The man on the sea shore clasped his face in his hands—he was weeping. Ahead of him, the sun had set, orange veins bled into a grey sky. To his rear, near the Burger Factory on Morjim beach, two Boston terriers fought over a yellow frisbee. A football match was briefly interrupted by a large white bull that was being walked by its keepers, the majesty of the beast a thing to behold, and fear. It seemed a waste, a scandal even, to cry in the midst of so much sacred beauty: dusk light, the repetitive, consoling crash of waves, the whoop of children at play, the disbelief of this much freedom during a pandemic.
And yet, the man seemed inconsolable.
Recently, my sister Nehal drove from Bengaluru to see me in Goa; the drive took over 12 hours, she brought some of my favourite things, khasta kachori, sourdough bread, dahi puri. After a week, she observed to me, “You hardly speak”; she said that I hid out in my room during most of her visit. I tried to reassure her that my silence, and my reticence, was not specific to her—I had spent seven solitary months in a village in Goa so now all company felt unusual to me. Falling into something like a powerful quietness of time, it seemed I had vanished into it. She was concerned I was depressed, and maybe she was right. Yet, in the photos I had posted on Facebook, I looked cheerful, and glad to be with my nephew Ishan and with her. But Nehal was right: something had changed, I felt it more than she, there had been a tremendous retreat into myself. In light of my sister’s tremendous generosity of presence, I had failed her—how would I explain myself to her? I don’t like to use the word depressed lightly—I understand the powerful connotations of the word, the grave chemical condition that it is, so disabling it can cause someone to snuff out their life.
“The opposite of depression is not happiness,” says Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon, a memoir of depression, “but vitality, and it was vitality that seemed to seep away from me in that moment.” That’s what I felt—without vitality, and without valuable reasons to pursue life.
If depression is a planet unto itself, there are many moons encircling it—the moon of inertia, the sickle moon of fear, and the moon of What Is the Point of All This. My condition was not quite depression, I wanted to tell Nehal, it was a lesser thing, a moon that relied on reflected light for its telling. And yet, it was a moon, a planet, whole and powerful. What is interesting to me is the collision of the planet with its moon—that sometimes happens, and I live in fear of this collision.
So many days, through this isolation, I had wanted simply to be done with it, this life, the hours, that terrible, dripping, ceaseless thing called time, sunset now, then sunrise, an uninterrupted plainness of my days that painfully multiplied into months. But how dare I? I had a house. I had work. I woke to birdsong. I was lucky to be alive at all in a time defined by loss, and by death. I believe this feeling arose from the recognition that normal life is made up of a series of distractions, passions and rages, and when they neutralize into each other, they leave us with the cold, insolent awareness that life is profound when lived but pointless, trite and monotone if observed acutely. A triumph of verb over noun.
Everything we do in life—work, marriage, travel, the baking of banana bread and the feeding of infants—is a struggle to look away from life, because to see it clearly, exactly as it is, would be too much. “When I am writing I don’t want anyone else in the room—including myself,” is a line of Jonathan Franzen that I sometimes paraphrase, replacing writing with living. Before she returned to Bengaluru, my sister left kachoris in the fridge in a white box with a blue lid, and I told myself: Tomorrow I will eat. Every day, we bait ourselves with pleasure. Today, I saw the kachoris in the fridge, my heart skid with gratitude and love, from the tremor of realization that I had been hiding in my room when she, in fact, had been present for me in the living room. Maybe that’s what an accumulation of grief does: it makes one invisible to oneself, and eventually to everyone else.
I wonder who ever dreamed up the expression “living room”. What do you call the other rooms?
Around two years before my mother died, she began to cry in the afternoons. Her years had been marked by violent physical suffering—arthritis disabled her, she had bed sores and diabetes, she was unable to move at all. Her crying caused me to panic. I would call on Dr Tushar Shah, her physician, who prescribed anti-depressants. I could never tell Dr Shah—a fine doctor who doubled as a stand-up comic—that maybe my mother was not depressed: she had simply seen life without decoration, and it was a bloody monster. She wanted to be let out of the holding pen. And yet, when she was not crying, my mother read poetry, she arranged marriages, she wrote by hand in a lined writing pad—she did everything to live with meaning and truth and strength. The thread darning her despair with hope had been imagination. Even as she had been crying in the afternoons, she was imagining the turn in time, the next chapter. I don’t understand how she did it, except that I saw her do it every day.
