1 // Severed ends
It has been a week of contentment that was preceded by a week of staggering anguish. No sleep gave away to anxious dreams. In this jumble, I had a realization. I have spent 26 years of my life shuttling between denial and shame. I have hidden behind complex prose and abstract ideas to never say out loud what I preach not be hidden.
I want to create a map of my life experiences. It is my engagement with the memories, curiosities, and emotions my life evoked. I want to create it with the same earnestness I pour into documenting 4 pm sunshine, hospitals, and babyR’s childhood. Through it, I would like to acknowledge my past, lament what was lost, celebrate what wasn’t, and make peace with it. Not to “move on” or carry like muscles squished in Spanx, but to accept and make a harmonious part of me. I do this to forgive ever calling it my baggage, an excuse for present troubles, a device to seek attention, a problem that if were thrown in a pile I would want back. For it is not any of that, but a context to my life, a starting point from which everything grew. It is evident that two journeys cannot be, should never be compared, and that we need differentiated evaluation standards for achievements.
I want to do this also to apologize to my friends from early life who know nothing about my life. It had been something that concerned me alone. By speaking of it I would have exposed myself to their disregard; I would also have involved them in my own humiliation. I stopped dwelling, telling, talking, and feeling these experiences. I started denying, threatening, blocking, and panicking. I had forgotten that my experiences still existed under this pile of coping mechanisms. Whatever happened got locked away in time.
I want to unlock my childhood and rid myself of the shame I feel in being myself, to make sense of what seems like blurry, unrelated clots of happy and sad moments and feelings, that I find hard to pin down, focus my eyes on, and articulate. I don’t know where to start. I don’t know what to make of it. I don’t know. I am just standing here holding the severed thread of this story.
To understand this story or if only to do justice to reading it, you have to let go of your notion of normalcy. Leave at the door what you think relationships look like, what school feels like & what love does. You cannot put yourself in someone else’s shoes until you remove your own.
In my normal, I live with my grandparents. Love my school, the swing in the park & believe mint is chocolate. I draw. I travel every summer to be with my parents. Their house in Kurkheda is surrounded by a jungle, which I explore frequently with my friends. We play, what now seems like dangerous, games with monkeys. & every night I return to mummy’s thoughts, hear them through walls. She says we are on a real-life Truman Show, and that my father has another family. She gets angry, and cuts off her long plait one day, it lays in the blue dustbin. She feeds me milk till I puke & one time she feeds me the puke too. She runs away, sometimes with me & has to be looked for. She is a good storyteller & on good days, she tells me stories from Mahabharata at bedtime. This is how she knows to love.
Somewhere in the hazy age between six & eight, papa mummy shifts to a town with a decent school. Papa gets me back from nana-nani’s house. I cry a lot in those days. I kept wanting to go back to MY school, MY grocery guy with Polos to spare & the lake with a sunset. Mummy feels hopeless. Mummy starts to hit & strangle. Papa makes ’No strangling’, and’No locked door’ rules for the house that don’t work. She sends me to schools in Nasik, papa keeps bringing me back. I remember once packing my bags after being led to believe that I was going back to nana. We go to the train station but my father never leaves my hand. I see the train pass. I cry. During recess, I get bullied & try to catch up on Marathi lessons in the rest of the time. In Nasik schools, I wander like a ghost.
Some days are better. Some days I climb our compound wall to sit hidden in trees, discovering pretty spiders. I run bare feet on the grass and swoosh my feet through rainwater while sitting in our swing. I learn Marathi & make friends. I read my first Enid Blyton.
That was normal, for better or for worse, whey & solid, till I realized ‘normal’ didn’t exist.
What I remember from these years I remember in parts. Mummy’s mental health got worse. Papa started mixing medicines in her water. He hid the bottle behind his crime novels in the living-room cupboard. I saw but was never told. Mummy said they were trying to hurt her. She never said who ‘they’ were. One day I told her about the medicines. She stopped drinking water and eating food. She ate sugar & drank from the sink faucet. Papa got shifted to Nagpur. Mummy was sent away to another hospital. More permanently this time. It was my fault. Everything happened in a second & took years to pass. Though one can predict patterns of separation by studying the past, the actual moment came as a shock. I have a black hole where that memory was supposed to be.
I did not know how to live without mummy. Sadness became heavy & stayed in my heart like a stone. I cried for days, so many days that even the days confused themselves for one another, because I looked the same each day, crying in the same position, sitting on the rubble. I went to a new school. I wasn’t bullied here, just disliked. Life was trying to go on. Homework made no concession to grief. Tutors came & went. I wrote her letters. I told her my marks and apologized for all the spelling & grammatical mistakes in the letter. In the mummyless world, there was no one to assure me that my answer was right, the teacher’s wrong.
Papa’s friend came to live with us, dadi took some shifts, and the maid helped. Dada died on us. When everyone failed, the neighbor plaited my hair for school. I tried to take up an adult place in the family, at 10. I bought a vase for the living room. I started using a purse. I tried to cook what the TV showed. I even prayed. Went to the holiest shrine in the land, to pray for something so ordinary, that most children took it for granted. Mummy got to call us once every 5-6 months. My letters never reached her. She asked me if anyone told me stories. I said no. So she told me Mahabharata stories. But was cut off midway. I never found out the ends. No one won.
The second-to-second agony & despair of those days gave me an experience of unhappiness against which everything had now to be measured.
