Fiction

Half Life
- Neera Kashyap

Flat mates for ten years, we had reached a point of comfort in our relationship. Leena was the rule-setter. We would each have our space, so from the very first day we moved in –into a small flat to begin with and then into this larger one – she locked her bedroom door at night. That shut out pretty quickly any fantasies I may have entertained. When we started identifying with the same things – the same friends, the same films, the same books, the same views, it was she who broke up ‘the cloning’ as she called it, saying, ‘If two friends are identical, they can’t relate to each other. If we flow into sameness, there will be no energy or interest left. So space, Goddess Space.’

If I was the natural housekeeper, she would take that over sometimes, only to do a terrible job.  The pattern was familiar: she would love my management and fussing, abruptly withdraw from them to add to my hurt, then lap hem up all over again. It was as if she wanted one life between us, but chose two. Maybe the comfort we enjoyed in our relationship was earned: tossed around for ‘renewal’ (Leena again), it became steady, both when were together and apart.

Then came the tsunami to our own southern and eastern coasts.  Leena worked with an international organization as coordinator for disaster management and rehab, so she travelled to coastal towns for months. When she came home initially, she appeared fine, just tired, shaken and quiet – not her cheerful assertive self. Soon, she began to quarrel over small things as if my domestic management was not enough, just ‘debris, debris, debris’. Then she went numb, absolutely numb, breathing in a shallow sort of way as if  her chest was constricted. She never spoke about the tsunami, even when I probed, but began to leave her bedroom door open at night. So did I. She barely slept. She would suddenly turn hyperactive, pace up and down the living room, then slump anywhere – on the easy chair, a stool, the floor – a hunched figure silhouetted against a wall.

Her nightmares became unrelenting. She would scream, thrash around in bed or gasp for breath, till exhaustion made her fall back groaning. These dreams would make my flesh crawl, but they were the only occasions when I could make any breakthrough. Once I put a glass of water aside and shook her by her shoulders. ‘Get a grip, get a grip, Leena. The tsunami is outside of you. It’s a natural disaster. Leave it there. Outside. Tackle it as an outside challenge. Don’t let it inside you. Do you get that?’

She looked at me without recognition. Her lips curled into a ‘what do you know’ snarl. 

I tired of going to her, or lying around and not going to her at every nightmare.  I wondered if the neighbours heard her screams over their own household noise. Suddenly, too tired to care either about neighbours or nightmares, I drifted into sleep. So I was startled when I found Leena shaking me by the shoulder.  She was crouching on the floor, her hands clenched in fists against the dark flower pattern of her nightdress.

‘I need to see a shrink, Anita. I can’t go to my senior for counselling. I could be laid off if he knew my real condition. Please, let’s find a doc, quietly and discreetly. His medicines may help me. I can’t go on anymore.’

So we found a doc, quietly and discreetly. His medicines did not help but made Leena more hapless and disoriented. What helped even less were his words, ‘How could you allow yourself to slip into this state – you, a counsellor?’ 

Two nights later it rained cats and dogs -- so much that the sound fused into one long, whirring hiss, like the blades of a helicopter. The curtains billowed in the dark like half-filled balloons. Lightning flashed and spat at our dreary city. I saw the kitchen light come on and moved quickly to see Leena rocking back and forth  on her heels before the kitchen cabinet. Then throwing back her head, she  rammed it hard into the cupboard. I stood there in shock. Leena was still surprisingly on her feet. I held her arms and watched a bloodless bump form on her forehead, her face convulsed with pain and sadness. I held her head firmly, thinking this might steady her, but could no longer hold back my own tears.

‘Talk, Leena, talk. Talk to me what’s going on,’ I blurted out. ‘Or write out  your thoughts, your nightmares, your fears….’

She slept in my bed that night, not as the attractive sexual partner I had imagined, but as a broken child, blabbering, ‘The wave crashed louder than explosions in a quarry....nuclear blast shock wave... rushing, roaring ....hundred miles per hour......froth foaming from its lips.....salt seeping into the farmland...smelling like the beach.....kettles floating, mugs, beds, chairs, computers....walls leaning, wooden slats still hanging like wet bones, her ceiling in her bed...cattle floated eyes open.... dogs...big sections of houses, logs, trees.....dead, all dead.’

I remained awake even as she dozed off, her body half off the bed, her hands sweating.

She was quite normal by the morning, though the bump on her head had turned blue despite a bowlful of ice, and we both left for work in a state of exhaustion. I had no idea how much work lay ahead -- for both of us -- as Leena continued normally during the day and spoke little, but blabbered in the night -- in her bed, in mine or in the living room. The only thing I could prevail upon her to do was to write down her feelings, her memories, her dreams. That provided a  dim light. When she did start the journal, I waited for a few months before asking permission to access it. She gave in meekly -- no old shades of Leena here -- with the proviso I read it in her absence.

Despite the journal, Leena's nightmares became more anguished. She thrashed about one night, her arms flailing, nearly knocking me off my own bed as she screamed, ‘It’s advancing like a wall....cold, merciless....’

‘What do you feel, Leena? How does it make you feel....this wall?’

Awake, whimpering, she gasped, ‘I feel paralyzed with fear. I can hardly breathe. I want to run, but my legs refuse to move.’

‘Yes, it’s very strong, unstoppable. Do you think we can speak to it -- tell it to quieten, go back from where it came?’

Her eyes squinted at me. ‘I can't. I feel there's a glass barrier between us. I cannot speak, connect....I feel like a disconnected plug.’

‘But you are not disconnected. You see this wave approaching, you feel this fear....you can breathe deeply to calm this fear....you can speak to the wave.’

‘No, no....it doesn't listen. It is too powerful. The village woman said it was like a cold beast that crashed into her home. Then curled back and thrashed the timber, again and again, till the house fell on top of them. It swept away the wreckage and everyone inside. Only she lived...’

