Return to innocence

child

I have been searching for quite some time now.

Within me…

Around me.

For some trace of the innocence that lit up the world once upon a time. It used to be everywhere- within me, around me.

I was not proud of my innocence then. It used to embarrass me because it prevented me from being street smart- a trait necessary for survival in a man-made world. I felt ashamed of the ignorance I demonstrated in social circles. People discussed popular soaps and TV shows and raised their eyebrows when I appeared completely ignorant of their very existence. Those were embarrassing moments because people looked at me with a question mark that almost seemed to ask: ‘What planet are you from?’ I feared those awkward pauses in conversations that came up when they picked up a trending topic and expected me to contribute an opinion. I often felt out of place. Everybody seemed to settle so naturally into a common world of people, places and interests. It baffled me as to how they all shared the same interests. They knew exactly what dress to wear for an occasion. They all watched the same movies. They knew the top ten songs trending at any given point in time. They knew how to order drinks and how to shake a leg. It all came so easily and naturally to them, and I wondered where they had learnt this art of fitting in. I wondered what their secret was. How could they possibly know what was expected of them?

On the contrary, my world was so different. It was as if I was still stuck in my childhood reverie. I continued to love and long for the world I had reveled in as a child. I continued to love stories, walks, games, riding, nature, children- all that I had loved as a child. I could sit on the terrace of my house and watch the moving clouds, the trees yonder, or the people faraway who looked like little blobs that moved on the landscape, and feel enthralled. I could read a book, find myself transported to a magical world, and feel happy. I could play with a child and feel happy. But I couldn’t talk about these things to people. There was no place for such emotions in conversations. I dreaded moments where I was forced to socialize with people who had no room for the true magic of life in their conversations. I was happier chasing happiness as I defined it, and I would chase such joys, collecting beautiful perceptions as they dropped into the basket of my mind.

I have always loved the company of children. I would surround myself with children. It was perhaps my attempt at holding on to the childhood I never wished to leave behind. It came naturally to me; I could settle effortlessly into their world without disrupting the integrity of their world. They never regarded me as a threat or as an intruder and they easily allowed me into the privacy of their beautiful world. My house was home to many children in the neighbourhood- children of all age groups. Children who walked into my room, would find it hard to leave. My room was full of things that would delight a child. In fact, many people would mistake it for a child’s room. My neighbour’s daughter who was only 2 years of age, would refuse to go back to her house at the end of our play. I had to pretend to play hide and seek to hand her over to her mother and slip back to my house. I remember 4-year-old Sai Shraddha who came crying to me because her brother was being sent to boarding school. I remember that night when she and her brother came to sleep over at my place. We spent half the night talking and when our eyes finally began to slip into sleep, Sai Prem asked me,”Vidya didi, do you know why we close our eyes when we sleep?” I was certain he had a beautiful answer. “Why?“, I asked. “So that we can see our dreams better“, he replied.

I remember young Srijit whose sister was getting married to one of our acquaintances. Srijit was a shy child and he was deeply attached to his sister. He had come over to his cousin’s place for the wedding. There were many kids in the neighbourhood and we would all play games the whole day long. We would also play pranks, taunt and tease, and have silly fights. Srijit became very gloomy towards the wedding. After the wedding, when he said goodbye to all of us, I remember that forlorn look on his face when he said,”You will get married too and go away, right?” It was only then that I understood what was playing on in the child’s mind. He felt a sense of loss when his sister was getting married. In the brief time that we had all been together, I had temporarily covered up that loss. And now, he felt it again. He sensed the fact that you could not own people forever. I was deeply touched.

Children made me feel beautiful. They thought the world of me. This was delightful because in my world of adults, I certainly didn’t qualify for ‘beautiful’. I would take Sai Shraddha to the terrace, lift her up, and the two of us would chatter away, oblivious to the difference in age. Somehow, we saw the same world, and it was lovely seeing it together. The wind would blow and a few strands of my hair would cover my face. Sai Shraddha would suddenly stop talking, look at my face with awe, push aside the strands of hair, and innocently remark, “Vidya didi, you are so beautiful!” She would sometimes pinch my cheeks, play with my hair, mess it up totally, rub noses, give me a hug, and say,” You are so beautiful!” Children taught me that beauty was something deeper than what adults make it out to be. Her mother surprised me one day by informing me that Sai Shraddha had started to ask every young man who visited them if they would marry Vidya didi!

I also remember the poor children in my world. Especially the children who belonged to the construction workers who would appear out of nowhere, set up a temporary shelter made of bricks, and go about their work while the children were left to fend for themselves. I remember the sight of little girls carrying their younger siblings and taking care of them. In those days, it was not their poverty that I saw. I saw their abundance. The glee on their faces as they crawled and climbed mounds of sand in tattered and soiled clothes, struck me. It seemed to reflect pure, uncontaminated joy- a joy that was progressively thinning out in the world I lived in.

