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Interview – Raj Mariwala

A photograph of MHI director Raj Mariwala; she is playing with a grey-brown dog, squatting in grass.

Raj Mariwala is Director of Mariwala Health Initiative, (MHI), a funding agency that provides a range of resources and support to organisations working in mental health interventions and advocacy. Raj serves as board advisor for the Global Mental Health Action Network, and for the Lancet Commission on Stigma and Discrimination, as well as being a board member of the NGO, Parcham, that works with adolescent girls. Raj says” I think humans can learn much about self-care from animals. Humans seem to talk of self-care in a static, individual silo when actually I think we cannot speak of it without considering interdependence and balance.”

Shikha Aleya (SA): Raj, we’re happy to have your insights and observations in this interview for In Plainspeak. Thank you! Looking at self-care, sexuality and mental health, what are your immediate thoughts on how these three themes connect in ordinary, daily life, possibly for each of us?

Raj Mariwala (RM): The first thing that strikes me is how vexed all these terms are! The dominant narrative around these themes is almost ahistorical, individual and imbued with Western scientific neutrality. Approaching themes in this tepid manner almost guarantees homeostasis – retail therapy or meditation as self-care, gay marriage as sanctioned sexual liberation, and recovery that leads to productivity as mental health. However, many of us are excluded and alienated by such articulations and approaches.

How do we speak of sexuality and the right to love when inter-religious relationships are criminalised by the state, when inter-caste relationships lead to murder? The same voices declare that the revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir heralds justice for queer Kashmiris. Or what of self-care when Dr. Rao, a Dalit doctor, was incarcerated in a mental hospital for asking for personal protective equipment? Dr. Rao died while waiting for justice.

What would it mean for those on the margins to assert their lived experiences of sexuality, mental health and self-care in the current scenario? Once we move away from the Euro-centric, neo-liberal version, these three themes challenge the artificial mind-body divide.

Expressing one’s truth or practising self-care can mean unsettling oppressive systems and structures. All three themes necessitate agency, autonomy and systems of care or support. In daily life perhaps, they speak to the right to a free, meaningful and affirmed personhood.

For those whom sexuality, self-care, and mental health on the daily are sanitised experiences – I wonder what it means to be attuned to self. Who is that self? Is it a reflection of the hegemonic sociocultural political framework? I think in ordinary life these themes are possibly ways to tap into self, to return to oneself, to heal oneself.

SA: In this recent article, you refer to “the human element of mental health”, stating that a person’s “unique location is the lens through which they experience the world”. Expanding this concept, do you feel we integrate the human element in what is commonly understood as self-care? How do you, Raj, practice self-care?

RM: … The human element referred to in the article is the experience of the self while navigating and negotiating with the biomedical and psychosocial aspects of mental health and mental illness.  These would be unique needs, locations, struggles and challenges for an individual to access care and live a meaningful affirmed life, versus what Sylvia Wynter calls ‘the biocentric vision of the human’ i.e. the reducing of our consciousness and experiences to genetics and ‘neutral, scientific’ frameworks.

Before I share more about my practice – self-care cannot be prescriptive and doesn’t have a singular model of care that fits all. Often the dominant discourse on self-care doesn’t take into consideration unique stressors, marginalisations and structural inequality, and, of course, inadequately side-steps these discussions with a model that is limited, privileged and therefore exclusionary. I say this simply to foreground that my self-care practice is based on the unique stressors I live with and the privileges I enjoy. At the outset, when I was trying to answer this question, my first thought was that this is funny because I’m bad at self-care! To define it for myself, it’s a place of clarity, calm and quiet resistance.

One of my most significant acts of self-care has been allowing myself to leave behind my formal education – economics, an MBA and the career that went along with it, to become a dog trainer. As a person who lives with severe anxiety, this work gives me access to a stillness. A way to return to myself. Having said that, it’s important to say that I wouldn’t have been able to make the career switch without my privileges.

In the same breath, self-care can also be ceding fully to oneself – allowing or maybe stealing moments of gender euphoria, reclaiming body or rescripting your narrative by playing with power in kink. Self-care for me is also being true to oneself – the daily ritual of drinking coffee alone (not even a dog is allowed to disturb me) or the practice of doing pottery, reading out passages to my dog or blowing soap bubbles – all of which give me joy.

SA: Would you say that self-care is impacted by the environment we inhabit, in the ways we engage or disengage, with the persons that we are, and the persons, including humans and animals, that we share this world and our lives with? What is it that we, humans, can pick up from animals, about self-care?

RM: Yes, I’d agree that self-care is influenced by the environment we inhabit, the way we relate to others, the way we negotiate with other living beings or structures. Self-care is also interlinked with other types of care – whether that is in community resources, psychosocial support, engagement with medical and health care institutions, and of course in collective agency and solidarity.