‘She lived, Leena, she lived. She watched, she feared, she grieved but she lived. Let's tell the wave to do what it must do...but to let us live through, just live.’ I leaned back. Her head with its straight strands of hair fell damply on my chest. We dozed till the alarm rang.

I scoured her personal diary for signs of hope only to find a succession of confused and unsatisfactory entries: Carcasses and debris; Dread and destruction. Then an island appeared. After an endless swim through black waters, she is tossed onto an island by a 35 foot wave. It is peaceful. A man comes out of a deep forest to greet her. She returns his greeting. She is not afraid.

I ask Leena about the man on the island, my tone deliberately casual.

‘I don't know him. But he felt like my father,’ she replied.

‘Your father? You have not shared much about your father. Does he make you feel safe on the island after the storm?

She was silent, and then volunteered at last, ‘Maybe he was God.’

‘Yes, maybe. Do you think you could hold on to this island, this  God? You know, like he could protect you from harm?’

She did not reply. She did not want to.

I saw this only later when she began to succumb to her moods, to her neurosis. She wouldn't bathe; she wouldn't eat food except junk; she would sleep through an entire working day, paying no attention to the missed calls from office. She stopped doing chores around the flat, just stared out of the window or sat before the television with unseeing eyes. I was so frazzled myself that I threatened to take leave to visit my parents for a month. When I announced this, she looked crushed, like she had been run over.

I said, ‘This won't work, Leena. The madder you feel, the harder you will have to hold onto your sanity. And what is sane, Leena? Trying to understand your situation to get past it is sane. I am sane. I need to remain sane. Get that?’

I left her sitting on the easy chair. At night, as she snored gently in the chair, I whispered into her ear, ‘That man on the island. He is a good man, a pure man. He must be. You felt safe with him, peaceful. Hold on to the island. Hold on to the man on the island. He is there for you.’

Leena recorded a warning in her dream the next day. ‘I've gone into a building to escape stormy weather. There are lots of people inside. Someone asks me why I am there. I reply, 'I have taken refuge from the weather.' I receive a phone call from someone I don't know. The person seems to know me and begs me to warn the others of an impending disaster. The caller says it was in the papers and would happen soon. I suddenly remember. After the call, I tell people around me about the warning. No one wants to pay attention to it.’

So a warning did register, even if most of her didn't want to pay attention. She doesn't know the caller, more likely doesn't want to recognize the caller – me!

 

‘Does anyone know what it feels like to have billions of buckets move over you with the speed of an express train twenty feet high? To see it push through the village like a kilometer-wide train right into the forests behind, dragging everything back to the ocean bed like it was an axe, felling everything and everyone? The debris, the debris, the debris. A hundred year old tree tossed about like a toothpick. A boat churning in the middle of a street -- so bleak, so stranded. Like memories -- half alive, half dead. Is there love? Does anyone really love....it’s  survival....just survival.......a half-life.’

In our isolation I often wondered about Leena's parents and if we could share some of this for a more speedy recovery for her. I knew that her annual visits to her parents were duty visits, and her weekly calls duty calls. When I broached the subject, she baulked. But I kept up the pressure, gentle pressure -- referring to her parents as if I knew them -- so I could feel a sense of shared responsibility, even if in my own imagination. It took three years of hard work before I came across what I sensed, with some relief, was a breakthrough.

Leena wrote: ‘I am standing on a wide plain. Big mountain-like molehills appear. They are molehills but look solid. Suddenly, they burst open and out come a number of terrifying-looking reptiles -- lizards, crocodiles, dinosaurs. They move gracefully, as if gliding. I glide with them. I am not afraid.’ God – land at last.

I should have arrived at this breakthrough earlier, for on re-reading her dream entries prior to this, I realized that apart from the usual ones of despair -- like being eaten alive by sharks, there was one of a whale swimming blithely through the ocean like a witness to all that the ocean held, coming up for air to blow out water from its head. It was a witness to the turbulence of the water world. With time I had learnt not to despair with Leena’s outer behaviour. It was the inner landscape I kept scouring for signs of hope.

And it's not as if Leena handed me her story on a platter. It came out in bits and pieces, especially in moments when I myself was both alert and relaxed. I had to piece it together which I did after acute reflection. Leena's current father was her stepfather. Her own father died in a car crash when she was just four. Her mother did not allow herself to come to terms with the full extent of her grief. She repressed it and re-married quickly. She passed on this repressed grief to little Leena, who locked it away in her depths without any powers of understanding. A tsunami locked away, leaching constant loss and sadness into a young life. Because her mother lived–her life in half measure -- , staving off all intense feelings so she would not have to face and assimilate the full extent of her grief,Leena was made to live a half- life too until the full-blown tsunami came to blow open the tsunami locked within.

It was only after Leena began a career could she begin to work on a full life -- a rich work life, a strong friendship, varied interests, multiple views. But this was not enough. There was too much unknown grief locked away. She was compelled to face it with all its floating debris. But she finally made it to the island where she could greet her father and make her peace.

It rained again close to midnight. For the first time in three years, I watched Leena cross over from the living space to her bedroom and close the door firmly behind her. I left mine open. My body rippled with relief and my heart flowed with a joy that kept me up most of the night.

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Neera Kashyap has worked as a newspaper journalist and with organizations specializing on health and environment. She has published a book for young adults, Daring to Dream (Rupa & Co.) and short stories for various children’s anthologies (Children’s Book Trust). Her essays interpreting ancient literatures and scriptures have appeared in Mountain Path and Life Positive among others. Her literary writings have appeared in various  journals including Earthen Lamp Journal, Reading Hour, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Aainanagar, Kritya and Out of Print. She lives in Delhi.