I was torn between these two worlds. On one side was that beautiful world of childish innocence, and on the other side was the adult world where innocence had lost its value. After much embarrassment over my innocence and ignorance, I learned to surround myself with people who were street smart and adept at survival, but who valued the innocence within me. I owe much to these people for they taught me essential survival skills. Also, they exposed me to the true essence of a world I had feared until then. There were people who were truly passionate about music or dance or films or places, and they would be willing to take me along and help me find out for myself what I liked and what I didn’t. That awakened my interest and curiosity, and also helped me shed feelings of worthlessness.

In later years, responsibility taught me much. When I was forced to stand up on my own feet and take decisions on my own, I realized that it was necessary to understand the ‘business of life’- the shrewdness and manipulation that was all around. One learns the ways of the world, at least to a degree that enables survival. I feel proud that I did learn, despite being me. However, at the end of it all, I look at the world with new eyes. I look at it all over again, and realize there is something I have been gradually losing. Something I miss immensely. At first, I couldn’t point out as to what it was. But now, I am beginning to see light.

All around me are people who are trying hard to establish something. Everybody is competing with everybody else. Everybody wants to be the hub. Everybody wants to be spoken to, and spoken about. Everybody wants to be unique, different and famous. Applause and appreciation- these are the driving forces for most people. People wish to be successful, and to most people, success translates to money and fame. People chase formulae that would lead them to success. But in truth, these are people who have permanently lost the one gift that makes life worth living- the gift of innocence. I have finally realized that it is this childish innocence that preserves our ability to be truly and purely enthralled by experiences. Only a mind brimming with childish innocence can feel the joy of a little beam of sunshine stealing its way into the darkness of a tunnel through an inconspicuous crevice. Give me a choice between fame and innocence, and I would choose innocence. For in that state of innocence, there is nothing that you wish to prove to the world, and so you are free. Free to feel and be enthralled. Free to cry and to laugh. Free to be mystified and to explore. Free to be clever or foolish. It is in this innocence that we discover the real ‘us’. And to be true and real- that is the greatest freedom of all. For then you are what you are capable of. Nothing more, nothing less.

I sometimes look at the millions of people trying hard at establishing themselves, and wonder how many of them still have the ability to be delightfully tempted by the food spreads that Enid Blyton artfully describes in her books. I wonder if they have the ability to be tickled enough to laugh aloud when Buster, the dog, sets himself on Mr Goon’s ankles. These private moments when you can feel the temptation of food, the thrill of a mystery, or the satisfaction of playing a prank on a troublesome character- these moments are priceless. For the simple reason that you are real in these moments.

I think back to the most beautiful moments of my life and I realize that they were all embedded in innocence- in the innocence within me, and around me. Whether it was the joy of playing with a child or holding the hands of someone you loved, the happiness of those moments was rooted in the innocence that characterized our personalities then.

In conclusion, let me quote one of the most beautiful pieces I have read about this innocence. This is one of the pieces from Michael Jackson’s book “Dancing the Dream“. It is titled ‘Wise Little Girl‘.

I know a wise little girl who cannot walk.  She is confined to a wheelchair, and she may spend the rest of her life there, since her doctors hold out almost no hope of ever making her paralyzed legs better.
 
When I first met this little girl, she flashed me a smile that burned me with its blazing happiness.  How open she was!  She wasn’t hiding out from self-pity or asking for approval or protecting herself from a sense of shame.  She felt completely innocent about not being able to walk, like a puppy that has no idea if it is a mongrel or a champion of the breed.
 
She made no judgements about herself.  That was her wisdom.
 
I have seen the same wise look in other children, “poor” children as society sees them, because they lack food, money, secure homes, or healthy bodies.  By the time they reach a certain age, many of these children grasp just how bad their situation is.  The way that adults look at their lives robs them of that first innocence that is so precious and rare.  They begin to believe that they should feel bad about themselves; that this is “right.”
 
But this wise little girl, being only four, floated above pity and shame like a carefree sparrow.  She took my heart in her hands and made it as weightless as a cotton putt, so that it was impossible for me to even begin to think, “What a terrible thing.”  All I saw was light and love.  In their innocence, very young children know themselves to be light and love.  If we will allow them, they can teach us to see ourselves the same way.
 
One sparkle from a little girl’s gaze contains the same knowledge that Nature implants at the heart of every life-form.  It is life’s silent secret, not to be put into words.  It just knows.  It knows peace and how not to hurt.  It knows that even the least breath is a gesture of gratitude to the Creator.  It smiles to be alive, waiting patiently for ages of ignorance and sorrow to pass away like a mirage.
 
I see this knowledge itself in the eyes of children more and more, which makes me think that their innocence is growing stronger.  They are going to disarm us adults, and that will be enough to disarm the world.  They feel no reason to spoil the environment, and so the environment will be cleaned up without a quarrel.  A wise little girl told me the future when she looked at me, so full of peace and contentment.  I rejoice in trusting her above all the experts.  As light and love drive away our guilt and shame, her prophecy must come true.

 

 

 

Don’t love me

They say they love me. They demonstrate it by showering gifts on me. By making cards for me. By making temple offerings for me. By turning up unannounced at my house and spending hours talking to me.

