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. 

Heal the world

It was the first time I had heard him speak. Until then, I had only heard him sing. He reminded me vaguely of people like Padmarajan, Vincent van Gogh or Professor John Nash. He was shy when he spoke. Shy in an adorable way. Shy with a self-conscious smile that reflected a certain disowning of his material identity. Here was a celebrity. And no ordinary celebrity, but the king of Pop himself. But when he spoke, it was a self-conscious child that spoke. He blushed and his tone was far from assertive. The words were few, but they were beautiful. The way only words from a child’s heart can be. When he was ten, Michael Jackson had said,”I sing what I feel and mean. If I don’t mean it, I can’t sing it.”

There are others I know who are shy in a similar way. My neighbour Swathi. One of my ex-students. One of my aunts. And me myself. It was something that always made me uncomfortable; I was always self-conscious. Now when I look back, I realise where it came from. It came from the inability to ‘grow up’. My natural state has always been that of a child- eternally absorbing the environment, reveling in its sights and sounds, losing myself to the fantasy created thus in my mind. Imagination and fantasy defines the natural state of my mind; I am often lost to it. And so, when somebody interrupts this continuous perception and fantasy, I am suddenly awakened from my reverie. Then I don’t know what to do or how to respond. Because this is the only world I am familiar with. The only situation I am comfortable with is when the other person demonstrates an interest in my perceptions or imagination and finds something of value in it. Then I lose the shyness, and metamorphosize into just the opposite personality. I am comfortable talking about the magic of the world within me, but not about me as such. For there is nothing to talk about me. There are only weaknesses and flaws to talk about. I feel I have none of the worldly attributes that most other people have; I lack that kind of skill and thinking capacity. I am an automaton, driven purely by unconscious forces- forces beyond my control. I see the same trait in all the people I have mentioned here. 
“I don’t think on stage. I feel. I am one with the music and that drives my performance on stage”, said Michael Jackson when asked what makes such an introverted, private person a born performer on stage, the inhibitions all gone and replaced by what is nothing short of genius. Yes. It is this automaton in him that responds to the music that he is moved by. After all, genius is the product of the unconscious. It can never come from the conscious. Genius, in simple terms, boils down to the ability to stay raw. The ability to respond as an automaton to what moves us. And thus, to create from within. Create something that is alive…something that overwhelms and moves. 

The creative mind, deep within, is trapped in eternal childhood. It refuses to outgrow this childhood. It is all feeling and fantasy that automatically brews into art- the most beautiful art.

Over the years, I have learned to accept this shyness as an inseparable part of my personality. Now, when I understand the larger picture, I am at peace with it. Of course, it is embarrassing at times, but I have learned to live with this shyness and social anxiety. Also, I can now identify it in others and I find myself bonding to such souls on an altogether different plane.
As I listen to ‘Heal the world’ and the old Jackson 5 numbers, my heart goes out to MJ. He is no more, but he will live on in my mind forever. 

An unwelcome companion

I had felt it for a while now. This lump on the left side of my abdomen. Most likely, benign. Hopefully benign. When I had read about it all as a medical student, I had only a technical understanding of it. But when it appeared in flesh and blood, it was an altogether different perception.

It was a strange feeling to even feel it- a lump that was very much my own body, and yet not normal. Within that lump were my own cells. Very much alive. Breathing, eating, growing. That lump belonged to me. It was my own life that throbbed in it. And yet, it had to be removed. I would obsessively run my hands over it, and feel uncomfortable. I didn’t want it, but it was there. An unwelcome companion. Sometimes, I would feel it and wonder what made it grow. Some day, something happened that made those cells change character and grow. Grow prolifically without direction or purpose. I would let the question hang in the air. Only those cells knew the answer. If only they could speak!

Illness is always like that. It catches you off-guard. It is always that unwelcome companion that throws your life off balance. To be a doctor is a beautiful thing. It empowers you. But to be a patient is perhaps the worst nightmare. And doctors are more alien to this nightmare and least equipped to confront its horrors for they are often spared much of the routine confrontation with illness, hospitals, tests and medicines that other people are accustomed to. Doctors always sit on the opposite side of illness and are seldom aware of what it means to sit on the side of the illness.

