Shalini Bhalla–Lucas, executive producer of the Manic Monologues on October 15, 2022. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG
The lights cast half a moon on the pleated stage curtain. It is the opening night of The Manic Monologues, a theatre performance, and there is not an empty seat in the 11th-floor auditorium at Western Heights in Parklands, Nairobi.
Audience members don green ribbons to signify the mental health month, October. The national anthem plays, followed by pin-drop silence as the executive producer of the show walks on stage to make an introductory monologue. This is Shalini Bhalla–Lucas’ brainchild and has been in the works since 2020, a show that talks about people’s battles with their mental health.
Ms Bhalla–Lucas recalls her first battle with mental health. She had left Kenya to study hotel management in Switzerland before finding herself in the UK where she met and fell in love with Jeremy, a partner 19 years her senior, divorced and with three children.
Her family back home did not approve of the union. She was ostracised, with only her sister giving her support – covertly. She did not talk to her family for 12 years and this took a toll on her mentally. She had fallen short of her family’s expectation to come back to Kenya, marry an ideal suitor, and take over her father’s hotel chain.
“I was about to leave for work. I went to open the front door but my hand was shaking and I fell on the floor in a heap,” Ms Bhalla – Lucas recalls the first episode.
She had been battling what she and her partner thought to be fatigue from long hours as a corporate recruiter in the hotel business.
“The doctor asked some very probing questions,” she relays. She was then sent to a specialist and thereafter diagnosed with clinical depression. She would be hospitalised for a month after being adjudged to have suicidal ideations and would be a danger to herself if she didn’t seek treatment.
Going into the facility, she recalls telling Jeremy, “I hope nobody sees me here!” That was and still is the stigma attached to mental health patients.
After her release, she had to quit her high-flying career, she could not handle it mentally. Nursing herself back to health, “I went into an Arts Centre to do some menial work. I’d photocopy some flyers and was so exhausted after that I had to go home!” As she recovered, however, she started finding joy in the little things – sitting in the sun, for instance.
Ms Bhalla – Lucas went back to her first love – dancing – and established a dance company Just Jhoom! in 2010 with the support of her partner where she taught dance and mindfulness. They even got a cat – Tabasco- and she found that taking care of another being helped.
In 2014, her mettle was to be tested again when her partner Jeremy was diagnosed with cancer, a battle hard fought but lost two years later. The gloom and dark depression this time lasted a year. In her grief, she abused alcohol, painkillers, sleeping pills, and food to try and fill the void left by the only person she’d known since the age of 21 – theirs was a 19-year relationship. She had however reconciled with her family two years prior and had even watched a beautiful relationship – over Koroga chicken and Tusker beers – develop between her father and Jeremy before his demise.
She came back to Kenya to scatter Jeremy’s ashes in Nanyuki where they had bought land and planned to build a cabin and retire. She had started writing a memoir, “Always With You,” about her life with Jeremy. It would be her final project before she took her own life, she recalls. It turned out to be her therapy. It helped her push through the grief and not go around it.
During her father’s funeral in February of 2018, he succumbed to cancer as well, Ms Bhalla – Lucas had a vivid vision where she saw her partner and her father sitting together. She was glad they were no longer in pain. “Here I was, healthy but miserable. They had wanted and fought to live but couldn’t,” she says. This inspired her to fight to live. It helped jolt her out of depression. She needed to live.
She went back to the UK and gave away all her belongings before setting out on a journey she wished she had taken earlier. She went on a tuk-tuk journey in Sri Lanka, learnt to ride a motorbike, built a cabin in Nanyuki and set up an educational fund in Jeremy’s memory. She even started to date.
She came back to Kenya in December 2019 and got ‘stuck’ due to Covid-19. Her dreams of driving across Europe and working in a vineyard in Tuscany were in shambles. Her book, “Always With You” was, however, doing well on Amazon and she was writing a second one about her dating experiences. She called it Online Dating @ 40 and today has a third in her stable, a 10-point guide to happiness titled; “Happiness! Is It Simply a Mindset?
A 30-minute meeting about book publishing at Artcaffé turned into a four-hour date. That is how she ended up in a relationship with her current partner – Amar Vidyarthi. Ms Bhalla–Lucas teaches mindfulness, an eight-week group course that helps her clients cope better with the inevitable everyday stresses “of the times we are living in.” She also offers Mindful Mondays, a free course in building an arsenal for tough times.
Ms Bhalla – Lucas watched a show by Mbeki Mwalimu that sparked a thought about theatre and mental health and how she could combine both to tell stories. That is how she landed on Zack Burton and Elisa Hofmeister’s The Manic Monologues. The show cost her Sh2 million to the stage and has put her almost Sh 1 million in the red but has been worth it.
Ms Bhalla – Lucas always has to be on the move, “I always have to be making an impact,” she says. She admits it has been an exhaustive journey staging “The Manic Monologues” and will need a break before even thinking about it again. When she is ready, she will want the show to be Kenya-nised, “telling our own stories.” She says she will only do it if she can muster the financial backing needed. A third path she would want “The Monologues” to take is travelling to Kenyan universities where “the young people there need it most.”
Outside of her work with mental health, Ms Bhalla – Lucas and her partner have a passion to see Kenya and are travelling extensively around the country. She would like to replace Tabasco the cat with another brood which would include two dogs but is afraid she would not be able to take care of the animals due to her schedule. She has also discovered a vibrant theatre scene in Nairobi and relaxes by going to staged shows.
To one struggling with mental health, Ms Bhalla – Lucas offers, “Don’t be ashamed. Remember you are not alone. There are others like you. Speak to a friend or family member who is sympathetic. And remember to always be kind, mostly to yourself.”
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