Dr Saba Shafi Makhdoomi
Delhi |March 8: He kept repeating his name feverishly over and over again, breaking into cold beads of sweat each time he woke up in the middle of the night, his name and his address, repeatedly as if he were possessed by some demon, some djinn, rocking his body back and forth, nursing his own heart, shielding and protecting it, trying his best to create a safe haven when everything around him seemed dicey and shaky.
As he had narrated this incident to her about five years ago, she had cowered down and had simply wanted to run out on him. She had thought him to be mad. In hindsight, she now realized that she had understood that ‘madness’, recognizing it as scarily familiar and it had evoked such immense fear in her, that she had wanted to sprint out of that potentially damaging relationship. ‘Two bad swimmers can never make it to the shore,’ her subconscious seemed to be telling her. “Run, run, run… He is just as insane as you!”
Five years on, as she was rocking herself to some degree of calm, as she kept wringing her hands continually, he had stood his ground firmly. His instinct was not to run for his life or run for cover, instead, he wanted to pull her out of this quagmire, no matter what, no matter how. He was perseverant to the point of being a pain in her neck, both literally and figuratively! Yes, his patience ran thin quite often and then one could spot flying saucers in their room, hairbrushes being hurled across each other (it’s broken handle a reminder of his anger antics) and spectacles being smashed against the wall. A tongue that was hardly ever used caustically had been the worst casualty of this tamasha that unfurled each day. No, he wasn’t a smooth talker at all, he wasn’t crafty with words, yet that poor little ‘vestigial’ organ was most cruelly used, abused, bruised and battered. Each time she drove him to a point of insanity, he bit his tongue in a fit of rage, quite literally, in the hope of saving himself the trouble of spewing venom on her. Verbal vitriolage wasn’t his cup of tea (he hardly ever drank tea either! much to her dismay). He had become her punching bag and she was no less than Muhammad Ali, only that she barely ever floated like a butterfly, though she quite often stung like a bee!
This was the five hundredth time in five years that they were trying to lay down the rules of ‘a separation.’ No, they were both cowards they decided; hence their cowardice prevented them from going downhill. Instead, he proposed, that they keep up the facade of a farcical relation, while she would be allowed the liberty of kindling other flames. She could be an emotional libertine while he would practice Omerta. Easy peasy!
She kept listening to these words, reminding herself that he was only venting, letting off some steam and didn’t mean a word of what he was being said.
And then, he suddenly broke down into a flurry of tears. He couldn’t see her stagnate like that, wasting herself, letting herself wilt and wither, doing nothing except washing clothes, doing the dishes and mopping the floor. If moving out of each other’s lives would help her get back on her feet, so be it, he said level-headedly. His earnestness and desperation stunned her.
It was the same desperation that she had seen in him as he immersed himself in his work, the same mad angst with which he had, back then, rocked his body, and was now expressing his anguish in slow, measured, rhythmic tones. “Get out of here, go back to Kashmir, go back home,” he mumbled. She suppressed her desire to let out an angry sigh. ”Ours wasn’t a ‘normal’ relationship anyway,” he went on by any stretch of imagination. No, it was an aberration right from day one. A horrible experiment had gone horribly wrong. There had been no ‘chemistry’, no ‘fireworks’, no ‘effervescence’, no ‘mental challenge’, no ‘power play’, no ‘fatal attraction’ and no ‘tickling of her gray matter.’ And it was becoming increasingly clear that none of it mattered. Gray. White. Black. Or pink!
He was to be her death. An anathema, her anti thesis. He was snuffing out all her ideas (and ideals) about ‘love,’ ‘life’ or her own ‘self.’ He was doing to her emotionally, what the megalopolis, that harlot of a city, Delhi, had done to her physically and mentally. He was tipping her off balance. She was forced to stand up and admit that she no longer knew what she truly stood for, what her core beliefs were, where her ‘centre of gravity’ lay. She had just been born and was quivering nervously, barely able to open her eyes, barely able to ‘see.’ Desperately holding onto past ideas of familiarity when her exteriors were displaying such massive tectonic shifts, she was only trying to recreate the same false sense of security as he had tried to, all those years ago as he kept repeating his name over and over to himself. This was an epiphany. A moment of truth, of crystalline clarity.
The idea had struck her on the terrace of a cafe, under the star lit black skies. And it was, now, as they walked together in the park that she could give it some form, some structure, a voice. She had been pining for the Chinar leaves where the Ashoka trees stood tall, she had wanted her shikara rowing where the Ola plied. She had been looking for ‘sameness,’ for the comfortable blanket of familiarity. She kept chanting breathlessly over a rosary, hoping for mountains to be conjured up where concrete jungles stood tall. And now she understood it all.
