TW: Suicide and Self Harm
I wonder if people think about themselves in the third person. It would be funny.
“Bharti loves her family,” says Bharti.
I have always been a lonely kid. The kind of loneliness that starts from childhood without realization. That’s why I tried a lot to be accepted, either by carrying my friends’ water bottles or simply convincing them to sit with me on the class benches. Now, it seems funny, but a kid does what they have to. Anyway, nobody was stopping me. Perhaps they could spot the sadness in me, but what I think about the most is how they perceived it. Did they think I was being bullied or that I was not doing well enough in class? I have no means to contact my past, but I know someone remembers me like I remember a peculiar plant by my home’s side
This plant had sour leaves, which I liked eating. It was an act of courage for me at that time. My mother didn’t know about it. And I had my share of secret freedom until I got caught. Being caught is just an umbrella term for being prohibited from doing something. So, when I say I am still too caught up in life, I only mean I am not allowed to eat those leaves again.
I never looked at my growth as a scar. I believe scars heal, but memories; these bitches can fade but keep returning, like a friend with no self-esteem who keeps going back to people who didn’t love her back.
“Bharti was abandoned,” laughs Bharti.
I was growing to match the pace of others. Girls winning the musical chair, boys winning the 100m race, girls surpassing them, boys getting jealous, girls laughing, boys falling in love with their laughter. It was a dull dream where I was the protagonist but nobody looked at me, even in the spotlight.
I always wanted to have this feeling: the feeling of being wanted. So, everytime one of my seniors from Class 12 in my first school used to send all the grade 1st students out, while allowing only one or two (I was fortunate to be one of those), I always wondered what he talked to this girl about. Why did the girl smile with a weird blush, why did the boy hold her hand? These questions would run wild in my head and from then on, love became a thing that adults do but never talk about. So I was waiting to grow up fast. I couldn’t wait to develop breasts, have my periods and feel how my mother or aunts felt.
“Bharti needs love,” wonders Bharti.
This yearning remained by my side like a ghost I wasn’t aware of; hence, the ghost. But I could never tell anyone. What does one say after all, that they want to hold hands and feel loved? That the only way they know to love each other is through their skin touching? But this yearning took a back seat in my adolescent years, when I was mostly peaceful. My mother was proud of it. “She isn’t like any other teenager. She is very calm.” But I often thought about how easy it was to be the ocean everyone wanted you to be. Cut your heart, let it bleed, be amazed at the beauty of its stillness, call it a sea, see it drown things, see it being unapologetic about it. I was the sea. And I wasn’t very kind when it came to myself.
“Bharti doesn’t like Bharti,” shouts Bharti.
As the years passed by, I was convinced of my shortcomings as a girl, ingrained in my mind as certain people repeatedly reminded me of them: my appearance, or the lack of it. A child with a dark skin tone becomes “kaali” (black) because how else do you make yourself feel better if not by putting others down. This is the only way people move and grow. At the sake of others. Giving it any name they can because our ultimate goal is to be a good person, whatever that means.
So I was pointed at and called ugly when my cousin laughed along. Sisterhood and its ideas are really vague. Sometimes it is women supporting each other and sometimes it is women supporting specific women. That is how hierarchy develops. This is how divides become visible. They were the beautiful girls. I wasn’t.
“Bharti needs a prettier body,” cries Bharti.
Our insecurities have a way of changing themselves to suit our needs of being self aware of our own mistakes. My most favorite memory of my father is him singing songs and laughing out loud while watching Punjabi movies. This is how I remember him. But all I see now is this old man with sunken eyes trying his best to be proud of his daughter.
I often wonder if parents ever look at their kids and think, “Damn! Such mistakes.” I like to think they do because then the gap between them and us would decrease and we would understand each other better. Because we all make mistakes. Because we all are trying to undo them. Because this is the only way we accept the similarities we have with our parents.