I think humans can learn much about self-care from animals. Humans seem to talk of self-care in a static, individual silo when actually I think we cannot speak of it without considering interdependence and balance. I spent some time in a wolf sanctuary, interacting and observing wolves as well as taking part in howling rallies during dusk. We, as humans, were granted permission to participate in this now interspecies communication – a call and response system that viscerally engages the whole social network (of wolves and humans) and allows for boundary-setting. This dialogue at dusk also revels in just listening and being heard rather than reacting or thinking.

Wolves also introduced me to the concept of keystone species. Wolves are keystone species – they regulate the population of their prey, which in turn regulates vegetation, streams and the whole ecosystem. To do this, they are ‘inefficient hunters’ able to hunt only sick, old or very young prey. Perhaps for us humans, self-care would be to recognise our individual ‘carrying capacity’ or to recognise ways to resist capitalist systems that push efficiency and ecosystems far beyond carrying capacity.

I also believe animals teach us how to be true to oneself – by demonstrating honest communication, visibilising consent and trust in interactions or relationships. When I train, I may ask a client whether they’ve practiced a particular training exercise – I know that they may not answer me truthfully. However, if you ask the dog (by asking the owner to demonstrate the exercise) you will always see the truth. It is the same truth-telling when a dog or cat sets boundaries, for example, asserting their autonomy, in that very moment for their well-being when they don’t want to be touched in a certain spot. If you look and listen carefully enough, if you are as present as they are – negotiations, trust and self-care are evident. I often marvel about the magic of a 3-kilo cat trusting a large mammal like me, or for that matter, owls and kites allowing me to feed and medicate them, even as I confine them.

SA: There is so much to think about in these connections you’ve drawn here Raj. Thank you for reminding us of the importance of being present. A question about our ordinary and our daily lies here. In an article focusing on the Madras High Court judgement of June 7, that lays down guidelines for the safety and implementation of rights of the LGBTQIA+ community, you have spoken of queer affirmative knowledge as “knowledge generated by queer people – drawn from our lives, our politics, and our struggles, and based on our lived realities and felt experiences”. While this refers to queer affirmative mental health practice, how best may this be brought into the daily spaces we inhabit, our homes and families, friends and neighbourhood circles, workspaces, social, recreational and fun spaces?

RM: I think that one of the ways I’m going to answer that is to talk of chosen families. Chosen families are, I think, one of the ways in which to queer the institution of family. Companion animals are the ones who taught me about chosen family and the potential for resistance and self-care it holds. Be it an animal-human relationship, or queer kinship – such bonds are undervalued. Many chosen families operate without defined scripts, structure or recognition. Part of the power that holds such families together is trust and negotiations that are grounded in both care and self-care. Whether it is humans, animal familiars or a combination of the two – it brings in ethics relating to each other in all its glorious messiness.

I have often cited Haraway’s term ‘significant otherness’ when talking of this – because relational labour with chosen family may require empathising with the otherness: “The recognition that one cannot know the other or the self, but must ask in respect for all of time who and what are emerging in relationship, is key.” This brings me to the idea that queer knowledge, queer lived realities tell us about mattering. Coming to matter to one another is vastly different from being seen as an object of care. Queer lives, queer politics can teach us about what it means to what it may feel like to know one matters, how to matter to each other, how to definitively know that you matter – which liberation psychologist Mary Watkins says is what helps all of us to have a sense of psychosocial thriving.

SA: Thank you for sharing all of that. Raj, please tell us a little about yourself, a narrative of your life, your sense of purpose and meaning as you frame it.

RM: I think I have had the privilege to end up being connected to my childhood love – dogs and animals. The first word I ever tried to read was dog. A later childhood love was at age 10, when I was lovingly called the communist of the family. At age 15, I had the privilege to access Judith Butler and so informed those around me that ‘gender is a construct’ and on reading Empress Sissi of Austria’s biography I kept repeating “Marriage is an absurd institution. One is sold as a fifteen-year-old child and makes a vow one does not understand and then rues for thirty years or more and cannot undo.” Luckily, I have not grown out of these thoughts as people presumed I would, or have managed to resist. If I have to pick a moment, my dog Tequila has helped me come home to myself. When I adopted her as a little puppy, I was very confident about my abilities with dogs. She not only made me question everything I thought I knew about dogs, but also reckon with my own anxiety. It is because of her that I work with animals today.

Part of this is enabled by the privileges I live with. This also means I must engage with ways in which to counter the systems that afford me the privileges. My work at MHI is one such attempt to deploy and redistribute privilege. The other meanings that matter to me are spaces of resistance – being part of feminist spaces, or radical political economic spaces, protests, but also possibly in individual resistance in what has been expected of me as a child or family member. For a while, I gave in and studied double majors – what my parents wanted me to study and what I wanted to study – or worked where and how they wanted me to work, but it is in the points of resistance, resistance as self-care that I have become the most myself.

Cover Image: Used with permission from the Interviewee

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