The horror of the pandemic in 2020 was severely compounded in my life because of four things.
In early 2019, I lost one of my closest friends to madness. There’s no other word that does it more justice. She was like a younger sibling, almost a daughter, to me. But she was also wise beyond her years, supremely compassionate, and wildly wicked with a sense of humour so precise, it was always perfect comedic timing. We were irreverent about death, sex, parents, our friends. We were very serious only about literature. She was my star. I envisioned great things for her. But we lost her to mental health issues coupled with addiction. We cannot find her now. We don’t know where she is nor even if she’s alive.
It was and continues to be deeply unsettling. I felt like I had ignored or failed to see the signs. I chose to believe her lies when she assured me about undergoing therapy and cutting back on substances. She joked about everything and rather than question her, I chose to laugh.
Can such things happen in today’s world? Yes, they can. Grief can wreck havoc. Instability can birth insecurities that few of us have the strength, wits, or support to deal with. She was dealing with a lot and she refused to seek help at every turn. Perhaps she simply couldn’t. At any rate, we lost a genius mind, a wonderful woman, a beloved friend.
But thanks to her, I found the strength to walk out of a 12 year old relationship and an adopted country, with a man who was my brother, best friend, son even, and the closest I came to ever having a partner/husband because for a year we seriously considered having a child together. We only decided not to because of my health complications. Primarily at least. But our relationship began to crack over the years. Long distance, my neediness, his other issues kept driving us apart even when we both knew we loved each other. He is the love of my life. In 2019, after a particularly incomprehensible fight, after he had stormed out not to return till the next day, while I stayed in his apartment chain smoking cigarettes, I could clearly see the two paths in front of me.
I could continue as I was in a relationship that was getting extremely toxic. It was almost a textbook narcissistic codependent abusive relationship by now. Staring down the window, thinking about this, I had a panic attack. A homeless man was squatting on the street next to a bakery. He reminded me of my lost friend who chose to suffer or whose lot it was to suffer. Either way, she didn’t choose herself or she couldn’t.
If I stayed, we could patch up the next morning after he returned. We didn’t. Or at least in the next few days. I knew it would repeat and keep happening because we were both incapable of dealing with the core issue we had, even though we loved each other.
But how would I ever talk about autonomy and empathy with my students; how would I meet their eyes when they called on me for advice or showered praises on me for my intelligence, compassion, and ability to live by my convictions? How would I ever write a sentence in truth?
Or I could walk out, choose myself for once, and deal with the consequences later. That was when I had my second panic attack of the night. I rescheduled my flight to the next day, finished another pack of cigarettes, walked around Frankfurt, eased my burning heart with Coca Cola and chats with strangers.
I came back to my real home in India with a broken heart, and a completely defeated spirit. Every day I researched ways to die. But everyday I also went inwards and ruthlessly decided to cut off people and behaviours that made me miserable and served me nothing.
I had enough experience of grief and loss to continue having more in the guise of learning lessons or accumulating experiences. No. There wouldn’t be any more lessons learnt this way.
I learnt instead how to draw boundaries and speak my truth and my needs unabashedly. I learnt to think first and love later. I learnt that love is not just passion, chemistry, heat, but kindness, forgiveness, honesty, and work. And two people have to do it together. And at every instance, one simply had to put oneself first.
After months, I recovered enough to reduce my dosage of the anxiety and depression medication. Then COVID 19 hit the world.
After months of being suicidal, I finally had a really good shot at dying with my autoimmune disorders and comorbidities like BP, diabetes, the works. I lived with equally vulnerable older parents. And now that I could die without the bother of suicide, I was paranoid. I absolutely didn’t want to die.
So in the first month of the lockdown, I forbid my parents from leaving the house. I made everyone sanitize and wash hands often. My father, battling early dementia symptoms had no idea what the changes meant. It made him angry and frustrated. In the night, on some nights, he was deeply disturbed. We saw that he had moved his bed, knotted the sheets. But when asked in the morning, he said he didn’t know what had happened.
The shape of his twisted sheets had me worried. They looked like he was trying to fashion a rope.
So I moved down to sleep on the ground floor.
That’s when we saw him behave in a way we’d never seen. He seemed possessed, he made guttural noises, he lifted the wooden bed with his hands, then he dropped it down, and went under it to kick and scream from below. It seemed like he had super human strength. My mother’s voice made him violent, he started hitting himself, but my voice (calm and reassuring and firm, the way I had learnt from my sister, Manasee, when I had panic attacks) calmed him, almost made him docile. This continued for an hour or so. Then, he would get all calm and be unaware of the havoc he had wrecked.
We were under the first lockdown. Taking him to a hospital was deemed dangerous by the doctors. He was perfectly fine during the day so it didn’t constitute an emergency. I was at my wit’s end trying to explain his condition to doctors on the phone. The psychiatrist thought it was delirium but he couldn’t be sure unless he saw it. The neurosurgeon was convinced it was a psychiatric issue.
