Strawberry

I have been dreaming about pools of blood. It’s in all shades of red. Vermillion. Scarlet. Crimson. But not rust, not brown, almost black, like blood really is. My back aches often and my left leg pulls and throbs in memory of a period. But the blood remains absent.

There are many things that are absent in my life now that I only dream about. It’s a great thing. Toxic exes and excesses are all stuff of dreams now. Blood gets added on. In my dreams, I menstruate like a fecund goddess with vermilion smeared over long black curly locks, naked globular breasts tingling, naked thighs streaked with rivulets of red.

But I am more of a Goddess in the real world with my purple hair static and fading like a sunset, my strong, kind heart, my brain quick and agile even when exhausted.

In real life, my fertility is implicit in the things I do and create, easily, playfully, Parvati-like.

In real life, my fertility has been questioned just once by the man who wanted to marry me. I had agreed to be married just that once, but how do you prove your fertility without repeated copulation? He broke my heart twice – once by being a lousy fuck and the second time by dumping me even though he was the bad lay. With this absurd reason that I would never have a child.

I wanted to stay loyal to him. How do you prove loyalty if you take another lover? But it was also the only way I might have proved him wrong. Such salacious trauma is why I wanted to have a child mostly – to prove to him and the world that I could be a goddess and a mother.

Infantile idiocy.

The first man – blue-eyed, blonde, beautiful – turned me down gently, kindly. He helped me birth myself instead.

When the thirties stuck, nature went into overdrive. I saw babies everywhere. I wanted needed desperately craved babies. I would Mother India babies. I would annihilate myself for my baby. I would fashion my baby from bath soap and sea water and leaves and pods.

Nature prevailed.

The man who dreamt this madness with me was practical enough to insist on health checks. And my doctors said, “Do you really want to do this?” My man thought we absolutely must not. I decided to be content with just my divinity. I didn’t need to mother someone at the cost of depleting health. I was filled with relief and a consciousness of being something less of a woman. Irrational. It was just the body clock ticking. It passed.

Everyday now I am grateful I chose not to create a child. My own mother has so little freedom. Over the years, autonomy has come to mean everything to me.

Autonomy is the first to go when your body ages, falters.

So life’s lesson seems to be about acceptance and not autonomy.

I feel light. I float. Especially when I throw my head back and laugh.

It’s enjoyable but unsettling. So there’s no getting used to it.

Sleep bids a serious goodbye.

So when I do close my lids with pills, heat envelopes me for a few minutes before the shivers begin because it really is cold in Bangalore in December while it rains out and hypothyroid exists within. The first night, I stretch my arm out of the duvet and feel for the fan switch. The next morning, I am frozen stiff. My arthritic toes pinch in pain. The second night, high and disoriented on the melatonin because sleep never comes, I switch on the fan feeling strange.

Hot and cold.

I am blowing hot and cold.

Like a lover I once knew.

In those pill-induced moments of rest, I dream of lovers I had and blood exploding from my vulva. I wake up strangely distressed and listless.

I should be more angry but perhaps that will come tomorrow or in a few years.

I really need to cry but that doesn’t happen. Only BTS, the seven boys whom I fell madly in love with because they made me laugh, can today moisten my eyes a bit because they have to serve in the Korean army for two years. In two years, who knows what can happen? Who knew K-Pop could help dry eyes?

It is the age I am in. My body knows it is the forties. I remember solving a rebus once that ended with Life Begins at 40. I must have been no more than ten then. Forty seemed so old. But 40 really feels young. There’s plenty of wisdom now after all the therapy and experiences. There’s also a happy, healthy sex drive. And the knowledge of exactly what and who feels pleasurable and which pleasure is simply not worth the bother.

The joy and smug satisfaction of just that.

Life begins at 40.

But the body needs help – positions that always work, lube, and the magic ingredient I am sharing generously here: cold pressed coconut oil.

But after sex now is a bit like after sex in the 20s. Every day the period doesn’t come, I think, “Shit. I am pregnant.’

So I am happy when the test comes negative. Naturally.

When he can’t meet again, soon, I suffer twin pangs of relief and regret. And neither with any great intensity. It’s interesting to finally be able to feel just enough.