I appreciate their sentiments, but I wish they understood me. I find it hard to reciprocate to the kind of love where there is a lot of display of emotion, but no understanding. I find it more of an obsession, than love: This constant need to see me, to be with me (sometimes not even knowing what to talk about), to idolize and worship me. Without once understanding the sort of private person that I am.

Yes, I am a private person. That doesn’t mean I am not talkative or I am secretive. It means I have a private world of my own- a place where I like to be, most of the time. It is a world that is like a workspace to me- a workdesk where I am surrounded by perceptions, half done thoughts, fantasies- all arriving at something interesting, something that has a potential for beauty. I cannot afford to be interrupted, especially by mundane affairs. It is often a big struggle, balancing the routine of my life with this world which is my real world- the world to which I belong. And that doesn’t mean I don’t make time for humanitarian concerns, but it disturbs me when people intrude my space because of their obsession for me. I love time spent with suffering souls who seek me because in my words, they may find some hope- some alleviation of their suffering. If my words can provide them consolation and perspective, I cherish the interaction. I love conversations that revolve around something that has fascinated me and intrigued me deeply. The intricacies of somebody’s personality. Of why somebody is the way they are. The challenges in life and the way people confront these challenges. Books I love and the lives and minds of the authors who wrote them. Similarly, music or movies I love and the people who went into their making. Social and political issues that haunt the world. The lives of our fellow creatures. The love for nature. Educational tools that foster imagination, learning and creativity. I love talking about all these. I love talking about anything that revolves around creation of the ideal world that exists in my mind. A world where everybody is happy- their souls are happy. Where our children are happy and not broken. Where there are no mental illnesses, no suffering. This is also the reason why on my next vacation, I wish to visit Bhutan. A country that values spiritual development over and above economic development. Where developmental models incorporate conservation of natural resources.

The truth is I am constantly restless. I am happiest when I am creating. At other times, I am not really myself; there is something missing. But the moment there is a half thought that is waiting to reveal itself- a new thought, I am all happy and excited. For I am creating. It is there in the background as a delicious feeling, and I desire constant engagement with that perception to bring it to visibility. And be enthralled. At such times, intrusion is unacceptable to me. Unless necessary.

I have tried telling people that the best way to demonstrate their love for me, is to love my work…my art. And most importantly, to respect my privacy. I wish they could understand that ‘I’ don’t really exist; there is only the reflection of a beautiful world that exists within me. My mother often says that she sees me as a person who is not really here, but is in that other world- that world where there is no material self, but only the mind. I am grateful to her for her understanding.

I am a lot like the notes in music. When a note in the environment resonates with me, I respond unconsciously to it, and that explains the purity of the emotion that I feel and reflect. I don’t add anything of my own to it; I merely embody that perception and reflect it. This phenomenon defines an artist. But the notes that govern the routine affairs of the world- they are not part of the music within me. So I fail to embody them. 

I wish people would understand. I can no longer commit to people. Not that I don’t love them or that I consider myself superior. I truly believe that there is nothing of value in my material identity. But the very meaning of my life revolves around my engagement with my perceptions and the revelations thereby. I thrive on such unconscious learning; I think of myself as a student for life. My commitment is only to my internal world. I wish people would understand and give me this freedom to be. 

Obsessed with goal-setting!

But having said this, what is the life of a child today?

A child now grows up within the four walls of a plush apartment, in the company of gadgets. He is distant from nature, distant from his natural instincts. There is no play, there are no grandparents, no bedtime stories. The child is walled off from a world of infinite beauty. Walled off from the fantasies that float in this world. Most of his senses remain unstimulated and unawakened; his potential at perceiving the infinite beauty in the simple things that surround him, is permanently lost. Within him is a child that is locked up, a child that has never been allowed to step out into the world…

Within him is the emptiness of a repressed childhood.

The moment the child is old enough to go to school, he is burdened with the painful process of goal-setting. Parents and teachers teach the child to set goals in every activity he pursues…

Study because you must be the class-topper.

Participate in extracurricular activities because you must win prizes.

Learn swimming, dance or music because you must win medals.

Be friends with somebody because there is something you gain from him.

Don’t be friends with somebody else because there is nothing that you gain from him.

Take a walk because you want to burn calories.

In summary, do something only if you can define an achievement at the end of it.

So what is the problem with obsessive goal-setting?

A documentary comes to my mind. The documentary discusses modes of transport, exploring how development has changed the picture of travel and how travel has changed as an experience. It dwells upon a time when man had to walk in order to reach a destination. It traces man’s journey on foot.

