She sits next to me, staring vexedly at the purple sea. An expression more complex and perplexed than it was meant to be. For the first half an hour, no one talks; the only sounds we hear are the hollow murmurs of evening walks and waves crashing against the rocks under our feet. Then, after an eternity, she turns to me, breathes, and says “You’re the worst friend I’ve ever seen”. This hurts twice as much because deep inside, I agreed.
Soon, she gets to her feet with a swoon. Tears running free, glistening in the light of the moon. Like the salt in the sea breeze was singeing her wounds, she screams– Stop suffering alone. Stop hiding behind closed doors to trick me into leaving or believing that no one’s home, not when I can see you and your mess grieving through the fucking window. Stop telling me you want to make it on your own because you don’t need to. This isn’t the pact of friendship I agreed to, stop defending the pain it takes to keep you because this suffocation is unending and I need to breathe too. Stop leaving me at every turn because by now, I’m lost and blind. I’m tired of the million times you’ve said “everything’s fine” when I can clearly see I’m being lied to. For the sake of three long years of friendship that we’ve both been tied to, tonight, just tonight, I ask for truth.”
An overwhelming urge to purge all my regret is up till here now, but I don’t. I want to justify every action, reaction, every fear now; but I won’t. With a sharpened blade of quiet restraint, I slay every word in my throat as that little voice in my head goes – We don’t speak about our problems at home.
When I was a seven-year-old, my father was fighting a war when he crashed his plane. He jumped out in time, but the forces of nature weren’t kind on the day as he fell to the ground in the most excruciating way imaginable, as bleeding on a shattered spine. Lying and dying in abominable pain, his surgeon told him he’d be lucky if he ever learnt to walk again.
But even when consigned to a wheelchair bereft of the ability to stand, my father would hold take a ball in his hand, repeatedly pick it as his 8-year-old son knocked it back to him in a game of cricket. Come to think of it, 15 years on, I can’t write on a feeling as crippling as staring at the bedroom ceiling or the walls knowing your dreams were reeling and reduced to thoughts no one else would ever know. My father taught me this- we don’t talk about our problems at home.
When I turned 18, my father asked my cancer-stricken mother to choose between a house near the hospital and one near my sister’s school. Despite her weakened defences, the impending pain, the consequences, my mother chose the latter because she could deal with her demons at hand but not with the inconvenience her daughter would feel if we moved during her board exams.
I remember on hour long cab rides back from the hospital after rounds of chemotherapy, I could hear the muffled screams of her agony shake her, on every swerve, every turn, every speed breaker on the road. But for two years, the only sounds I ever heard were those of silent suffering that torched her, but never a single word to describe the torture or the strain. Never a single complaint about a choice she consciously made on her own. My mother taught me this- we don’t talk about our problems at home.
I want to tell her this, the reason she can’t break my walls. Why every secret is a secret, and why I don’t believe I suffer at all because I have no problems. I’ve been raised by two people who’ve been cursed to go through a whole lot worse through fate’s decisions and they never let me understand what it felt like to nurse such grave incisions.
I want to tell her about the time I broke my shoulder, as I sat on my bed groaning and moaning in pain, my father took one look at me and said “That’s cute; but I fell out of a plane”.
I want to tell her about the mother who never cried because of a terminal disease, but broke down because being in a wheelchair wouldn’t let her cook for her family every eve. My parents taught me this- pain is a very subjective entity when you put the grievances of your loved ones before your own. My parents taught me this- we don’t talk about our problems at home.
But instead of the million words inside my head that I could have said to my friend, I offer her my first line of defence – an apologetic smile. I look at her, hold her hand and say
Every morning, a Superman wakes up on the wrong side of the bed. Eyes dead, bloodshot red from the fatigue tearing apart the insides of his head. His usually perfectly combed hair is a mess; mangled, tangled, strangled dense and untidy every inch of their previously lustrous lengths. He is fully aware of his steadily declining health, but is bent on telling himself to never wait to catch a breath because when you’re Superman, the universe doesn’t expect you to reach out for help. Superman’s supposed to solve problems. Not have his own as well.