By this time, we had forgotten the number of hospital stays that she had endured; she had a genius for the emergency room. But during her stints in the ICU, it was not uncommon to find her reciting Faiz Ahmad Faiz to her diabetes specialist. In a photo from her wedding reception, my mother appears radiant in a silk sari, the couple seated beside each other, and she is leaning towards my father. She would have loved the photograph when it was first given to her with absolutely no fair warning that from here on her life would swerve ininconceivable directions—her marriage would be tumultuous and challenging, her firstborn son would die falling off a balcony before her eyes, and her health would leave her wounded even before the battle began. But the photograph is not a deceptive thing; life is. Her only book of self-published poems is called Bhatkan, or Wandering. The first stanza of Billy Collins’ poem The Dead reminds me of my mother, not because she is dead, and looking down, but because she had been like that when she had been alive: omnipresent, all-seeing, life had taken away her legs but dreams had given her flight.
The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
While we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven as they row themselves slowly through eternity.
The extraordinary privileges of my life boil down to one truth: I am still around.
When I had watched the workers exiled from their homes earlier this year—a special kind of hell is reserved for people who make children trudge hundreds of miles in scorching sun—I felt despair for their plight, anger for the administration, and resentment for the billionaires who could have helped them but had not. In light of the workers’ great, operatic suffering, my woes were irrelevant. I told myself how lucky I am to have it all, the gift to express myself, a house in the countryside, an orchestra of birds that hews my mornings golden in aural delight.
And yet, I can’t help but take stock of the thing a few inches behind depression, a smaller, subtle thing, a breezy kind of everyday sadness, with tones of exhaustion, boredom, a despairing sense that things will never change. I feel that more than ever now, in the pandemic. All of us, during these months, have retreated to our room at some point and wept when no one was looking. It is not possible to go through a transformative time without coming out transformed. Although Primo Levi survived Auschwitz and wrote a heart-haltingly inspiring memoir of his time there, he is believed to have died by suicide; it was suspected that having to care for his paralytic mother defeated his spirit more than the evils of the Nazis. We might be hardwired for a crisis—everything in the spirit marshals to pull out of the rip tide—but no book at school lets on that everyday life is silently and secretly insurmountable.
To whom may we speak of these ills? Byron told a friend, right before his death, that he had known only 3 hours of perfect happiness in his life.
When my sister Nehal returned to Bengaluru, she suggested I might move there next year—the weather was excellent, there was company, the animating pleasures of civilization: museums, the theatre. In Goa, we went for a walk through the fields in Aldona village. Orange Pagoda flowers brushed our knees; yonder, a river. Locals laying crab traps. Two water snakes, inexplicably on the ground; we managed to hoist them back into water with twigs—I had never felt gladder than when I saw them slither past the sluice gates.
I wanted to call my sister to say that literature and nature parented my orphaned heart. A Bengal spotted palmfly butterfly—brown, blue iridescence at its wingtips—glided through my veranda, summoning a mood of church bells tolling, the sacred in our midst. When I am blue, I have lain down in the Aldona fields and looked up at the sheltering sky, unthreatened, simply curious about my end, which might be tomorrow. “Last night the thought of all the birds and other creatures and all the loveliness that is in nature came to me with such a surge of deep happiness,” wrote Rachel Carson in a letter, “that now I had done what I could.” But it is not death alone that I had seen in the sky, but all life, how every leaf connected to each newt, and that I was not separate from all this tremendous and beautiful mess of being.
By now, you may have guessed who the man on the shore was. Michael Ondaatje wrote that death meant seeing yourself in the third person. But here is a coda to that evening: when he returned home, the man sat at his desk, and he wrote, profoundly consoled by an arrangement of sentences. One word after the next makes a sentence which tells the story—this story. The organization of my life’s great tragedies with language allowed me to see them actually as minor comedies in which I was both a bit part playeras well as its forgiving audience of one. “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives,” said Toni Morrison in a speech.
For the last 43 years I have been measuring my life, and to be honest, it has added up to nothing much, a string of unremarkable events and some gorgeous and daunting loves. I have come to think of it as sewing flower braids in a temple—something to do while we wait around for the divine. And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars. And you, dear reader, I thank with all my heart: your reading has seen me through.
Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s new book, Loss (HarperCollins India), will be published in November. This original essay is based on themes in Loss.