A man walks, observes much as he walks, and then eventually sits down to rest. He is joined by other weary travellers. They share their experiences over a meal. Then they resume their journey and part ways. The man seeks shelter for the night at a house that is kind enough to provide him shelter. The hosts receive him with much hospitality. Again, there is a heart-to-heart conversation wherein the hosts and guest share their tales of joy and sorrow. The man engages the children in conversation and play. In the morning, the man bids farewell to his hosts and resumes his journey. He reaches the banks of a river. He joins passengers waiting to hop on to a boat that will ferry them across the river to the opposite bank. The boatman helps them get into the boat and then rows away. The passengers and the boatman strike a conversation. An old man rests his head on his neighbour’s shoulder. After a long journey that has accommodated their varying moods, the boat reaches its destination. The travellers, now exhausted, alight with relief. The man is at the end of his journey. He is weary and exhausted, but enriched by the experiences the travel has gifted him. The journey has transformed him.

As motor cars, buses and trains replaced travel on foot, the comfort and convenience increased, but the experience dwindled. And then came the era of air travel. A man now boards a flight, goes off to sleep, and wakes up at his destination, miles away. The entire experience of the journey is replaced by comfort and convenience. The joy of arriving at his destination is a momentary thrill, as opposed to the journey discussed earlier.

This analogy helps us understand the problems with obsessive goal-setting:

  1. Children learn to fall in love with the outcome, and not with the journey. But, the joy of an achievement is short-lived. So children are robbed of the ability to experience long-lasting happiness, fulfillment and contentment.
  2. They miss out on the experience of the journey. Sometimes, they even take short-cuts to the goal.
  3. The journey is transformed into stress because of the pressure to arrive at the outcome.
  4. The possibility of discovering new paths and new destinations is abolished.
  5. Undue importance to the goal encourages unhealthy competition; children see others as rivals. ‘Who is first?’ becomes more important than ‘What did I learn from the journey?’

Obsessed with goal-setting, children always have one foot resting into the future; they are never still. They are either planning or executing; they are never feeling. They end up replacing their feeling space with thought and action- a factor that is responsible for poor emotional development.

goal

So what are we feeding into our children’s lives? At a time when they should have been exposed to nature, fantasy and the joy of perception, we end up replacing the beauty of this journey with stress. Stress is compulsorily fed into their lives today.

The question that we must next ask ourselves is: ‘So how are our children handling stress? Are they equipped to handle this enormous stress that is fed into their lives?

Nurture a fantasy!

Human life is unique and special. We are the only beings that have the ability to perceive beauty in the things that surround us; we are the only beings capable of being moved.

It is within our minds that the rain is enchanting. It is in our minds that a poem is beautiful. We alone have the ability to be fascinated by a child’s play. We alone have the ability to see the beauty in an individual’s personality. 

This ability to perceive the aesthetic quality of the world we live in, is unique to human beings.
However, though we are born with this potential, it lies dormant within us and must be awakened in the early years of our life. Childhood therefore plays a key role in our ability to see the aesthetics in life.

Childhood has witnessed considerable transformation with the passage of time. When I think of my childhood, the song that comes to my mind is ‘Kannam thumbi poramo’ from the film, ‘Kakothikkavile Appooppan Thaadikal’.

 

 

The song captures the magic of a childhood spent in the proximity of nature. A childhood that was about freedom and the outdoors, with no goals to chase. A childhood that was about reveling in the magic of sight, sound, fragrance, flavour and touch- about endless stimulation of the senses.

A childhood that taught us to fall in love with the touch-me-nots that cowered under our touch, the moist earth on which we walked barefooted, the lanes fragrant with the scent of the chempakam and pala flowers, the rustling of the coconut palms, the lullaby of the rain and the croaking frogs that put us to sleep, the sand castles we built and the mud cakes we pretended to bake, the mysterious glow worms that lit up the darkness of moonless monsoon nights, the howling of foxes that cut through the silence of the night, the little fish that we tried to catch in the canals, the taste of the steaming hot pancakes with their coconut-jaggery stuffing that melted in our mouths, and so much more.

Our childhood was a paradise. Nature awakened our senses to the infinite beauty in the world and taught us the art of using our senses to perceive this beauty.

Apart from nature, our childhood was also shaped by stories– the stories that our grandparents narrated to us. Sometimes, to distract us enough so that we would eat our food absent-mindedly. Sometimes, to put us to sleep. And then, when we were old enough to read, there were the stories we read in books. Beautiful books that had pictures in them.

stories

In the stories we grew up with, there were forests and rivers, there were animals and birds, there were human beings, Gods and demons. They were portrayed as beings that felt, thought and dreamt like human beings. I was enchanted by their secret lives- a life that was not visible to us human beings. It was as if the stories let me into their secrets. A secret that I became part of.

As children, we believe in fantasies. As we grow older, we gradually lose this ability. A child must therefore be exposed to fantasy. Only then is the fantasy firmly rooted in our minds.

These stories helped me see fantasies in the world I lived in. To my young mind, the trees, stars, river, animals and birds had a secret language- a language that was not about words. I learned to talk to them, and to listen to them in my mind. As a child, this was my little secret- the ability to silently converse with the universe. That ability is rooted in me. To this day, I can hold silent conversations with the universe, and perceive the beauty of this phenomenon. It lights up my soul on the darkest of days.

Childhood must therefore gift us two things:

Sensory stimulation, awakening our senses to the immense beauty in this world

Create a fantasy world in our minds, built from the reality of the world we live in. Only stories can accomplish this.

