——————————————————————————————————————– For the ones dealing with long-buried memories and healing from old wounds. ——————————————————————————————————————–
It was your smile but it was also the reasons you smiled. Time made a fool of me and it took me awhile to realise I wasn’t one of those reasons. Goodbye, never the kindest of words. You brought it into the realm of cruelty by not even saying it. And I was left, hooked into poisonous questions, holding the word BREAKUP, like a dead baby that no one wanted. I wish you had at least given us a burial.
I have counted the years that passed since, in holes I’ve plugged, papering over cracks of my self esteem with paper planes. They say you’re a new person every seven years. All cells replaced, I’ve been speeding that along. Prising off parts of me that you touched. Hot showers to burn away your fingerprints on my skin, turning wounds into tattoos. I shaped the holes in me into words. I gave them form, let them loose as paper planes.
The wounds that you left on my psyche, on my body, puckered into scars, hidden by tattoos, which carried away the pain & turned into art. The shreds of my self-esteem, I’ve woven into a coat of anger & made you into poetry. For years, I’ve filled in the gaps that you left behind.
So long have I spoken for you in proxy, a ventriloquist talking with a dummy in my head, with your name & face, that when I ran into you recently. (Look at me saying that, like I’d say I ran into a stranger). But you are. You’re shorter than I remember. Leaner. Our conversation is the wake after a funeral, attended only by ghosts.
The paper plane is a philosophy. I’ve lost weight in some places. Gained some. I don’t fit your boxes anymore. You have nothing to do with the ventriloquist’s dummy in my head. You don’t even look like him.
Time, this time an ally, was the decent chap you weren’t. My insides don’t recognise you anymore. The devil has changed his address. Closure can come from a closed door. Or an accidental sighting & no conversation. Hell doesn’t sit here anymore.
Ten minutes ago I looked up from the Netflix show I was watching and the calendar screamed a date at me. In a few hours, it will be 9 years since I made one of the few impulsive decisions of my life. It is a decision I’ve been punished for over and over again. It keeps coming up no matter how many times I try to finish out the sentence, heal it or bury it. It gets used as a hydrogen bomb by nasty, dysfunctional men trying to hurt me for their low self-esteem. It slips out in the lashing out of friends who find this easier than accepting their own fucked up lives. It shows up in the judgement of relatives, of ex friends and even future colleagues. And it gets co-opted by people trying to prove their crusader status. It just refuses to die.
In 2010 I met someone at an Open Mic, a newish event in the city that happened just once a month, which I began attending as audience and slowly, tentatively, as a reader. I’d missed a couple because of personal issues and that day I’d decided to venture out seeking some joy for myself. I spotted him at the door and remembered him from a previous event. Chances for fun, pleasure are so rare when you live your life feeling burdened by duty, responsibility and imposed labels. How could I let this one pass? I struck up a conversation, pushing away my own natural shyness.
In ten days, we’d walked the beach, attended two concerts, shared a bottle of wine, eaten at a hole-in-wall joint and exchanged hundreds of messages. And then he told me he wanted to be with me. “A real relationship, not this open relationship shit” and “Brutal honesty, no plan Bs, jumping in with both feet” – his words. I told him I’d take a week to think about it. The next morning, 17th of July, I woke up with a single thought.
What was I going to learn in a week that would change the way I felt?
I knew it was uncharacteristic for me to jump in on impulse. I hadn’t been impulsive with my affections even at 16. And after the tumultuous 20s (heartbreak, assault, two recessions, unemployment, MNC politics, sabbatical) I had walked into 30 embracing the future and leaving behind old expectations. The new me I decided was strong enough, not too afraid to, to say yes. And I did.
I was so wrong. In the following week, that very day in fact, he told me things about himself and his family that any honest, decent person would have put on the table BEFORE suggesting a relationship. And then he said I was free to walk away if I wanted. Generous? No. He told me this at the airport on his way to a funeral. I did not want to feel like a monster dumping him hours after I’d said yes, and just before he went to a funeral.
So I told him to set that worry aside, to be there for his family and that we could talk more when he got back. This never happened. I’ve run this over and over in my head. There were so many lies caught out later, so many omissions of truth surfacing only when they absolutely could not be hidden. Always too late, always in situations when I would not have been able to walk away.
