The Body Selects Her Own Society

    by Rituparna Sengupta

    When I walk into a room these days, the first feature I notice are its windows. Then the ceiling, then the walls. If there is a bed in the room, I imagine myself stretched out on it and think about what would lie in my line of vision. Does the bed face a window? Does the window face a building, or trees? Does sunlight reach the bed? Is the paint on the ceiling peeling off? Are the blades of the fan clean or dusty? What colour are the walls?

    These preoccupations are a recent development. Earlier, I would step indoors and my eyes would flit from furniture to draperies to furnishings. But after three bouts of covid in as many years and several other viral infections in between, much of which I have spent in bed, this is the direction in which my instincts have veered. 

    Now, I find that the most essential aspect in the architecture of any room is at least one proper-sized window that overlooks a tree or two and shows a bit of the sky. Everything else shrinks in consequence. 

    *****

    I remember the summer of 2021, at the peak of the covid Delta wave. My parents became eligible for their first dose of the vaccine and managed to get it amidst considerable chaos, which seemed nothing short of a triumph. In the months leading up to this, I recall waking up and not wanting to look at my phone, dreading the assault of news of yet more acquaintances, friends, and extended family dying suddenly one after the other, in macabre relay mode. Young, healthy people were suddenly perishing and so were the elderly. Even their funerals were brief, abridged affairs, conducted by numb family members, some of whom themselves succumbed in the days to follow. The expression ‘died before their time’ lost all meaning. Anyone could die, anytime, anywhere. Entire families could get wiped out in a matter of days or weeks. Sometimes in the absence of adequate and timely health care and sometimes despite it. 

    But their fate was still much better than those of the multitudes of covid corpses disposed in the Ganga and found floating up from their watery graves by the hundreds. The sight of them, drifting across our newspapers and television screens, seemed unreal; it felt like witnessing a massacre of the kind one only reads about in history books—anonymous, too numerous to not be reduced to statistics, robbed of all personal history. Bodies that may have never met in life forming an acquaintance after death, through desperate burial that refused to stay buried.  I go through my diary from those days and find an entry in which I have adapted Abel Meeropol’s poem ‘Strange Fruit’:

              Northern banks grow a strange yield,

              In a half-burnt and overwatered field,

              Wrapped bodies that each tide delivers,

              Strange crop floating down the rivers.

              Sacred ghats of the pious north,

              Graves of sand sprouting forth,

              Flowers and incense, sweet and fresh,

              Then the sudden smell of rotting flesh.

              Here are limbs for the crows to pluck,

              For the rains to pelt, for the winds to suck,

              For the sun to rot, for the dogs to drop,

              Here is a strange and bitter crop.

    I think many of us who survived this onslaught and weren’t directly involved in collective efforts to fight it, found ourselves swinging between outraged grief at such ruthless mortality, and selfish gratitude at being spared this indignity. At least, this was so in my case. With two elderly parents at home, I was extra zealous about taking all precautions to avoid risking any chance of infection. I scrubbed my hands vigorously and often, refused to step out except to fetch essentials, and never forgot my mask or sanitiser. Never before had I felt such suspicion towards my own body and the ways in which it could betray me. As luck would have it, my suspicion would soon be borne out by my body, and then repeatedly, over the coming months. 

    *****

    Several months into the lockdown period, confined to the indoors, I realised that this was the first time since childhood that my body had an opportunity to relax for an extended period. Stepping out into the public sphere as a girl and then as a woman had turned out to be a relentless vigil against other, male bodies, each new experience teaching fresh strategies of self-preservation. Now, in the comfort of the private sphere, I could lay down my guard, move around and take up space as I pleased, without any subconscious calculations afoot. However, a new vigilance had taken its place, turned inwards, into the body. In those days, I felt like a commander, defending the fortress of my body against an invisible enemy that was biding its time. 