The film ‘Kakothikkavile Appooppan Thaadikal’ is unique in that it is woven around a childhood fantasy. Murali, an orphan, is abused by his caretakers. His young mind is fascinated by the story of Kakothi– a legendary female character who kills her tormentor in an ultimate act of courage. Perhaps, Murali’s young mind finds liberation from the torments in his own life through the legend. When Murali encounters Lakshmi (Revathi), humming a tune on the harmonium, wearing a stone beaded necklace, his young mind fantasises her as Kakothi. This fantasy forms the basis for his adoration of her and the deep-rooted bonding that develops between them eventually. To Murali’s young mind that believes in the fantasy of Kakothi, there is nothing more joyful than this fantasy turning into reality.

kakothi

If we were to closely analyze the role models we choose and the relationships we form in life, we would realize that most are to do with our unconscious fantasies- these people often represent fragments of what we dream of being ourselves.

So why is fantasy so important?

First and foremost, fantasy fosters imagination. If we give our children beautiful fantasies to believe in, they will always see immense possibility in life. No matter what adversity surrounds them as adults, they always have a fantasy to come back to. That defines their motivation. This is beautifully illustrated in the above-mentioned film where both Murali and Lakshmi are surrounded by adverse circumstances, but they live their lives with much zeal, optimism and happiness. To them, every day is rich with possibility. They find creative ways of dealing with people and with challenges. Their mischief and pranks are expressions of their creative potential. They transform every day into a perpetual celebration.

In life, imagination is a more valuable tool than intelligence. Only if you have the ability to fantasise, are you alive until you are really dead.

Secondly, it is this fantasy that teaches us to dream. If we are moved enough by a fantasy, we transform this fantasy into our reality. We thus define a dream.

The happiest adults are those who have kept their childhood fantasies alive and transformed them into reality.

Perhaps, there is nobody in the world who is not familiar with the characters of Mickey and Donald. Almost a century after its creation, these Disney characters continue to be loved by children and adults, worldwide. Walt Disney found the inspiration for these characters in his childhood fantasy.

His most famous creation, Mickey Mouse, is a universally recognized cultural icon. And his numerous films celebrating the triumph of the little guy and the simple charms of small-town life captured the imaginations and fueled the dreams of six generations.

Walt Disney’s childhood was anything but idyllic. His father was a strict disciplinarian who thought nothing of taking a switch to Walt and his brother Roy to administer “corrective” beatings that became a part of their daily routine. Young Walt found an escape from his father’s brutality through drawing. With pen and ink, he created his own little fantasy world where life was always beautiful, people were always happy, and, most important, he was always in control.

Disney hit upon the idea of creating a new cartoon character based on a mouse that had lived in his office in Kansas City. As Disney liked to tell it, “Mice gathered in my wastebasket when I worked late at night. One of them was my particular friend.”

There are numerous examples of such people. People who define happiness. Some celebrated, and others uncelebrated. The ones who have kept the fantasy alive. The ones with the ability to fly on the wings of their imagination…

The Modern Doctor

Art and Medicine, though much segregated in this country, are inseparably bound by the common purpose they serve in the context of human life- alleviation of suffering. While Medicine primarily focuses on physical suffering, art is meant to heal the suffering mind. It is only in recent times that Medicine has also shifted its focus to mental illness as the picture of disease has changed, and a good proportion of disease that finds its way to the doctor’s doorstep, takes the form of mental illness.
However, the irony is that the bulk of these mental illnesses reside in our entrance coaching centres and medical colleges- a fact that goes unrecognized.

The very institutions that are meant to train young doctors in the art of healing, are now pockets of suffering.

Recollect the face of the average doctor today. One can recognize numbness, frustration and boredom in that face.

kk

Dr KK comes to my mind as the prototype of this species. A middle-aged doctor with many credentials to his name and a roaring practice, his day starts at 7 a.m. At his residence, patients have already lined up to see the doctor. By 8 a.m., he has dealt with most of them. For him, each patient translates to a fee.The chauffeur is ready with the car. Dr KK walks to the car, irritated with the stress of the first hour, and frustrated at the thought of the stress that lies ahead.

At the hospital, he sails through the drudgery. The first patient walks in, eager to talk about his illness.

I have been coughing for the last 2 days…”, he starts.

Dr KK cuts him short and ushers him to the couch. The man moves to the couch, hoping that he can resume his story thereafter. But as soon as he reclines on the couch, he finds a thermometer being inserted into his mouth. The nurse notes the temperature. The doctor walks up to him.

I can’t sleep all night…”, the patient makes an attempt.

But the doctor has already placed a stethoscope on his chest.

Take deep breaths”, he orders.

The patient does as he is asked to. The doctor examines him and goes back to his table. He starts to write the prescription. The patient walks to his chair and makes the final attempt:

I have no appetite…

Any fever?”, the doctor asks him, without looking up from the prescription.

I feel feverish, but…

Any difficulty in breathing?”, asks the doctor.