On some days, Superman feels more human than he’s ever felt. But the ungrateful world still expects him to repay a recurring, fateful debt that out of his own moral consciousness hangs heavy above his head. Superman is a soldier who’s barely slept, because guarding the borderlines of conflict are part of a duty so firmly etched in his mind that he can’t forget, even when he’s a few inches away from death- standing, taking shallow breaths in a place where its 30 degrees below zero. On most nights, Superman doesn’t need a cape to be a hero.
Every morning, a Superman wakes up on the wrong side of the bed. Awakened from a nightmarish fable, drenched in dread and cold sweat, emotionally disabled. The empty can of anti-depressants lies on her bedside table, just like her mental state; balanced precariously but barely stable. The pills ran out two days ago but she hasn’t been able to go to the corner drugstore to ask for more because you see, being a single, working mother of three is a full time job description and responsibility and she has no time to stand in line for a prescription to cure her depraving sanity. Now she’s slaving; craving answers from a mind throwing tantrum after tantrum and misbehaving. Maybe the world doesn’t realize that tonight, Superman is the one who needs the saving because every, single morning, a superman wakes up on the wrong side of the bed. Looks disgusted in the mirror, shakes his head, at a disproportionate body and an utterly skewed ratio of length to breadth gifted to him by fate. Every night he weeps for his inexplicable state. Sheds drops of fears that flow into a river of tears, emptying it all into a reservoir of self-hate. A dam overflowing so bad, that sooner or later it’s going to break. By the age of seven, he’s so afraid, he’s questioning every decision he’s ever made- from full length pictures in his phone gallery, to every calorie he ever ate.
So every day, Superman makes it a point to stay away trying not to blow his fuse. Keeps a distance from the outside world, wary of becoming its ridiculed muse. Curls up inside his room with a blanket and a box of tissues. Too old to drown the demeaning words, too young to understand the meaning of the words “thyroid issues”. So before the end of the day, he prays for world to shift its gaze and just let him be; because tonight Superman is fighting an adversary they cannot see.
As the nights get colder, every Superman wishes he had a shoulder on which to weep. Prays someone kissed his head, tucked him into bed before he sleeps. Hopes he won’t wake from a deep slumber wanting to crumple into a heap, until he’s nothing but a dune of dust. The Man of Steel might be invincible, but he’s not immune to rust.
So the next time the Superman you know wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, remind them what they’re worth. Tell them that ever since birth, every single day was spent in learning to resist the hurt that threatens to punch them all down slowly into the dirt. A soldier teaches the frigid winds of the earth a lesson in defiance, a single mother of three forges with her depression, an uneasy alliance; a ceasefire, to relieve it. Just, just, so that she can look at her kids, tell them everything’s okay, even if she herself doesn’t believe it. A kid with a malfunctioning thyroid gland wipes his tears with his hand, steps outside his room for once and slowly understands, that everything he was ever fed was all a bunch of lies and that Superman suits are stitched and sewed for each and every size. Even one big enough to fit him right. A lot of Supermen woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, but maybe they’ll sleep a little easier tonight.
One night, her words won’t rhyme.
Her verses will die a slow death,
a little at a time,
mocking every memory she wrote.
On that night, your poetry will write
herself a suicide note-
broken, baffled, bereft of hope,
wishing, she could feel
a little less empty,
and a little bit more.
On that night, kiss your poetry to sleep,
tear her note to shreds, give her a shoulder
on which to weep,
tell her that you believe, in her stead;
and in the simple fact that poetry
can never truly be dead.
Tell her, that you believe in her,
and in tomorrow, a time
when she’ll turn her sorrow
into the most beautiful thing the world has ever read.
Watch over her, until she rips apart
her suicide note from end to end.
Then pray, that on nights like these,
she learns to write something better instead.
To the girl who must go on,
In the great wilderness of the world, you and I are trees. Strong stems, different leaves; but trees all the same. From time to time I part my branches and look at you, standing there magnificently, through rain, hail, snow, disease and I wonder, how can she go on so effortlessly? Even through forest fires which burn down everything we’ve ever tried to be, you have been scarred but not mutated, charred but not obliterated; and in that moment this little sapling next to you knew what he wants to be.
To the girl who must go on,
This is not a plea. This could be the first thing you want, or the last thing you need, but please do know that this comes from somewhere deep inside of me. Call it experience or label it compassion, but writing a letter has never gone out of fashion for someone who perpetually lives his present in the past. I know you do too, so maybe this is something you will relate to and hold on to, steadfast. I just hope it lasts for as long as I want it to.
