Penance

When they skinned me alive,
I was afraid, very afraid.
For I knew my crimes were not merely skin-deep.
And when they pelted me with stones,
A chill crept into my heart.
For I knew I could not atone my sins with broken bones.
But when they reached deep inside
And pulled out that one tiny shard to crush,
A sliver of hope, that sustained my life,
I gave a weak laugh, giddy with relief.
For there could be no more;
The Lords of Karma had crossed that line.
There would be no more punishment
Without violating the very laws that they held so sacred.
I reached out and took it back;
That tiny shard of an already broken whole.
“No more punishment”, I repeated to myself,
A statement and a promise at the same time,
For I had reached, at last, the end of my penance.

Overthinking In The Times Of Google

Me: (suddenly wakes up early morning on Sunday)

Me: (groggily) What’s the time? Only 7.00… Hmm.. Might as well get up early now that I’m awake..

Me: (turns to the side, and suddenly clutches stomach) Ow!

(Pain in lower right side abdomen)

Me: Maybe it will pass. Will wait for a minute or two.

(After two minutes)

Me: Ow!

Me: (suddenly realizing something) Why is it hurting at such a specific point? Lower right-side… Appendix? Is that hurting? Have I got appendicitis? No wait! That’s an over-reaction. I can’t even remember whether it is supposed to be on the left side or right. Let me Google it… No… Then I’ll start reading about all the symptoms and assume that I have a tumor!

Me: (after a minute) Don’t be silly. I am educated, and well aware that Google is not a doctor. And surely, I have some restraint. There’s no need to see the reason of symptoms. Just check what side the appendix is on.

(Tries to get up. More pain).

Me: Okay. So, it’s a shooting kind of pain in a very specific part of the abdomen. There’s no need to worry even if it’s appendicitis. That’s pretty common, and has been taken care of by doctors for years. It’s just a simple operation.

(Conjures up a picture of the doctor reassuring that the operation won’t take long. Immediately follows a picture of knife and stitches)

Me: Okay, stop overreacting. It’s a simple enough thing. Loads of people get it done. And it’s not like I’ll be able to feel anything. But it would be local anesthesia, right? I’ll be awake. I’ll still know that I’m being cut up…

(Takes a deep breathe. More pain).

Me: Mum had woken up from anesthesia when she had a tonsils operation as a child! What if the anesthesia stops working in the middle of the operation? Now, really! Appendicitis operation is not supposed to take that long! And that was decades ago! I’m sure there’s been progress in medical science to ensure nothing like that happens!

(Wonders whether to ask a doctor friend about the details. Wonders how long the hospital stay would be. Probably a day at most? Wonders about taking care of stitches. A large knife looms up in the mind).

Me: (Tells self): You are a grown up! Act like it! You are supposed to be mature enough to handle situations like this. What about when you’ll be living on your own! You were looking forward to proving that you’re an adult, right?

Me: (Continuing rant against self) This staying at home has had a bad effect on you! You weren’t as silly when you were staying in hostel.

(Recalls tuberculosis scare of rural internship in college).

Me: …

(Remains lying in bed for another minute).

Me: Papa! Will you come here a minute?

(Papa comes to the room).

Me: I have a shooting pain in the lower right abdomen. That’s where the appendix is, right? Wait, let me Google!

(Papa tries to get a word between)

Me: Yes, see it’s on the right side! But wait, what’s this about appendicitis? The pain is supposed to start in the middle of the tummy, and slowly spread to right. Hmm. And look, it says that it starts with fever and chills.

Me: (checks forehead) Right. No temperature, no chills. And the pain started wrong. Can’t be appendicitis! And definitely can’t be anything more serious; that would obviously be too much of an overreaction.

Papa: Right… maybe sleep for a little longer. It’ll subside.

Me: Right.

Me: (Turns to side. Mild pain). Hush tummy! It’s not appendicitis. You’re being a humbug!