Occasionally, when the cough doesn’t stop, I have trouble breathing….

Take these pills. Come and see me in 3 days time.

The nurse looks at the prescription. A tablet for fever and pain, an antibiotic, an expectorant, a bronchodilator, a vitamin tablet. By now, she is familiar with the doctor’s prescriptions.

The next patient is already in.

Doctor, my leg hurts!

Which leg?

The right one.

You are lucky. Both my legs hurt.

The patient looks at the doctor. His face is serious. The patient does not know what to make of the statement. He looks at the nurse. She smiles at him.

Crazy people. They have no better work. Pain in the legs, hands, head…what not!”, the doctor mumbles to the nurse after the patient has stepped out.

By afternoon, Dr KK has seen at least hundred patients. The repulsion is obvious on his face. But the hospital is happy- he generates numbers. His credentials on his cabin gleam in bold letters. After lunch, Dr KK has a little nap. Then he goes for rounds. He talks and even jokes with the interns and nurses. But with the patients, he is serious and quiet. He refuses to talk…or to listen. Perhaps it is his way of defence- of coping with the numbers. The less you listen and talk, the more you can take.

By the time he finishes rounds, his chauffeur is ready with the car. He doesn’t need to be told; he is familiar with the doctor’s daily routine- a routine that is seldom broken. He chauffeurs Dr KK to the hospital where he is a visiting consultant. He then parks the car and heads off for some evening refreshment. Meanwhile, Dr KK ‘does away’ with his patients for the next 2 hours. By 7pm, the chauffeur is ready with the car. It takes him only ten minutes to reach Dr KK’s home. There are patients waiting impatiently. The chauffeur parks the car, hands over the keys, and steps out of the gate, whistling to himself. He is done for the day, but for Dr KK, it is another 1-2 hours of practice.

Dr KK has no memory of his patients. He is unmoved- by life, by disease and by death. In truth, it is not his patients that he hates. He hates himself- all that he has become. He seems to miss something, but he is not aware of what that is. He lives in the belief that this is what it means to be in this profession. Every day, he resents his life. But the ignorance compels him to continue- with bitterness, frustration and insensitivity.

This is the kind of doctor we often meet today. The doctor who has learned early in his life to ‘switch off’ his mind, so as to be able to handle the pressures of his profession. The doctor who has been taught to believe that work can never be joyful, and that we have no choice but to work, in order to earn a livelihood. The doctor who does not feel the joy of a doctor-patient relationship; the doctor who does not know how to transform his interactions with patients into beautiful and fulfilling moments. The doctor who has replaced this joy with numbers- traded quality for quantity.

These are doctors who have forgotten to live- who no longer know the meaning of life. These are the doctors to whom we entrust our lives and the lives of the people we love.

That is my mother…my son…my spouse on the hospital bed!”, we cry.

But what difference can it make in the mind of such a doctor who is so alienated from life and from human relationships?

It is in this context that doctors like Dr V P Gangadharan transform into Gods in our minds. For they are the exceptions. So what is it that moulds our doctors into these walking corpses that are so alienated from life?

Fear of fear

fear-1

I am worried. I was never like this. Fear was alien to me. But now, I open the pages of my book, and all I can see is disturbing images of rape victims, ISIS terror attacks, and the likes. I worry for myself, I worry for my loved ones. I feel that one day, we will all be victimized. I feel scared of the future. I feel terrified. I feel scared of even stepping out. I feel they are somewhere around, waiting to get us. My thoughts lose their clarity and brew into random thoughts that make no sense.

This was the first time I was actually reading the account of someone who was going through a phobic disorder.

Do you understand the magnitude and seriousness of the problem?“, the letter read. Almost as if the writer were aware that the reader would brush it away as a silly affair. If only it was that simple! If only perceptions and thoughts could be brushed away like the dust that settles on furniture! Perhaps, it was that easy for some people. Perhaps their perceptions and thoughts were just as light as dust particles.

I talked to some people about this. They say it is a neurotic disorder and needs treatment. But how am I to meet a psychologist or psychiatrist? My mother would break down if she knew. Is there somebody who can help me? What do you think? What should I do?

I thought back to the time when I had woken up one night, feeling an inexplicable anxiety. A panic without any reason. I remember how desperate and helpless I had felt. I was left groping in the dark, simply because I did not know the cause for that anxiety.

It was then that I realized that the worst fear one can have is of the unknown and unexplained. If my anxiety had a definite cause, I wouldn’t probably worry much; I would have worried about the cause. But when the cause or trigger was not obvious, it was my own self that I feared. I was terrified of my feelings. This fear of fear. The realization that until I knew where this anxiety was coming from, I had no control over my mind, shattered me.

