When I saw Gujarat riot on TV, my whole world changed: Author Tazmeen Amna on mental health and Islamophobia

Tazmeen Amna is an author of Goner and The Incredible Adventures of Mr. Cheeks, both published by Penguin Random House India.

Tazmeen Amna is an author of Goner and The Incredible Adventures of Mr. Cheeks, both published by Penguin Random House India. Tazmeen, a graduate in English literature from Lady Shri Ram College for Women also holds an MBA degree but likes to think of herself as a visual and literary artist (mixed medium). She is no stranger to mental illness and is thus passionate about and committed to raising awareness about mental health issues. Tazmeen’s new novel GONER follows a young woman in her mid-twenties, trying to juggle the dark and intoxicating side of life, memories of an abusive ex-boyfriend, remains of a broken family, and mental health issues. 

Yameena Z, a student of Sociology at Miranda House, University of Delhi, and a freelance journalist spoke to Tazmeen Amna about her books, mental health issues, and Islamophobia.

“Home. Ugh, hurts to just say the word. I say it like it’s a fucking curse word, like it’s a part of some demonic scripture. Home never felt like home growing up. And when I did grow up, I moved out and now my house or precisely the shithole I reside in is NOT home. There is no home in my life. So why did I just say that word? I don’t deserve to use that word. Oh, man. This is making my heart race and I can feel the sockets of my eyes suddenly become hotter as tears start to spring to my eyes. NO. I CANNOT CRY RIGHT NOW. I DON’T WANT TO. Quick, let’s think about something else.”

An excerpt from Tazmeen Amna’s novel ‘Goner’.

Your book Goner was released in early July. What has your experience been as an author whose book came out in the middle of a pandemic?

Well, the pandemic has definitely dampened the experience. Since this is my debut novel, I was excited and had several plans of having launch events, etc. But it is what it is. Also, because of the lockdown and everything retail is dead, which changes everything.                   

Did you find starting a conversation around the use of drugs in your book difficult considering the stigma attached to it is not just Indian society but also in the Muslim community?

Yes, for sure. But after a point I was just like, f*ckit, you know? My social responsibility as a writer, to show what’s real and what’s happening in the real world is far greater than any stigma. I wanted to bring drugs to the forefront because you know what- almost everyone does them. It’s as common as apples. People will pretend and hush-hush around it. But everybody does it. Ask any college student from anywhere (I’ve studied in DU and Jamia both, so trust me, I know what I’m talking about). It’s just that I have the b*lls to say it without having to edit or sugarcoat it at all- all the things you sit and joke about in your living room, or do behind rolled-up tinted windows of your Honda City.

Was writing an autofiction a therapeutic journey for you and do you think the process of writing Goner was a search for closure?

Sweet, sweet closure. It was my way of saying goodbye to a certain chapter by gift-wrapping it and tying a bow on it. I had to revisit some really dark memories that I had hidden away somewhere, so yeah that sucked and wasn’t therapeutic at all. I had to go into the dark headspace of the character- No, I’m not that way in real life- I had to lock myself in a room and be completely anti-social to ignite the angst. To write bitter, angry stuff I had to be bitter and angry. So no, it was not a release. It was ugly, painful, and bloody- like childbirth.

As someone who has written and spoken about mental health issues at length, what is your opinion on detaching the mental health discourse from other social realities including caste, class and gender?

Mental health cannot be detached from these social realities; because our identities affect our mental health. The girl in Goner is acutely aware of her marginalisation as a woman, and also comments on belonging to a minority community. Hegemony aggravates depression and anxiety. There are simply no two ways about it. Goner is a feminist account of mental illness. The protagonist is all the more triggered because she is sick of being labelled, confined, and oppressed. She lashes back with a vengeance.

Did your socio-political identity play a role in your hunt for a mental health practitioner? And how, in your experience can mental health resources be made more accessible to people from marginalised communities?

