Scorching. There is no other word that can describe the summer of 2011. Beads of perspiration collected on my forehead, forming a translucent tapestry. We were drenched in sweat and a pungent summer odour emanated from every soaked body. But the heat didn’t matter. The sweat was a minor inconvenience.
It was recess and I was actively engaged in playing catch. Fifteen minutes of adrenaline-pumping entertainment and it was back to class. And it was in class that the heat seemed to have an existence of its own, a vengeful spirit assaulting each student and wringing comfort and concentration out of their bodies.
The bell rang and the students filed out in a single line, the epitome of school discipline. The bus was filled with frolic and laughter. My father stood, stoic and impassive, waiting for me at the bus stand. It had been a good day, as always. And as I entered through the front door, the gloom set in. A pall cast over and dark, black clouds rolled in. As always.
Mom came and hugged me tightly as I sat down for lunch. After a hearty meal, as the domestic help cleared the table, Mom went to her room. To lie down. Dispirited and depressed.
It hadn’t been long since my mother’s diagnosis. “Depression and anxiety,” the doctor had declared nonchalantly. It had started with bouts of sadness that seemed to possess her, rendering her mute and helpless. Then the inexplicable insecurities started: “Am I a burden on people?”, “Why am I not good at anything?” and “What will people think of me?”
And as an 11-year-old, I often found myself dumbstruck. My feeble attempts at reassuring her fell on deaf ears. Evenings came to be spent at doctor’s chambers across the state. But medicine only goes so far, we came to realise gradually. The doctors would often task me to be a pillar of strength for my mother – a task I found insurmountable. How do you provide strength to someone who seems to have died a hundred deaths over a span of a single night?
She would lie listless and forlorn in bed with the lights switched off, and I would wade in – a young soldier battling a seemingly inexorable foe. I would sit with my mother and try and engage her in conversation. This was mostly a futile exercise. At times, she would cry. Heart-wrenching sobs would reverberate across the room. My father and I would sit and try to console her, often with limited success.
The task handed to us was to keep her engaged. Mom used to be a voracious reader – novels, magazines, the newspaper – you name it. She used to knit woollens that drew the admiration of all. I still have a sweater knitted by her, it is snug and comfortable. She was skilled in embroidery, and made intricate patterns that seemed to have their own stories to tell.
She used to read Dad’s poems and teach me Assamese. Her cooking meant an ambrosial aroma wafting through the house, all delectable dishes catering to every taste bud. But after her diagnosis, all this became long forgotten. Books gathered dust, knitting needles became heavy, and food was simply a means to survive.
The neighbours were inconsiderate and boorish. “You have nothing to be sad for,” they would preach. “It’s all in your head,” they would claim – an insidious invalidation of mom’s troubles disguised in the garb of concern.
Of course it was in her head. Her mental health was in shambles. Something which most people didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t comprehend. My poor mother would lie in anguish and indecision as a result. “Maybe they are right,” she would say.
Long, dark nights rolled into gloomy, dull days. Her sadness hung around the house, like a treacherous phantasm. For me, it seemed to be a prolonged ordeal, one that seemed to promise no end. The person that I loved and adored the most in the world was suffering, and I was a helpless onlooker. I knew what plagued her but I was unable to alleviate her misery. And in my incompetence lay my melancholia.
But in the darkest of days and the longest of nights, Mom remembered to love me. And to make me feel loved. She would always cook the most sumptuous tiffin, one that all my friends clamoured to eat. She would always wait in our living room for me to return from school. She would sit with me at lunch and hear me narrate my escapades at school. She would gently chide me for childish mistakes. And she would smile, a sombre smile but nevertheless a smile, as I talked about my little achievements – good scores, the fun we had at a friend’s expense and so on.
Her dysphoria couldn’t cloud her love for me, and she made sure to express it. A gentle hug or a tender kiss was always offered. Maybe there was some truth to it when The Eagles sang, “Love will keep us alive.”
Prachuryya Patgiri is currently pursuing his Master’s in Mass Communication from Tezpur University. He views himself as a dedicated researcher and writer with a penchant for artistic flair in his writing.