My grandfather was, by far, the most interesting person I’ve known. When he retired, he refused to be like any other retired bank manager. Every evening, he would take a pair of pants and a button-up shirt and iron them to a crisp. He’d powder his face and comb his four remaining strands of hair into place over and over to perfection.
If you didn’t know him, you’d think he was going to an important meeting. He would rewind the creaky, ebony grandfather clock until the tiny cuckoo cooed, while I cocked my tiny 5-year-old head all the way up, looking at it in utter fascination. He walked to the bus stop in Kodambakkam, sometimes casually bumping into a B List Kollywood star- picked out a random bus, got on it, and would go wherever it went. This all while the sweltering 4:30 pm Madras sun made everyone feel like gleaming yellow corn on the cob being roasted on the sands of Marina beach. Every single day.
If he saw something interesting, he would get down at the next stop, look for it, and try it. Once, he found this most incredible tasting Japanese cake that just melted in our mouths. None of us had had anything like that before. None of us can bring ourselves to have it anymore. This other day, he got my mother these earrings, which looked like a light had fused with amethyst to make it. I refused to believe it was real. They’re still her favourite earrings.
When I was 7 or 8, he was diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t know what that fully meant, outside of sneakily reading The Emperor Of All Maladies from my father’s creaky corner bookstand, or when my mother spoke in hushed voices, with a wrinkled forehead, which was very unlike herself, to my grandmother. I was very confused by this entire situation. I distinctly remember going to the hospital with him, and the blaring bleak green-ness of it. I hated it. He didn’t seem to. The overarching reality of it struck only when one day, I witnessed with my very own eyes that my beloved grandfather who stood so tall, suddenly looked like he had folded into himself.
It felt as if he was a shell of that person who actively went out seeking joy each day. At that young age somehow, he had managed to ingrain into me that joy was a choice I could make every day. He looked….tired. Not in a too much activity sort of way, rather in an I cannot possibly do life anymore sort of way. I barely recognized him. So, you see, I saw my family painstakingly lose him, piece by piece, long before he died.
To my prepubescent, takes-things-quite-literally brain, I somehow blamed the doctors and the hospitals because it was incomprehensible to me that there is no logical reason why this happened. Things always had reasons and they could always be controlled. Surely, they messed up. It is very stupid in retrospect, but this was when my absolute hatred and fear of doctors began.
Growing up, I was already a very sick child. I was born at 7 months at a fraction of the weight babies are supposed to be, spent a lot of my days ill, cosied up in my bed for the course of my childhood and had my first mental breakdown when I was 3 years old and thought I would forget how to draw a slanting line. I wish this was an exaggeration.
I eventually, unfortunately, grew up and learnt how to cope. Barely, but somehow. I hated going to the doctors but it was always the case. I distinctly remember feeling this cartoonish tunnel vision when the orange walls of my college health centre crumbled around me as the on-call doctor said “Enna ma aachu?” in Tamil over and over. All he asked me was my blood type.
This irrational but well-reasoned (to me) fear of doctors and falling sick also made me crazily obsessed with my health. I ate right as much as a first-year college student could and slept while my friends pulled all-nighters every alternative day. You see, if I played my cards right, I could make sure I never fell sick because the alternative was too scary and too familiar all at the same time.
So, when the world quickly plunged into a pandemic and I heard of the first coronavirus case in my vicinity, I bolted. The idea of spending 14 days in a foreign bed in a foreign hospital in a foreign city I had grown to call home only for the people I met was impossible for me. I packed for a week and called my parents and declared that I’m coming home, hanging up the phone before they could finish saying, “But what about your attendance?”
It’s ironic that this fervent attempt to avoid doctors resulted in me praying for one.
My parents had shifted houses and the meaning of the word home had split into two but neither at the same time. As my friend Shruti once put it, I felt like I was sitting with unpacked boxes around me. Pune had just begun to feel like home and I was now torn, I did not know what I was yearning for. I felt stranded, with nowhere to place this feeling.
To cope, I worked out a lot. In a not completely healthy way. I was obsessively working out in a way that fed my body dysmorphia, my need to escape everything that was happening around me, and the illusion of having control over my health, all at the same time. Suddenly, I was right back in 12th grade where I’d avoid stress by passing out from two intense MMA sessions a day.
One fine day in the middle of a Who Am I rewatch session on a random Thursday at 7 pm, my favourite grey yoga mat called out to me. And in retrospect what was a very stupid decision, I thought- sure, why not. I did my routine right there in the tiny slice of space between the table and the TV, as I mentally recited each dialogue of the film I had seen about 50 times by now. As usual, I did a chakrasana, then did one again to show my mom.
Whenever I practise this asana, I go back to my yoga teacher, Jaya aunty’s house where I tried it for the first time. I’m 7 years old in her red-bricked balcony with creepers carefully twisting all around and an image of Buddha staring right at me. I always thought he was mocking me. I’m thinking about how he could make a bun out of his hair that well and the steps to Crazy Kiya Re all at the same time right when my fingers slip. I see an inverted Jaya Aunty bolting towards me. Her curls look just the same inverted. I’m very confused- Children are dumb and they fall all the time. While I recollected how she always called this one of the most dangerous asanas because it could snap your neck, I heard a sound and slipped and hit my back and my neck on the floor. 12 years later I had done the same thing. But this time, it hurt pretty bad. I did not remotely dream that it would leave me incapacitated for a month yet here we are- I haven’t moved from my bed in three weeks and refuse to do most things in the fear that they hurt my neck more.