It was a different world I saw from the perspective of a patient. I felt the agony of waiting. The agony and discomfort of tests. I felt the paranoia as I tried to read into the frown of the surgeon as he carefully assessed the lump. I felt the paranoia as I tried to read into the grimaces of the radiologists who appeared confused as they tried to interpret the scan. I realized how intimidating gadgets were in the setting of illness. I hated the MRI machine that looked like a grim robot scanning me with no compassion at all. Somehow, seconds feel like hours in a hospital.

To the doctor, illness is a mere conundrum of symptoms and signs that needs to be addressed; it is merely a technical issue that needs to be resolved. But for the patient, it is an overpowering phenomenon that has changed the very course of his life. It weighs him down physically, emotionally, psychologically.

I underwent a psychological metamorphosis as the reality of my predicament sunk in. I felt guilty in a strange way. I suddenly felt an aversion for all extravagance; particularly food. I could no longer bear to eat anything in excess; I lost the desire to eat for pleasure.

While I was still working and continuing the normal routine of my life, there was an illusion of normalcy. But it wasn’t this illusion I wanted. The first instinct I felt was to cut off from people- especially people I knew. I felt the need to withdraw into myself- to tap into the strength that I could find there. I needed it now, plenty of it. I only interacted with my family and with a very close circle of friends I needed to fall back on.

I also craved for the peace that nature instilled in me. I felt this deep longing for places that offered solitude- old orchards and groves that housed mango trees, jackfruit trees and cashew trees and where there was no sound, except for the rustling of leaves and the cooing of birds. I loved treading on the dried leaves that carpeted the earth in these orchards. Somehow, the dried leaves were like the chapters of my life that had long withered away and fallen off the tree of my life. It was in these places that I could feel my deepest self- the philosophical self that provided me strength and raised my awareness to something beyond the body and the material self.

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I also craved for the company of animals and birds. These mute creatures offer me much comfort though their silent stories. I watched the pigeon that had lost half its leg to some injury and now limped about quietly to pick at the grains that we put out.

The other day, I discovered an old Sarpakkavu. It was very much like the Sarpakkavu I had visited in the premises of many old ancestral homes when I was a child. Very much evoking the feeling described in this article:

In that corner stood a cluster of trees, old, crowded, hissing and rustling. Thick foliage, made up of interwoven creepers , over grown climbers clambering up huge trees and the self sufficient eco system, demarcated this place. Under the canopy hidden by the foliage stood the deities of nagadevatha.

http://www.thealternative.in/lifestyle/sarpa-kavu-respecting-the-order-of-nature/

I walked into the grove that it lead to. I wondered if there were snakes beneath the dried leaves. But somehow, I no longer fear snakes. I love them. I think peaceful coexistence puts all species at rest; they drop their defenses. There is an irrational belief within me that nature will never harm me. There is no logic to this, but it is a feeling that I have learned to trust, largely on account of the experiences life has treated me to. I feel one with all creatures. I felt a desire to go and see the snakes at the snake park. Hold them once more.

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I walked right up to the edge of the grove, fringed by trees. Here, through a clearing, I could see that the grove was placed high up on a hill and looked onto plains below. A beautiful river flowed through the plains while fields stretched out on one side of the river. It was a glimpse of the Kerala I had seen as a child. The picture I had preserved of this land and that I still hold on to. I held my breath. There was a gentle breeze, and time suddenly seemed to have stopped. When I finally drove back home, the misery in my heart had been sealed with the infinite beauty nature had treated me to.

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I learned yet another thing about myself in the course of these few days. I rely on fantasy to find the courage to go through suffering. Around the pockets of pain, my mind weaves infinite fantasies and shields me from the intensity of pain. At all the times that there is pain in my life, my mind switches on the fantasy mode. I dream a lot at such times. I create fantasies involving the people whose presence comforts me. I create fantasies from nature. I create fantasies with regard to what I shall do after the pain is through. I drown the unpleasantness of pain in this ocean of fantasy.

In the evening, as I sat down to savour dusk, I caught sight of the young mangoes on the mango tree. The tree seemed to hold up its mangoes to me as if saying, “By the time you get back from the surgery, these will be ripe enough for you to eat!” I thought of the recliner and rocking chair that I have taken a liking to, and dreamt of the days following the surgery when I would sit out in the garden and write to my heart’s fill. It would be a relief to have my companion out…to no longer feel that lump. But my unwelcome companion has certainly taught me the value of life- of the infinite joys of these simple little things that collectively make up life!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The stigma of being a woman

Some of the most poignant moments in my life have been punctuated with moments of incredible courage. Courage from what I have now fully realised are God’s most benevolent yet intricate creations. WOMEN!