I called assistance. I begged my cousin for help. He came after getting a letter from the doctor. The first five days of his visit, my father was perfectly fine. I hadn’t slept in all those nights surviving only by catching cat naps during the day. My cousin was convinced I misjudged the situation. I was resentful and exhausted. The wait and uncertainty was weighing me down.
Finally, I decided I would sleep in my own room that night. Again, I decided to put myself first. I made my cousin and mother move up with me too. But early that morning around four, my mother heard the sounds and went to check in. Sure enough, it was all happening again. This time I was prepared. I filmed it all on the phone.
My cousin was scarred and shaken by the intensity and violence of the episode. He walked around distressed the entire day. He finally believed me.
And we finally knew whom to reach out to. My psychiatrist saw the video and immediately said that it was not delirium. My father was having seizures. We finally met the neurologist and it turned out that because of the dementia my father had been injecting himself with more insulin on some nights. His medications were changed and he never had an episode again.
I had a few panic attacks through this period, and smoked many cigarettes to keep my strength.
It felt like I simply couldn’t catch a break. To this day, I cannot sleep in my house downstairs.
Five days later, just as my father was slowly recovering, a very close friend got embroiled in a shameful police case. The shock made him numb when he was accused of raping his toxic ex. It shut him up. He couldn’t even bring himself to fight or defend himself against it. We knew it was she who had a history of violence and abuse. After they broke up, she had thrashed his house, broken his Mac, his TV, torn his clothes, beaten and scratched him up. He refused to lodge a complaint. All was quiet for a few months. Then the pandemic hit. When she felt he had moved on, she landed at his doorstep in the middle of the lockdown again. This time sensibly he didn’t open the door. Again, he refused to call the cops on her in spite of all of us, his friends, telling him to do so. The neighbours complained and so finally she told the cops that she had been raped. He was taken into custody. Our male friend and his father who lived in the same locality went to the station. But the situation looked dire. They asked me if I could come to the station. So I went with my mother. At 10.30 pm in the middle of a curfew and lockdown, I drove down to the police station, twelve kilometres from my house, with my mum.
My mother who knew the ex, tried to reason with her. She abused my mother saying that she was in no position to say anything to her when she let her own daughter go around with men, even to foreign countries, and take gifts from men. My mother quietly walked out. But the cops could see a new narrative emerge. I had pictures of the assault she had wrecked. I showed them to the cops. She said that was the day she was raped. Then she abused me. She told me that I had taken his money and that’s why I had to support him. I told the cops how she was abusing me when I had said nothing to her. The narrative suddenly had more sides now. But due deligence had to be followed. He was in custody. Suddenly nearly all his friends threw up their hands. Two offered to be there physically and visit him in prison. But no one knew a lawyer nor took the responsibility of hiring one. They deferred to me and my sister in Australia. We hired a lawyer but COVID meant all processes would take time. In the meantime, the toxic ex had given a statement implicating me as well. My write-up on my blog (about my own break up) was apparently about her, and had caused her acute mental distress. I had also apparently coerced her into having a live-in relationship with him. Naturally, the cops just wanted a statement from me denying these absurd charges. So I went to the police station again to do just that.
Finally, the lockdown lifted. Eventually, we got him out. My friend was out on bail but he went missing in action. Finally, he called me and said that I cheated him by hiring the lawyer who erroneously billed him (apparently) and took all his money. He said that I ended up messing up his life more than his toxic ex ever did, and he knew this because all his other friends said so. They were not allowed to hire any lawyer by me. And had they been allowed, he wouldn’t have had to spend a single day in prison nor money on bail. Then he asked me if I would sign his surety because I was the only one (apparently) amongst his friends who owned property in the city. I didn’t even think this time. I flatly refused.
I was expecting all this because I couldn’t trust his other friends who were shifty and shady from the beginning, so it wasn’t a shock. My own friend’s behaviour is deplorable but his trauma is unimaginable so I cannot hold his idiocy against him.
In all this, I continued working, writing, reading. But reading soon stopped being engaging or an escape. To sustain myself I took pills and watched every mystery and detective show there was on TV.
It was by now the start of 2021.
I was having severe gut and bowel issues. I literally couldn’t shit easily. My mind and body were consumed with shit, gas, waste, and everything toxic. The doctors made me change my diet. Nothing helped. I was in excruciating pain every day.
My father lost his ability to be empathetic with the dementia. I couldn’t lean on my mother who was looking at me for strength to look after my father. Three core people in my support system were completely unavailable. I had to quit my psychiatric medications cold turkey because the gastroenterologists suspected they might be causing my GI issues and constipation. That didn’t help mental health at all. I thought I would die if I continued living in the pain. I couldn’t distract myself. I had seen every detective and crime show there was.
My friend, Preethi, then suggested I try K-Dramas. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. I was so vulnerable, dealing with so much, and here was writing that was warm, stellar, emotional, and funny. The actors, all of them including those in bit roles, were beautiful certainly, but also so very good at their job. Having to read the subtitles to understand them meant I was meditating for all those hours. It was the perfect distraction.
Instantly, I had more clarity in my life.