I am aware that I fell into the clutches of a monster. It does not matter whether he was himself a victim or not, what the state of his mental health must have been at the time. None of those matter because none of those were my doing. And I’ve spent nearly a decade trying to repair a life that he systematically and brutally shattered. I’ve struggled with so many people rushing to support and enable him, many of them people I’ve loved and trusted. And I keep taking on attack after attack.
I keep trying to leave this memory behind in my past and then find myself having to deal with people trying to bring it back. I also struggle with the weight of this decision. What is the lesson? What is the lesson? I can hear myself screaming inside my head. It’s very hard to remember to tell myself that life is not a school and that lessons are things we tell ourselves to feel like enduring hardship was worth it. The randomness of this horror is too much to bear. So I persist in seeking out the lesson.
Nine years ago today, I went down a path that has taught me only things I wish I did not have to learn. I have learnt to fear men (something that did not taint me even after facing child abuse and assault by a partner). I have found a self that prefers the company of books and silence to a life of being pawed and mauled and attacked. I have learnt that I must look with suspicion towards anybody with even a hint of mental illness, of sexual dsyfunctions, of violent backgrounds, of claimed childhood traumas. Because any one of them could destroy a decade of my life and not even care.
Well, I care. It is my life. Sometimes I think the only thing that saves me from the things I experience, is my ego. Ego rescued me from the devastation I experienced at 20 when I told myself that my life mattered more than a man who didn’t care if I lived or died. Ego decided for me that a rapist was not going to dictate how my body functioned. Ego even allowed me to say to myself with remarkable clarity on the day this monster threw me out onto the street that,
This is happening to me. This IS NOT me. This will not define me.
Maybe it’s bravado. But I’m still alive. It doesn’t make remembering dates like this easy though. I thought I was on safe ground after I nullified the effect of his birthday and the day he proposed (also Valentine’s Day). Seventeenth of July ambushed me.
But another thought creeps in, one that has been at the back of my mind for a couple of days now. In a few hours it will be the birthday of a man I met at a WordPress event a few years ago. I was there to organise an event of Alphabet Sambar, one of my proudest endeavours taken on in the life I built post monster. This man has met me only once but we’ve exchanged dozens of emails and messages over the years. He has a curious knack of not being at the top of my mind at all but showing up just when I need a little brightness in my day. Sometimes it’s a song recommendation, sometimes a painting that his daughter made. Sometimes it’s a message asking how I’m feeling that day, friend? And sometimes it’s a little Bible truism with a reminder that Jesus loves me too. Even my radically non-religious self feels comforted by this.
In a few hours, it will be his birthday. I say a few hours because where he lives, it is still the 16th. The day of the lunar eclipse, an event of prime import to all Cancerians (him, me, so many others). I guess that’s all I need to say to myself. The seventeenth of July is a lot of things. I hope my fortieth takes me into a future self of wisdom, not fear.
I haven’t written on my blog much this year. Writing was my go-to remedy in dealing with life’s stresses. But I think in the past few years, it became a contributing factor to many of those same stresses – the fallout of making it my profession and also part of my social life. The stage found me though and I find the same ease when I go up in front of a mic as I once used to, when faced by an open screen or blank page. It’s evolution and I’m glad for an alternate source of expression and insight.
I do however, want to start writing again, the way I used to be able to – sharing openly, blindly and as honestly as possible. It has always felt good to share.
2016 has not been the terrible year for me that it appears to have been for others. 2012 was that year for me, the year my engagement ended and shattered life as I knew it. 2015 was dark though I didn’t know it when it began. I entered 2016 in such a daze I didn’t even realise how far down a rabbit hole I had plunged. I’ve been looking back at my posts from this time and they’re so empty of the passion, the hope, the searing emotions that characterises my writing of the past 11 years. It made me question my own identity, my sense of self.
There was thankfully, light at the end of the tunnel and yes, it really was as sudden and dramatic as that. I had started to believe that I might need medical help. What turned up though, surprised me in its mundanity – a thyroid deficiency. My first reaction was to feel grateful that a cause had at least been identified but it was a grim sort of gratitude. I have a memory of my mother crying all night after she was diagnosed with a thyroid deficiency and the doctors told her she’d have to take a pill for the rest of her life. But in the days that followed, I discovered a lot of people in my life, already on the same regimen. The turning point was when my mother explained that the pill was not medicine but something that would supplement what my body didn’t produce as well.
