A chronology of tears
One woman’s introduction to the adult world of crying, in all its variety and complexity
In July, a video of Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi with the grieving women of Uttar Pradesh’s Sonbhadra district, who had lost their relatives in a shoot-out with the village headman over a land dispute, went viral. Gandhi could be seen sitting under a tree surrounded by women, their mourning almost private despite the TV cameras. It’s a potent image as it draws from, and feeds into, the image of her as a victim of the violence inflicted onher family.
According to Ad Vingerhoets’ scientific book Why Only Humans Weep, only human beings are capable of emotional crying. The 2013 book suggests that emotional tears have a higher protein content that “makes them more viscous, so they stick to the skin more strongly and run down the face more slowly, making them more likely to be seen by others". We cry to express a variety of emotions. Several poets have also explored the shedding of tears in their work. The poet Heather Christle imagines in The Crying Book, “It was when fish became terrestrial amphibians that the body’s lacrimal system first evolved. We left the water and began to weep the home we’d abandoned."
The act of crying is also fraught with power relations. Rajasthan has rudaalis, ritual mourners who cry at the death of upper-caste men, whose wives are forbidden from mourning in public. Shia Muslims cry every year for a battle lost ages ago.
But some tears evoke tears, while others evoke memes. When Karnataka’s former chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy broke down at an event, unable to swallow the “poison of coalition politics", he was termed a weakling. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi cries, he is hailed as a strong man. On being asked to reveal one thing that she loved about her husband Ranveer Singh in the talk show Koffee With Karan, actor Deepika Padukone says, “I love him for his emotional capabilities. That he is extremely expressive... he cries...."
Crying runs in my family. My mother was a legendary crier. Once she shed copious tears when my father poked fun at her unsweetened halwa. After this episode, he nicknamed her “Ladbad Pandey".
I was a colic child and I would break into abrupt spells of tears, much to my mother’s bewilderment. As a three-year-old, I made others cry. After finishing my share of a toffee, I would slap my cousin, a known howler,pick the semi-dissolved toffee from his tongue and lick it off.
We lived in a colliery in Dhanbad, now in Jharkhand, where my father worked for the BCCL (Bharat Coking Coal Ltd). It was a dark landscape laden with coal dust that settled on our faces, furniture and floors. In class VIII, when my brother told me one of our playmates had chiselled my name on his wrist with a blade, I cried. The next evening, when I saw him approaching me, I burst into tears. He started grinning. When I found an anonymous love letter in my school bag in class X, I wept again. I was crying because I was scared of what they were doing to me, in their fantasies, without my permission.
After each bout of crying, my eyelids and nose would swell like tiny sausages, and I would look horrid. Christle writes in the Aesthetics Of Crying, “I have cried at times/ for so long that I have moved the activity/in front of the mirror/out of curiosity."
In later years, these tears seemed shallow. It was at the age of 16 that I was introduced to the adult world of crying.
My family had by then moved to a colonial-era bungalow that had been converted into two apartments. It had a badminton court and sprawling lawns.
After an attempted theft by two gun-toting men at our neighbour’s apartment, the family vacated the house and was replaced by a CISF (Central Industrial Security Force) officer, HG, who moved in with his friend AG, also an CISF officer. My sister and brother took to playing badminton with them. One evening, they asked me to join them—AG had not returned from work and they needed a fourth player.
As soon as I entered the court, a white Ambassador car entered the premises and AG, dressed in a khaki uniform, stepped out. In a matter of minutes, he had changed into white shorts, a white T-shirt and white shoes without socks. This was the first time I had seen AG, a tall, attractive man with Paul Austerish looks. When he didn’t get a chance to play, he went back to the house.
I wanted him to come back. I pretended I had a headache. HG wentand returned with AG, who approached me with a smile and asked, “You are not feeling well?" I shook my head. I sat at the edge of the court watching the game, my entranced eyes following AG’s moves instead of the shuttlecock.
I started going out every evening. I would play occasionally and AG insisted I always partner him. AG was a man of contradictions: He liked fast cars and reading, he was outspoken and private, he enjoyed throwing parties but would spend the entire evening with me, the quietest person in the room.
On my 16th birthday, he gave me a poem extolling my “elf-like charms and beauty". I kept waking in the middle of the night and stealing into the bathroom to reread it.
He moved out of the apartment to his own place. I started bunking school to talk to him on the phone. He was nine years older but I was not into gawky teenagers. He once told me that since my hair was short, like Lady Diana’s, I should also get married at 19. If anyone created trouble, he said, “just pack your bags and come to my house".
One day he picked me up fromthe bus stop. Instead of school, I went to his house. That a man’s lips can be so soft was a revelation. On my third visit to his house, handing me a mixtape of songshe had asked his cousin to record, he said she had accused him of cradle-snatching, and asked, “What do you talk to a school girl? Don’t you get bored?" He then turned to me and said, “Actually, I am very bored."
I was so shocked that I buried my head in a pillow and started sobbing. He tried to soothe me,saying he was joking. A feminine distrust crept in and he had transmogrified into a thief from a lover. I cried the entire night. The next day, I fought with fury.
“You are playing with me."
