Essay: The Side Effect of Living

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Editor’s note:

‘Depression’ sets alarm bells ringing in individual and collective minds, raising ogres of doubt, fear, hopelessness… Bijaya Biswal writes a personal account of how ogres can be abolished, at least sometimes, and life lived trekking to the top of the world or simply sitting, legs dangling over terrace ledges.

By Bijaya Biswal

Bijaya Biswal

Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?
Albert Camus

Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?

It seems of the same order to me. It’s been months now that I stand at the terrace, looking at the ground below and wondering if it must take a very long fall – a very long time spent in the air to rethink if the problems were fixable, a very long period of helplessly jerking your arms seeking help with nothing to hold on to, and a quiet last second when you hit the ground and everything blacks out and you finally find out if there was a God at all. You fool yourself into living another day with tiny excuses. Vesting hopes on the last leaf of the tree outside your window till its fall, only to come back from college and see that the storm took down the tree itself. Reaching out for a piece of poetry, or a cigarette butt, another cup of coffee or another romance but the thing about them is, at one point they all come to an end, leaving you sniffing for more and it’s just a vicious cycle that goes round and round. Like days and nights which mean nothing for someone who does not sleep. Like the ceiling fan which gives me company while I stay awake; like my aching heart which beats like it’s a backward countdown every single day but does not dare to stop and ends up counting all over again.

I think they call suicide an act of cowardice, because they know no one is bold enough to succeed in it the first time. We can see it in the signs it leaves behind – the scars of a thousand shallow cuts before a deep one; too many public breakdowns and family embarrassments before your mother can boldly accept something has to be wrong; a lot of worthless questions from the therapist before it’s too late to start with the right ones; too many occasions of having denied sex to the boyfriend before he takes you out one day and with welled up eyes asks you if there is someone else. Your hands intertwined in his tremble like a broken heart and you nod and swallow some of your words and say, “Yes there is. Me.” You hold each other and cry for the rest of the night.

You do not think of long term plans; you live life like a patient of stage four cancer. No renewal of the library pass. No accordance with diet plans. And the constant inability to reciprocate love since keeping up relationships is now a temporary matter. The aftermath of impulsive screaming at your old parents and slamming the door in their faces, or ignoring your partner’s phone call for weeks, even if that includes birthdays, is that you end up sitting in a dark store room locked-in alone. You pull your legs towards your body and bury your face between your knees. Then you think, the only thing worse than being in love with a person is being in love with a mere shadow. You shrink into a little insect in the darkness, crushed under the weight of your own heavy heart. You think of how Kafka wrote a story they taught you in school, in which Gregor Samsa turned into a frightening giant bug and you could feel yourself transforming along those lines. The void has almost overpowered you when you hear a little knock on the door, a faint voice asking if you could join them for dinner, and it pulls you back to the realization that there is still some world left out there. There have been instances of you waking up in the middle of the night and crying loudly, howling while rolling on the floor. Your friends think you had a break-up, neighbours think its drugs and your parents think it’s the fault of their upbringing.

No one ever diagnoses the right cause.

When I had stopped attending classes completely and was about to get unregistered, my boyfriend came over. It’s weird how these lovers find their ways back to you all the time, no matter where you hide yourself, and offer you homemade sandwiches or cappuccinos in your worst times and act as if nothing ever happened. It is the most special feeling in the world, and also the loneliest. I know how love can be the solution to everything but depression is not one of those things. You can only hug their bodies but not their souls. In the end, the responsibilities of people can only be taken by their own selves. I do not know if he could read my mind, but he extended a piece of paper towards me which had some dates and schedules and asked if I would like to travel. I said no, I hate travelling. I love enclosed spaces and I simply hate those trains where people sit so close to your faces that you have no option but to start a conversation. He said it was not that kind of travel. I could see he did not use words bordering on mockery like ‘soul-searching’ but what else could it be, when someone suggests you to go for a week long solo-trek. Did this mean I had reached the verge of needing a ‘break’?

For the next few days, I banged my hands against the walls of my room. I went days only surviving on coffee as if it is the kind of fuel which can keep my body working and I went days without speaking to anyone in the family. After two weeks like these, I looked into the mirror. It was like staring at a stranger – the weight loss, the balding head, the wrinkled face. I needed sunlight on my skin and fresh air to purge me from the premature process of decaying even before I was dead. I decided I needed to go for that trek.

#

When we were seated in the bus for an overnight journey to the place where we would begin walking, I tried (they tried first, and I just tried back) to converse with the other people. There was the guy with a camera creeping everyone out by making them the subject of his portraits and there was this guy with a guitar (attractive) who could easily pull off an Eddie Veddar and there were a few working women who had a lot of inside jokes to giggle about and there were these two trek leaders, athletic and extroverted owing to the nature of their work, who made introduction very easy for all of us. I was drowsy enough to fall into a deep sleep when I heard some men behind me talking about homeopathy and spirituality; it convinced me that I should not have come here. I cursed my boyfriend who thought this was a ‘good plan’ and was convinced now that a guy who reads Malcolm Gladwell should never be trusted with instincts. But I was here already, among strangers with whom I could talk however I want and would never have to deal with again, and outside the window were an army of trees waving me goodbye under a sky so filled with twilight it was like dawn throughout the night, and ahead was a journey which would teach me a lot about both the strength of my legs and the strength of my mind. It did not seem very bad anymore.