    Perhaps this is why I recognised the first ‘mild’ Covid symptoms instantly after waking up one morning, on the first day of my birthday month. I went into isolation immediately, much to the disbelief of my incredulous parents, who were convinced that this was my paranoia at work, despite the eventual test result and my evidently worsening condition over the next days. Thankfully, I could retreat into the airiest room at home, and had my family in the next room, to arrange my food and medicines. I know many who did not enjoy this luxury, and were forced to cope with it alone and terrified.  

    Yet, all by myself in that room, I grew lonely. And was often terrified. As the symptoms grew in intensity, I felt weaker and weaker. Days went by in a daze. The air around felt denser and laborious to draw in. A dark pall of something heavy seemed to have fallen over my eyes, and my eyelids were unable to bear its weight. My body aching all over, my breath reduced to gasps, my eyes closed and burning with fever, I felt pinned to the bed, weighed down by my own body. It was all I could do to flip over on my stomach at intervals and practise ‘proning’, trying to get my breath back. I willed my eyes open, and counted the flowers on the bedsheet to the beat of my breaths. After a while, exhausted, I would slowly turn over to lie on my back, and close my eyes, trying to maintain the momentum of my breathing. If I managed to keep my eyes open for some time at a stretch, I would stare at the ceiling, following the groaning motion of the barely-moving fan blades, or track the sudden movements of the mostly stationary lizard on the wall. 

    Between monitoring my body temperature and oxygen levels, my mind felt like a cesspool of turbulent imaginations of the worst-case outcomes of my condition. Reports of the spread of black fungus in covid survivors made me panic, such that I resolved to turn away from anything news-oriented and tried instead to listen to the most urgent demands of my body hour-by-hour, to feel less overwhelmed. 

    I had always thought of my body as something to be disciplined, protected, taught new habits. Covid made me learn that the body exerts its own authority, changes our priorities and preferences, teaches us new habits. I know from successive bouts of illness now, that when all our other senses are compromised, when sight, touch, smell, and taste fail us one after another, our hearing stays with us like a faithful companion. Eyes closed into a thick darkness, all other living beings beyond my physical reach, my taste and smell dulled, I would reach out to the world with my ears, straining to catch any sounds from the world outside my room and window, in a desperate bid to expand my pain-shrunken world. Apart from the few stray human voices from the street in our locked-down neighbourhood, most of the other sounds were from the garden. Birds and squirrels. 

    I had only a cursory interest in birds until then, but now, with their calls piercing through the stillness of the air around me, I was grateful for the lightness they brought to my heavy mind. I would try to commit to memory all their different calls, promising myself to look them up and learn to distinguish them, if I recovered from this. I have kept my promise. Two years on, my ears pick up bird calls more keenly, without conscious prompting. And following their lead, my eyes can spot more birds camouflaged among the trees. Whenever I feel anxious, I shut everything out and let in the birds. It is quite effective.  

    My covid experience has changed many little things about me. Since I spent several days with my voice reduced to a hoarse whisper, I take more pleasure in listening to myself now. I record poetry recitations in my voice, to share with others, or my future self. I have developed the habit of listening to audiobooks and podcasts because they were the only entertainment that demanded the least energy from me on my darkest days. Spending a fortnight in isolation and many months under lockdown has turned a touch-averse person like me into a spontaneous hugger. Somehow, I trust other bodies more now.  I cannot bear to stay cooped up indoors for too long and enjoy going on long walks in all seasons. I like to be up and about on my feet.  My curtains are rarely drawn together. I always make time to gaze at the sky and count the stars. I stop to smell the flowers in the garden because it was their smell, after all, that had confirmed that my senses were well and truly returning, and I was on the mend.

    When the pall finally lifted and I got back the use of my limbs, I cautiously emerged from isolation. Everything seemed new and thrilling. The keenest of all was the physical sensation of climbing up the stairs to the terrace, for fresh air under the open sky. This is the note I wrote in my diary and shared on social media:

    In so many ways, Covid recovery makes one regress into infancy/childhood. Sleeping copiously, learning to sit upright without sliding back into bed, relishing different tastes and smells with new intensity, getting pleasantly distracted by different stimuli including the calls of different birds and the voices of people on the street, driven by a restless energy to be very active even if the body can’t keep up, learning to think and express oneself coherently…It’s like a new lease of life demanding effort and will, but also taking away some of the jadedness of able-bodied youth where so much is taken for granted and never spared another thought or another moment to pause and marvel at.

