Sunday, October 17, 2010

Erase and Rewind

Commonly, people believe that defeat is characterized by a general bustle and a feverish rush. Bustle and rush are the signs of victory, not of defeat. Victory is a thing of action. It is a house in the act of being built. Every participant in victory sweats and puffs, carrying the stones for the building of the house. But defeat is a thing of weariness, of incoherence, of boredom. And above all of futility. - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

It is by most standards a decent house: two rooms, a dining hall and a kitchen. In buildings just like this, even just next to this, lives are lived. The scene could easily have been one of children cramming for exams on desks placed under tubelights against the cream coloured walls. It could have been one of office goers jerking awake at daybreak, shaving cleanly, suiting up and soldiering off to work.

Instead it is a showcase of both the building blocks and aftermath of one boy’s blue state of mind. The boy has decided to furnish only one of the two rooms, that too with as little standard issue furniture (a double bed, a shelf, a single sofa and a dresser) as is needed. The walls are bare, but a decorative wall hanging lies in a plastic bag in the corner, unopened since the day it was bought. In another corner stands one of those ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ posters – conceived but never released by the British to keep spirits up in case the Nazis won and were overrunning England. He had never mustered up the vigor to nail either up.

There are stray unread newspapers all over the place – most have on average one article he believed useful and worth re-reading, something hardly ever done. And then those hoards of books – purchased with such life-changing good intention, and neutered into space-occupying jetsam by bouts of inertia and emptiness – the Gita, Being Your Own Mentor, You can beat Depression, medical textbooks (these had had belief most completely given up on them), paperback fiction, correspondence material…..and a television – ketamine for the life-force – there were days on which he what can only be called numbed himself in front of it for as long as 6 hours. Coming linearly at him in the dark, television’s cathode ray tunnel turned into an audio-visual cove within which he would hide, it’s walls supporting the life he became too hollow to keep propped up.

I give the fight up: let there be an end,
A privacy, an obscure nook for me.
I want to be forgotten even by God.

Robert Browning. Paracelsus, pt. 5.

And yet … it moves.

Galileo Galilei

But we begin again. Another start after another sputter. One more attempt to clamber up the sides of the next crest, with the hungry hoping that the next time the ground collapses into a trough is at least further away and the pit shallower.

Self-pity can be comforting for only so long. By design, even the most dismembered of minds and the most broken of personas refuse to marinate in gloom beyond a point.

But first there is the denial. You forage for easily-made tools like retreat, and even fashion facades to hide your handicap. Perhaps you hide an accent, feign seriousness or humour, or lie about a make believe focus and imaginary insurmountable obstacles. Maybe you pretend just not to have time from work you have little vocation and even less ability for. When actually it is perhaps just like that line diagram of molecules crashing against the walls of a closed chamber – when your ability to feel becomes this rigid and cold, the more people try to cram inside the chamber of your life, the more the pressure builds. It becomes just that much harder to breathe. To exist. All the while there’s white flags all around you.

And then, utterly sick of all things white and pitiable, you start to want to clamber out again, punching wildly and blindly at something unseen but which you can tell by the resistance against your knuckles is definitely there. There are shards which you can use to build better tools with – you turn to things - medication, information, but most of all a fear of utter devastation. Today is the day you start once again. Frustrating true, but invigorating also.

At any given time, there are over 10 million depressed young people in India. Today is one such day for one of them.

He has now been on the medication for 12 days. Clearly something has begun to change, for the paralyzing weakness that turned waking up every morning into an ordeal is waning – not gone but waning. It is still hard, but he removes the blanket he has been shrouding under.

It is 7:20. For the first time in over 3 months, he will get to work on time today.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Revolution of the Mayfly

The Mayfly’s Revolution

Mayflies are insects which belong to the Order Ephemeroptera (from the Greek ephemeros = "short-lived", pteron = "wing", referring to the short life span of adults). – Wikipedia

I steadily crawl towards my destination – a place that levitates over the ‘X’ marking the middle of nothingness. My arrival there shall transform me into that mythical creature – the average Indian.

My efforts to get there have been persistent and focused – I have played cricket on the streets in a statewide bandh, I have stubbornly allowed someone else to go vote in my place ever since I’d been eligible, and I have bought the token Che Guevara bandana and worn it on Sunday mornings.