“Have you had sex with anyone when they were on their period?”

I know I can. Past lovers have shown how good, if icky it is. For two days after, I don’t suffer from cramps. I feel great in my head. It should be recommended sex. Mandatory sex.

But most men (likely women too) are squeamish.

“Ah so strawberry week?”

My Polish-German lover had laughed. His English was great so I wondered what lost in translation issue this was. “That’s what we call it here. In Germany. If you are okay with it, I am.”

I am a little sad there might be fewer or no strawberries in my future. How can I feel so completely woman and just then lose the one thing that definitely makes me one?

The sadness is why I keep dreaming of blood, no doubt.

I meet an old friend for coffee. The first thing she says is, “I am tired. It’s all this menopause.”

We giggle and bond over menopause now like we used to do over musicians and men.

“Smell. It’s my new unwanted super power. I can smell everything and everyone intensely. Do you know who still doesn’t wear deodorant and repeats unwashed clothes?”

“No. Still? But why doesn’t someone tell her?”

“Maybe they like her smell. It’s ghastly, though. Why can’t everyone just wash clothes and wear deodorant? OK. Next. Itching? Do you have that?”

“Only vaginal.”

“Oh. I itch all over. I break out into rashes.”

“Wait. Let me show you a picture. I am breaking out now like a teenager on some days.”

“Good grief. I don’t have that yet. But I have severe anxiety.”

“Me too. But that’s just character.”

We laugh at ourselves till we almost tear up.

“I cry at the drop of a hat.” She flicks at her eyes.

“Not yet.”

“Mood swings. I am ready to drink blood.”

“No. Only PMS level. Still can control.”

“Give it time.”

“What do you mean? I am done. Another year max.”

She looks at me with pity in her eyes. “We’ve got at least four more years to go.”

“No way. I can bet. Throw me a party if I am right. A freedom party.”

“At least four more years.”

I let that sink in.

“So no wonder this feels doable now.”

“Exactly.”

She nods wisely.

We look at each other and sigh.

Suddenly the cafe gets too hot.

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In these cities we had sex

Delhi wears aggression on its sleeve. Everyone knows who I am. Desire is for the taking. Or the slapping away. By dupattas, sandals, fair slender Sikhni hands, ‘Do you know who my father is?’

Chennai is a certain sly seedines. Lascivious looks are hidden by sweat soaked faces lined with vibhuti, sandal paste, vermillion and turmeric. Muttering cuss words and prayers with cinematic piety. ‘Shiva. Ranganatha. Pillayar. MGR. Poda. Mayiri Periya Pulathi.’

Cochin welcomes large breasts, rounded hips, and plump lips with bemused, seduced stares and comical fawning. Old men with one foot in the grave are overcome with desire for you. What will the younger ones do? They love sex; now they love you; won’t you do something about it too?

Calicut is the shy cousin. He will stare but with caution. You will never catch him looking, you will feel it. And then he will meet your eyes, innocent and questioning – do you want me? Is that what you are trying to tell me?

Goa is laidback and easy. What is desire in a Goan’s eyes? But there are so many Russians, Germans, loud Americans instead. All the cool people from all the hot Indian cities who are busy acting chill and laid-back at Artjuna, at Titos, at Brittos. The Goan serves xacuti and kings to the lounging crowd, eyes swollen after susegaad.

Bangalore knew desire once upon a time, in a distant past full of lakes, gardens, and trees. Butts, breasts, and thighs were routinely pinched on Brigade Road and in crowded BTS buses. Today every avenue has been dug up and roads are white-topped. Serpentine slithers across traffic give way only to a perfunctory fuck. Bangalore is always preoccupied -with IT, traffic, dreams of overseas, traffic, villa houses, traffic – it’s not with sex.

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Guilt

My mother says that when I was growing up, she couldn’t wait for me to be older. When I was a few days old, she looked at my cousin who was a year old at the time and in the exhaustion of delivery, wondered when I would grow beyond the three and a half fragile kilograms I was to a tall, weighty, feisty baby. And this wish continued.

My parents raised me on their own with little help from families. My father was mostly estranged from his already. They were not affluent enough to afford a nurse or even a help in those days.