From a mother picking up pieces of a suddenly derailed life, to bring up two young boys to be the men they are today..to a wife who at the fag end of a 40 hour labour, just as she was being cut open without an anaesthetic, holding my hand and telling me “It’s alright Prithvi”..I have repeatedly been dumbfounded in realising how much of a lesser being I am in the company of the women in my life.

And today..as my dear friend walks in to the sets to kick start the shooting of her new film (*film name withheld to protect identity of actress*), I once again bear witness to an extraordinary moment of courage from an extraordinary woman in my life! Today..she makes a statement..a statement that will echo through time, space and gender..that no one or no incident has control over your life but YOU! A statement that will now be part of counselling sessions and pep talks around the world. A statement that you my friend..are making in a million unheard voices!

And to those voices I apologise..for at an age and time when I wasn’t wise enough..I have been part of films that celebrated misogyny..I have mouthed lines that vilified regard for your self respect and I have taken a bow to the claps that ensued. NEVER AGAIN..never again will I let disrespect for women be celebrated in my movies! Yes..I’m an actor and this is my craft! I will whole heartedly trudge the grey and black with characters that possess unhinged moral compasses…but I will never let these men be glorified or their actions justified on screen.

Once again..ladies and gentlemen..stand up and applaud for her! Behind the gutsy spunk, there is a vulnerable celebrity who knew well enough what this decision of hers would mean to a life under constant scrutiny. But she also knew..that she had to see it through…for that would set an example..light a torch that will show a path for many to follow!Today she makes a statement..

A statement of extraordinary courage!

Fanboy for life…dear friend..fanboy for life!

Love always,

Prithvi.

These empathetic words would momentarily light up the darkness in the lives of millions of women imprisoned by the shackles of patriarchy, misogyny and male chauvinism. When I read these words, there was a tiny flicker of hope and optimism within me too. However, their impact faded away as soon as I was back to the daily routine of my life in a place where every living moment in a woman’s life is a battle with these oppressive forces. Though empathetic, these words are lone voices in an ocean of numbness. They offer no consolation in a world where the numbness that has replaced the inherent empathetic nature of the human being, refuses to be penetrated by guilt, remorse, shame or fear.

Misogyny was alien to me. Bangalore had never given me a taste of misogyny. I grew up in a liberal world where gender roles were not sharply defined or imposed. Humanity mattered more than did gender roles. At home, my parents never made me self-conscious about my gender. I had as much freedom and as many opportunities as my brother, if not more! The males that I grew up with- family, friends and classmates, were real gems. Most of them thought of girls as delicate and fragile beings that needed to be treated with tenderness, and I absolutely cherished this sentiment.

As a child, I visited Kerala during my vacations, but the gender bias did not significantly permeate my world for the simple reason that I was practically a tourist visiting God’s own country! I was attracted to the physical beauty of this land, its character and its cultural richness. This obscured the real picture that characterized the lives of women in this land – a land that was renowned for its creative potential and cultural richness. As a child, I was spared the restrictions that bound the lives of my female cousins. I found them odd and uninteresting, and I would therefore take to the company of my male cousins who were high spirited, fun-loving and full of mischief- traits I related to. My aunts often discouraged these traits in me. ‘Unfeminine‘, they would remark. But I was too busy savouring the beauty of my world, and did not mind their remarks. So while my female cousins grew up to be soft-spoken, dependent, subservient women who paid attention to how they walked, dressed and talked, I grew up to be somebody with an opinion. Loud, arrogant, unfeminine. These were the labels I earned. However, beneath all the sarcasm they meted out to me, I could sense the denial that drove this sarcasm. At an unconscious level, they felt a certain inferiority in my presence. It was this inferiority that drove them to condemn my personality. This was the case not only with my cousins, but with my aunts too. They were never open about it, but this silent hostility spilled into the way they looked at me, the way they weaved their humour around me, and the way they refrained from any positive remark pertaining to me. I felt alienated in their company; they were united in this silent hostility to me. It was ironical that the men in my extended family were more accepting of my personality and the freedom that I enjoyed, than the women.