    When one recovers from such dramatic illnesses, however brief, there is a renewed sense of bodily purpose, an impatience to exert the body and test its old limits and assure oneself that the person in the mirror from a few days back, haggard and exhausted and at her most vulnerable, is gone, for now. The haze has dissolved and the gift of good health has been returned, for now.

    *****

    I have gone on to catch Covid—rather, be caught by it—two more times, despite vaccination and reasonable precautions. But it has decreased in intensity successively. In between them, I crossed several major, long-awaited professional milestones. Covid has stalked me through these phases, until I have stopped panicking about it and forced it out of the shadows of my mind. Its second visitation was also at home but the third was in a shared flat where two of us were down with it and isolated in our separate rooms. We were on the second floor of a high-rise building in a gated complex off the highway in an urbanised neighbourhood that had been wrenched out from a village to accommodate, among other developments, shiny new private universities. There was a small balcony attached to my room and outside it, stood other buildings at a distance. From my bed, I could gaze at a perennially pallid, grey sky with no trees in the foreground and the occasional lone bird stopping by en route to greener pastures. This time, the world outside my room brought me little comfort.

    Each Covid experience has brought pain but also physical humility. Frustration with my body for turning upon me has slowly given way to a grudging acknowledgement of its invisible resilience. In undeniable ways, Covid has weakened my body and made it more susceptible to repeated infections that strike unawares, but it has also taught me to appreciate the gift of my body more meaningfully. I have suffered each time, but also healed. I have a new, less abstract respect for the dignity with which people navigate chronic illnesses and disabilities on a daily basis. I am less impatient with sickness, less conceited about my health. Occasionally, I think of the time when I’ll grow old, dependent, confined to my bed for extended periods like my paternal grandparents who spent years bedridden and helpless, and feel conflicted about the way I would like to will my end.  I follow the train of these thoughts in their winding loops not out of morbid self-pity, but because I fear my body will forget its failings and I will remain unprepared—not for its slow erosion with ageing, but the possibly lengthy arrival of certain death. 

    Baabusha Kohli, a Hindi poet and writer whose works I have been translating, writes in her book Mizrab: “It seems that one needs to hold one’s breath, just so that one may learn how to let go of it. Death anyway is bound to arrive. Not for this did the world invite this pandemic called Covid. To my understanding, Covid struck this earth to acquaint us with our breathing”. 

    Indeed, this renewal of acquaintance with the intimacy of breathing is one of the profoundest experiences etched on our bodies and minds, one that anchors us in the present like little else can. It reminds us of the foundational rhythm of our living, even as it leaves us a little better prepared to accept the ceasing of our breaths one day. 

    ******

    What does it mean to write from the body’s memory—of pain, trauma, healing, ecstasy? My friend, the poet, essayist, and scholar Sumana Roy describes the relationship between her body and her writing thus: she says that her COPD condition that causes frequent breathlessness has altered the rhythm of her writing; she noticed that the way she ‘cuts’ the lines of her poems has changed, to keep pace with her shortness of breath. 