My father cooked the post natal meals for my mother for a week and after she would cook them herself. They had supportive neighbours but that was later when I turned six months old or so and could be carried out easily.

An aunt would come to bathe me when I was little (it was her son’s age my mother coveted for me). But once she accidentally ended up choking me with the bath water till I turned blue in the face and had to be rushed to emergency care. My parents say that they had never known such fear as on that day. They say that I never quite regained the milky white, almost translucent skin after that.

What did my parents wish for then?

For me to live and grow up healthy.

When I survived it, and after the trauma had faded, my mother continued to wish I was older than the toddler I was. If only I could be in school, or college…

What did my mother wish for?

Her own independence. I don’t think she ever got it back.

This is the nature of love then. You always wish to ease your own troubles and suffering at the cost of your loved ones.

But shouldn’t loved ones exist to ease our burdens, just a little, at least? Why then are they the ones to always clip our wings?

It’s so naive to even think this.

Why would a stranger ever bother us?

My mother got her wish in a way. I grew up too soon. But I doubt she ever got the freedom she might have lost once she became my mother when she was only twenty-two years old.

Love doesn’t seem to care much for freedom.

My father suffered a fall two days ago on his morning walk with my mother. Ever since he got back from the care facility, he has been eager about his exercise. The care facility locks its gates, and other than the forty feet courtyard or the terrace, there’s precious little space to meander in. So it’s no surprise that a walk with my mother out on the streets, greeting neighbours, seeing traffic, the park, must feel freeing and exhilarating to him. He gets done with his morning tea and wears his walking shoes, his pants, his sweater, and his cap enthusiastically. So much so that my mother doesn’t have the heart to cancel it even if she’s tired or ill. After the walk, he is ready to start his day. He is happier and calmer for the exercise. He lines his colour pencils and meticulously does his colouring.

His gait has become stronger and surer with his medication. He doesn’t stumble easily. Even so, my mother ensures that they walk slow.

And yet, he slipped and fell. The people around helped him stand, an auto was found, and the auto driver and mom together deposited him on our couch where he sat awkwardly, shivering, unable entirely to stand or lie. My mother scurried around trying to place pillows around him and a blanket.

That was how I found them when I got downstairs dreading the busy day I had ahead of me.

For the first time in my life, I froze in a crisis. I couldn’t move or think. ‘What fresh hell’, ‘what fresh hell’ I kept hearing in my mind.

We know all about falls in the elderly. How common it is, how devastating it can be. But as in all things, you never think it can happen to you. Certainly not when you are barely catching your breath from a crisis like exacerbated dementia.

Things were busy in my work life. I had pending critiques, planning book launches, scheduling new classes for the new year, planning our first ever writing retreat on the weekend. We had barely caught our breath after participating in a launch at the Bangalore Literature Festival. I was thrilled that my father could be in the audience. I had posted about it too. Could it have been Dhrishti, the evil eye? Later, people would tell me that’s what it was. I blamed my mother. Why did she have to take that route? Why didn’t she look after him better? Why is she always so optimistic about his health? Even as I thought these thoughts, I knew they were irrational and they didn’t change the outcome. It was an accident. We had to face the accident for what it was. But I couldn’t. I looked for distractions.

My mother’s phone had become useless. I had just ordered a new one and the delivery guy was on his way to hand over the new phone so I kept trying to concentrate on that.

In the meantime, Papa wanted to use the bathroom to pee and we tried to lift him up and support him but we couldn’t. For the first time in my entire life, perhaps also in his, I heard him utter the words, “I’m in pain. I can’t move. I am in so much pain.”

Yet, he wouldn’t cry.

Few sentences can evoke such paralyzing fear. Few behaviours can numb you.

He looked at me and said, “Don’t worry. I will stand up in a bit.”

My mother said,”See. Don’t stress now. This is why I didn’t wake you up.”

The delivery guy was at the door and I just escaped the situation by transacting with him. He knew I was distressed because I was visibly shaking and he did the entire exchange process on his own.

My mother somehow convinced Papa to pee into a bottle. He is a proud, incredibly clean man. I could see how much this indignity broke him.