In my culture, parents are considered Gods, their feet, heaven. Which is a funny way of dehumanizing them. My parents were Gods I didn’t believe in but was forced to because the guilt of being a bad daughter never fades away. So the first time my father cried, when I went to college, this feeling was amplified. They were happy tears. But tears are tears and there is too much salt and our skins are just wounds.
I developed a deep insecurity of offending my Gods. Which made me restrict myself when it came to physical intimacy, even with my partner. Gods don’t like sex. Gods don’t even like seeing their daughter touch a boy she loves. So to please the Gods, I started thinking of a sacrifice. This time, my life. In my culture, a shameful daughter is far better than a character-less daughter, which is just another term for making her feel guilty about the presence of her desires. Every time I was with my partner, I wasn’t able to stop seeing my parents’ images in my head. I couldn’t be in the moment. I was always in the future, hurting my parents.
“Bharti is a bad daughter. Bad. Bad. Bad,” retorts Bharti.
But this wasn’t my only insecurity. Sometimes I wanted to be seen as smart, witty but public situations always messed me up. I was a village girl and the only experience I had was visiting small shops which closed as soon as 8 pm. The place I grew up in was silence cemented into a valley. We were all silent people which is just another way of saying that we were too innocent for the cities and their noise.
It was my very first time entering a big mall with escalators. I was 18 at the time. The high ceilings of the mall, big brands shining in neon colors, the swanky places and the lights which reeked of extravagance. The lights were too much. The noise was too much. To say I was scared to step on those moving stairs, as I called them earlier, would be an understatement. I was terrified. Horrified. So, like any scared person, I decided to hold my cousin’s hand.
But the thing about falling is that it can happen despite being held. I fell immediately, saved by two boys who held my back to prevent an accident as my cousin laughed out loud. I had to laugh. I had no choice. It was a better way to hide my embarrassment. A better way to say, “it doesn’t affect me.” I wanted to cry. I wanted to tell my cousin to stop laughing. This wasn’t funny. This wasn’t funny at all.
“Bharti couldn’t even hold herself,” whispers Bharti.
The only way to cope with this fear was to be better informed. I would never confide in my cousin for this apprehension of mine. But thank God for the internet. I watched YouTube videos on how to step on an escalator, how not to step on the yellow line, how to be cautious of the moving railing around the stairs as I constantly feared banging my head open or going into a coma from concussion. I have always been an intense thinker.
By intense, I mean to a point of anxiety attack. I would step on the little raised surface at the entrance of the bathroom in the room we had rented together and pretend like I was stepping on the escalator. It became a fear that never went away. The fear that has stayed with me still. The fear that makes me take elevators, and feel ashamed for not being able to match the city’s pace.
Like any other kid, I had to participate in the real world. I had to move away from the home I grew up in. This is how adulthood works, isn’t it? Separation means growth. Love means attachment to illusions. Tears mean weakness. Crying in the silence of the night without calling your parents becomes strength. This time too, I couldn’t keep up with this overly crowded city of Pune, Maharashtra where I was selected for my dream college.
When an anxious teen steps into the world with a baggage of the past they couldn’t let go of, it becomes a wrath of memories rather than resilience. And I couldn’t be resilient, walking along those high rise buildings which made me look upwards. All those years of unresolved insecurities now became parasites on the host of my body. I was now a plant infested with bacteria. I was being fermented with all the guilt, remorse, nostalgia, willingness to end this life and much more.
At this point, I believed growing up meant the desire to not exist at all. The only daring act I committed then was to pack my bags, leave the college premises on the day of my Chemistry practical and go to my brother’s rented room. All the calls from my professors for missing four consecutive labs, led to panic attacks.
My professors asked, “Why haven’t you been attending labs?” and all I could say was,” I apologize Sir, I have a bad case of food poisoning.” Obviously, I couldn’t say, “I am sorry Sir. But this cloud has stopped following me. It has rather engulfed me and I don’t know how to tell you this, but the labs have been choking me with breathlessness and a hatred that only a student standing alone in a lab without her lab partner in a class full of lab partners working together can understand. I know you won’t understand, but the only way to survive for now is to breathe. And I am afraid, in this college, I just cannot breathe.”