But in comparison to what I was to be party to on the 15th of December, these efforts now seem limp and meaningless. What took place was not planned, making it far more real, more unsettlingly visceral. It was no dog being wagged on a television screen. It was a scene played out in flesh, blood, fire and bamboo. On this day, I was to witness my first effigy immolation.

It was, fittingly in Bengal - the cradle of our independence, where this nation of mine planned its first hesitant steps after deciding to learn how to stand.

“West Bengal is the obvious place to start an Indian Revolution. During the independence movement, Bengal was the only state where the British faced a serious threat from terrorism” – Mark Tulley, No Full Stops in India

I had gone shopping for jeans. I stood at one end of the Alaknanda bridge, waiting for a ride back to the hostel. And then I saw them – fifty of the nation’s best and brightest, assembling the other end like lemmings who’d been read the Manifesto. On the surface, they were like me – my age, mostly students just as I was. Yet they were in truth so different – though we breathed in the same air, when it sieved through their fiber, it emerged changed, redolent of insurrection. When they walked, it was with a bellicose purpose alien to most; they dragged the future and dreams and revolution along with them. I was not like them. I was, like most of us, a pye-dog tagging alongside some such imposing army or the other, hoping to live off whatever scraps of reform and resurrection they’d throw my way.

The clubs with which these boys were to attack our collective lassitude arrived in the back of an auto-rickshaw, driven by a visibly proud, fat hairy man. To my delight, and further self-belittlement, I saw these young torchbearers turn those clubs into actual torches. An presumably important and extremely busy looking man with a goiter and a Gandhi cap set them alight. So were the birthday candles with which our tomorrows would finally be illuminated in firelight and seen clearly lit. But the cake hadn’t been iced yet.

Nay, the hyperbolic, hollow climax of this act of existential fisting arrived in the back of an auto-rickshaw all its own. Greeted with an unlikely mix of reverence and hatred, the idol that would serve as the epicenter of this storm of insurrection was led in – It was a bamboo cross dressed in an impeccably white, crisp Kurta. A lime-slaked water pot had been planted on top as its head, and someone who’s true calling clearly lay not in art, had adorned the pot’s face with a nose, a pair of spectacles and a squint. I presumed the disfigurement was deliberate.

The figurine was poignantly surreal, an unsettling statue fashioned from everything hideous, confusing, counterfeit, and worth renouncing about our past. It could have just stood there cross-eyed, and looked empty and positively stupid. But instead it reared and spat and frothed at the mouth. It pointed invisible incriminating fingers at me. It burned through the back of my skull with its imaginary fiery glare. It blasted bullet-holes in my being with unheard questions and belittling assertions.

By now, the pick of this pantheon of our nation’s finest held the effigy aloft, and was leading his tribe on an angry march down the city’s busiest road. They roared slogans which reinstated their own faith in their fire - slogans about violent change, about fiercely free ideas which had to be planted in the warm loam that lay in young skulls all over the country. This was what the freedom struggle must’ve been like. I felt so small, so unimportant, like so much of a dodger.

They finally reached the main crossroad, and after having halted oncoming traffic from all sides, hammered through the asphalt and made a hole in the road. The effigy was made to stand erect there, its base in the hole. A speech was made in Bengali on the stage that had been waiting for them there, but clearly no-one was listening. They didn’t need to. These words were already etched onto the insides of their hearts and souls. They craved to burn!burn!burn!

The moment that the mic clicked off was a catharsis. Skinny brown Bengali boys exploded towards the mannequin, quibbling amongst each other like freshly spawned fry, vying to be the ones who’s cigarette lighters would set it on fire. There was no music. But as the fire grew, they began to dance, twitching their arms and legs to a rhythmic, primal howling.

My pulse timed itself to their rhythm. My feet quivered and strained at mental chains. The sweat that beaded out of me would lubricate the passageway of my breakthrough – I had to be a part of this. I couldn’t hold back. I leapt towards them. Towards their fire.

My cocoon had cracked. I was in the revolution; I was part of the solution. I had ended the old life.

And then I saw the placard around its neck – it bore the name of the Chief Minister of Bengal. All around me were flags of a political party, and most of the slogans bayed for someone or the other’s death. Something inside me deflated. I wasn’t in a dancing mood anymore.