Also, as the fear took over, the episodes increased and progressed. I was frightened of nights. As night approached, I would panic and that only worsened my predicament. Fear had gained the upper hand and I was now enslaved by that fear. Sometimes, I would be anxious even in the daytime. It was as if an infinite barrier had come between me and the world- I felt an infinite distance between me and the people around. I felt like a child who had been locked up in a house. It was as if I could see passers by from my window, but they couldn’t see me. It was as if I tried screaming for help and sticking out my hand, but nobody appeared to notice. It was as if I had been shut out from their world. I couldn’t think of an immediate remedy, but what I did know was that I dreaded darkness and silence- factors that brought me in contact with my own self, with my insecurities. What those insecurities were, I did not know. So I decided that all I could do was get a change of environment. That was when I booked my tickets to Bangalore.

It was a good decision. For once, the pace of the city, the crowded streets, the 24-hour traffic and the noise were comforting. They probably worked as distractions. My fear of nights reduced. That was important to me because I did not want my mind to associate nights, my house or my room with this panic attack. I wanted to break any such association that it was forming and feeding into memory. My friends and their children also contributed tremendously to the distraction. While in Bangalore, I was completely rid of the episodes. More importantly, by the time I returned home, I felt I was ready to take on the challenge. The will and courage had returned.

Deep inside, I was aware that these episodes had some relationship with all the reading I had done just before they had started. But my fear was preventing me from revisiting that phase of life and confronting the issue. I avoided thinking about it until I was symptom-free. I was relieved when I realized that though I had come back to the same environment that had triggered the episodes, the panic attacks did not resume. There were occasional episodes, but they were so mild that I would wait for them to pass while I practiced some distraction techniques that could engage my mind until they passed. I learned to get comfortable with the episodes. Like how one is terrified of a storm initially, but then learns to wait until it passes.

I gradually trained myself to dwell on the issue. Knowledge and awareness alone can dispel darkness, and it was important for me to trace this strange phenomenon to its roots.

Just before these episodes had started, I had been keen on pursuing a research career. My research area of interest was the human mind and I was to prepare a research proposal. Many questions had been playing in my mind for a long time. The question of prime importance in my mind was the connection between creativity and mental illness. That question seemed to hold the key to the fate of many creative minds- those beautiful minds whose minds deserved to be protected. The only minds worth being protected! However, that question was an ocean in itself.  I shut myself out from the world, and locked myself in this internal world of infinity where all I did was read up articles on the mind and the paths it took-

The journey of an ancient, primitive animal brain through evolution…

Its journey through stress, pace and multitasking…

Its journey through creativity…

Its journey through what we label as mental illness.

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I was fascinated, to speak the truth. In fact, I was addicted and obsessed. I read avidly, jumping from one article to the next. I read about famous people who were known to suffer from mental illness. I read about the life of Kay Redfield Jamison. And as I read, I was unaware that in those moments, my mind was in truth, walking the paths they walked. For when I read, I do not just read, I experience it all. In a short span of time, I had experienced these people and their minds. I had taken a journey into infinity.

As I reflected on the extraordinary nature of my engagement with these minds that I had read about, I realized the source of my anxiety. The unvoiced anxiety in my mind was from the fear that this journey had created in me. The horrors of their world had seeped into me for my mind could not differentiate between my experiences and theirs. And since these experiences were not mine, I had never imagined that they had anything to do with my anxiety.

That brings me to the concept of ‘empathy‘. I have talked about empathy  in my previous post. Empathy is at the root of both creativity and mental illness. Empaths are unable to differentiate between their experiences and the experience of others, for they have the ability to become the ‘other’ momentarily. Even when they read fiction or watch a movie, the experience is very real in their minds because they have lived through the experience in their minds. An empath therefore has an extraordinary potential for learning and innovation because he is able to bring the environment alive within his mind. In his mind, he carries a universe, with the interconnections intact- interconnections that are often invisible to the ordinary, average individual. In his mind, he carries not just himself, but millions of people he has met or read about (even fictional characters), who have touched him powerfully. They have all integrated into his unconscious as a part of his self. The same empathy also makes him susceptible to social anxiety, panic disorder, phobic disorder, dissociative disorders, and many illnesses that are to do with excessive awareness of one’s perceptions. He is equally susceptible to depression when his perceptive ability does not find adequate opportunity in the world. He is also susceptible to bipolar disorder when pace drives his thoughts ahead of perception.

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It all appears very natural to me now. Let me now go back to the letter I was reading. This letter was sent by an adolescent girl (let me call her S) to her friend (let me call her K) who was a student of mine. S was an only child, and she had lost her father when she was a child. She was raised by a highly protective and defensive mother. But S was in acceptance of her circumstances. She had learned to laugh at tragedy and she believed that life was not to be wasted in mourning and complaining. She had learned to be independent and to make the best of her circumstances. Optimism, passion for life, courage and resilience- these defined her personality. Her mother, on the contrary, was a passive and pessimistic person. In her house, S was the adult and her mother was the child. Her mother had remarried, but that marriage had not worked.

S was pursuing her education in a college in Bangalore, and it was in this setting that she had developed these phobic episodes. She describes her campus life as very restricting. Students have no access to life outside the small campus, and they are literally cut-off from the external world. The campus also does not provide much opportunity for recreation, and for a long time now, S’s mind has been feeling claustrophobic. In this period, she read about the Soumya rape case, the ISIS terror attacks, and other incidents of violence and brutality. Her empathy caused her to integrate these experiences into her own psyche. Against the backdrop of the absence of a protective male member in her family and the negative, claustrophobic environment of her college campus, these experiences took predominance and brewed into deep phobia.