She needed to let the Chinar stay where it was, with its roots buried deep in the damp soil of her soul and the crunch of its crimson autumnal leaves resonating with her heart, but she had to let the Banyan tree grow side by side as well, it’s roots intertwining with the Chinar, locked in a friendly embrace. The temperate and the tropical could coexist, the chill of snow and the oppressive summer heat could melt into each other’s arms. Only if she allowed such an unlikely communion to take place. And who knows what other trees might root themselves in her heart…Maple, White Oak, Paper Birch?
But for this she had to bare herself more fully and that’s what seemed to be happening. All her elaborate garments were being ripped off and she stood naked, shivering in the freezing cold, sweating in the sultry sun all at the same time.
And she kept wringing her hands and scratching her head trying to make some sense of what had hit her.
When you are stripped off of your very identity, what do you do? When it suddenly dawns upon you that your idea of ‘The Truth’ is not the only truth but only a tiny fragment of the multitude of truths, what do you do? Your ‘ego’ (that funny little creature that one needs to navigate through life) senses a radical transformation in the offing, an antigenic shift of pandemic potential, perceives it as a threat and resists it ferociously, mounting a robust immune response against the ‘other,’ the ‘foreign invader,’ shutting down completely, inexorably.
Her id, ego and super ego were in a pandemonium and she had hit a dead end. She was frantic, she was gasping for air, flailing her arms wildly as her insides were being churned and tossed from one end to the other. She had been unfavorably disposed to such a tumultuous tempest and was feeling nauseatingly sea sick. Yes, her tiny wooden boat, her shikara had capsized and she was no swimmer. Neither was he. So that kept any hopes for her heroic rescue at bay. She was, unknowingly, playing the part of a ‘damsel-in-distress’ quite well but he was just not her quintessential ‘knight in shining armor.’ How could her fairytale have gone so terribly wrong! Not even were her tresses as long as his sleepless nights, for she was no Rapunzel either!
‘Shabaan-e hijraan daraaz chun zulf
Wa roz-e waslat cho umr kotah’
Long as your tresses, this night of separation
Brief as life, our day of union
In fact, her supposed ‘love affair’ (l’affaire!) with ‘intellect,’ that fancy fantasy of her ‘imaginative genious,’ was breathing its last, as she, very consciously, was causing a palpable shift in her thermal set point—resetting it ‘from the head to the heart.’
Having been told that incessant scratching of one’s head signified an attempt to open the lid of ones’ overly active mind, as against biting ones’ nails which was meant to release the pressure off ones’ heart, she had started doing the latter. She simply wanted to make sure that she chose ‘mind over matter’ and ‘heart over mind’ any day! She just had to be connected to her heart more than she had been with her head. She could think with her head alright, but she could love only with her heart. Whether it came instinctively or not, whether she was to condition an unconditioned reflex or not, she simply had to set the balance right. Either her scalp scratching had to stop or her nail biting had to increase. Nature loved order, balance, equilibrium, harmony, while she was perennially racing towards a state of higher entropy, disorder, chaos, confusion. Homeostasis! A delicately carved out equilibrium in her hollowed out, excavated existence! Yes, that’s what would cure her of her ‘existential angst’–a steady state, an open exchange is what was desired. She needed to let her body breathe and breathe freely. And breathe life from every tiny pore. That’s what ‘freedom’ would mean to her. Azadi! She simply couldn’t keep inhaling her own stale, exhaled, vitiated air. She needed to go over to the other side of the fence where the grass was still green and the land seemed virginal.
She was no self proclaimed mystic, no recent convert, not even an overenthusiastic zealot, but this seemed to be the closest that she could get to annihilation of self in her own humble way. She was finally ‘laying down arms.’ She was putting her head down against the lumpen mud of her dusty existence and admitting that she didn’t know anything that she no longer could tell. She had no opinions, no fixed ideas, no preconceived notions, no labels. Nothing! Absolutely nothing! Her slate was finally clean. She was finally aware of what her ‘I’ could be, should be. She would keep arriving at a new zero, a new cipher, each time she completed one full circle.
This was how she was to circumambulate the Kaaba of her own existence. She had to stand on top of it, with her soiled feet and soul, disregarding it’s structural sanctity, rejecting it’s tendency of being reduced to a mere symbolic potential idol, refuting and repudiating her own ego worship and emphasizing it’s nothingness resoundingly! Her ‘being’ lay in ‘her nothingness.’ This was what her call to prayer was to be. And this inner muezzin hardly needed any validation from the outer world. It had no need to count heads that would prostrate in love and devotion, for the only head to touch that moist earth ought to be hers.
This was to be the beginning of her story, her zero, her all….
(Dr Saba Shafi Makhdoomi, is a doctor by profession, currently working in a cancer hospital in Delhi. Her debut novel ‘Leaves From Kashmir’ has recently been published.)
The views in the article are of author’s own and doen’t necessarily represent the editorial policy of News Despatch.