Half Life

Having been flat mates for ten years, we had reached a point of comfort in our relationship. Leena was the rule-setter. We would each have our space, so from the very first day we moved in – first into a small flat and later to this larger one – she would lock her bedroom door at night; which pretty quickly shut down any fantasies I may have entertained. When we started identifying with the same things – the same friends, similar taste in films and books, familiar views, it was she who put an end to ‘the cloning,’ as she called it, saying, “If two friends are identical, they can’t relate to each other. If we flow into sameness, there will be no energy or interest left. So space, Goddess, space.”

I was the natural housekeeper. She would take that over sometimes, only to do a terrible job. The pattern was common: she would love my management and fussing, abruptly withdraw from them to add to my hurt, then lap them up all over again. It was as if she wanted one life between us, but kept choosing two. Maybe the comfort we enjoyed in our relationship was earned. Toss it around for ‘renewal’ (Leena again) and it would become steady, both together and apart.

Leena worked with an international organization as a coordinator for disaster management and rehab. When the tsunami hit our southern and eastern coasts, she travelled to coastal towns for months. Initially, after returning from her trips, she appeared fine, although tired, shaken and quiet. She soon began to quarrel over small things. My domestic management, for example, was not up to par for her; just ‘debris, debris, debris’. Then she went numb, absolutely numb. Breathing in a shallow sort of way, as if her chest was constricted. She never spoke about the tsunami, even when I probed, but she began to leave her bedroom door open at night, as did I. She barely slept. She would pace up and down the living room, then slump anywhere – on the easy chair, a stool, the floor – a hunched figure silhouetted against a wall, her hair a straight shock.

Her nightmares were unrelenting. She would scream, thrash around in bed or gasp for breath, till exhaustion made her fall back groaning. These dreams would make my flesh crawl, but they were the only occasions when I could make any progress. I put a glass of water on the bedside table and shook her by her shoulders. “Get a grip, Leena. The tsunami is outside of you. It’s a natural disaster. Leave it there. Outside. Tackle it as an outside challenge. Don’t let it inside you. Do you get that?”

She looked at me without recognition. Her lips curled into a ‘what do you know’ snarl.  I couldn’t help but wonder if our neighbours heard her screams over their own household noise.

One night, I was startled when I found Leena shaking me by the shoulder.  She was crouching on the floor, her hands clenched in fists against the dark flowered pattern of her nightdress.

“I need to see a shrink, Anita. I can’t go to my senior for counselling. I could be laid off if he knew my real condition. Please, let’s find a doc, quietly and discreetly. His medicines may help me. I can’t go on anymore.”

So we found a doc, quietly and discreetly. His medicines did not help, only made Leena more hapless and disoriented. What helped even less were his words, “How could you allow yourself to slip into this state – you, a counsellor?”

Two nights later, it rained cats and dogs – so much that the accompanying sounds fused into one long, whirring hiss, like the blades of a helicopter. The curtains billowed in the dark like half-filled balloons. Lightning flashed and spat at our dreary city. I saw the kitchen light come on and started walking towards Leena, who was rocking back and forth on her heels before the kitchen cabinet. Then throwing back her head, she rammed it hard into the cupboard. I stood there in shock. Leena was still surprisingly on her feet. I held her arms and watched a bloodless bump form on her forehead, her face convulsed with pain and sadness. I held her head firmly, thinking this might steady her, but could no longer hold back my own tears.

“Talk, Leena, talk. Talk to me about what’s going on,” I blurted out. “Or write out your thoughts, your nightmares, your fears….”

She slept in my bed that night, not as the attractive sexual partner I had imagined, but as a broken child, blabbering. “The wave crashed louder than explosions in a quarry….nuclear blast shock wave… rushing, roaring ….hundred miles per hour……froth foaming from its lips…..salt seeping into the farmland…smelling like the beach…..kettles floating, mugs, beds, chairs, computers….walls leaning, wooden slats still hanging like wet bones, her ceiling in her bed…cattle floated eyes open…. dogs…big sections of houses, logs, trees…..dead, all dead.”