I had never imagined that some day, I would actually migrate to this place that reeked of misogyny and where women were treated as lesser beings meant to serve men. From Bangalore to London had been a huge transition, but a welcome one. Both these places had never robbed me of my emotional or intellectual freedom. But London to Kerala was a culture shock. Upon arrival, it was a different Kerala I saw. Not the one I had seen as a child during my vacations.

I could sense it right upon my arrival.

The stares that constantly accompanied me as I went about my chores. They were there when I strolled about idly, trying to keep my mind on the beauty of the landscape that surrounded me, or sometimes, on my thoughts. They were there when I went shopping on my own, trying to keep my mind on the things I wanted to buy. They were there when I stopped to take pictures of sunsets and backwaters. They accompanied me wherever I went, irrespective of whether I walked, drove or took a bus. Irrespective of whether I dressed conservatively or liberally. The creepy stares, the sardonic smiles, the leering faces, the lewd remarks. I found it impossible to numb myself to them and focus on my chores. Sometimes, I stared back, hoping that it would deter them. Instead, they seemed to derive encouragement from my reaction.

I still remember how helpless, weak and frightened I felt within, despite the brave exterior that I tried to put up. In truth, I had always wanted to flee from such situations. But because I couldn’t, I had to hold on. When I was finally alone, I would cry like a frightened child. I couldn’t imagine going through this, day after day, unable to escape.

My father had completely introverted by then, and lost all ability to connect emotionally. Of course, it was only later we realized that these personality changes were part of his illness. I had a passive and helpless mother, who empathized with me, but could do nothing about it. In the early years of life in Kerala, our relatives visited us occasionally. During one such visit, we set out on a trip to Pazhassi dam. This was in the year 2007. My relatives were in one car, and me and my mother followed in my car. I was driving. On that day, I had plugged my earphones and was listening to music. We were on a stretch of road that was wide, but full of potholes on the edges. So we kept to the better side of the road and drove on. Traffic was very sparse. At some point, I lost sight of the car in which my relatives were travelling. So I speeded up a bit. A rickshaw was just ahead of me and the driver was driving at snail’s pace. I honked so that he would give me space to overtake. But he didn’t. He slowed down further and kept blocking my way. In some while, I realized he was doing it on purpose. At one point, I could see that there were no potholes ahead and the road was really wide. The man didn’t expect that I would overtake from the left. I swerved sharply to the left and overtook him before he realized what had happened. As I sped off, I put out my hand in a gesture of ‘What the hell?’ and sped off. But imagine my surprise when he speeded up too and drove so fast that in no time, he was in par with me. We were now nearing a little junction and he overtook me and blocked my way. My relatives were waiting at the junction for us. They got out of the car and came towards us. Meanwhile, the rickshaw driver started abusing me. I retorted back, asking him why he had deliberately blocked my way all along. Imagine my shock when he made up a cock-and-bull story about me troubling him and splashing slush on his rickshaw. Meanwhile, other rickshaw drivers had gathered. This man, encouraged by their presence, screamed at me,” Car, goggles and earphones! Remember you are just a woman!” I remember the pain of that statement. It struck me then that I was dealing with someone whose general resentment of women had provoked this. His denial towards the fact that I was a woman, and ‘yet’, placed in better circumstances than him, had triggered this behaviour. My pain was doubled when my relatives apologized to him on my behalf and repeated in my ear what he had mouthed: “You may have been right, but don’t forget you are a woman. So stop defending and quietly get into the car.” The unfairness of it all made me want to leave Kerala that very moment. But that certainly wasn’t the end.

Ten years have passed since I moved to Kerala. In these ten years, I have come across misogyny in its myriad shades and forms. In Anjali Menon’s words: “Violation of one person by another. Of space, of body, of mind, of respect, of identity. On screen – off screen – everywhere.

Little boys, not older than ten years of age, passing derogatory remarks at women much older. Many an instance where an elderly colleague assumed that women from metro cities were desperate and available. The horrifying stories I heard from the nursing aids in the hospital as to what went on in the hospital during their night duties. Many of those women were too scared to complain. Somehow, they had learned to avoid, pretend, protect and cry silently. But none of them had the courage to speak up.