It was a warm afternoon in a month I don’t remember. Oddly, it felt warmer inside the air-conditioned room than it did outside in the blistering heat. I sat opposite a middle-aged, bespectacled man; my mother sat next to me. She was wearing a scarf around her head, one to cover the bare skin where luscious tufts of jet black hair had fallen away after chemotherapy. She looked beautiful though, she always did when she was happy. She’d been cancer free for a couple of months, and all the right changes were there to see. Reinvigorated melanin, a radiant glow that stemmed from somewhere within and how nice her eyes looked without dark circles etching themselves into her skin, it made her look alive to me. But as always is the case with moments of peace, rediscovery is often rudely redefined by reality.
“Your cancer is back again”.
That day, I learnt a few things I will never forget. After I thanked the doctor for wrecking our world with a travesty, I looked at my mother and did something I was constantly guilty of doing. I lied to her. Promises like “It’s just a minor thing” or “It’ll be over before you know it” sounded hollow even in my own head. Maybe that’s why thoughts with empty intentions tend to echo inside your head for an eternity. When she looked at me and offered a weak smile, I just knew she didn’t believe me. Why would she, when I didn’t believe myself?
I could have started this letter by lying to you, but I won’t. You’ll probably see through it too. Maybe adversity makes some blind and for others it makes things easier to see through. But either way, I want to make you believe. I have seen my mother do everything that you’re enduring now; I have broken down while cleaning washbasins stained with vomit and blood, asking myself “Where do we go from here?” Maybe you ask yourself that too. But there are some situations which are best left away from the truth. Somewhere I believe that facts are hidden from us because we’d give up if we knew what was in store. Uncertainty is good, it gives you a chance to fight towards a door without ever knowing whether you’ll get there or if it’ll open. All that matters, is that there is a door. But if you give up now, I promise you’ll never get there.
Anyway, over the next few weeks I saw and felt what relapse did to people. Why alcoholics, drug addicts, chain smokers find it difficult to deal with withdrawal, and why hopes of a rehabilitated future promised little respite in a present that refused to get better. I couldn’t and didn’t even want to imagine what my mother felt. The light at the end of our tunnel was a train. The silver linings to our clouds were the angry glimmer of thunderstorms and rain and sometimes it felt like the forces, natural and supernatural, conspired against us. But in those broken bits we could never put back together, we learnt to live little by little. That is all I ask of you.
Even though the cancer’s back, know that it returns only after losing to you. Against the winds of adversity, you’re a tree that stands tall in its wake, and even if you are about to bend or break your roots have dug far too deep for you to be uprooted or destroyed completely. Maybe that’s why the strongest parts to you are the ones you couldn’t see.
So today, no lies from me. Take it from someone who’s done it before and regrets having the audacity to look into the eyes of the most important part of himself to say that she was meant to stay and not to leave. Maybe you’ll shake and maybe you’ll sway, but those roots of yours have seen and felt all that you feel again today. Hold on, and let the storms pass. Tomorrow, when you outlast it again, and stretch your vast arms towards the sky, I will stand under your shade and thank the heavens and so will a million others who will have learnt how to stand with the best, and withstand the worst.
To the girl who must go on, the world will need your seeds.
Thank you so much, Fatima. I have no words. This is arguably the most amazing birthday gift ever. God bless you, and I hope you find all the happiness in the world.
I never met him. I don’t know him, I wouldn’t be able to recognize him on the street. I’ve never heard his voice, but I can imagine it. I can hear the lullaby my sister sang to me when I had bad dreams echo in his laugh. He doesn’t have green eyes, but I see in them the best friend I lost to death so many years earlier. I don’t know what he thinks about when he wakes up, I don’t know how he likes his eggs or whether he likes eggs at all. But I do know scenes from his life, little snippets of memory and grief and longing and self-discovery. He loves his family. He is loyal to his friends. He misses his mother. I wonder if it’s hard for him to sleep at night without her the way it is for me without my sister. He loves…
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When the cold and pristine winter air first kissed my face as I got off the plane at Narita Airport, Japan, I opened my mind to a world full of infinite discoveries. I’ll be honest, there are certain concepts and elements I am yet to fully grasp as a writer; Love is one of them. I was hoping Japan would help me understand it a little better.
