This Young Bipolar Scientist Designs India’s Top Space Museums

“On a few occasions, I forgot how to read, write, recognise or pronounce certain words.”
November 12, 2020, 2:12pm
Pranav Sharma is a scientist based in India
Pranav Sharma has had his share of days when his body and brain didn’t have the energy to do anything. Photo courtesy of Pranav Sharma.

Whenever 27-year old Pranav Sharma tells people that he has bipolar disorder, he is greeted with a flurry of unscientific, unsolicited but confident suggestions. “Have lassi (yoghurt drink) before you sleep. It will keep you happy.” “Waking up everyday before 4 would treat it.” “Drink lots of water as it is good for the brain.”  “Get married.” And the one advice which left him flabbergasted: stop thinking altogether.

“I asked the person how has he survived without thinking so far?” Sharma told VICE News. He cannot afford to stop thinking given that he is an award-winning scientist, astronomer, curator of space museums, teacher and poet. None of these achievements, however, diminished the stigma the bespectacled man had to deal with after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 21.

Since June 2020, the conversations around mental illness in India have been fuelled by misinformation, some of them spread by mainstream media, after the alleged suicide of Bollywood star Sushant Singh Rajput. Even after Rajput’s doctors confirmed the actor was dealing with bipolar disorder, many fans and journalists opted for conspiracy theories over medical opinions. “He didn’t look depressed or suicidal” was an argument often thrown on social media. 

“I was disgusted by what people were saying on TV. When the news of Sushant’s death came out, many people called me to check if I was doing fine and if I was taking my medicines,” said Sharma. 

Bipolar patients often have to deal with intense mood swings, brief periods of mania, depressive episodes and sleep disturbances. But everyone has their unique coping mechanism. “I tried telling people that not every bipolar person is suicidal. You mostly live like anyone else! Yes, your anxiety levels fluctuate, but you control it and keep doing your work.”

Pranav Sharma, a scientist  in India has bipolar disorder condition

Sharma instructing the workers at the space museum in B.M. Birla Science Centre, Hyderabad, India. Photo courtesy of Pranav Sharma.

Sharma has rapid cycles. Which means his mood can change unpredictably and multiple times—sometimes even 5-6 times a day. “In my worst phase, I was too numb to feel anything. When that phase got over, I realised how human emotions are so important for everyone.” His studies were affected as he didn’t have the strength to go to classes or attend exams. On some evenings, he said he couldn’t even walk. “I would keep my door open so that if something bad happens, somebody can come to save me.” 

His condition improved after he began his therapy and medication. Born and raised in the northern Indian city of Agra, Sharma pursued  electrical engineering followed by Masters in Physics. In 2015, he was selected for an astronomy fellowship in Western University, Canada. That’s where he met Prof. Shantanu Basu, whom he calls his mentor. “When I met him, he told me research is similar to finding an elegant and beautiful sentence in a row of books. That sentence has still stuck with me.” 

In the next two years, Sharma grew in stature as a science communicator and astronomer. In 2017, B.M. Birla Science Centre in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad tasked him to curate India’s first private space museum.  He would be one of the youngest Asians to do so. In the next two years, he curated the museum, designed four space exhibitions, delivered two TEDX lectures, won three awards and was selected as a fellow at the Royal Astronomical Society and Royal Society of Arts. In 2019, he designed a space museum for Indian Space Research Organisation.

All this while, he struggled to not let his condition influence his work. The day the Birla Space Museum was going to be launched, he had panic attacks twice. “I ended up trying to forget one of the most important days of my life.” In fact, he faced an explicable sadness on almost all important days. While working on the exhibitions, he struggled with intense mood swings. “ I didn’t feel like leaving the bed but I still went to work. It was as if my brain was bursting out of my skull,” he said. 

The Space Museum at BM Birla Science Centre, Hyderabad

The space museum Pranav Sharma curated at B.M. Birla Science Centre, Hyderabad, India. Photo courtesy of Pranav Sharma.

When he had to meet deadlines, he struggled with anxiety. “Your brain and body don’t understand that deadlines have to be met.” On other days, his hands would tremble, making him unable to type and hold things. “One day, I was cooking and because of my trembling hands, I ended up burning my hand with hot oil. I have also broken a lot of crockery.” 

There were days when his body and brain didn’t have the energy to do anything or attend meetings. “On a few occasions, I forgot how to read, write, recognise or pronounce certain words.” Sometimes he had auditory hallucinations—hearing screams and voices which weren’t there. “To fight these hallucinations, I listened to Indian classical music and instrumental songs to divert my mind.” 

On days he couldn’t write, he used voice notes to finish his work. He often fought his way by intense self care—activities like deep breathing, meditation, warm showers or going for a run. To pamper himself, he’d cook a five-course meal. “I’d set the table, light a few candles and have a candle light dinner with myself to feel better,” said Sharma. 

To find beauty in his life, Sharma has been reading and writing Urdu poetry since he was a teenager. “Urdu poetry is the refuge in my life. It’s a home where I can create my own world where I can be myself”, he said. The themes he explores are satire, philosophy, the concepts of time and space, cosmological and metaphysical phenomenon. One of his poems narrates the life cycle of a star, while another (inspired by Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar), explores how time plays a role in every person’s life.

His interest in poetry and philosophy helps him bring a new dimension in the museums he designs. “Philosophy gives you the meaning and colour of life. It’s a process to understand your own thinking,” he said. 

The poem which is the closest to his heart is called Aakhri Khat (Last Letter). Written at a time when he was going through a bad patch, it ends like this: 

Namakpaashe kharaash-e-dil se jo seena jalata hoon.
Shame-kushta sulagti hai to thoda dagmagata hoon. 
Bayade-garmi-e-sohbat ka ek wada nibhata hoon
Bahut beaabru hoke tere kooche se jaata hoon

(I burn the wounds of my heart with a salt dispenser
I waver as fire rage in extinguishing lamps
Keeping the promise of the warmth of your love
I pass by your lane, dishonoured).

Ever since the global coronavirus pandemic began, many across the world have fallen prey to mental illness - compounded by the death toll, social distancing and economic fallout. In many countries, suicide rate and cases of domestic violence have gone up. Sharma feels the road ahead for these people won’t be easy for most of the ones who are suffering and the ones who take care of them. “Don’t pity the ones who are suffering. Instead, be empathetic, listen more and just be around. I was lucky to have friends and family who helped me in these times.” 

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