I called our family physician and he immediately advised us to take him to a hospital.

Later, I read that the pain of a bone breaking is so acute that people often faint. Yet my father found the heart and the strength to reassure me in all of it.

The ambulance arrived and he was hoisted in reasonable comfort. The ER doctor said it’s a thigh bone fracture and surgery was necessary and imminent.

We admitted him and the process for pre-surgery began.

The doctors were cautious. They said given his age, he might not make it in the surgery. But not operating meant he would be in acute pain and bedridden till the time he could withstand it. There really was no option but to go ahead with the surgery.

His confusion began then. To each doctor that came, his story was that he slipped three days ago while trying to buy flowers, or fruit, or vegetables. He was just in slight pain.

Once they left, he began to yell at mom and me to move him, to help him get up so he could go to the loo, so he could go home. He yelled at us for not removing his bind. By now, they had diapered him. But he wouldn’t allow himself to use it. I am like that too so I could sympathise but there was nothing we could do. The attenders and nurses reassured him and in front of them he was agreeable and docile. But once they left, he tried to pull off his catheter and cannula. When we tried to stop him, he started raging at us till my mom and I left the room unable to bear his suffering or his rage.

And that’s when my mom and I looked at each other and understood what the other was thinking – let his suffering ease.

Implicit in that desire was also the fervent wish to let our suffering ease.

That’s the spirit I sent him into the surgery with. He was on strong painkillers and tranquilizers by then. I explained to him that he was going in for surgery, that he would recover soon, that he had to be strong, and heal well. That he ought to tell the staff if the pain got unbearable. All good, kind things.

But in my heart filled with dread, I kept wishing for the suffering to end. His and ours.

Like my mother those years ago who really wanted her child to be older, I wished for my father’s end if it meant my wings wouldn’t be clipped, dealing relentlessly with one crisis after another.

He has been on the planet for 78 years. He has led a good life. He is losing his mind slowly, but surely. Now he would also be in acute physical pain for the foreseeable future. And along with him, my mother and I would labour to be good and kind caregivers. We would be taxed with more effort than we had the strength to deliver. This is how I rationalized my dark dread. I also knew if situations were reversed he would never wish that for me. Is that the difference between being a parent and a child?

The surgery was successful. The relief was immense and immediate with a sudden burst of dizzy joy and victory. I rushed to see him in the ICU. He was lucid but woozy. Even then, he asked me how I was, if I had eaten. I cried looking at him. I kissed him through my mask. It pleased him. He felt reassured and loved.

I was relieved but also there was a heavy coldness settling in my body. The guilt sank heavily on my overburdened shoulders. My gait out of the ICU was brisk but burdened. There was no joy in my relief now; only frustration and guilt.

The insurance had still not been approved. The recovery time for such a surgery was anywhere between five to seven months. He was also susceptible now to delirium. Coupled with his dementia, what did the future hold for us? I had work coming over the weekend I couldn’t cancel. How would we handle the hospital care and insurance if I just left? With his recovery, things looked hopeful again. It seemed it would all work out. But the fear gnawed at me. I wished vainly that I didn’t have to deal with these situations or conflicts at all.

Logically, I could understand the practicality of my thoughts. Putting myself first. I had spent years in therapy trying to learn this survival skill.

Now that I had, I just felt like a cold bitch. Emotionally, it seemed I would never forgive myself.

I shuddered at the dark nature of love.

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Jeong

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.

It’s jeong.

P.S.

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.

Posted in Blue Funk, Happy Days, Idle Thoughts, In Sickness and In Health | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Strength

One of my earliest, traumatic memories is how my parents dropped me off at my aunt’s place to visit a hospital or something like that, when I was four years old, for a couple of hours. I remember bawling and never quite stopping.

My mother used to be afraid of taking me out for sleepovers because it was a known fact that I was my papa’s girl and wouldn’t live without him. I would wail for him in the middle of the night.

My relatives wouldn’t understand this. They used to joke that my mother better start making a statue of my father so I could take it with me when I eventually married and left for my husband’s home.

I was so smart I never got married. The few times I left India which might total to all of eight-nine months in my entire life, I was miserably homesick for my parents, my bed, and my room in that order, no matter how comfortable or exciting my life was.

