By Snigdha Poonam:
Heartbreak is our first really deep emotional experience, writes Indian psychiatrist Shyam Bhat in the introduction to his new book, ‘How to Heal Your Broken Heart’. What he goes on to remind his readers is that it also appears to be the leading cause of suicide among India’s youth. More than 135,000 people commit suicide in India every year. And in the 15-29 age range, with between 30 and 40 people per 100,000, India has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world. As many as 20,000 of them – around 15 per cent – take the extreme step because of something young people in the rest of the world usually take in their stride: heartbreak.
In his book, available to download through an app, Bhat explains to his vast target readership (63 percent of India’s 160 million smartphone users are under the age of 25) why heartbreak hurts so much and how to move on and feel love again.
Snigdha Poonam (SP): What inspired you to write the book?
Shyam Bhat (SB): I wanted to address the issues young people in India are facing. Our society has changed dramatically in the last ten to 15 years, shaped by forces of globalisation, capitalism and individualism. There have been shifts in our value systems and family systems. The young have suddenly this opportunity to choose what they want to do with their lives. You now have the opportunity to choose your partner, or lifestyle, or clothes. So, basically, one can see the evidence of that in the increasing amount of stress, relationship issues, substance abuse, depression, and suicide.
When I first thought of writing a book, I was planning to address depression and anxiety and all of that. But every time I gave a talk at a college, young people would come up to me afterwards and say, ‘You know, it was a great talk,’ but the question each of them had for me was: ‘What do I do about my breakup? How do I get over it?’
This generation’s depression is caused in a large part by relationship issues, by heartbreak and so on. So, if I wanted to help them, I needed to start with what they are suffering from and give real, authentic advice and insight which they wouldn’t get anywhere else. I wrote a book that I would have liked to read when I was going through heartbreak as a young person.
SP: Do you agree that in India we are at a peculiar point in our culture, where we are embracing dating as a norm, but most of us have parents or grandparents who went through arranged marriages?
SB: This is the first generation in India that’s going to be dating in such large numbers. Forget grandparents, most of our parents have had arranged marriages. Even if they were dating in their time, it was very different: you dated one or two people and got married to the second person. The young are living in a different world now, and because there is no precedent for a dating culture, there is no older generation to guide you, and that’s the issue.
In India we don’t have a culture of talking to therapists for personal issues. Parents are inaccessible. We have either the kind of parent who denies the fact of their children dating or the one who thinks they must embrace modernity, so they will say, ‘Okay, go and date a hundred other people’ – no limits at all.
SP: Heartbreak is a rite of passage for adolescents in so many other parts of the world – unpleasant maybe, but something people are expected to deal with. Why is it a major reason for depression among India’s youth?
SB: We come from a society where everyone had one partner. If you look at our cultural influences, from the folktale of Layla and Majnun to most of the Bollywood stories from the 1970s and 1980s, they are about the hero sacrificing himself or the heroine sacrificing herself for their one and only love – all of this is embedded in our cultural memory. In that sense, we are a very romantic race; we believe in the idea of [a] soulmate. People carve the name of their loved ones on their wrists. It still happens.
Still from ‘Sanam Teri Kasam’. Bollywood has contributed to an overly romantic view of courtship, says Shyam Bhat.
SP: Are you saying that the breakup as a trope is not known in Indian popular culture?
SB: It’s not. The idea that – and I think there are a lot of gender nuances here – you can be intimate with someone and break up and be intimate with someone else – that is not a part of Indian imagination. Acid attacks are a phenomenon where someone who is rejected in love has no idea how else to deal with it.
SP: How much of this stigma about the breakup is tied-in with our general fear of young people having sex?
SB: That’s part of it. Women are more likely than men to say, ‘Oh, I have given myself to someone,’ so they feel the moral obligation to be with that person for the rest of their lives. There is a false assumption that dating in India is just like dating in the West. A very small percentage of people here are following that model.
SP: So there must be different kinds of heartbreak?
SB: My book addresses all the different shades of heartbreak, including the kind faced by people in the West. They think that they have dealt with it, that they understand heartbreak and they are adept at managing emotions in a relationship, but I don’t think so. The evidence is clear, because they can’t sustain long-term relationships. Look at their rate of divorce and emotional and physical abuse.
We are becoming a society like the West, but it is very clear that they have not figured out how to manage their emotions, right? So what we do? How do we shape ourselves as individuals and as a society? And I think relationships are crucial to that. I think the answer lies in our spiritual traditions, which talk about the love that you have for your partner as being the love that is a part of you. It’s your own energy. It might have been evoked by someone else for a while, and now it’s gone and you feel alone, but that love is who you are, and if you can connect with that energy without an external source, there are a lot of opportunities to feel love.
SP: Do men and women respond differently to heartbreak in India?
SB: Yes, I think women are generally more protected from the perils of heartbreak. By circumstances of both culture-shaping and biology, they tend to do a lot more introspecting. They try to figure out how they feel, and try to learn something about themselves and about life. They have also the support of friends who they can talk to, whereas guys don’t talk about these things with each other.
SP: What is your general prescription to cure heartbreak?
SB: The basic [concept] is to accept that it is over. The second thing is to take the time to nurture yourself, to stay connected with people around you, to find someone who you can talk to about what you are experiencing – either a therapist or a close friend. You have to ensure that you are eating, sleeping and getting exercise, and slowly allow your mind to start working. And, eventually, figuring out the true source of the pain, which is not the loss of the relationship, but a deeper insecurity that you have been unaware of.
‘How to Heal Your Broken Heart’ by Dr. Shyam Bhat is available on the Juggernaut Books app for Android and iOS