Why did this make me feel better? Because it was saying there was nothing wrong with me, no yawning darkness inside that had to be fought. It was a simple matter of a chemical deficiency that could be rectified. Last month my dosage was reduced. And even if it hadn’t been, the months since the diagnosis have been so much better.
The world hasn’t changed from outside. But I don’t get up in the morning, struggling to hold a single thought that can pick me out of bed and go through the motions of the day. I am not wildly happy all the time, not even happy that much. But there is enough to keep my days going well. The question of “Why bother?” doesn’t occur to me most of the time. This is a big change from when WHY BOTHER marked my every breath and action for more than a year, maybe longer. For this one reason 2016 for me has been reprieve, release, healing, a flight to freedom.
I had an encounter with my ex a few months ago. It was strange. Not terrifying or disturbing like I had feared. Just strange. I didn’t recognise him at first. And then when I did, there was a split-second moment when I realised the person standing in front of me had absolutely nothing to do with the person in my memories. It’s very, very strange to realise you don’t recognise the person you thought you would spend the rest of your life with, donate an organ to if it were ever needed and care for in your old age. For awhile after that, I questioned what the meaning was of love, life and relationships if one drastic action and some years could take a relationship from the focal point of your life to unrecognisable. I think I only gave up because I became too tired to go down that line of thought.
Tired is good. Tired is what I felt when in 2012, someone from my past asked me, “Have you forgiven me?”. In that moment of extreme fatigue, I put down my worries and my baggage and I never looked back again. So, I’m glad to be tired.
Well look at that, I started writing and I’ve come all the way down to the end of a page. Looks like writing is my bicycling then. I feel gratitude like it’s the quality of mercy described in The Merchant of Venice – not strained but dropping like the gentle rain.
There is literature. And clarity. And food and friends. And writing and this blog. 2016 has been the supplement that my life needed.
I particularly remember the details of a particular journey. It stands out in the multitude of other daily routes and frequent destinations that would checker the rest of my working life.
I used to take an AC bus to work each morning where I was spared of the usual Mumbai crowd. My favorite seat was the last one from the back, on the right side. Its window was not interrupted by a frame, the seat itself didn’t lend itself to additional bumpiness on account of being situated over a tyre and it was far enough from the initial seats which would get taken by the occasional non-regulars.
These were my early days of employment and all I had was a battered Walkman to keep me company. In fact on most days, I didn’t even carry a cassette, choosing to listen to the radio instead. Yes, I didn’t even have a phone with a radio on it.
Once I sat down and bought my ticket, I’d settle my handbag to a corner, arrange my Walkman on my lap, adjust the blinds just the way I wanted and close my eyes. The music and the motion lulled me into a gentle semi-slumber, of the sort that I, like most other Mumbai commuters would perfect over the next few years as a substitute to the regular sleep we missed. Exactly three stops (and 7 minutes) away from my destination, my eyes would fly open and I’d awaken fully refreshed. Just in time to switch off and pack away my Walkman, gulp down my entire waterbottle, tidy up my appearance and make my way to the door. The routine never varied.
On one particular day, I couldn’t sleep. Traffic jams and the ensuing horns blaring, even if they were much filtered by the capsule I was in, kept me awake and irritable. And then we passed one of the bus-stops on the way and my head jerked around, almost 360 degrees. At the bus-stop across the road, I caught a passing glimpse of a tall, slim girl with long hair in a ponytail, clad in a bright red top of some sort and jeans. I absorbed all of this without fully realizing why I had turned. It took me a few minutes to piece together with memory before coherence happened.
The ex- had spent much of our time together, playing mind-games and one of his early techniques was ‘My ex-girlfriend was hotter than you, thinner than you, smarter than you, better than you’. It was the most torturous routine I have ever been subjected to and its memory lingered on far beyond the death of that relationship. For every minute in that relationship and a long, painful time after that, I felt ugly, undesirable, unimportant, unintelligent and unlovable. Inadequate. I had never met her and she made me feel terrible about myself.
I struggled to make my peace with my past for a long time after. But I found I couldn’t stop obsessing over what I had heard about this girl. I even tried to get in touch with her, tried calling her just to be able to hear her voice. I wanted to hear a lisp in her speech, one mispronunciation or perhaps spot just one single mole on her face. Anything at all to let me know that she was not perfect. It haunted me for a long time.