The next morning the trek started. We walked through a forest, crushing dried leaves and cradled between narrow streams under canopies, and the winter breeze passed so quietly by my neck it was like nature whispering its secret recipes. I could not get enough of the purple wild flowers, the orchestra of frogs croaking and bee hives buzzing, the shreds of sunlight that could reach me through the leaves and especially, the abundance of a strange countryside silence. There was a kind of intimacy in walking through an inaccessible part of the world, knowing that you are thousands of miles away from drunken car drivers crashing into each other and humans ripping themselves apart due to difference in opinions and with nothing for miles that could provoke your lust, your gluttony, your capitalistic ambitions and no one around who has the power to hurt you, except strangers, living directionless lives just like yours and hence seeking shelter amidst the same woods as you. Every time we halted, I washed my face in the chilly stream and looked at the world below the peak where the blushful mountains pulled the fog over their naked bodies like blankets, where the horizon was a zigzag series of peaks and not a crumbling skyline, where you could be sure of not being bombed out at any random moment or being assaulted over a social media comment. I breathed in, held my breath a little and breathed out as if letting it change something inside me, as if it could take out the dead parts of me and make space for me to grow them anew. I looked at the whole group, sitting under a tree and laughing as if they have all known one another for a long while, but who needs to know the other at all to talk? We have all been living the same bloody lives, with a forgotten beginning, an unbearable present and an unfathomable future.

In the mornings we trekked and in the evenings we sat wrapped in shawls around a bonfire and talked about our lives. The camera guy shared that once during his regular street photography assignments he captured a group of rag-pickers playing cards and eating berries on the pavement across from where stood the Hard Rock Cafe. He loved how they were laughing and feeding each other from their shares, after which he went into the cafe for a beer and found rich, rotten straight faces sitting alone and smoking, staring like lifeless cover page icons of business magazines. All well clad in fur and leather but too poor to even afford sleep. It was like these white collared folks, and not the worker classes on the pavement, who were real slaves. The guitarist spoke about this song by Steven Wilson which was based on a man who loses his sister in childhood and later in life comes across a raven which sings just like her. He cages it to hear it sing but it never does; when he finally opens the cage and lets it free one day, he also feels freed from the grip of his past. The trek leaders talked about their full time jobs as software engineers which sucked their souls out of them and one of the women told about how she supported her children despite being a single parent and working as a waitress. The nights passed swiftly like pleasant dreams but the bonfire would never go out, glowing like a will-o’-the-wisp, waiting for us to return.

It’s strange, how after walking for seventy kilometres your fatigued muscles could still gather strength for more. The breathing became difficult, the last peak was not yet visible, the ankles were strained from overworking but you walked as if it were nothing but your duty, as if it came naturally to you and stopping would be understating human abilities as a whole. You look at the height which you are sure is unconquerable and the next thing you know is you are already at its peak, panting heavily, tying your shoe laces and looking through your pessimistic vision again at the next impossible-to-scale height which is going to be your next surprise to yourself. But trekking is not about physical endurance only. It is much more about mental and emotional endurance. It is a lot of patting your own back, looking at your wounded toes and pulling up the socks again, shouting motivational victory slogans every time you are about to give up and rest. At one point you do not appreciate even the beauty of the valley of flowers around you anymore, and you grow into a competitive beast and groan in the pain but somehow wriggle through it as if you were raised a fighter. Now you know why journeys were so overrated and destinations so underrated.

Then it is that moment, the highest peak, the end of the trek, when you look down and see whatever you have managed to cross. It was long, rough and very huge but you are tougher and larger. You sit down at the edges of the cliff, dangling your legs in the air, close your eyes and shout at the top of your lungs. No one hears you, no one acknowledges you for your courage or resilience, no audience stands up to applaud for you – this time you do not care about it. It is this moment that you understand why your success cannot be measured from the feedback of others. Your group somehow reaches the top just behind you, and all break down on the ground, relieving themselves of the weight on their shoulders and all talk in unison about the beauty of isolation. If there is any experience that can make you feel the closest to the freedom you were born with, before taxes and rents grappled you and pushed your head into the system, it is here, simply sitting on the top of the world and watching it at peace.

When the trek ended and everyone got off at their respective bus stops, I watched them with a quiet smile on my face, noting their faces in my memory. These were the people who witnessed the best time of my whole life.

#

Back at home people seemed to be preparing for days to welcome me – well-laid beds and well-made food, fairy light decorations and wind-chimes, floral window curtains and a Labrador puppy. My life seemed to have turned upside down, and the most surprising thing was my boyfriend had aborted his reading of Gladwell and finally shifted to Kahneman. So many changes and all I had to give in return was a week of taking off from routine. I spent the next few days resting since I could not feel my calves anymore. Mother served burritos and pudding at my bedside, my boyfriend read out to me the editorials I missed from the New Yorker, father went to the extent of taking leave from work, and the therapist was not required anymore.

Things had changed.
Outside my window, a new tree had come up and was growing leaves rather than shedding them, maybe it was the approaching spring. I sat beside my window, the poor man’s urban replacement for sitting at the top of the world. And when I looked at myself in the mirror, I did not feel offended anymore. College resumed, so did long distance running, and movie dates and social media accounts. I could feel how monotony, no matter how despicable, sets the rhythm to our lives and disrupting the order brings absolutely everything to a freeze. So I just started to fit into my daily routines and tried my best to hold on. The best part – whenever I go to the terrace I do not think of the fall anymore. I just sit on the edge, legs dangling and sometimes, start crying.

 

Bijaya Biswal is a 22 years old medical student who loves to read books on politics and economics and has a keen interest in arthouse movies and theater.

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