My professor then retorted, ”At least send an email letting us know about your medical condition. And please attach a medical certificate.”
I nodded on the other side of the phone. He must have gotten the hint as he ended the call. No “get well soon.” No “See you next Monday.” Just pure nothing. And for the first time in my life, I believed I was nothing.
Days later, my father arrived, as I waited for him at the airport gates. I didn’t want to see him or his disappointed face. I wanted to say instead, ”Go back, Papa. There is nothing to undo here.”
Days went by going to psychologists, psychiatrists and college counselors as I desperately requested each one of them to allow me to take a semester off.
One said, “Do you plan to kill yourself?” I was shocked. It felt like a personal attack. You never ask a cancer patient. ”Hey, are you ready to die?” but this was a hidden illness. One I couldn’t even generate the proof of. I didn’t know what to say or how to let her know this secret of mine but I gathered enough courage to say, “Yes.”
And then, she casually replied, “How do you plan to do so? With blades?” I was devastated. I was just a failure of a plan now. I knew this was her way of knowing my symptoms but I just wanted to be treated as a human rather than being a body with a faulty mind and careless symptoms.
Finally, the day arrived when my father and I went to the Dean’s office. As we waited for her, I gathered my courage to respond to her questions. And then the scariest question hit me like a punch in the gut. “Do you want to leave?” This time, my father answered on my behalf, “No madam.”
The Dean retorted, “Let her speak for herself.” I was slightly thankful to her at that moment. When she reiterated the question, I simply whispered, “Yes!”
“Bharti stood up for herself at the cost of her father,” brooded Bharti.
I never went back to college again. A series of fights, shouts and tears followed for a few years. Until they made a compromise and this was the closest I could get to receiving an acceptance.
Years of hospital visits made me believe in the diversity of mental illness.
There was a girl googling Irritable Bowel Syndrome and tallying her symptoms with WebMD. And another brought an art journal with her, creating drawings, writing notes, immersed in her own little world. A woman shouting her lungs out slowly fell asleep as she was given the injection and a boy I sat next to just kept mumbling and answering his own questions.
But what remained constant were the eyes on all of us. We were aliens in this culture. We were the outcasts. Outliers in statistical terms. We were the case files used by resident doctors for their own learning. We were simply ill. Our bodies bore no other identification marks than this.
“Bharti is ill. Crazy. Crazy. Crazy,” believed Bharti.
The years that followed were a blur. I still cannot recall the days I would cry myself to the point of having swollen eyes, or the withdrawals that made me stay in bed for weeks, after stopping Lithium. Now I was suddenly mentally ill; a term I had heard being used in the context of “pagal” (crazy, mad) here in this country.
I would chant it like a mantra, “I am not one of them. I am not one of them. I am special. I am special.” But we aren’t special even in our sufferings. Relatability comes from this realization.
All I could understand is this need to fit in just like I wanted to in my childhood. I will carry water bottles for people if they guarantee me a place in their lives. I will be a calm teenager if it means acceptance. I will be a good daughter if it means conditional, uncompromising love. I will cut my story short if it means I will be heard through a barely audible sentence.
“Bharti. Stay. Stay. Stay.” Bharti chants it everyday.
I am not comfortable in my body yet. Yet. A possibility. A better future. A happier one. But now I can gulp food without tears choking me. And I think, for now, this may be enough.
Bharti, a resident of Himachal Pradesh surrounded by lush green mountains and a lake, adores cats, dogs, and rain. She is a devoted dog mom to Jugnu, a rescued dog. Her ambition is to own a cat farm that welcomes cats and dogs alike. Bharti dreams of living in a small house by a riverside on a mountain top with no mobile signals, craving a mysterious life as a cat and dog mom. She takes pride in being trusted by animals.