Video games are some of my favourite things in the world. Lately, I’ve been feeling like I live in one. I’m inside a platformer. I look like an 8-bit, one-centimetre tall character with purple hair. Shwe has 7 purple pixels for a ponytail. Shweta in real life has grey bleached hair that she does not have the strength to dye anymore. Shwe’s trying to get to the other side. The other side is a life of normalcy at best, and a non-broken neck at the least.
Shweta could not envision anything- each day is grey and feels fleeting yet seems to move so slow. It has distinctly different events yet they all seem to have fused into one long, never-ending day. Like…endless gameplay. It feels like I’m dredging up a flight of stairs to nowhere with the pain. Every step is painful, but it feels like I don’t have a choice.
Other days feel like I’m flying. Comparatively. I’m grateful for days where I just close to a version of myself and hopeful for the days I’m not. Never thought the biggest thing I do in a day would be brushing my hair, feeling like someone had pinned a gold star to my chest, but I guess that’s where we are.
Some feel like nothing. Shweta’s staring at the ceiling with the fan cutting through the sunlight seeping in from the curtains while Shwe refuses to move no matter how much I press the D Letter. Did you know that the power sockets in my room are not equidistant? Well…I do. I’m not sure why. Shwe’s suddenly walking into an invisible wall and no matter how hard she tries she cannot jump over it. Her energy bar for the day begins with a 2 and refuses to budge.
But there are blessings. Power-Ups: Little pixelated hearts that appear in the most random of places when you need them the most. The absolute mindless distraction of watching vogue get ready with me-s on a loop for 3 days. Friends on a conference call talking about Himesh Reshmiya while playing club penguin at 11 pm while I drowsily drift off in the middle of a game because of my medicines. And when they don’t judge me, I forget that I spent the day wishing myself away from existence. Or my mother, helplessly, sitting and listening to me cry out of pain and angst for the 12th time in a week. My best friend who hears out my insane theories of how “I was in fact: dying” with no mockery. The ability to be heard and feel like you’re being listened to is a privilege I did not know was one.
Pain is a weird thing. I’ve said this way too many times to my friends over the past few weeks. But it is true. I feel like I’ve been held hostage by it. Pain and anxiety are two 6-foot tall men in black suits, headsets, and Raybans pointing a gun at me saying “Why did you lie to the nurse in 2nd grade when you said you had upma for breakfast when in fact, you had not.” They have teamed up to make sure the worst-case scenario machine in the back of my head is the prevailing mechanism inside my mind.
It has made me bitter on days, dizzy on some and fuzzy on most when I did not talk to my parents or friends out of fear that I would say something incredibly rude and unforgivable. Over these weeks there have been times I have felt like I would get better and these random sharp bursts of excruciating pain just emerge out of absolutely nowhere, rendering me completely exhausted for the day. You can hear the sound resembling that of when Mario loses a heart in the background and Shwe’s energy bar is now at a zero.
The unpredictable erratic nature of this entire ordeal is what scares me the most. It is also one of those things in my life that I cannot control no matter how hard I try. I could not gamify this. I was not in a video game- Shwe had to go. I could not eat 4 painkillers a day or put that ice pack (that I somehow secretly want to push a straw into and drink) 8 times a day and somehow get better faster. It did not work that way.
This experience, above everything, has taught me how to be kinder to myself. My body is not a personal project. I needed to respect it and its limits. I could not stretch a bruised muscle. This has been a very hard but very necessary epiphany. A month ago, my brain was in overdrive, thinking I could solve the quarantine anxiety by overworking myself- I was doing chores, writing, reading, obsessively working out, taking a bunch of courses, and watching a dozen shows at the same time. I did not let myself breathe out of fear of breaking down, that the house of cards that was my mental health would crumble if I took a second.
So, an injury that left me just staring at the ceiling most days arrived at the worst possible time but it was a jolt. One that I needed. Everything I feared had happened and yet here I was, still very much alive. Pain is an unwelcome guest that I’m no longer terrified of; I hope it leaves at some point, but we’ve learnt to coexist.
I think It’s honestly time to leave the phrase no pain no gain in 2019; the world could be ending and some days you might just survive and that, in itself, is enough. The world is begging you to pause and you don’t need to emerge out of this a better person, you just need to come out of it alive.
Each day, hope washes over me in waves. But today, I know I’ll jump over the invisible wall. Get that health bar to a 100. That I will reach that door. Someday. And that there is the next level. Of previous normalcy or a new normal, I don’t know. I know, however, that it will be better, and I can’t wait to find out. When this lockdown ends, I’ll obviously go to a doctor. And for the first time in 19 years, I’ll be glad to see one.
By Shweta R
Shweta is a second-year media student who can be found overthinking about life, the universe and everything if you look carefully enough. Unless she’s talking about a film…which she usually is.
You can find her here: @shweta.renganathan on Instagram and @calzonefiend on Twitter.