I remained awake even as she dozed off; her body sprawled along the edge of the bed, and her hands sweating.

She appeared to be quite normal by the morning, though the bump on her head had turned blue despite a bowlful of ice, and we both left for work in a state of exhaustion. I had no idea how much work lay ahead — for both of us. Leena continued through her routine during the day, speaking little, but chattered through the night — in her bed, in mine or in the living room. The only thing I could successfully convince her to do was to write out her emotions. Her feelings, her memories, her dreams. That provided a dim light amidst the worry, for there appeared to be no one but us on this miserable No Man’s land. When she started journaling, I waited for a few months before asking for her permission to access it. She gave in meekly – no old shades of Leena here – on the condition that I only read it in her absence.

Despite the journal, Leena’s nightmares became more anguished. She thrashed about one night, her arms flailing, nearly knocking me off my own bed as she screamed, “It’s advancing like a wall….cold, merciless….”

“What do you feel, Leena? How does it make you feel….this wall?”

Awake and whimpering, she gasped, “I feel paralyzed with fear. I can hardly breathe. I want to run, but my legs refuse to move.”

“Yes, it’s very strong, unstoppable. Do you think we can speak to it — tell it to quieten down, go back from where it came?”

Her eyes squinted at me. “I can’t. I feel there’s a glass barrier between myself and it…and everyone. Almost like a smoky glass. I cannot speak, connect….I feel like a disconnected plug.”

“But you are not disconnected. You see this wave approaching, you feel this fear….you can breathe deeply to calm this fear….you can speak to the wave.”

“No, no….it doesn’t listen. It is too powerful. The village woman said it was like a cold beast that crashed into her home. Then curled back and thrashed at the timber, again and again, till the house fell on top of them. It swept away the wreckage and everyone inside. Only she lived…”

“She lived, Leena, she lived. She watched, she feared, she grieved but she lived. Let’s tell the wave to do what it must do…but to let us live through, just live.” I slumped. Her head, with its straight strands of hair fell damply on my chest. We dozed till our morning alarm rang.

I scoured her journal for signs of hope, only to find a succession of confused and unsatisfactory entries: Carcasses and debris; dread and destruction. Then an island appeared. After an endless swim through black waters, she is tossed onto an island by a 35 foot wave. It is peaceful. A man comes out of a deep forest to greet her. She returns his greeting. She is not afraid.

I ask Leena about the man on the island, my tone deliberately casual.

“I don’t know him. But he felt like my father,” she replied.

“Your father? You have not shared much about your father. Does he make you feel safe on the island after the storm?

She was silent, and then volunteered at last, “Maybe, he was God.”

“Yes, maybe. Do you think you could hold on to this island, this.. God? You know, like he could protect you from harm?”

She did not reply. She did not want to.

She began to succumb to her moods, to her neurosis. She wouldn’t bathe; she wouldn’t eat food except junk; she would sleep through an entire working day, paying no attention to missed calls from office. She stopped doing chores around the flat, just stared out of the window or sat before the television with unseeing eyes. I was so frazzled myself that I threatened to take leave to visit my parents for a month. When I announced this, she looked crushed, almost as though she had been run over.

“This won’t work, Leena. The madder you feel, the harder you will have to hold onto your sanity. And what is sane, Leena? Effort is sane. Trying to understand your situation to get past it, is sane. I am sane. I need to remain sane. Get that?”

I left her slumped on the easy chair. At night, as she snored gently, I whispered into her ear, “That man on the island. He is a good man, a pure man. He must be. You felt safe with him, peaceful. Hold on to the island. Hold on to the man on the island. He is there for you.”