I spent 3 years, or what felt like 3 years without mummy. She was gone but a kind of weeping clung to the air where she had been. Her absence became a person in itself, solid, it accompanied me everywhere I went. At dinners, birthday parties, and weddings she came & was noticed. Absence came to parents’ day, to collect my report card at school. No one spoke about mummy, no one told me why she was taken away. So it remained my fault. The more people avoided saying her name, the more powerful Absence grew.
I told Rkaka that I was sad. He visited. We walked around the block, talking about her, till I was out of energy to cry. I made peace with the fact that Mumma was never coming back. If an earthquake were to arrive then, I wouldn’t move a finger. I had consumed all my strength to make it that far. I was too small for realizations so big. & just like she had disappeared one day, without explanation, news came that she was coming back.
The day she came home, I hid behind my bedroom door, unsure if I was ready to have her back. What if I blinked & she disappeared. I was sure my heart wouldn’t take it. I looked at her from behind the curtains. She was wearing an olive green saree and a black blouse. She had come back, blood & flesh.
I walked to her then & hugged her, kissed her. I was happy, so excited I could taste blood in my mouth. I guess she was happy too, but she pushed me away. She didn’t like to be hugged, this mummy who had come back.
Mummy fell into our routine like a mechanical detail. She started cooking, cleaning, and plaiting my hair. Suddenly home felt like what I had imagined Disneyland to feel. Except for every day I noticed something new about her. Mummy-who-had-come-back did not read, unlike the old mummy who read PG Wodehouse, Yes Minister, and Jane Austen. She never told me a Mahabharata story, didn’t express as much.
I couldn’t be sad about it, my past won’t allow it. & I never saw a happy moment for what it was, just a happy moment. It became something to be treasured, something that could be taken away. I was elated by everything & attached to nothing. “The source of my brittle elation was the relative smallness of my misfortune.”
I read somewhere that ‘survivors of calamities bring the calamity with them, for it dwells permanently within.’
Ouch, I thought, unfair. ‘Unfair’ was a word I never said or heard without wanting to die. Many years later, somebody would use this knowledge and say “unfair” to bring me to tears in front of a class full of people. I would comply & cry, so much, that there would be nothing in my vision but the hospital corridors of my mumma’s life & all the years from then to now.
When mummy came back from the hospital, she had forgotten how to be in the outside world. She had no inhibitions, nothing she could not say. Things inside me started breaking. School changed again. I did not take it well, again. I was lost in a sea of competitive children & apathetic teachers. I felt angry & sad, with nothing to show for it. There were days when I would lock myself up in a room, bang my head on walls, cry violently & say hurtful things till the demon in me felt satiated. I had no control over this, it had happened since I was little, but its frequency increased here. I was told I could study myself out of this rut. So I started studying as my life depended on it. I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep. I studied while I bathed and while I brushed. I was so exhausted, giving it all up had become a persistent fantasy for me, one that will crop up more & more often as I grew older.
All relations were fractured. Mummy papa fought. I fought. I leaned against the fence & envied the calm of the other houses in the street. Mine weren’t available parents. Papa mummy procured medicines to give me for the “episodes”. When I went to Pune, they did not come to drop me off. I found accommodation & set my life up. I looked at my toes when my roommate’s parents come to drop her off. I tried & failed to make any friends. Papa would call, say he would visit, I would set up my room, alter my existence for that weekend. He would cancel, every single time. I would talk about it in therapy. My life had come to culminate on a bench outside my therapist’s office, where I sat to catch my breath & stop tears so I could drive. Unfair isn’t the worst thing that can happen to life.
6 // Full circle
BabyR & I sowed Methi seeds in the garden on Saturday. We check if it has become a plant thrice every day. I remember when I was a child, Mumma got me a gardening set & I started planting every seed I saw; tomato, jeera, chana, or orange. Seeing little seeds become plants filled my tiny being with joy. So did everything Enid Blyton wrote. & ‘छान छान गोष्टी’.
It took years of therapy, some bad & a few good doctors, a change of college, a change of diagnosis, medication, many broken relationships & even more patient friends to get me to remember these joys from the past. To get to a today where I don’t get anxious at the word Schizophrenia or sink into self-pity every time someone says “unfair”. It would take a lot of mistakes & much more learning from them to get to today. Today, when I know I am only meeting an ordinary, yet rarely described fate.
“How does that make you feel?” my therapist asks.
Like I am full of something solid. Like I wouldn’t be blown away by a whiff of life’s whimsy. I don’t feel burdened by a victim complex. Not that I don’t wish for everything that happened to have happened some other way. I wish I lived a life where I could afford to be oblivious of mental health, where I had one school to grow up in, one wall to have my height marked on, much more painting & much less hospital. But those were the cards dealt with me & now I am to play them the best I can. This isn’t the best I had imagined for my life, luckily it isn’t the worst either. It’s actually a good good life. There are people to love, park grass to sleep on, Kishor Kumar songs to sing. I am even trying to get mummy to reread Mahabharata, Goldie to dance with his ears when I sing, and R & I to learn Portuguese. I am sure mummy’s mental health dip is around the corner, so I am spending late nights reading her School Of Life articles while we pop bubble wrap, & visiting dadi, who promises to make dahi-wada, the dish I survived on when Mummy was in the hospital.
I have come a full circle. These stupid memories have hurt, but I suspect, they will be the joy of aging together. & I believe if there is ever a celebration of all things transient & inconsequential, this is it.