely tackles a past filled with a lot of pain and remorse. The memoir is a look at the relationship between the author and her father (referred to as SGM in the book). A charismatic, gregarious, larger-than-life figure, her father was liked by his contemporaries but was also a man who was severely depressed and struggled with alcoholism all his life. A man who spoke about dying all the time but was never prepared for death.
The demise of her father serves as a starting point for the memoir. The author goes on to explore her relationship with him, which was often quite flawed and difficult. She lifts the veil off what could seem like a perfectly normal life to a stranger to lay bare something insidious.
Throughout the book we see her and her father at loggerheads on various things, be it social, financial or ideological beliefs. The failure of her father to accept his depression complicated matters further and affected the way the author deals with her own depression later in life. In what is a brutally honest narrative, she talks courageously talks about her own battles with depression, abuse, suicidal thoughts, miscarriages and divorce. The tone and manner of writing is very threadbare and light but each word is heavy with emotion. The no holds barred style of the narrative often makes it difficult to read because there are moments where you can literally feel her pain.
This story is not all dark. There is a part where Gayathri talks fondly about her dog Chinna who was her constant companion and was the reason that she did not give up hope and the will to live when she was at one of the lowest points in her life. The bond between her and Chinna is depicted beautifully and you can fathom the depth of their relationship by the way she writes about him.
The memoir is a deeply personal and a painful one which Gayathri has chosen to share with the world and even though you might have not experienced what she has, there is something in it that you will connect with. It essentially challenges one of the most treasured notions of a child that their parent is without fault. We, as a people, never discuss the frailties of our parents because it is such a taboo. Because we believe “Matha Pitha Devo Bhava – Mother and father are an embodiment of God”.
We are scared to talk about depression, we put up a façade to create a notion that everything is fine, like Gayathri’s father who was depressed but charismatic and like her (the daughter) who was depressed but extremely bright. We build invisible walls around us to protect ourselves from the obvious truth. Gayathri’s memoir breaks them down, which I hope was cathartic for her. It must have been a very difficult book to write.
The tale that Gayathri tells might not be a new one but it is definitely one that hasn’t been told often. Depression is something that is constantly brushed under the carpet, something that one is expected to “get over”. We need to talk about it more and Gayathri’s memoir should serve as a cautionary tale.
As Gayathri herself so poignantly puts it: “That is why, to be silent, I tell myself, would be to collude with the collective denial and discomfort about mental illness. I learnt this about child abuse as well – the most valuable advice is to talk about it, to tell someone, and even though the telling is just a start, it is needed. Otherwise, the shame is muted and the muted stays shameful, slowly snuffing out one’s spirit. This is why one writes a memoir. This is why one tells strangers. We carry the invisible, and perhaps the telling can honour it, make it real and seen.”
Published in 2017 by Harper Collins, If I Had to Tell It Again is available in paperback at Rs 299 while the Kindle edition is priced Rs 147.25.