(Wakes up in an hour)

Papa: (Grinning) How’s the appendix?

Me: (takes a few seconds to recall) Oh, yeah. Hardly any pain now…

Scavengers

ray-hennessy-118046

I thought there would be no more.
I thought there would be mercy
After losing my limbs, my heart, my head.
But the razor sharp teeth betray
The signs of salivating
At the mere empty shell of my broken body as well.
They have come for my soul,
Hidden helpless under the folds of my tortured skin;
I wonder if they can smell the rotten death inside.
They will peck and bite until nothing remains but bones.
Circling around me, they wait,
Watching the struggle,
To drag myself slowly
An inch every minute.
They are patient in their hunger,
Biding their time, until the end.

In The Sandbox

The mud is not inanimate as she had thought it to be; out of the corner of her eyes, she sees it move in a sleek file. Pushing back the mass of curls out of the way with her chubby fingers, she squats down in the corner of the sandbox. On closer look, she finds that this moving piece of mud is different from the rest. For one thing, it is green. She puts out her hand to feel the cylindrical body wriggle, protesting against her hold. She puts it back on the concrete path beside the sandbox and observes.

The worm makes its way quickly towards the opposite side of the narrow path, towards the swings and slides where the older kids play. The playground is usually filled with boisterous children of all ages. But not today; today, it is just her. The knowledge emboldens her, and she crosses the path to follow the worm.

There is a little growth of grass here, with weeds scattered here and there. The worm quickly scuttles over behind one of the weedy leaves. The leaves interest her more; they are different than the grass around, and different than the full-shaped ones in her book. They are carved and designed like the stencils that she has for her colouring books. Bending over the tiny plant, she carefully plucks out a leaf. The mud around immediately becomes a sea of motion; ants and worms all in chaos. She takes a few sharp steps back; they are all like Chico dog, unhappy to be disturbed from their slumber.

The swings are too high for her to get on by herself; she had fallen trying yesterday. Can she try again today? In his usual bouncing excitement, Chico dog had jumped on the swings last week, only to land flying on the ground; shocked that the seats moved. She had been amused by his horrified look.

She stands in front of one of swings, set slightly lower than the rest. The seat is in line with her chest. A rush of struggling limbs; arms tightened on the metal ropes, legs flailing about in the air, and she is flat on the ground. She settles down on the lower seat of the see-saw to rest.

worm

Photo by Jairo Alzate

 

The insect hole, hidden behind the shade of the small plant, has gone back to its peaceful existence. She sees lines of ants following each other in and out of the hole. The worm that she had followed has climbed over on one of the intricately patterned leaves. It is soon joined by a friend, and together, they cut out a pattern across the midrib, somewhat like the lace on the socks that she is wearing.

She is distracted by the sound of laughter coming from the street, and looks up to see two boys enter the playground. They are slightly older than her; she has seen them sit on the swings by themselves. They make their way to the see-saw.

“Get up, we want to play.”

She obliges, and toddles back to her sandbox, vaguely aware of the chatter behind her. One of the worms has escaped from its leaf house again, and joins her in the sandbox. Her shoes have left a pattern in the mud, and the worm follows the crevices. This fascinates her. She creates a gateway out of her shoe’s print, and begins tracing a path with her finger for the worm. The worm is slow, and by the time it reaches the gateway, she has already created an elaborate labyrinth over half the sandbox. Settling down cross-legged in the middle of the sandbox, she watches the progress of the worm, engrossed.

A heap of mud lands directly over the worm, burying it. The two boys are standing over her, their hands muddy.

“Go away. We want to play.”

She looks back to ground. The worm has managed to find its way out of the mud, and is gliding down the tiny mound.

Before she can point this out to the boys, she is showered in fistfuls of mud. The mud pies are strong, hard enough to hurt her. She covers her face, but her hands are already dirty. Tears spring from her eyes, streaking across her muddy face. She does not understand.