On the 8th day of my Japan expedition, a tiny house in one corner of Saiki Bay made a few revelations. I finally fell in love again, and I’m pretty sure I understand it a little better. So here’s what Japanese women taught me about love.
Who are you really? (Himino-chan, age 6)
– Every relationship starts with a conversation, if not, at least with a feeble attempt at one. However, from time to time you’ll come across a woman who speaks a different language. She probably won’t share your obsession of sipping freshly ground coffee from your favourite mug. Maybe she swears by the subtleties of white chocolate while you choose the intoxicating allures of bitter dark ones; it doesn’t matter. Words are lost in translation, emotions are not. Deciphering her tongue takes exhaustive efforts; she’s met many who speak the same language but still never really understood her. She could speak Japanese for all I care; but does that mask the honesty inside her every time she starts to speak?
– Learn to intrigue every little part of her imagination to the point where it bursts at the seams. Don’t do the same magic trick over and over. You might have the upper hand now, but someday she will learn to play her cards better, or worse, learn to read yours. Be unpredictable. Don’t pull out a rabbit from your hat, pull out a cat; maybe it’ll claw at your fingers and embarrass you completely but your misery will be worth her laugh. The day magic stands still, the world will think it’s a trick; for it to remain a beautiful illusion it must be rethought, reconsidered and reinvented for what it is.
– Learn to forget yourself around her. You’re not 22. You aren’t someone who has seen more or less of the world than she has. You’re never too mature or too naive. So every time she tries to discover you, learn to blur your lines. For you to win her over, you must make yourself vulnerable to her first. Remember, no conquests were made from staying under defensive cover.
– Make a conscious effort to give her choices a chance. Don’t you already know most of what you love and prefer? Maybe it’s time for you to indulge in things that have always differed from what you’ve loved. Maybe she thinks fish tastes better fried than when it’s poached. Maybe she thinks an accompaniment of seaweed is more digestible than a helping of sautéed onions. It never hurts to try the things she loves. After all, you’re one of those things, aren’t you?
The things I never say (Tsubaki Chan, age 3)
– When she looks at you for the first time, do not mistake her quiet, piercing gaze for aggression. Some women measure your worth before they grant you the privilege of a conversation.
– When she finally acknowledges that you exist, make every little gesture to tell her that you care what she talks about who she is. If she’s 3 feet tall and you’re 5’7, don’t let her crane her neck when she speaks. Don’t be distant. Don’t be out of reach. Instead, go down to your knees and look into her eyes when she talks. Her voice will be warm. Her smile will be warmer. You can tell by the tinge of pink that spreads itself across her rosy cheeks.
– When she pulls you by your hand (or even wraps three-year-old fingers around your solitary index finger), don’t stop to question her intentions. Let her lead you wherever she pleases. Live the quivering excitement in her voice with her, watch her eyes grow wide in anticipation when she opens the surprises she keeps giftwrapped inside her mind. She wants you to be a part of her wonderment, her emotions, her universe. Why would you even refuse?
– One day, she’ll let out slivers of thoughts you won’t be able to grasp. She’ll say words with a weight you cannot comprehend, or maybe she’ll just sit across you and break down into quite sobs from beginning to end. At times like these, let her know that you’re listening and hanging onto every thing she spills. A gentle nod, a reassuring nudge, an encouraging word; little gestures to remind her that everything she said is heard. She could speak in rapid Japanese for all you know; in the end, what you sense matters more than what you take in.
– When it is time to say goodbye, give her something to remember you by. Embrace her, leave her with a little kiss; like you want the warmth on your finger tips and your skin to fill her empty depths with happiness. When people leave, all that is left is memories; so give her one that she can go back to time and over. Be the book she never gets bored of reading, be the song she replays in her head when she’s breathing in emptiness; when she needs something to remind of reasons to keep existing. That way, if you find yourself living a day when you have to leave without knowing when you’ll return, at least you’ll say good bye knowing you did everything to be a part of something she’ll cherish all her life. She’ll grow old, she’ll grow up with them; one day when she gets to where she wants, she will remember you.