“Are you punishing me for what I said yesterday? Do you understand that you are a minor? I have to be responsible for both of us."
Soon he started complaining about Dhanbad, its lack of pubs or any other form of entertainment. “It’s a black hole, a dump. There is nothing here except you." He kept on talking about moving to Delhi, he had also started preparing for his UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) exams for a better rank. He had grown restless, while I waited for him to return to his besotted self.
Then he was transferred to Barakar in Bengal.
For the next year, we spoke occasionally and he visited me once in Dhanbad, all the while exhorting me to get admission in Delhi University (DU) after class XII. “Take anything, take history, just move to Delhi. I will get transferred there." I joined the history honours course at DU. I lived as a paying guest with my sister, who was also studying in DU. Meanwhile, he had cleared his UPSC exams and was in Mussoorie for training.
He came to meet me once in Delhi. We spent the day hopping restaurants in Kamla Nagar and spent the night in a cheap hotel in Connaught Place (CP). He told me he would be moving to Delhi in January and we could finally be together.
In January, after I returned from my winter vacation, I sent him many emails—he did not reply. One morning I woke up at 6 and started wailing. My sister woke up in alarm and I screamed that I was never going to see him again. I searched for the number of his institute in my landlady’s yellow phone directory. I called the Old Officers’ Hostel from a phone booth.
His phone kept ringing and the phone operator connected me to another room. A man picked up, and when I asked him if I could talk to AG, he said, “He has gone out with his wife." Like a Bollywood film, he asked belatedly, “May I know who is calling?" I disconnected.
I was exhausted but also relieved. In a mail last November, he had mentioned a new friend at the academy “who was fun to be with".
The crying came a few days later. It was an animal cry for a lost mate. I cried in raw, racketing desire and in rebellion. I cried to shed off his words and sentences, spoken with a forked, careless tongue. In grief, like in an illness, you are on the dark side of the moon, away from the reach of people. I cried in private, without being consoled.
I envy Timothée Chalamet’s Elio, who, after being informed by Armie Hammer’s Oliver of his impending marriage in the film adaptation of Call Me By Your Name, cries with aesthetic perfection sitting in front of the fireplace, his sculptured face registering the flickers and shadows of the slowly dying flames. Elio was loved enough to be informed.
When I broke down on the phonethat cold February evening and asked my mother to call me back, she said in exasperation: “Why are you crying for someone who has left you? Finish your graduation, then I’ll marry you off."
The cycle of crying is incomplete until you show your tears to the perpetrator. I met AG again five years later at Rodeo Cantina & Kitchen in CP. After a margarita I asked him, tears rolling down my face, “But why did you not let me know?"
He looked at me helplessly, repeating, “I am sorry. I was a fool." He would later say, “Even Sachin Tendulkar sometimes gets out on zero. I made a mistake." We renewed our relationship. I deluded myself that I was his natural wife, and he felt he was mending a mistake. It was a skewed, shadowy affair. If I was the cellar in the mansion of his life, he was my entire house. I kept reminding myself, “When you are in love with a married man, you should not wear mascara."
Over time, I understood that in an unequal world, women crying for lost lovers are lucky. I had got off easily. Women artists have grappled with the act of crying. From Tracey Emin’s A Fortnight Of Tears to Sophie Calle’s Exquisite Pain to Rummana Hussain’s Living On The Margins, there are records of various kinds of female crying: silent cries, self-destructive tears, communal grief-sharing. In her 1995 performance, Hussain, carrying a halved papaya in her hand, its cavity exposed, her mouth agape in a soundless scream,reveals the relationship between the unseen cries of broken women and the history of a fractured nation.
My crying was like a barter with the universe: I give you tears, you make my difficult love easy. In contrast, in Udta Punjab, Alia Bhatt’s Mary Jane shrieks at the sky in open confrontation. She is a survivor of rape who had never experienced love. She is ready to cleave the universe with her wail. She howls at Shahid Kapoor’s Tommy, a stranger she has met accidentally, “Do you know what has happened to me?" She kisses him on the mouth and says, “Everything except this."
There is only one proof of my crying. I cut my finger while cutting vegetables in the kitchen. I showed my husband the wound. He looked at my finger, a bit distracted, and went back to his work. This was during the early days of our marriage.
Distraught, I rushed to the bedroom, and started weeping. For a disloyal moment, I even thought of AG, who had once rushed to his hotel bathroom for cologne when I had shown him my scraped foot. My husband entered the room some time later, and amused, fetched his camera and took a photograph. Later, he told me that when he had accidentally entered the room and seen me cry, he had felt he was in the world of Satyajit Ray’s Charulata. “For a second I thought you have Nastanirh-ed me."
Months later, I found a drawing in his diary based on the lyrics of the Sufjan Stevens song Sister, “That I have a bottle filled with my old teeth/ They fell out like a tear in the bag." The drawing features a jar filled with boat-shaped tears. My husband had made the drawing after a past breakup. I stole it.
Shweta Upadhyay is an arts journalist and co-author of the artist’s book I’ll Be Looking At The Moon But I’ll Be Seeing You.
FIRST PUBLISHED11.10.2019 | 01:49 PM IST