It would be a travesty on my part to declare I was a fan of Mr. Bourdain or his work. I have never eaten his food, never read his books, have only casually flipped through some of his television work, and have been constantly envious of what seemed like his ‘perfect’ life. No corner of the world seemed too far for him. No food too exotic. No person too alien. He was an earth citizen with access to all of our lives, all expenses paid. The perfect life. The perfect lie! Bourdain’s death left me shaken. I wasn’t grieving the man. I was grieving my aspirations that a life like his could bring me ultimate happiness. Apparently, happiness is intrinsic. So, I turned to the famous ‘Sad Girl’ of literature. Reading the Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath in the context of Bourdain’s death cleansed my soul and how.
India in the ’80s was a magical place – like a Broadway production that crossed the Sound of Music with Romeo-Juliet and forgot to add context. Bollywood, during that era, propagated the notion that suicide was romantic. My mother, in a desperate bid, to shield us from the influence, drove home the point that suicide was the recourse of the coward. I have trouble shaking off the notion even today. It is a trigger that has kept me from reading or watching 13 Reasons Why, for example. It is a trigger that had kept me away from The Bell Jar all my life.
I just wasn’t ready to peek into the dark, morose mind of a manic depressive and understand why she decided to put her head in the oven one morning.
It was Bourdain who made me pick up my copy last week, urging me to give mental health a chance to explain itself. I was certain that my prejudice would disallow me to go beyond a chapter or two. I finished the book in half a day.
Under Plath’s Bell Jar
It’s difficult to dissociate Esther Greenwood, the protagonist of the Bell Jar, from Sylvia Plath herself since the book is largely autobiographical. The fact that Plath killed herself merely a few days after the publication of the book played on my mind before I plunged in. I went under Plath’s Bell Jar expecting to stare with a clinical disinterest at a stranger’s crumbling mind. But, something incredible happened instead.
Esther Greenwood turned out to be funny, witty, ironical. The twenty-something interning at a leading magazine in the big city is unexpectedly relatable, in her awkward journey through free caviar, city men, and the fast and the loose lifestyle. When she feigns ease in navigating the new world while vexing in private over her social faux pas, she could be me. She reminded me of my painfully awkward first year in business school that I spent pretending I understood what was going on. I kept expecting the book to turn grimy any moment. It didn’t. Or, when it did, it was with such subtlety, humor, and poetic imagery, that it felt natural.
What makes The Bell Jar a masterpiece is a gradual descent into the conversation on illness. It starts softly, with an after-party puke.
There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.
It is like Esther is watching the world’s sicknesses from the safety of a glass separation, from under a Bell Jar. Whether it is a hotel-wide food poisoning, or her jock-boyfriend Buddy’s Tuberculosis, each time, Esther looks at the illness with a detachment that is almost funny. Mental illness, in the sequence of events, sits naturally as pathogenic. Her own dissociation takes away the drama I had imagined mental illness would be surrounded by. Even when there is Shock Therapy or the threat of being committed to an institution with no-out, there is really no overt drama in Esther’s depiction of her sickness.
Sylvia Plath depicts mental illness masterfully by balancing her desperation and gradual collapse with her dark, ironical sense of humor. For the first time in my life, I looked at a person who took pills and hid under her mother’s basement without either judgment or pity. I looked at her and saw myself, the dysfunctions of my own personality grazing lightly at the corners of Esther’s extreme condition. I saw the courage and the willpower that surviving mental illness takes.
From under Esther’s Bell Jar, I looked at the 61-year old celebrity chef and lifestyle journalist taking his own life in a plush hotel room. The scene had no drama, just a man losing a hard-fought battle against a common illness is all.
In my last moments in Esther’s Bell Jar, I saw the courage it takes to succumb.
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