I watched some of the best ones at the time. I started with What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim, and I couldn’t believe how much I could laugh even when my entire life felt like shit, literally. It’s hyper aware irony done so extraordinarily well.
I was told to watch Crash Landing on You next. This was simply therapy. Through all these experiences of mine since 2019, I hadn’t really been able to cry. I was so much in survival mode, there was no time to process anything. This series unlocked something in me and I was bawling hysterically but also blissfully. I fell in love with the leads and went on to watch nearly everything they were in.
I begged the doctors for surgery, after three months of living in acute physical discomfort. No change in diet or exercise helped. The stopping of psychiatric pills made me feel worse.
My surgery was finally scheduled just after I had watched Secret Garden.
In all that time, I depended on K-Dramas, and particularly Hyun Bin from Secret Garden, to see me through.
Full of pain and barely able to move, I was still running around alone to do my hospitalisation paper work, my covid tests, and feeling the worst and loneliest I had ever felt.
For years, it’s been my fear that if something happened to me, there would be no one to do the hospital rounds, the running around. It’s the only fear that made me feel occasionally that I should have a partner.
My friends always assured me they would be there. But suddenly there was no one there. My sister was stuck in Australia; we had lost my other friend somewhere in the US; my brother was sending me money from the US and that helped immensely but he wasn’t around; I had ended things with the love of my life in Germany; and my close friend here cut me off from his life for bailing him out of prison; my best friend here was dealing with a cancer patient in his family. I couldn’t take my parents because my father needed more care than I could give, and my mother was shouldering that responsibility. Also, it was still peak COVID season.
So it turned out, like in all things, I would be my own best friend, partner, and parent. I ended up overcoming another fear. I was sick, unhappy, and disgruntled as I was trudging up and down the elevators in Sakra. That’s when a man with a pot belly and balding head got in with a sequined jacket.
I nearly howled in laughter. With great difficulty, I held it in, but my steps were lighter, my mood improved, my confidence restored. I continued my running around humming That Man and it was all done.
They did a sphincterotomy. It turned out I also had a gut issue (known), and Haemorrhoids (not known in spite of a colonoscopy). After a month of recovery hell, life got normal again.
Through all this, K-Dramas sustained me. I read up more about it and realised that it’s because of Jeong.
Jeong (pronounced “chung”) is an important Korean cultural value. It is a feeling of loyalty and of strong emotional connection to people and places. It goes deeper than love and friendship, and grows stronger with time. And it’s a philosophy built on the essence of empathy, vulnerability, kindness, and paying it forward. (I am quoting this from a site.)
This has always been my value system. I like to believe in the intrinsic goodness of people, of life. I like being hopeful about outcomes. I feel cynicism is an act of laziness. It also eschews all responsibility. A lot of Western TV today is full of cynical outlooks and after a while, they lack punch, and are uninspiring.
I love British humour. But a lot of the humour these days centres only around awkwardness and a sarcasm arising from that. Celebrating awkwardness by being sarcastic and defensive annoys me. We are all of us awkward, but we learn to behave appropriately amidst people. I don’t much do sarcasm (unless it’s light and well-meaning) because it’s one of the lowest hanging fruits in comedy. What is the greatness of feeling superior to someone and mocking them because they are not like you? A lot of the stand-up, the comedies in the West are all about this and I find it insipid and very hard to relate to.
Korean humour isn’t like that. It’s good-natured, kind, warm, and plain silly. I love silly. It’s like they don’t take themselves too seriously. They know how absurd they are but they do it all the same because it’s fun. That’s so sexy.
Korean love stories are different. They take five episodes to hold hands and kiss only by the thirteenth if we are lucky. But my god, it’s so satisfying to watch. It feels so earned.
Jeong is the opposite of love at first sight. It’s a magical connection that deepens gradually. It encourages being present in your interactions with people, in order to cultivate better understanding of each other. (I am quoting from a site.)
And isn’t this the most seductive thing of all?
I can say and I do say, I love you, to people at the drop of a hat. In that moment, it is wholly true. I love them. For that moment.
But real love is when I have been with people over years, seeing them objectively for who they are, disliking things in them, but also choosing them over others. Long shared histories are important to me. But now I know that those are the ones that require clear boundaries too. This is so we can build relationships on the strength of accountability, kindness, and vulnerability. In such deep and meaningful relationships, there’s seldom a need to say I love you. It’s implicit in every act. Though, I do say it then too, and often, because it’s just nice to say.
I see this ethos in nearly all the stories Korean dramas tell. This is why I think I will always be a fan of Korean writers, creators, and performers. They are a masterclass in jeong. I see this honesty, this jeong in my boys, BTS, as well.
This is exactly what I try to create at Bangalore Writers Workshop. A safe space that nurtures ideas and people by encouraging vulnerability, honesty, and accountability.
Sorry for the long post. This context was important for what I want to do next. And that is put up my list of K-Drama recommendations soon. Thank you for your time and consideration.
As to why I laughed in the elevator, and felt so completely restored, you will have to watch at least the first episode of Secret Garden.