Leena recorded a warning dream the next day. “I’ve gone into a building to escape stormy weather. There are lots of people inside. Someone asks me why I am there. I reply, ‘I have taken refuge from the weather.’ I receive a phone call from someone I don’t know. The person seems to know me and begs me to warn the others of an impending disaster. The caller says it was in the papers and would happen soon. I suddenly remember. After the call, I tell people around me about the warning, but no one wants to pay attention to it.”

So a warning did register, even if most of her didn’t want to pay attention. She doesn’t know the caller, more likely doesn’t want to recognize the caller. I’d say the caller was me.

In another entry, Leena wrote: “We all know what it feels like to move a full bucket of water. Does anyone know what it feels like to have billions of buckets move over you with the speed of an express train twenty feet high? To see it push through the village, a kilometre wide, right into the forests behind? Dragging everything back to the ocean bed like it was an axe, felling everything and everyone? The debris, the debris, the debris. A hundred year old tree tossed about like a toothpick. A boat churning in the middle of a street – so bleak, so stranded. Like memories – half alive, half dead. Smoky, glassy, loveless. Is there love? Does anyone really love? It’s survival….just survival…….a half-life.”

In our isolation, I often wondered about Leena’s parents and whether sharing this would assist in her recovery. I knew that her annual visits to her parents were duty visits, and her weekly calls were duty calls. When I broached the subject, she baulked. But I kept up the pressure – gentle pressure – referring to her parents as if I knew them personally, so I could share a sense of shared responsibility, even if in my own imagination.

It took three years before I came across an entry, which I sensed, with some relief, was a breakthrough dream.

Leena wrote: “I am standing on a wide plain. Big mountain-like molehills appear. They are molehills but look solid. Suddenly, they burst open and out come a number of terrifying-looking reptiles — lizards, crocodiles, dinosaurs. They move gracefully, as if gliding. I glide with them. I am not afraid.”

God – land at last.

I should have arrived at this breakthrough earlier, for on re-reading her dream entries prior to this, I realized that apart from the usual ones of despair, such as being eaten alive by sharks, there was one of a whale swimming blithely through the ocean like a witness to all that the ocean held, coming up for air and blowing out water from its head. It was a witness to the turbulence of the water world, a witness! With time I had sought not to despair with Leena’s outer behaviour. It was the inner landscape I kept scouring for signs of hope.

Leena never handed me her story on a platter. It came out in bits and pieces, especially in moments when I myself was both alert and relaxed. I had to piece the puzzle together through acute reflection. Leena’s current father was her stepfather. Her own father died in a car crash when she was just four. Her mother never allowed herself to come to terms with the full extent of her grief. She repressed it and re-married quickly. She passed on this repressed grief to little Leena, who locked it away without any powers of understanding. A tsunami locked away, leaching constant loss and sadness into a young life, forcing her to live in half measure, just as her mother did. Staving off the fullness of life, and staving off the intensity of her feelings to avoid facing and assimilating her grief. Leena lived a half-life too – half loved and half nurtured – until the full-blown tsunami came and knocked open the tsunami locked within.

It was only after Leena started focusing on her career that she could begin to work on achieving, and living a full life — a rich professional and personal trajectory, strong friendships, varied interests, and multiple views. But there was far too much unknown grief locked away, and she was compelled to face it with all its floating debris. She had to make it to the island, where she could greet her father and make her peace.

For the first time in three years, I watched Leena cross over from the living space to her bedroom and close the door firmly behind her. I left mine open. My body rippled with relief and my heart flowed with a joy that kept me up for most of the night, as rain poured down outside.


This story was first published by Earthen Lamp Journal in its issue themed, Mental Illness.

Neera Kashyap has published a book of short stories for young adults, ‘Daring to dream’ (Rupa & Co.) and contributed to five prize-winning anthologies for Children’s Book Trust. As a writer of short fiction, poetry, essays and book reviews, her work has appeared/is forthcoming in leading South Asian journals which include Kitaab, Papercuts, Out of Print Magazine and Blog, Muse India & Indian Literature.

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