All of these memories came flooding back. One time, when we drove past this bus-stop on his bike, he had whipped around and with a practiced solemnity declared that he thought he had seen the love of his life standing there. He refused to turn back or say anything more and after all this while, I suspect it was no more than a ploy to keep me troubled and under his control. Yet, I succumbed to every one of his ploys and tossed about in the black sea of self-loathing and worry.
The girl I had spotted fitted his description to some extent. What was she doing in Mumbai? Was she still living with her aunt as he had claimed? I sank back in my seat, the flood of unwelcome memories overwhelming me. And suddenly I just felt very tired. Very, very tired of hurting so much.
I closed my eyes in despair.
And that’s when I was suddenly conscious of the sound in my ears. The radio had been playing all along, only I had been too caught up in the moment to notice. And the words I heard as clearly as if someone was telling me gently, very gently,
When I finally opened my eyes, I realized that it could not have been the same girl. Or perhaps it was. Either way, it did not matter.
In the past two decades, I’ve had a troubled relationship with faith and God. There have been turbulent storms that have broken my belief. And then there have been islands of reprieve such as this one. I have no other name for them.
Some time ago I thought of her again and made contact. She didn’t reply. And it occurred to me that if I had been in her place and received such a letter from a stranger, I would have responded out of empathy or at very least, pity. I know I would have because I already have, in another case. She didn’t and I think that makes me a better person than her. It may be very weak, it may just be rationalization but for what it’s worth it makes me feel better.
In a life starved of belief, when you’re being tossed about in confusion, you grab onto whatever you find and hold on for dear life. Sometimes even a stray line from a song will do.
The Corner Coffeeshop was open for business but its traffic was at a lull. It was too early in the evening for the post-work crowd, too late for the students and AC-enjoying unemployed to be hanging around.
Outside, the sun had gone down but that curious combination of atmospheric density and light’s acrobatic bending made it seem like daylight was still around.
Such were his thoughts, where another person would have called it twilight. He grimly thought to himself that she would have referred to Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Nights’ while all along he’d be thinking of the diagrams in the physics textbooks about light refraction.
He was already seated on the bar-stool near the window, his bag on the seat next to his, to save it for her. In front of him was a cappuccino. With deliberate precision, he emptied two sachets of sugar into the cup and tossed the empty packets into the dustbin near the end of the table. She preferred espresso shots but he couldn’t stand their acrid taste. But he didn’t want another lecture on calorie count either.
Outside, the object of his ruminations had just neared the door and was standing but not entering. Then she squared her shoulders, took a deep breath and walked in.
He saw her from the corner of his eye and put down his coffee mid-sip to receive her kiss. To his surprise, she turned, picked his bag off the seat and sat down with it in her lap. A second later, she seemed to have second thoughts and put it on the table.
Then she turned and said in a rush.
I need to tell you something and I need you to not interrupt. I’m going back to Delhi tomorrow.
She held up her hand.
Don’t say anything. I’m going. The ticket is booked. And it’s one-way.
Her face was set in an immovable mask. She looked beautiful. But unrecognizable. Like a cold, marble statue that was displayed in someone else’s house.
When you called me here for coffee, I thought you were trying to rekindle the romance in our relationship.
Her stiff expression didn’t change. She hadn’t even put her bag on the table. He tried again.
I know we’ve been arguing. But we’ve been through worse stuff. It’s…what are we doing?
She wavered and in a slightly watery voice said,
You’re having coffee. I’m leaving.
Come on, you don’t have to do this. Let’s talk about this.
she said. And those were her last words to him. He would think about that often. For such a talkative person, she was leaving him with so little. As if she didn’t want to spend another precious minute or word on him.
Across the street, she plugged her earphones into her ears and switched on the iPod. It wasn’t serendipitous, the song that came up.
Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say
I said something wrong, I long for yesterday
Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play.
She’d been listening to the Beatles all evening on her way to the coffeeshop. It helped her relax and focus.
He hadn’t said anything wrong. How do you tell someone that they had never said anything right in the first place? How do you explain that after three years? And how do you erase the memory of your own wrong choices?
You don’t. You just stop and turn away.
She turned the corner and stopped under the street lamp. She asked herself, shall I reconsider? and turned to look in the direction of the coffeeshop.
It was dark now and the bright lights of The Corner Coffeeshop were attracting their clientele in now. She couldn’t see him anymore, there were too many people around. Night had fallen.
And in the same breath, the thought crystallized into realisation.
Let me not.
She took a deep breath and walked away.
Coffee was never going to be anything but bitter after this.
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