This Book Is About Being Happy, Being Successful, And Being Bipolar, All At The Same Time
The invitation to join Soho House Mumbai felt like a miracle. Although an hour’s drive from my home, the private members club was worth a weekly hike. I fell in love with his library, which quickly became the genesis of many articles, and made close friends. The turbulence of the ski trip earlier in the year had long since died down. A pattern of mutually reinforcing activities had developed.
These included writing, teaching, speaking, some philanthropic giving, as well as family and social commitments and a fitness regimen. A major family wedding in December also kept me busy, with dance rehearsals and bridal shopping dominating the calendar for the previous months.
Yet time is never linear in my world. The amplitude and frequency of my highs and lows may have flattened out, but they never go away.
For example, a few months later, I was overtaken by weeks of apathy, which made me wonder if I was the same energetic person who once got up at 6:30 a.m. to go do some horseback riding every weekend.
But I got out of bed. 2019 has been busy with new projects, especially in education, a few paid speaking engagements, philanthropy, travel, and my book club and writers group. It’s the taste of ‘normal’, and it’s sweet.
Some of the most memorable moments were exotic – in the summer of 2019, I persuaded Amit to accompany me on a week-long Arctic cruise. Glaciers, walruses, breathtaking scenery, champagne on ice and lots of chocolate cake – it made me want to visit Antarctica next!
But some of my most memorable moments were also the simplest. Amartya and I went shopping for shoes in a mall towards the end of the year, followed by tea in a restaurant run by disabled people. I didn’t often have one-on-one time with him back then. And I wrote that day, “he’s so mature, fun, and great to be around,” especially since he likes to experiment with food.
And then Covid hit, in March 2020. No one knew how long it would last, but I reiterated to myself a basic message from its early days: stick together.
If we’re all locked down and the medical infrastructure is overburdened and possibly inaccessible, I can’t afford to lose it. And I kept it together, for the first wave. We have not been torn apart by Covid in terms of loss of life or loss of employment. Like the rest of the world, we have adapted to physical confinement and online migration.
I guess living with mood cycles is to some extent adapting to the vicissitudes of a pandemic – I’ve learned to expect change, not permanence. Even though emotions can eat me up in the moment, I know somewhere that neither ups nor downs last. And likewise, with the pandemic, nothing is permanent. Blockages and respites can come and go without notice, and you just have to adapt.
So when the opportunity to travel to the UK presented itself at the end of September 2020, I happily accompanied my mum to London to visit my sister, just before the UK’s second lockdown. Being able to take daily walks in the parks was a delight, as was meeting up with friends. In November, life in Mumbai was much better. For a few months, I was back at the gym, at my beloved Soho House, at the salon, and even celebrated my birthday with friends and family at the restaurant.
Of course, there have been times when I haven’t been able to sleep for the past three years. An occasion had nothing to do with Covid and everything to do with a book deadline. In February 2021, I worried about delivering the manuscript within the promised timeframe and lost some sleep. My doctor recommended sleeping pills, I consulted my agent and spoke with my editor, who extended the deadline, and a crisis was averted.
My quarantine experience a few months later was also initially stressful – some of our household staff tested positive. How should they be quarantined? Were my in-laws safe? How would we get out of it? Again I took sleeping pills for a few nights until everything was sorted out. Knowing that I can access a good night’s sleep if I need it gives me vital peace of mind.
But when the second wave hit in April 2021, I found myself in a new position where I had to deal with intense emotions – sadness, anxiety, rage, frustration – alone, with the children.
My in-laws had tested positive and were in hospital, my sister-in-law and niece had also tested positive, Amit was self-isolating to protect me and the children as he had been in contact with his parents, so many people we knew we were dying, I was losing sleep, pacing around the house and writing poetry after a long time.
Death didn’t come to my door
But he seems triumphant
Invade every inbox
With news of lives snatched before their time
Parents, grandparents, friends, colleagues
Between 40 and 90 years old in good health
‘We’re all in the same storm,
But not all in the same boat’
goes the saying
Some boats drift
never come back
leaving only questions
Why she? Why him? Why now?
What more could we have done?
We are not prepared
We may never be prepared
Our numb hearts
Breathe on pause
The tears flow
Death can’t take our spirit with it
The power of prayer
The courage to carry on
To light a lamp for the ones we loved
And celebrate their wonderful lives
Om Shanti Om.
I wrote ‘Boats’ to manage my own emotions, reorganize myself and find some comfort. When I shared it on social media, I received hundreds of responses, which was overwhelming in itself. For example, an old friend said:
It is a poignant reminder of the tragedy unfolding before our eyes. Very well written. Be careful.
One of Amit’s colleagues, who lost three grandparents to the virus, messaged me:
Dear Aparna, this is absolutely beautiful. And that’s very helpful as we wrestle with our emotions and struggle to come out of them stronger than before. Thank you so much for sharing this.
Another friend, who lost both parents to Covid-19, said:
Aparna, thank you for your beautiful soul. You helped me grieve.
A friend posted the poem on her WhatsApp display photo and another friend who runs the Asia Center in South Asia included a verse from the poem in her newsletter. But some responses were more skeptical, prompting me to write another poem about second-wave realities on the ground, soon after writing “Boats.”
‘I like the smell of napalm in the morning’,
The smell of victory
An epic line by a crooked lieutenant colonel
From a frontline war movie
But what about our front line?
The smell of three-day-old bodies burned with kerosene
The sight of living beings lying down, alive,
line up for cremation
More money for hospitals
The sound of mass crackling
The touch of the cremation volunteers
Corpses abandoned by their own children
India is burning
The taste of despair
Stay safe but give big
A call to action
A channel for rage and impotence
A little hope for a ceasefire
I wanted to use it for crowdfunding, but was told it was too depressing and wouldn’t motivate anyone to donate funds.
So, a few weeks later, I wrote another poem, on the importance of grief counseling, inspired by an article I read in the Mint Lounge, a weekend supplement.
Talk to me
When the breath collapsed
A hashtag is born
Who will help them heal?
When death is abundant
A new term is coined
# vicarious mourning
What will help us cope?
Talk to me
A mental health NGO
A free consulting service
For the bereaved and grieving
For our community affected by the Covid
A call to action
A channel for rage and impotence
A small act of comfort
But give big
It’s never too little
It’s never too much
It worked. We raised more money than expected through a social media campaign and I was the biggest beneficiary, having channeled my emotional volatility into philanthropy.
I went through the specific Covid week without letting my immediate family know that I was hanging by a thread. The prescribed drugs helped me sleep. I went for long walks in the evening and did yoga in the morning. I wrote a lot and kept my life simple to stay attentive and present with the children. It was a first: taking care of myself, without relying on my caregivers.
Excerpted with permission from Chemical Khichdi: How I Hacked My SanityAparna Piramal Raje, Ebury Press.