Much later, caught in an undertow of memory, the true emotional magnitude of certain events assails us. Trauma leaves live wires all over our lives, faultlines with known and unexpected triggers, unknown and expected after-effects.
Like a rope too thick for anything but a loose knot, we come undone again and again.
Last week, hearing from an eyewitness who was confused as to what the scene they had fled was, I tried to find out online what the tussle and commotion they had seen in Bangalore’s Frazer Town had been. I was dismayed to see a tweet that used the words “small communal unrest”.
Seeing that tweet, I wondered: how is it possible to preface something of a terrible nature with a dismissive adjective? Think of it: “little hate crime”. “Tiny war”. There is no such thing. Only those who are affected have the right of measurement.
Perhaps we rank things on scales so as to be able to process them. The mistake we make is in how we calculate the value of not only human life but the experiential quality of the same. It’s like a zen koan: if no one dies in a conflict or difficult circumstance, and those who survive don’t make a sound, does it matter that it happened?
Always. We often keep the things that deeply shape us from others. Victims of sexual abuse often maintain silences of years. We become embarrassed to share how certain locations or keywords can make our palms sweat and our hearts palpitate – and so we simply withdraw and avoid routes, people, places. Unfulfilled dreams and unrequited desire alter ones ways of being, but the topics are carefully evaded in all but the most trusted company. And then there is the question of narrativisation. People will superimpose their versions onto things that happen to us, or trivialise our struggles, our rights to name things as we understand them – and ultimately, us. And so, sometimes, we don’t tell them our stories at all.
Trauma comes to roost in us both individually and collectively. Chennai continues to stagger from the impact of the recent flooding. People are still in relief camps, some dying of infections. Some cannot go home. Others have lost their livelihoods until their workplaces, vehicles or clients are ready for business again. Someone who briefly evacuated their home told me how in the days and nights since, they still hear the sound of the river in spate at night, and are afraid. Upheaval and shock of any kind – from a bitter breakup to a natural disaster – always bring with them PTSD. Rehabilitation efforts must necessarily consider the emotional and mental costs of survival.
It will sound like I’ve put them all on the same scale – abuse, tragedy, shock and conflict. But trauma is very much like the classic trick question of what weighs more: a 200gm metal coin, or 200grams of feathers. One or the other may not look like much to the beholder, but the burden of each can only be known to its bearer. All trauma is unique – from the cause, to the consequence, to the way we choose to carry it.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 17th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.