Illness Has Many Lives

it takes a second to turn a grown woman into a heap of sand
terribly afraid of disappearing

We are sitting there chatting about theatre and suddenly – click. Attempting to remember that moment – I think I hear that sound. And the left side of my body go completely numb. Then rush, Uber, traffic, hospital, emergency, MRI. I share all my passwords with my friend. The fear of death strips you of caution. 

The next morning. I wake up to whispers of two friends.
I am still alive. Yaay. 

doctors said there wasn’t enough sorrow for the heart to stop
just piles of unwritten letters 
burst into a million colourful kites inside her head

Cerebral stroke. I look at a very worried Ma and a couple of friends looking down at me. I may not walk all proper again, but Ma, hey, I am alive! 
I do not say it. 
Why is it that people look at ill folk as if we are an inconvenience? 
Why is it that people look at ill folk as if we are already dead? 

The corridors of the hospital become the runaway. The nurse smiles, ‘You have to learn to fly again’. Except nothing quite takes off in this body. I secretly touch myself on the second day. Nothing. I feel hollow. Like I am not there. I am devastated. 

Or so I think. But. There is worse. I am learning to walk again.

  it’s easier at two, since no one has yet convinced you of stupid things like:
– falling is failing
– asking for help is not a very independent thing to do
– emotional pain is far worse than physical ones
– time heals all

I am sent home. Not my home. I cannot live alone for now. Ma’s home. I hate the bedsheets and I am in bed all the time. Unable, unable, unable. All through the day I wait to find out what next am I unable to do. 

There is no ‘pain’ felt in a cerebral stroke, they say. Then our definition of pain is too narrow.

the afternoons are slower because
it takes longer for the arm now to reach the bottle of water
this is how cinema taught us to flex time
and the distances between unsteady steps

A month. I feel giddy all the time. I still can’t make my left side walk. And now my right side has lost all sensations of pain and temperature. I am anxious, almost afraid I won’t live up to the expectations of all the ‘get well soon’. How soon, I want to bark. We should stop saying this to people. I lie in bed and create new ways of wishing people to get well. “Hope you recover steadily”, perhaps. Or, “Take your time, rest.”

Being vulnerable makes me tense, like a tight rope that can snap anytime. I wish someone tells me not to stretch my back so much. I feel like I am in a competition with myself, set up by the physiotherapist who is a firm and quiet woman of very little words. I try and engage her in conversations to feel less fragile. I try to show off that I know more about politics than she does. I feel mean. I feel petty. My left side does not know me.

the tentativeness of the next step
the slowness of the left turn
the grasping tightly of the bannister
the wait for the eyes to stop dancing and rest in the mirror
such is human arrogance that these are the things that scare us the most


the body becomes the ground on which skirmishes are fought
old battles of opinions beliefs and predictions
about medical systems diets and prayers
illness is also an excuse for the world to believe that every assumption they made of you was 

On some nights I try being a poet again. I write about being fragile, being ill. 

that the body is an ocean, 
its tides not in your control
that sight is only half of what we see
that moving backwards takes more time and effort than moving forward

This romance does not last long. I am slow, slow, slow. So slow with everything. Being slow is to be defenceless. In the wild you have to be faster than your predator. I have seen those videos from Africa with the lion and the deer. But must we imagine life as a race with something that is chasing us to eat us up? 

I give up. 

Edvard Munch, The Sick Child, 1896

The body forgets patterns. Blinded by a sharp spark that blew the brain fuse. It is so scary to not remember the route to known places. 

the kisses are all scattered 
on the bed, chairs, floor
there was once, now forgotten, a pattern of putting them back
instead there sits a brown sparrow at the windowsill
how will I ever find my way back home?

We know we have to start from the beginning again. Have patience, my love. New land, mapmaking, tentativeness, mistakes. 

Will we again turn stones to water? 
Will we have the courage?

One is vulnerable if one loves. Anything. Because we put a part of ourselves in another. In a Thakumar Jhulithe life of the Rakshasi was in a bee inside a box. To kill her you had to kill the bee. She had no control on what would happen to the bee. 

doctors look for the reason in the body
friends, in lifestyle they sometimes envied
haters search in the garbage of sins
but now that the black hole was photographed in the same week
one can submit oneself to utter randomness

As if only landing on the correct reason would grudgingly justify the presence of weakness. Like it is a non citizen in this land of strength and prowess. It has no right to exist.  

I consider the non-violence movements. What gives strength to being defenceless? It gives power to the other. Giving power is also giving responsibility to use it justly. Or not use it at all. Declaring oneself unarmed is to evoke the conditions of mutual sustenance. A white flag across the border in a war. 

I see how grown men mostly shrink away from holding a new born baby. What does that tiny fragile creature demand? They demand ultimate care. They say if you drop me I will not live, and it is on you. They demand you fulfil the role of being a holder of life in your hands. In all its fragility. And they demand it unapologetically. 

It has been two years. 

now at a safe distance to laugh at it
even my doctor makes fun of my malfunctioning right wing!
and yet sometimes I wake up with a start, wondering
was that twitch in my neck another call?

Today I live knowing I am susceptible. To a fall, to getting scalded, to another attack. I understand that some parts of me will remain only parts of themselves. But I also feel this makes me more enduring. Like the wave that never returns quite the same as it went, gaining more life on its way crashing against the shore. 

it is futile to imagine
that we will fully recover
from greed or home or love
only time can make us graceful sufferers

I learn little by little that my wellness is the concern of others too. Me being all strong and independent forever, I never thought of it that way. But this more fragile me with aches and pains and various numbness is in need of help. I make all of you complicit in my well-being. 

too much is made of independence 
too much is made of doing it solo 
a tree does not water itself 

I am dependent on all of you. 
I learn to say it. 
It is hard.
But I like the ring to it.

Like you are on me, I add. 
Or else what joy is there in living? 


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Arundhati Ghosh Written by:

Arundhati writes mostly in Bangla, lives in Bangalore and is a cultural practitioner.

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