So. This is life’s way of outsmarting me now.

On Friday, I put my father in a care centre that’s do-able on the pocket (I will still be perpetually poor now), led by people who understand ageing and the progressive nature of dementia. When we visited the place that houses only forty inmates, I was happy about how clean, spacious, and well-staffed it was, including a doctor and geriatric physiotherapist in-house. It was not posh, nor is it a medical facility. But those are the exact type of places I cannot afford. Importantly, it is only between eight to eleven kilometres from my house. I can be there within an hour in case of an emergency.

My mother and I paid a token advance to block the only remaining bed in the facility. But we were far from certain of our decision. The morning of Friday, my mother cried to me in the morning saying we won’t do this. I had spent most of Thursday bawling like a child, first, to my sister in Melbourne, and, then, to my brother in DC. My mother felt that she couldn’t stand to see me so broken. She herself felt she couldn’t see her husband committed at a facility. It was too much.

Yet.

How can something that is right, no, inevitable, the only remaining option, feel so bloody wrong?

I woke up determined to be practical. I came downstairs and one look at my father broke me down again.

In the throes of our confusion, we felt we could manage his ill temper, his confusion, his lack of communication with us, everything.

Yet, thinking that made my heart tremble with fear and stress for my mother who bore the brunt of his bad behaviour.

In two months, my already petite mother lost two kgs. What right did I have to expect her to serve him as he got worse?

But more selfishly (and isn’t that always the bigger concern), what would I do if she also fell ill?

The stress and distress was so acute that I went back to bed and slept. It has never happened to me before. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. My body just shut down. I couldn’t think or cry any more.

I woke up in time for lunch and went downstairs still unsure of what I would do. My mother told me how my father looked dull and subdued and was in bed. He never does that, even when ill. Concerned, I quickly rushed to his room to check on him. He had no fever and no visible inflammation – nothing to worry us. My mom also told me how he started demanding food at eleven am and got angry and snappish when my mom told him that it wasn’t lunch time yet, and that she’d make him tea instead.

She looked so worried and miserable that I felt cruel for indulging in my sentimentality. Neither of us are equipped to live in a high stress environment. It’s a sure shot way of inviting debilitating joint pain and resultant issues for both of us. Two days of crying and stress and I could feel how tight my muscles were and how much my joints hurt. What was I doing thinking about right and wrong as if I could afford such luxurious thoughts!

In that second, I decided that we would put him in the centre and see. It might not be permanent but my mother needed to live a normal, stress-free life for a few days at least.

And as always, I would have to be the one to decide things for my household. I couldn’t expect my mother to parent me. She was in too much pain to be rational or decisive.

Post lunch, as I was packing his toiletries into a bag, he came up to me and said, “Shall I get ready?”

I was shocked. He usually has very little awareness of what’s going on in the house. The past two months, he shows great reluctance to dress up and go out of the house. I usually have to beg, cajole, outright scream at him (which leads to more fighting and stress) to get him to change from his house clothes.

“Where do you want to go?” I asked him instead.

“I don’t know. You want to take me to that place, right? I will go get ready,” he said.

I swallowed the sob and told him to get dressed.

As he dressed, I held his hands, caressed his back, put on his buttons for him and said, “We are going to a treatment facility again. They will look after you well. Ask them for whatever you might need. Tell them if you get hungry. I have paid for everything. So don’t be shy to ask. Talk to people. Listen to them. Have a good break. Once the treatment is done, I will bring you back home.”

“What about my clothes?”

“I have packed them. You won’t need anything. If you miss something, tell me, I will get it for you. I will call you everyday. Be good. Don’t get angry and get a good name for yourself and make friends like you did at the other centre.”

I managed to say this much cheerfully enough and then ran upstairs to my room to dry heave and sob. I felt a panic attack coming on and quickly swallowed my emergency pills to not succumb to the panic attack. I needed to have my wits around me so I could act cheerful and confident. My papa caught vibes easily or so I believe.

We enrolled him at the centre. He looked happy.

As soon as he was out of sight, and I was filling out the forms, I broke down completely. The doctor assured me that I was doing the right thing and I must not think of what other people might say.