My revolution had molted and was now dead.

The lifespan of an adult mayfly can vary from just 30 minutes to one day depending on the species – Wikipedia

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Woman's Day

It is woman’s day. And she is just next to me on the bed, moaning, panting, squealing, and every two minutes or so writhing wildly in the explosion and the aftershocks of the tempest raging in her loins. Her spine arches, her eyelids coil tightly shut and she bites her lip to bleeding to keep from physically shouting. As she twitches about, her hands primally grasp at anything within reach, hoping to traffic out some of this surfeit of sensation her frail body is finding impossible to contain. Sometimes it is the metal railing of the bed. Sometimes it is the cheap cotton sheet on the mattress. Sometimes it is my hand as I touch her abdomen or take her pulse.

For over four years, Sunita has been trying unsuccessfully to conceive a child. Being punched below the navel by her drunk husband some 30 minutes ago is the price she pays for her failure.

“Pehle kabhi maara hai tujhe?” (“Has he ever hit you before?”)

The first time, she doesn’t answer, she only looks away instead. I ask again.

This time round, she nods. Though definitely a more grevious one, today is clearly one of many tipping points on the couple’s mad dash for parenthood. So too say old burn scars on her forearm and a denting of her left cheekbone.

Things today don’t look too good.

For one there’s these spasms, and her abdomen is beginning to bloat. Most ominously, a stethoscope put next to her navel doesn’t send back any of the normal gurgling sounds her gut should be making.

There is only a hollow silence.

That one drunken punch may well have punctured her intestine.

As we loaded her onto the ambulance to get an Xray of her abdomen done, her story heresays itself in my head, and in doing so answers the question as to why she’s still in this marriage.
A Nepali girl who’s parents were dead by age 13, illiterate, relatively pretty and so prone to predation, is the most completely alone creature conceivable. So even an Assamese boy who gets drunk and hits her every fifth day is family enough.

It is perhaps why she is so desperate to have a child – to believe in being enough of a person for someone to need her, instead of her having to always need this excuse for a someone. She is rendered so afraid by the thought of this reversal of need never coming about.

Her XRay arrives and I know what I’m hoping isn’t on it – a sliver of black right below the line of her diaphragm signifying the air that has gushed into the abdomen through a hole in her gut, and which will force us to slit her open from her sternum to her pubis and seal it up.

It isn’t. But she still quivers and cries. Being hit by the man she looked to for everything as punishment for not bearing him a child had to hurt infinitely more than a perforated gut.
It probably would be frowned upon but I hold her hand as she weeps.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


‘What were you thinking?’ she asked, very low.
‘I was thinking, all you want, you get.’
‘In what way?’
‘In love.’
‘And what do I want?’
‘Do I?’
She sat with her head drooped down.

‘Why do you say I only want sensation?’ she asked quietly.
‘Because it’s all you’ll take from a man. – You won’t have a cigarette?’
‘No thanks – and what else could I take - ?’
I shrugged my shoulders.
‘Nothing, I suppose,’ I replied.
Still she picked pensively at her chemise string.
‘Up to now, you’ve missed nothing – you haven’t felt the lack of anything – in love,’ I said.
She waited a while.
‘Oh yes, I have,’ she said gravely.
Hearing her say it, my heart stood still.

- Once, DH Lawrence

Ends aren’t born in violent hurricaneranas of hate. They need much quieter, more coldly tranquil places to spawn. Endings lay their eggs when people aren’t looking in lulls where people aren’t talking. They grow and gain strength in the open spaces of emptinesses left behind when someone pretends to but really isn’t there anymore.

Endings are of the hyena ilk – ravenous eaters, but crippled failed hunters. In their lameness, they have to feed on bruised and hurt egos, old teethless bitterness and juvenile, childish refusals to make things better.

But when an ending corners you, there is no escape. Your demise is telling, total and brutal. There will first be blood. Then an aching so acute your bones will near break. But last to transpire, and leaving you worst off, will be the slaughtering in future tense. A butchering of belief.. Belief in everything, in hope, in tomorrow, in anything, in anyone.