The peers who assumed that being single reflected an attitude problem- an inability to bend to the male ego. The work superiors who were kind and empathetic to married women irrespective of how incompetent they were at work, and impossibly difficult with single women. The numerous instances of being troubled on the road when I drove with no male by my side. Neighbours who refused to involve when it really mattered, and who passed judgmental remarks when it wasn’t their business.

Never before had I felt so painfully aware of my limitations as a woman. Until I moved to Kerala, I had never looked at my gender as a limitation.

Ten years have not made these battles less painful. However, they have helped me realize the magnitude of the situation. My life in Kerala is built on two planes. The basic plane is one of struggle and suffering. Of oppression and hopelessness. Of loneliness and illness. Of physical and mental exhaustion. But erected on this base is a world of joy and hope. Of meaning and purpose. Of fantasy and beauty. Of humanity. One fuels the other. The more intensely I feel the negativity of the oppressive forces, the more I am moved to bring about a change. That change is my motivation. It is what enables me to endure.

Over the years, I have realized that a powerful revolution is often the outcome of silent and persistent work. Work that doesn’t attract too much unwanted attention, but work that nevertheless achieves its goal. Empower people psychologically. Secretly, silently. Without making it too obvious. Weave the message into a simple heart-to-heart conversation. Into activities. Into thoughts. Influence people’s thought process. And most importantly, to remember not to give up. At one point, such a revolution ignites spontaneously.

I believe and hope that I shall leave this world a little better than how I found it.

In search of criticism

Until I had written a book, I did not know how easy it was to get your ‘talent’ showcased in a newspaper. Until then, I lived in the notion that the newspapers somehow found you. I did not know that you had to go to the newspaper.

The first eye opener in this regard was my experience with an organisation I had joined as a volunteer. The members would organise events, and get channels or newspapers to cover the event. The tragedy was that the event would often be designed for this very purpose- something that would catch the attention of the media. But as an insider, I was witness to the fact that the event was the beginning and the end of a so-called social transformation process. The process was never prioritized; the members had got addicted to the transient publicity that the events generated. This was also the reason why I eventually quit the organisation.

I subsequently attended a book launch where I met some authors and journalists. It was here that I realised it was all about the right contacts. I remember coming home and leafing through the pages of the author’s book. Except for the poetic verses that were woven into the plot, I found the book rather mediocre. At the launch, somebody had compared the author to Kamala Das. That was painful. My experience of this book launch was so different from the book launch of a Malayalam author I had attended some months ago. Free of superfluousness and pretence. The speakers were mesmerising. It was there that I had first learned of Doestoevsky’s role in the formulation of Freud’s psychoanalytic theories. I had left feeling elated and inspired, and reunited with literature. In contrast, this book launch made me distinctly uncomfortable. I felt an urgent need to leave the place. 

At the time, I had many questions playing in my mind with regard to my own book. What I really needed was some genuine criticism. So though I longed for a hasty exit, I waited until I could hand over copies of my book to some of the people I had befriended, hoping that some of them would be kind enough to at least read the book and offer a genuine feedback. But it turned out that most of them took that opportunity to talk to me about their achievements and the status they enjoyed as authors and journalists. I came back home, feeling rather disappointed. It was only when I visited writer E.M.Hashim the next day and had a long conversation with him that I found myself restored to my optimistic and inspired self.

That night, I wrote a long e mail to my friend VV. I suppose it  strongly reflected my disappointment. I went around, seeking potential critics, unaware that VV had been deeply touched by my mail. My friends only had good words to say, partly because they were my friends, and partly because they were naive with regard to what constituted a good book. The professionals refused to comment. Some just pretended to be busy. Others were really busy. Yet others promised to read and let me know. But every time I met them, they only renewed their promise.

At long last, I stopped this pursuit and reflected on the whole scenario. Why was this book important to me? Because there was a truth in it- a strong message to society. Wasn’t there some way I could get the message across, without worrying about the status of the book or my status as an author? 

That was the turning point for me. I changed the course of my journey. With help from some beautiful souls I met in this journey, I initiated a campaign, targeted largely at college students. 

At some point, VV had called me and put me through to a journalist he knew.

“Call him now and tell him about your book. Be open and honest. He is a no-nonsense person. He will give you an honest opinion. If he likes the sound of your book, he will take it up. If he doesn’t, he will say so.”