Well, yes and no. For example, I would never be associated with someone who is anti-secular, anti-liberal, and communal. So all my therapists have known this from the get-go. My first sessions with any therapist have always included my anxieties and insecurities as a modern Muslim living in India, and I have asked them straight out whether they support the current communal wave ripping through the country or not. If yes, I’d simply get up and leave. I’d rather stay sick than have someone communal, anti-muslim, anti-woman, anti-minority, anti-gay, anti-feminist, or an animal-hater treat me. So that’s that. I’m an extremist in my own right in the sense that I’m an extremely liberal libertarian. I don’t believe in barriers and divide and bullshit like that. I don’t even agree with the nonsensical argument that human beings are a superior species-whoever said that, they probably never saw a Tiger in the wild. Hence, I don’t discriminate on any grounds or subscribe to any ideologies of hate, such as communalism which by the way, is what led to Nazism.

To answer the second part of your question- For starters, the communities themselves need to normalise the conversation around mental health, and, I cannot say this enough- be scientific about it. It is an illness, like any other, and can be treated. Community outreach should be done by Mental Health NGOs to perhaps educate marginalised sections about mental health.

You recently discussed how visuals from the Gujarat genocide triggered mental health issues for you as a child. What is your opinion on public circulation of images of brutality in the hope of garnering an empathetic response?

Oh, man. Anything worse than seeing those horrific images would be to not see them. The world needs to see the brutality that’s happening. So I can’t really say that the public circulation of images of brutality should be restricted or done away with. We have to at the end of the day, not just induce empathy but also show people the reality. They deserve to know the truth. They deserve to know what’s going on in the land they pay taxes in. Perhaps children shouldn’t be allowed near such content. For when I saw the Gujarat riot on TV, my whole world changed.

You have also recently discussed Islamophobia at length on social media. What made you decide to talk about it now?

Islamophobia has always been the elephant in the room in my life since I was a child. I grew up in a Hindu majority neighborhood, went to a school where I was one of the few Muslim students. It was only when I went to Lady Shri Ram, that I made my first Muslim friend. Later, when I went to Jamia Millia Islamia for my MBA, was when I first entered a Muslim environment. My parents were always liberal so at the time it didn’t really make a difference; the political climate was different. It was only after the Gujarat genocide that I became acutely aware of my minority identity. I faced a few communal comments in school, which is a common experience of every Indian Muslim, irrespective of the party in power.

When the divisive forces won the election; the memory of Gujarat riot was embedded in my head. When I saw the closest of my friends supporting them, I realised how communally insensitive my surroundings were. I had spent my life loving people who probably didn’t love me back. I had been living a life, loving a country that didn’t love me back. 

Last year when the anti-CAA protests began and I saw Jamia, my alma mater, that shook me. A close friend who has studied in Jamia with me came out in support of the Act. That rocked my world. I decided that I no longer wanted to be associated with Islamophobic, casteist, and bigoted individuals. The state wants Muslims to no longer have comradery with people from other communities and I think they have succeeded to some extent. However, now that I have a platform, I’m going to talk about these issues even if I have to face repercussions. Artists and writers have a social responsibility; I’m not going to ditch mine. 

The Incredible Adventures of Mr. Cheeks

You have previously written a children’s book, ‘The Incredible Adventures of Mr. Cheeks’. As a feminist, how do you hope to make your literature progressive and inclusive for your younger readers?

My ‘children’s author’ personality is completely different- It is rainbows, butterflies, ice cream cones floating in the air, bunnies hopping in a garden. A total escape from my dark, hyper-realistic contemporary writing one. Cheeks drives home the point that we must be true to ourselves, and we have to be ourselves in a world that doesn’t necessarily want us to be so. We must pursue the things we love, and follow our hearts. Cheeks also focused on how we are all equal and through its storyline, explores how barriers and differences were created by society and not by nature. There are lines in the book such as “Who decides what we can and can’t be?” and “Why must peacocks only dance and parrots only sing?”

I want to make my young readers be able to observe, question and have the courage to be the best versions of themselves, without taking into account other aspects of their identity.

Also, my next children’s book, the sequel to Cheeks, will have a she-protagonist. 

Yameena Z is a student of Sociology at Miranda House, University of Delhi, and a freelance journalist.