That said, for all their frightening ugliness, endings are frail, fearful things. Taken that though limp, they cannot be run from. But though armed, they can be beaten. Fire, less for its flames and more for its warmth scares them. They scamper away yelping if the courage to try and build a fire is conjured. Early on, an ending keeps marauding about, hoping for a window of surrender to reopen through which to weasel back in. But if none is found, eventually it gives up. And you are at last safe.

There is no spectacle near as rejuvenating as the depressed flight of a defeated end.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

spirit bandaging

Sunday - In the morning you decide to rodent around GMCH’s cardiology department, hoping to scavenge on some scrap of hope. You shamelessly pounce on an affable cardiac surgeon taking a round. The gent is nice enough to give you some of his time. The gist of things as they stand are this – there is no OPD on Monday or Tuesday as all the doctors are on leave. The nearest is Wednesday. You will have to come back on Wednesday, meet a cardiologist, then a cardiac surgeon, and then the hospital’s superintendent. Then at least you will know how much cash you have to arrange for. But that is Wednesday. This is Sunday morning. You are going to have to leave for now. But you know you’ll be back soon, for something’s being left undone is a calling card like no other.

On the ride back, you can’t stop peering back into the back of the truck to look at Maya and her husband. She talks with amazing, theatrical hand movements, as if always describing something big and wondrous. Her husband listens in rapt attention, as if proud of his wife’s cuteness. At times he sits down at her knee. Other times he sits on the bench and she rests her head on his lap. When we pick up yet another patient who’s had a rod removed from a fractured femur, they sit close together, their heads so very near as if sharing some secret joke. You could watch the two of them for hours on end. It’s one of the most ethereal sights possible – two people collectively disentangling and then demolishing the confusion most of us accuse life of, and just being .

You’re already fervidly scheming of how to get her new heart valves. If she dies, you almost believe you will too. She catches you watching through the glass, blushes, giggles, points it out to her husband and the three of you beam teeth at each other.


Saturday evening - The day culminates as a casserole of anger, hunger, frustration and fuck ups. It’s one of those days, as if you’re cursed with some mutant Midas touch, turning everything you lay eyes on and you experience into something worthy of contempt. Everything.

You hate your nursing assistant for being an ass and claiming to have said people have refused Maya any assistance at GMCH. You hate yourself for having taken his word. You hate the private Cardiologist you went to visit at a hospital that’s listed with the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. He charged you Rs750 to sit your ass down on a chair for 4 hours and in the end tell you something you already knew (i.e. that the porcelain doll Nepali girl needs both valves in her heart replaced) and to hand you a certificate worth it’s weight in rabbit droppings. You hate yourself for not have seen it coming. The marble flooring and the airconditioning should’ve given it away. You hate knowing that a familiar self-loathing guilt germinating within you shall soon force you to pay Maya’s husband the money.

You both somehow hate and are relieved that you were proved wrong by an echocardiogram done on Bimla Maya. It is completely normal. She is fine and now can’t wipe a smile off her face. It’s amazing what 800mL of blood this way or that can do to the man.
But that you’ve basically served as an tool in GNRC ripping off Maya Tamang defiles this little victory completely. The meltdown is final and flawless. By the end of the walk out to the car park, you’re so livid you can’t even swallow your own spittle. Liquid lead.

There is no justification. I am down. Come and kick me.

Oh Guwahati!

And then there’s Bimla Maya. Yet another beaming, pristine, skin-porcelain-clean Nepali lass of 21 who came to you as the week’s second wheezing, sweating, nearly-not-breathing, ticker-barely-ticking heap. Swollen legs, gasping crackling lungs, the works. Her problems amplified by her having a haemoglobin count of 3, roughly a quarter of the norm. Two blood transfusions later, she is in a state fit to move. In the shorter scheme of things, moved to Guwahati. In the larger sense, you wonder towards what and where…..

Friday evening - Unlike most government hospitals, Guwahati Medical College Hospital (GMCH) does not wear it’s squalor like a badge or brandish it like a crutch to prop up a plea of pity. Considering that it is the end point of all of the NorthEast’s ill, it is acceptably clean. Another laborour we’d gotten admitted here for a prolapsed vertebral disc lies on a shared bed with his attender (just because the frugality isn’t advertised doesn’t mean it isn’t there).A case in point is that there is no anaesthesiologist. The only surgeries being done are emergencies. You’re told to take him back and bring him in March. So be it.

The other crusade commences tomorrow.