By then, my expectations were rock bottom. Nothing to lose, I thought. I suppose he liked the sound of the book when I spoke to him about it. It certainly was a first of its kind. Nobody had looked at these films and these characters from this perspective. So he asked me to mail him the book. I sent him the book the very next day. Then there was no news from him.

By then, my campaign was gathering momentum. I was talking not just about films and mental health, but about fantasies, dreams and fairy tales. I could see that my thoughts had evolved further and I was on an exciting path of growth. So I started focussing more on how I could deliver the essence of my book through this campaign. I had never before had the courage to speak in Malayalam on a dais. But now, I was ready to speak in English, in Malayalam- whatever the audience and the situation demanded. It had become so important for me to deliver this message that I slowly started losing fear.

And then the phone call came.

“Do you remember me, doctor?”

I did. It was the journalist. I guessed that if he was calling me, it would be good news. And it was. So my book finally made it to the newspaper. But what made me happier was his honest criticism:”I didn’t get back to you immediately because when I received your book, it came as a terrible disappointment. The typographical errors, the layout, the structuring, the splitting of paragraphs, the styling, the chapter titles- everything was a mess. It deterred me from reading. So I read rather slowly, but when I completed reading, I was intrigued. By the analysis of these characters- something that hasn’t ever been attempted before. Especially since these are films that are known to every Malayalee. All of us have seen these films. My suggestion is that you republish with a professional publisher, and most importantly, translate it to Malayalam. That will have a wider reach- something the book deserves. What you need is a ruthless editor.”

Following that, he asked me many questions that made up for a delightful conversation because it is only when people ask critical questions that we think of our book from different perspectives. 

What we need the most in life, is a genuine critic. Not somebody who flatters us. Not somebody who demeans us. But somebody who holds up the mirror for us and reflects who we really are. It is this reflection that we must embrace.

To love, and to be loved

Trying a hand at fiction…

I had seen the message notification in the morning, but I ignored it, certain it was from some random stranger. It was evening when I finally opened it.

“Happened to read your publication. And also the feature in the newspaper. Beautifully written! Keep writing!”, it read.

The profile picture was that of a little girl, clinging to a man who was in all likelihood, her father. I zoomed the picture and realised that the man in the picture was none other than Faisal. 

I felt a sudden pang of nostalgia. Memories of London suddenly flooded my mind.

London is not a chapter that I open often. Not because I dread the memory, but because I cherish it way too much. Like the presents we cherish and open only when we are alone and free from preoccupation. I like to open it slowly, gently, and with much feeling. And then hold it close…become one with the memory.

But now, I found myself at the doorstep of this memory, unprecedented. I was hesitant. I hadn’t talked to anybody about those years for a long time now. There are memories that I like to carry in my mind as raw perceptions. Perceptions meant to be felt. I didn’t want to touch them and spoil their beauty with analysis. So I refused to share them; I never talked about them. I felt they were alive only within me, and they would die the moment I let them out. On every occasion that I unwrapped them, they overpowered me and rendered me speechless. In the dark solitude of my life, they often made me feel rich.

I ruminated on this text message for a long time, unsure of how to respond. It was like a little comet that had landed into my world from that land of fantasy. I thought about my life then. It was so full of people, so full of love. But after the lonely battles I fought and the numbness they left behind, I wasn’t sure how I was to respond to the warmth of this text message. Its warmth made me glad, but there seemed to be an infinite distance between the numbness that had become my natural state now and the emotions that this text was calling for. There seemed to be an infinite distance between this numbness now and the emotional excess that defined me in those years. I had changed beyond recognition. Necessary for survival, but at the expense of a precious part of me that I seemed to have permanently lost. Except within the confines of my mind.

I was struck by the child’s face in the picture. She had dimples and her curly hair was tied up into a pony. Faisal held her hand and she clung to the security it provided her. The picture was blissful. I could sense the deep meaning the child instilled in Faisal’s life. She was Faisal’s world. It made me happy. Happy that his life had not taken a bad turn after we parted. Happy that he had what I could never have given him. I suddenly felt free.

“Thank you, Faisal. I was surprised to hear from you. Is that your daughter in the picture? She is very cute”, I replied to him.

His reply was instant:

” Thanks for replying. You are a wonderful human being. Yes, she is my daughter. I did not have your contact details. I stumbled on your publication one day and tracked you down. Congratulations for all your achievements! I am so happy for you!”