I spoke to her yesterday. I was glad that I could speak from personal experience. Though my panic attacks had incapacitated me at that point in time, they transformed into insightful experiences eventually. It is only from that experience that I could write my book. From that experience, I have been able to connect to numerous suffering people who are incapacitated by the ‘oddity’ and ‘eccentricity’ of their minds.

Tips for the empath:

  • Do not lock yourself up into your room of thoughts. Engage with nature and with the outdoors.
  • Read stories. No matter what else you read, make sure your bank of stories is never empty. Read stories rich with fantasy, hope, optimism and a positive outcome. These will neutralize the impact of the stories/experiences with negative endings on your mind. In particular, read stories that take you on a journey from negative to positive.
  • Talk to people. Both solitude and engagement with people are equally necessary.
  • Write diaries. When you write, write also about your negative experiences. Imagine the ways in which these can end with positive outcomes.
  • After 7 pm, do not engage in any mental activity that requires excessive alertness and keeps you aroused. Engage in light reading or entertainment.
  • Practice mindfulness.
  • Avoid excess of silence, excess of solitude, excess of engagement with people and their problems.

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Cinderella’s private life

Youthful…zealous…passionate…inspiring…bubbly…full of life…compassionate…picture of happiness.

These are the adjectives my students have often used to describe me.

You have an aura that makes one instantly fall in love with you!‘, a student once said to me.

My students have seen me on the dais, teaching Physiology. They have seen me outside of the classroom, in the moments that I have interacted with them on a more personal or casual note.

The lady who drives a black Santro‘, they say.

And now the author of a book!‘, they add with pride.

A few days back, one of my students turned up at my house, unannounced. There was a look of shock and dismay on her face as I ushered her in, and I could see that she was in conflict. I was tired and exhausted from a day’s hard work, my clothes were soiled and sticky, my hair was disheveled and grimy, and I bore no resemblance to the person she had seen in college. I could very well have passed for a housemaid. Any day, my maid was more presentable than I was at this point in time. My mother appeared, and I could see my student’s confusion as she regarded this thin, frail and fragile woman.

My mother‘, I said to her.

She was silent for a while.

Do you both live alone? Is there nobody else?‘, my student asked.

I could see that she had expected a lively and cheerful house, brimming with people, with noise, and with optimism. A house where maids bustled about and where chauffeurs opened doors of limousines for people to be driven around. And here we were, a mother and daughter, living a life on the edge. A house that was filled with silence and loneliness. She was quite taken aback, and she left shortly, the conflict in her mind unsettled.

My mother gave me a knowing smile. We have often talked about this malady of our lives. The illusion that people have of my life. Cinderella’s private life! Behind all the adjectives that my students use to describe me, they are unable to fathom the circumstances that surround me- the private moments that characterize my life. Not just students, but a lot of people. Somehow, there appears to be no connection between my public moments and my personal moments.

Last evening, when I got back home, my mother did not answer the doorbell immediately. I panicked for a moment. Then the door opened, and I was relieved to see her. But her face looked pale. It was only when I stepped in that I noticed her limping. Only then did she tell me that she had slipped and fallen. As she narrated to me the details of the incident, I felt a little giddy. Immediately after the fall, my mother’s first thought had been me. What if she had broken her leg and had to be taken to hospital? What if it was a fracture and required admission to hospital? Weeks of hospitalization? My mother couldn’t imagine my predicament. With not a soul to turn to for help, how would I manage?  Her first instinct had been to try and see if she could manage to get up. She was relieved when she realized she hadn’t broken her leg, and she had cried with relief. I couldn’t help dwelling upon the helplessness that characterized such moments, but I didn’t want my mother to know how I felt. So I heated up some water and applied hot packs to the swelling. Then I went about the household chores while she gave me verbal instructions. When I had a few moments to myself, I cried all the tears I had bottled up until then.

The peripheral elements of society- beggars, destitutes, orphans, prostitutes, lunatics. There are others too. Single women, divorcees, children from broken marriages, victims of child abuse…even celebrities. Some are alienated from society because they have nobody. Others are alienated despite having everybody. Every day is a struggle to belong. Belong to that gross order that they call society. A struggle to prove to oneself that one is worthy. Worthy enough to be wanted. Worthy enough to belong. The whole world can admire you and yet not want you. It is therefore not surprising that many celebrities have resorted to suicide in the lonely moments that characterized their lives.

It is perhaps these helpless and vulnerable moments that have connected me to cinema. My mind attaches itself to the vulnerability and helplessness of these characters in cinema. I experience the companionship of these characters who walk my paths, and this companionship comes in as a welcome respite- a ray of hope in the dark solitude of my life. It is these moments that liberate me from my vulnerability and transform me into the Cinderella that the world loves.