“What the mother must be thinking, leaving her girl playing about in the mud like that!”

She opens her eyes to find the women, the boys’ mothers scrutinizing her, distaste plain on their faces. She looks towards the gate for comfort, her red house visible on the other side of the pavement. Chico dog had been roaming in their garden, but now has come to the playground to investigate. He gives her a lick. The women look on in disgust. One of the boys takes a fancy to Chico and makes to pet him, but is pulled back by his mother.

She wants to tell the boys that Chico will not bite, wants them to know that the worm climbed out of the heap of mud. Chico tugs at her pinafore.

*

She is in the tub, telling her mother all about the worm, how she fell down the swing, how the boys were scared of Chico. Her mother smiles, asks her questions about the stencil leaves, and gently washes the mud out of her hair. Inwardly, she thinks of the articles she read that morning, about prestigious science awards going only to men, of glass ceilings that would not break. She thinks of her own hard-earned tenure, her patronizing colleagues, her difficult journey. She tries to quieten the guilt that is seeping through her; guilt of being a few minutes late, caught up in a work call. She looks at her bright, inquisitive daughter, and wonders if mud is enough to sow seeds of doubt and hesitation.

As the mother tucks her into bed, her daughter tells her that she will go and see the worms tomorrow. She hopes that they will have new patterns on their leaves. A relieved sigh escapes the mother. Today, at least, was not the day.

Healing With Gold

I recently came across the term “Kintsukuroi” while browsing the vast labyrinths of the internet. It is a Japanese art form, which literally translates as “to repair with gold”.  The philosophy behind it is quite beautiful.

When a ceramic pot or bowl would break, the artisan would put the pieces together again using gold or silver lacquer to create something stronger, more beautiful, then it was before. The breaking is not something to hide. It does not mean that the work of art is ruined or without value because it is different than what was planned. Kintsukuroi is a way of living that embraces every flaw and imperfection.  Every crack is part of the history of the object and it becomes more beautiful, precisely because it had been broken.

Firstly, notice the first word of the quote. It does not say “If”, it says “When”. We talk of chance and of curve balls to indicate that this is not what we expected, and now it hurts. Of course it does. But a lot of us are unable to let go of the bitterness that comes with the pain. “Why me?”, we ask. There is no simple answer for that. But what we do need to accept is the certainty of pain. Being broken is an eventuality, not an accident. And I do not mean this in a cynical way. I mean that brokenness leads to the wholeness that we have, at some point.

I do not read too much into the “stronger and more beautiful” aspect of it. It would sound like empty words to someone who is or has been broken. What I do like to take from this is the attempt, to heal oneself, with gold. I like to think of it as taking responsibility for our brokenness, and pouring in love and empathy and kindness to repair ourselves. If at all we need to ask “Why me?”, we should let that become a tool to better our reparation, and not as a means of wallowing in self-pity. I know I certainly need to learn that lesson.

35, October 3, 2015

Photo via WIkimedia Commons

 

References:

1 https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/luminous-things/201510/resilience-growth-kintsukuroi

Red

The world went red this morning;

Was it red yesterday as well?

And the days and weeks and months before?

Do I remember a world with all colors?

 

As dawn approaches,

I see the crimson of the sun

Bleeding in all directions of the sky.

Do I remember seeing a rainbow?

 

The creek flowing through the valley

Is the vermillion starting at the head

As it paints her, the mountain,

With the color of her master.

 

Red flowers adorn the branches

Like ruby rings on hands;

The shine of glamour masking

The bruises beneath the bangles.

 

I trace the heavy droplets

From palm to elbow to neck.

My cheeks feel hot and sticky;

I discover, at last, the source of red.