I could sense the happiness in those words. Once upon a time, we were really close to each other. I could decode the emotions that fuelled his words. I could sense his joy now, at having found me. His uncertainty and silent quest had come to an end. He had found me and I had responded. He was at peace with himself.

“I am an ordinary human being, Faisal. Leading a very ordinary life. London feels like a distant dream now. I cannot believe I lived there once!”, I replied.

“You are a determined person. I feel you can achieve anything you set your heart on. I remember your inclination for writing and art”, he wrote back.

Achievements. The word always makes me smile. From the perspective of the system, I am more of a rebel and a failure, than an achiever.

I replied:

“Most achievements come from being a nobody, Faisal. When I moved back from London, I had no plans. It was suffering, loneliness and misery that I moved back to. But I guess that enriched me as a person. I saw much that I might not have seen otherwise.”

“Can I talk to you?”, he asked.

I suddenly felt uncomfortable. I wasn’t ready. 

“I need some time, Faisal…”

“Don’t worry about the call if you are not comfortable. But I am honestly very happy with your achievements. You have done very well in life!”

I wondered why I wasn’t ready to talk to him. The last we had spoken was in 2005. After that, so much had changed. I had changed as a person. There was so much I hadn’t wanted to talk about, after London. How could I explain my journey thereafter? I couldn’t. I think the one journey that is best left alone is the journey of suffering. Somehow, that is a journey that you cannot risk talking about- the journey that broke you until you were born again. That journey is so sacred that you do not wish to undermine its value by verbalising it. I cannot talk to him about the millions of wounds that now lay within me. Wounds I had painstakingly sealed, all by myself. I was more comfortable with my mask. 

I thought back to my life with him. I remember what had brought us together. It was the journey of pain and suffering that he had travelled and that I could see in his eyes, though he spoke about it matter-of-fact. His father’s early death had put an early end to his childhood. He had learned to deny himself the pleasures that children of his age indulged in. He had witnessed helplessly his mother’s solitary struggle and that had seeded in him the urgency to grow up fast and shoulder the responsibility of the family. These circumstances had shaped his attitude to women. He was driven by the need to protect them and to shoulder responsibility. However, he believed that beyond this, a woman had no needs. As our relationship progressed, the monotony of it weighed heavily upon me. The beauty in my life gradually faded away. His inability to engage meaningfully and find joy in the little things in life- in conversation, in nature, in travel, in hobbies and art- it suffocated me. I found them all vanishing from my life. I felt a huge barrier come between me and the world. I found myself sinking into depression.

I found it hard to communicate this to him. Especially since it wasn’t something he could change. It was probably rooted in the fact that he had alienated himself from all these joys very early in life. For him, achievements were pleasure. And that was understandable. But my personality thrived on these simple pleasures. I couldn’t do without them. Perhaps, if he wasn’t so caring towards me, it wouldn’t have been difficult for me to communicate this discordance in our personalities. But he was a wonderful human being and he cared deeply. That made it difficult.

While I was struggling to find the right words to communicate, he surprised me one day by speaking out my mind.

“You are in conflict. You feel suffocated being in this relationship, but you find it difficult to step out as well.”

He sensed it. I remember the melancholy in his tone when he said this to me and my heart went out to him. 

That conversation propelled me to try harder to stay in the relationship, but I realised that the natural course of our relationship was headed towards separation and so, it was futile working against the inevitable. Our relationship staggered as we found ourselves caught up in confusion, insecurity, guilt and agony. That made us a little bitter. When we parted, we were bitter. But now when I look back, I realise that bitterness was superficial. It was only human- a transient emotion that was necessary for us to find the courage to part ways without damaging our self-esteem.

I remember the freedom I felt when I stepped out of that relationship finally. I remember sitting in a sidewalk cafe on a cold winter morning, eager to feel the warmth of the sunshine. I remember feeling the joy as the warmth of the bleak sunshine percolated into my senses. I remember feeling ecstatic at the aroma of coffee, at the sight of people walking on the sidewalks, at the sight of the ferries on the river. I remember feeling alive again.

But today, when I read his text message, I look at Faisal against the backdrop of the years after London- the years of loneliness and suffering. It is gratitude I feel- for what he gave me, and for what I haven’t had in my life for the last several years. 

Not that I miss him. Or that I repent or regret. But today, I see the abundance in him; I see his worth. And it makes me happy to see that he got what he always deserved and longed for- a family to come back home to, to call his own.