    I am reminded of my maternal grandmother, who died more than a decade ago. She had a warm, comforting presence, was a very good cook, and spoke the Bangal of her native Dhaka, but what I associate her most with, is pain. Near constant, debilitating pain. The smell of her pain-relieving ointment would enter the room before her and linger long after she left. Her hips, knees, and legs tortured her and she would always be massaging them. Her regular conversations—over phone or face-to-face—with our vast, extended family would often be dominated by discussion of failing health, never-ending pain, and medical prescriptions. At the time, I found it exasperating that she, like so many other women of her generation, was so obsessed with speaking about pain. It took me years to understand that for so long, for so many women, speaking of their bodies was the most permissible when they were spoken of in terms of pain. The language of pleasure forbidden to them, it was the language of pain that offered them a shared sisterhood. I know today, that bodily pain was a rite of passage through which girls were inducted into womanhood and how multiple childbirths, overwhelming domestic responsibilities, relentless caregiving, with very little rest, wrecked their health by the time they reached menopause. At that stage of their life, they were finally allowed to feel pain, speak of it, be heard and indulged.  

    Some women rebelled against the injustice of it, paving the way for succeeding generations of women whose relationship with pain and pleasure has undergone radical transformation. Today, when many of us take open, unabashed joy in our appearance and claim our right to pleasure and look after our bodies and its many needs, no wonder the examples of our mothers and grandmothers are weaponised against us, to shame us into submission. 

    So many of us find our freedom through writing today, expressing the wisdom of our bodies in memoirs about many kinds of experiences, some of them explicitly gendered—motherhood, infertility, menopause, surviving sexual violation, discovering sexuality, and much more—building sisterhoods of readers more attuned to our bodies and its vulnerabilities, terrors, and ecstasies, away from the male gaze that has for so long reduced us to bundles of pathologies beyond our control.  

    My own modest body of writing has grown in volume and variety over the past few years. Given my training in academia, I had grown to approach writing as an intellectual activity, but of late— I don’t know how to explain this or whether I understand it well myself— I have become increasingly convinced that my writing has adapted itself to my changed awareness of my body, somehow. All I can say for certain is that I know that while the body remembers, it also forgets, and thus I commit my body and its labours to memory through writing—my own memory and that of others. Writing has taken on an urgency I have not felt before. I approach my writing as I take care of my body: exercising its muscles and nerves, grooming it, letting it rest.  

    *****

    Our collective experience of the pandemic has also revived the ancient metaphor of the ‘body politic’: the notion that collectives of people (church, state, society) are like natural organisms functioning through division of labour and subordination to the ultimate authority of a sovereign figure. In Hinduism, the four primary castes of people were believed to have sprung from different parts of the creator god Brahma’s body: the Brahmins from his head, the Kshatriyas from his arms, the Vaishyas from his thighs, and the Shudras from his feet. This perceived anatomical hierarchy has held up the social hierarchy of caste and its accompanying discrimination and oppression for ages. 

    Occasions like a global pandemic supposedly reveal the inadequacy of all such analogies. If all our money and connections cannot secure us a hospital bed, or an oxygen cylinder, or save our lives, what is the point anymore of clinging to our pretensions of wealth and status? What is the use of denying the truth of death as the ultimate leveller? Yet, such experiences also deepen existing hierarchies and entrench them further into our unequal societies. Not all bodies find themselves endangered alike or shouldering the burden of the nation’s ailments equally—forced to continue working without adequate protection, physically evicted from safe spaces, at the forefront of community service under dangerous conditions, often they die of hunger, poverty, and neglect. Even in death, their obscurity is preserved, as the nation state erases their numbers and denies their deaths in a bid to preserve its image and authority. In a reimagined body politic, we would acknowledge the many invisibilised infections eating away at the seemingly healthy body of the nation, we would realise the complex harmony that keeps our collective body functioning with normalcy at a molecular level and how something as essential and taken for granted as the respiratory system, if obstructed, can make the entire body collapse. 

    We would acknowledge that there is no segregating the air we all breathe in together. And we would learn the importance of opening our windows to take in the vast, beautiful world that lies right outside the tiny worlds we inhabit.

    Author’s Bio:

    Rituparna Sengupta is a writer, translator, and researcher. She writes essays and translates poetry and short fiction, besides researching popular culture and cinema.

    Social Handles:
    Published Writing:  https://rituparnasengupta.jimdofree.com/
    Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rituparnasengupta4u/
    Twitter:  https://twitter.com/Nosferitu
     

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