10 July 2020 06:24 AM

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SHREYA VARMA | 17 JUNE, 2020

A Reflection about the Current State

India reported to having persecutory ideas


“If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of 'facts' they feel stuffed, but absolutely 'brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving. And they'll be happy, because facts of that sort don't change.” —Fahrenheit 451

It is so tragic how reading these words today, they strike an inner chord, like this noise reverberates inside and it’s all outside, this black cloud of smoke Ray Bradbury spoke about in 1953.

It’s sad that in my everyday discourse, “black mirror” “Orwellian” “Holocaust” and every other dystopia we know about has become part of our colloquial.

I sit and rummage through article after article trying somehow to piece together what is happening, what is going on. It is all in bits and pieces. The stories and the voices and all the images are gory and haunting – in bits and pieces.

Worried, I was telling a colleague that I feel I’ve become very dysfunctional. I obsessively end up just reading through everything and the only thing that haunts me like a waking nightmare, like this panic stricken recurring thought I’ve gotten way too familiar with, which I now cannot rid, is just the state of my country, my home, where I’ve lived for so long.

She responded and said, “That’s how everyone is. It’s not pathology of the individual anymore. You are not alone.”

In that moment it felt like a relief. I am not crazy to be left so shocked and afraid: everyone is going through this! But it was haunting me, this feeling of terror that has pervasively occupied every home in India today. At most, I am left speechless just watching this terror expand its many wings over every city. I sit back in fear, not even able to join any protest, in paranoia, that I can be attacked.

I read Fahrenheit 451 nineteen years ago, and the uncanny resemblance of this totalitarian way of governing strikes me, and leaves me feeling weary and appalled. I would never have thought the story was something I would ever personally relate to. And today, any dissent, idea, or piece of knowledge not shared by what is acceptable is to be burnt, at a temperature of 451 degrees Fahrenheit.

We are burning and killing our minds, our ideas, what we know – is being attacked – and burnt. It feels so hot, this burning, the very nature of our country’s skin. It feels so primitive and so vulnerable. It is sad.

I am a clinical psychologist working in New Delhi. While living here, I feel everything currently feels a little more florid and magnified. My patients are coming to me every day, and every day they are sharing with me the intensity with which events in the country are impacting them.

Every day I sit in front of them and listen to their feelings magnified to this intensified degree: these feelings of shock, these feelings of helplessness, these feelings of hopelessness, these feelings of panic, these feelings of anger, these feelings of sadness.

And every day I sit in front of them listening to each of them uniquely and listening to how in their lives these feelings uniquely make sense to them, how this feeling of helplessness resides somewhere inside them and how it’s rising from their skin now – surfacing now for them to feel it even more.

Last year I attended a conference about the ability to mourn a loss, and its relationship with mania and depression. While I was sitting alone in the conference, a senior psychotherapist glanced at me and began a conversation; after an exchange of pleasantries, he became curious about my practice in India.

He asked me if the pollution really is as problematic as we read. I told him it’s quite troubling: every year around Diwali I develop a cough. He was shocked and he said do your patients talk about it. I said yeah, some of them do, mostly around November – it’s something that always comes up in the sessions.

This psychotherapist and I then had a conversation that has stayed with me till now.

He said, ‘You know, do you bring this up with them?’ I responded to him and I said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ He said, ‘You know if people are talking about the pollution, are they really talking about the pollution or are they talking about the pollution of their inner states, their minds?’

His question made me pick at myself about my own sense of smallness. And I just very theoretically responded to him, I said to him, ‘You know some of them are bringing in psychosomatic symptoms…’

Theorising is a defence against extreme vulnerability. He did not respond to me defensively though. He just said, ‘Yeah but you know – if the climate change is real – and if our patient speaks of it – then how can we know if this is symbolic of an inner climate change – or that the fact of the matter is – that this is an external true event that they speak of? You know – during the Holocaust – when people would speak of the Holocaust – it was a reality…”

Then I knew what he was saying, and I stayed silent.

Soon after, I came back – and boom! Everybody in Delhi, all my friends and all my patients, were speaking about CAA and NRC and Jamia and JNU and the ongoing protests and their respective feelings for these events. Knotted in between all of this were my own tumultuous and perplexing feelings about my own home ground.

It’s true, these events are real – when my patients speak of these events, they are not speaking of an inner political pollution. These feelings our country faced then and faces now are so magnified that we’re all feeling feelings together – of shock, helplessness, anger. We have all lived through these feelings – and we are all being reminded of the terror we have already survived.

But these feelings currently are so magnified that one can’t notice anything but their magnitude. Each of us is now impacted. We all sit in our homes, panicking, about whether our conversations could get us in trouble. Hush. Shh!

Silence. I have silenced my own voice for very long around this from fear, from paranoia. Silently, I have felt numb and dislocated and confused about everything.

Though, somehow, I found support with my friend and colleague. Once I began speaking to her – through her words – I began to realise that this is now a joint pathology, that we are all rummaging through this, piecing together our lives around these many horrific events.