This makes me appreciate the irony of life. We don’t need happy marriages. What we need is truth- in our relationships, in our emotions. Unfortunate are the ones who lose love and their ability to love, to traumatic relationships.

The epidemic of numbness

Apart from all the challenges that children are exposed to in the artificially simulated world in which they live, they must also face the challenges thrust on them by life.
When confronting stress, our children lack both the environment and the equipment necessary to handle stress efficiently.
What is the environment in which a child is placed today? In their fast-paced lives that revolve around endless goals to chase, they have neither the time nor the mental space to allow themselves to feel the impact of a trauma.

The first step in confronting stress involves allowing oneself to feel and internalize the trauma. It is only when we internalize reality and generate without resistance the unpleasant feelings that may be induced by this reality, that our mind is pushed to rise and respond to this trauma.

One must allow oneself to fall when one is wounded. It is when we fall and feel our wounds, that we become aware of their intensity and nature. It is only then that we tend to them in the most appropriate manner. It is only then that they heal and we rise. We rise, learning what we are capable of, and what we are not. We rise, discovering strengths we never knew lay within us, discovering weaknesses that we had never recognized as limitations. We rise with awareness of reality. And this rising is what life calls for. 

But our children no longer have the time or space to allow themselves to feel. They cannot afford to fall, for then they fall out of the rat race. So they run with their wounds, numbing themselves to the urgency of these wounds. Our children learn the easiest way of handling stress- they avoid feeling the pain caused by the trauma. They anaesthetise their wounds and run, not realizing that though the pain is dampened, the wound is a reality. They run, oblivious to the wound that cannot endure much more. Then they fall, unable to get up ever again.

This avoidance response to stress is becoming increasingly common in our children today, causing significant harm to their psychological development. 

In addition to the lack of time and space to feel, our children also lack the emotional resources that are necessary to process negative emotions. 

The most important emotional resources are human beings themselves. Our fellow human beings can teach us much through the sharing of experiences. We unconsciously learn from our fellow human beings the art of dealing with the challenges in life. Family and friends are the most important emotional resources. However, our children no longer engage in heart-to-heart conversations with family and friends. They are taught to build high walls in a competitive world, therefore having no access to other lives. 

The alternatives are stories- our literature and our films. Literature is the chronicling of human experience, and our children have much to learn from stories. But reading is a forgotten hobby. Our children have lost the ability to read anything that exceeds their limited attention span. Also, reading has transformed into goal-directed behaviour. There is no longer the ability to engage with a book, unsure of what one might find. Our children are taught to choose books that aid them in their competition. All other books are tagged as worthless. Once upon a time, there was perhaps not a human being who did not love stories. Today, we are breeding an entire generation that has lost the ability to revel in stories and be moved by them. As for films, our children prefer entertainers over emotionally enriching films.

They refuse to engage with anything that involves slow, meaningful perception for they have lost the ability to savour this category of perception. 

The consequence is that our children resort to practised numbness- a phenomenon that eventually becomes a permanent part of their personality and behaviour. Unable to be enthralled by the simple joys in life, unable to nurture a fantasy, unable to dream, our children resort to instant gratification. Drugs and alcohol are the solutions they take refuge in. Shopping sprees, chocolate binging, addiction to the internet and to gadgets- these are all addictions that our children seek in order to merely ‘feel alive’. They are so numb that they need such high pleasure acts to feel anything at all. The failure of relationships that we see today, is also a reflection of this numbness.

Numbness is the epidemic of the modern world. Even in the context of mental illnesses, where our mental illnesses were once to do with emotional excesses and overt fantasy, today they are to do with emotional deficiency and with lack of a fantasy. 

Depression’ is a fashionable label that science ascribes to such diseases. In the language of literature, depression is the inability to feel the beauty in life- the inability to be enthralled or moved by the simple phenomena in life. If the current trend continues, it wouldn’t be long before human beings are replaced by robots- highly intelligent beings with the inability to feel anything at all. 

What we need is not treatment of depression with antidepressants, but preservation and revival of the human spirit- of its extraordinary potential to feel, fantasise and dream.

So where do we begin?

The answer is stories. We need to preserve and revive our stories first. 

Stories for children and stories for adults…

Stories for life…

Stories through books and stories through cinema…