Over the weekend, a series of anxieties I’d been having all month came to a head and – clarity dawning on me on what the root cause was – I decided to cocoon myself, digitally and otherwise. I locked my social media accounts, refrained from posting, minimised online consumption and focused on grounding myself. My experience is subjective in that I am a double exile: I belong to a minority that experienced genocide, moved to an apartheid state in childhood, lost that one for speaking the truth, and am an official but not sentimental citizen here. I have a sensitivity to the conditions that lead to violence, the way certain birds know when a storm is coming. But my experience is not unique, either – all over India, news and footage of brutality, coming most recently out of Delhi, have been upsetting, confusing and frightening to people with a conscience. For some, the events triggered the trauma of prior occurrences, but one needn’t have personal or communal memory of persecution to feel affected by them, even from a distance.
A friend thoughtfully shared what someone she looks to for spiritual guidance told her: that one must avoid the tendency to narrativise in these times, managing them in small increments so as to not become overwhelmed. This may seem at first glance to be counter-logical. Should we deny the big picture? Should we ignore what led us here, and what historically has been proven to lead from here? No and no, but we must remember to locate ourselves within this largeness as well. I recalled what a healer told me once on dealing with another kind of PTSD that is also mine: invoke the stars above me, and the earth below me. This is similar to the sensory awareness exercise known as the 54321 method that cognitive behavioural therapists teach, identifying sights, smells, sounds, textures and tastes in one’s immediate surroundings to defuse the state of panic.
An online group counselling session I joined seemed directed at encouraging people to seek individual help – but professional therapy, like all healthcare, is a luxury. It was clear that many people are distressed, and far from apathetic. This was affirming to see, in a way. Still, I found myself unable to schedule an appointment with my own therapist exclusively to discuss the way the socio-political climate was clawing at my past and making me terrified for the future. I soothed myself with wordless children’s books. I freed myself from the tyranny of articulation.
In times of horror, we are repeatedly called to stand up, speak up, hold the line. We are told we are cowards for observing without action, even if fear paralyzes us. We are told we are privileged if we look away even to catch our breath. All these statements are empty ones in the shadow of the horror itself. I have no better statements for you, not today. I hold this mirror up only to show you that you are not alone. And maybe, steadily, we will find ways to help ourselves and one another as we parse what has happened and what is still to come. Breathe. Breathe.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 6th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.