Intoxicated

She runs her hand lightly on the spines of the books on her towering shelves. She picks one at random, reads a few pages, puts it back, picks another, puts it back. Her mind cannot stick to the story, or the characters.  When it does, she feels even more lost and trapped. All her books seem to be about inevitable pain, and helplessness in front of fate. Even the summaries on the back of the books talk about already “doomed” protagonists. When did her books become so depressing, and cynical, and tragic? She remembers when she started reading “grown up” books; books that were not in the Young Reader’s section at the book store. She was thrilled, she felt like a grown up. When did growing up become synonymous with tragedy?

Unable to settle, she roams about the house. Her grandmother’s room looks to the east, and the rays of the sun are slipping through the crack between the two curtains, lighting up the haze of dust. She draws the curtains aside, only to be blinded by the light. She cannot comprehend the emptiness of the room, but the utter silence is somewhat comforting. After days of endless chatter of her relatives, the necessary small talk, the societal rituals of mourning, the silence feels like waking up after a long harrowing nightmare.

The landing on the first floor opens to a terrace balcony. A worn out yoga mat sits in the corner, its navy color fading. She wants to smile at her innocently good intentions. She tries to ease the wrinkles on her forehead, but that is oddly uncomfortable. Her face struggles to get back to the new normal, unable to handle the momentary release from the strain.

Memories of this terrace flicker across her eyes. She remembers sitting her in the evenings, getting her hair oiled by her grandmother, eating almonds. She remembers endless games of carom, accompanied by lemonade. She remembers the frustration and sleepless nights, when she dealt with  her exam stress by walking to and fro in the cool night air. She remembers tears of joy and relief at finally getting admission to her first choice of university. She remembers dance practices and hard work. She remembers long discussions, the aimless chatter, the unhesitating laughter. She remembers the mechanical answers as she replied to variants of Congratulations on your first job! She remembers the loneliness that slowly sneaked up on her, as she became quieter and quieter. She remembers the months of guilt as she willed herself everyday to function, to show up at work, to pick up the pieces of her life, to switch off the autopilot, to do more than simply exist. And she remembers the phone call, the dread, the cold sweat breaking over her again and again, as she begged, and prayed, and hoped, that she had heard wrong, that Naani was fine, that it was not her fault that she had not been available to talk, or to listen.

The attic smells musty. No one has come up here since ages. The place is crammed with boxes, and knick-knacks lie scattered on the floor. She sees several dinner sets that they never got around to using, each gifted to the family by someone or the other every Diwali. She sees her old bicycle, stabilizers thrown into the basket. There are four huge boxes full of old photo albums, picture stories of three generations.

She has never been intoxicated. Always the model child, she never had the urge to try out something forbidden, to experiment, to experience. She never rebelled, never sneaked out at night, never had a secret party, never even painted her nails black. She wonders if she missed out on things, but she knows, deep down, that she never would have dared. She has been raised on a diet of obedience and guilt.

And yet she often finds herself thinking of the small bottle of brandy in the medicinal cabinet nowadays, fighting a mad desire to take a couple of swigs. She wonders, almost academically, what it would feel like to be drunk. Would she really forget for a while?

She finds what she is looking for. In this corner of the attic are boxes labelled Books. Here lie the stacks of Nancy Drew, the literal mountains of innumerable series of Enid Blyton, the Judy Blumes. These are the books that made her fall in love with reading. These are the characters that are brave, and never fail, and are always the heroes of their own stories. They are never hindered by things outside their control, they never feel helpless.

She is meticulous this time, and picks up the books in order of their series number. The characters wave at her like old friends, the familiar words ease the knots in her stomach. If she concentrates very hard, she can just taste her childhood. She tells herself this is healthier; at least she’s not zoning out in front of the TV.

It is dark in the attic. Her eyes turn red with strain as she devours book after book. The characters from all the series are getting mixed up but she doesn’t want to stop. As she drags herself down to her bedroom after several hours, her eyes nearly closed, her head pounding, and her body heavy with tiredness that comes from mental exhaustion, it strikes her that the brandy may not be the only way of getting drunk.