I looked at her. It was incomprehensible what she was saying. Then it hit me. I sobbed out how it wasn’t even something I cared about – other people. What the fuck does anyone know or care about my life or my family or my choices?

My heart broke because I was putting my father in a facility knowing how possessive I am of my parents. In all my life, I have felt such possessiveness only for my parents, my sister in Melbourne, and my best friend in Germany who is the love of my life. I am not even possessive of the men I take to my bed.

I couldn’t believe that life had brought me to this point where I would no longer live with my papa and mama together.

I managed to compose myself and we went up to his room. He had made friends with his roommate and just when I thought he knew what was going on, he blabbered nonsense about injections and his roommate being an old neighbour. The doctor handled him with grace and tact and told him to say bye to us. His roommate, a stroke patient with a sound mind, assured us that he would look out for my dad and that we were not to worry, it was a good facility; we were to be strong.

That’s when my father piped up, “My wife and my daughter are very strong women. They are stronger than me. They can handle anything.”

I could feel my knees tremble. Keeping a cheerful face and saying bye to him is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life so far.

It’s been two days. On the phone, he sounds chirpy, excited, and cheerful. The doctor assured me he is eating well and sleeping well too. He has made friends. He watches TV. He explores the house. He is happy. This time he hasn’t asked me to bring him back home. He says he likes the food. He sounds upbeat.

My mother and I are so relieved we don’t know what to do with ourselves. We are trying to get used to the lack of stress. But there’s a gaping hollow instead. Guilt and sorrow and a very real miss eats at us, and threatens to fill that void. If we allow it, it can completely devastate us.

We try not to but we keep talking about him. Now that he’s away, and we no longer feel fear or stress, we remember all the happy times we had together as a family. We remember how wonderful a father and husband he was, before the tumour, before the dementia. If I feel beaten but invincible today, it’s because he brought me up that way. Did he always know that I would be making one difficult decision after another all through my life?

We are desperate to see him. But the centre asked us not to visit for the first fifteen days till he gets used to the place. Even today, my mother said, “Forget the money. Let’s just go and get him back. My stomach hurts when I think of him. I miss him.”

I want to do that more than anything in the world, but I also know that it’s not a solution. Not yet. I cry my eyes out and still pretend to be an iron woman determined to stick by what is currently best for my family. “We’ll bring him home often. We’ll take him out often. It will get better. It is a good thing for all of us.” I say this repeatedly to her and to myself. “And if it’s impossible, we’ll get him back home. He is alive. He is healthy. He sounds happy. Maybe he missed socialising. Maybe he missed resting. At home, he always tried to do chores refusing to rest. If we asked him to rest, you know how angry he got. Let’s wait and watch.” I say this knowing it to be true.

He doesn’t ask to come home nor does he want me to pick him up. In the earlier centre where he was for a week, everyday he wanted to come back home. It broke my heart. Now that he doesn’t ask, it breaks my heart still.

Sometimes I feel that he has moments of lucidity where he is still the papa who loved and respected me and my mom more than anyone in this world. And that man knows and recognises how he must not cause us distress. Trying to make peace with being away from us and this home which is so beloved to him is his way of being good to us still. This is his love for us.

But mostly, his conversations don’t make sense at all. He wears my eye-mask as a face-mask and flies into a rage when I tell him it’s an eye-mask. He doesn’t remember what he ate or when. He makes up stories.

So, does he even know the import of our actions much less his words and responses?But what was that line about strength spoken with such love and pride? And the timing of it!

Only the universe knows.

The universe really has a wicked, fucked-up sense of humour.

P.S. Thank you to all the readers who have been reaching out and sharing their own tales of grief and dealing with dementia of loved ones. I am so sorry that we’ve had to suffer this.

I know my story is unfortunately very common. I am grateful that my words help clarify things for you and also bring you comfort and ease. That, really, is why I write. So thank you, for taking the time to share with me. Thank you for your generosity.

At the end of the day, we do what we can. This is the only lesson. People who truly love you and care for you, will not judge you. So always do you. Love yourself. Be kind to yourself and others.

Much love, hugs, and prayers for all of you. Blessed be.

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