Fahrenheit 451 was a fictional story about this state, that did not want anybody to have any knowledge that it did not want them to have – and so it legalised the burning of books. 451 degrees is the temperature at which paper burns. This paper knowledge was all burnt.

Ashes, ashes! If you were found with books, you were held guilty of a crime. Everybody lived in paranoia, and everybody lived in houses that were exactly alike, because dissent was not allowed – because difference was not allowed. It was illegal.

And isn’t it uncanny that now in our times universities and libraries are being burned and attacked? The witchhunt trials, the burning of books, the rewriting of historical records, the gaping memory holes… We are living through this dystopia.

I think in parts it is because we suffer from our own unique kind of McCarthyism. In parts we are hunted down for being our own kinds of witches in the times we live in. In parts our own spaces where we hoard books are being burned and attacked. In parts facts are being created, history books and graffiti are being written over. We are living through a kind of memory hole.

While I was in a conversation with another friend (also a colleague) she said, ‘Doesn’t this all feel like a Partition hangover to you?’ All of us just very simply agreed. Crude, but it might be true.

Many years ago I read an article by Haider Warraich, about Pakistan going to a psychotherapist. Warraich wrote:

“The therapist had no idea just how old Pakistan was, for even by his own accounts, his birth was a matter of great dispute. Pakistan was born either in the Bronze Age when the Indus Valley Civilisation was established in Mohenjodaro. Or, in the 8th century with the arrival of Muhammad bin Qasim, the 17-year-old Arab general, who became the first man to plant the flag of Islam in the Indian Subcontinent.

“Along the way, he also planted seeds in the collective Jungian psyche, the shoots from which continue to surface to this day. Sometimes he claimed to be born as a reactionary ideal in 1857. His real genesis, in 1947, was corroborated by an official birth certificate. Though that might simply be the day he was separated from his Siamese twin in a rather bloody operation…

“Pakistan’s childhood remained of great interest to the therapist. While it was a topic that Pakistan refused to confront directly, drawing from his nightmares, his rambling digressions, and notes she had received from his previous therapists, a vague picture had come together.

“Born on the stroke of midnight, Pakistan and his twin brother, India, had had a tumultuous childhood, resulting in frequent fights, bleeding noses and cut lips. Orphaned in his infancy with the premature death of his father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, frequently beaten by his estranged brother (who also took away Pakistan’s favourite cashmere sweater), deeply insecure due to his short stature, and lacking any sort of guiding hand, Pakistan had a tormented upbringing.

“Once he attacked his brother to take back his sweater but failed (though he still claims it was his brother who started that particular round of fisticuffs). To this day, Pakistan refused to acknowledge any blood relationship with his brother, claiming to be a separate entity from him…”

These lines sum up what India personified and going to a therapist now would look like. India would have a similar trajectory of thought:

India refused to acknowledge any blood relationship with his twin brother, claiming to be an entirely separate identity from him… India was struggling with this cashmere sweater, tearing it… India refused to confront his own tormented childhood… India refused to acknowledge what he had lost… India refused to acknowledge his siblings…

India was called in for an interview. India looked like he had a normal build though he was not appropriately dressed. India was wearing bright coloured clothes. India looked dishevelled and appeared agitated.

He was in touch with his surroundings and eye contact was partially maintained with the examiner. Attitude towards the examiner was cooperative and rapport was established with ease. Psychomotor activity was increased.

India was on the move almost all his waking hours. Abstract thinking was found to be at a functional level. India was only able to illustrate the ability to understand things at a functional level, he did not have a conceptual level of understanding.

Attention was aroused but was difficult to sustain over a considerable period of time. The patient was oriented towards time, place and person. The pitch of his voice was loud. The patient’s speech had increased productivity and a decreased reaction time.

The patient’s speech was not goal directed. The patient was speaking rapidly, jumping from one idea to the other, spontaneously answering.

In the disorder of content of thought, ideas of helplessness were found. The patient was found to have grandiose delusions. The patient felt he was rich and had immense physical power.

The patient also reported and said, “mera dimag bahut tez hai… puri duniya mein, main apna naam roshan karwaunga” (My brain is quite sharp… I’ll make my name famous around the whole world).

India reported to having persecutory ideas. The patient felt very unsafe about his family members. Mood was subjectively reported as, “mann ajeeb lagta hai” (The mind feels strange) and objectively seen as labile, at times irritable and inappropriate to thought content.

Personal, social and test judgement were not intact. The patient was exercising poor judgement with finances. Insight was found to be at Grade 1. India said, “yeh mansik bimari nahi hai” (This is not a mental illness).

I guess in a crude way, in a mix between now this scare and this collective refusal to confront our childhood – “information obtained from the history, examination of the mental status and clinical observations indicates that India is currently suffering from a manic episode with psychotic symptoms”.

And so we now burn books, rewrite facts, hunt witches – all while living through an unbearable memory hole.

I would like to thank my colleague and friend Banupriya SB who has helped me feel supported and discussions with whom have helped make sense of this clutter

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