Content warning: Mental health, Death or dying
The first loss is the world’s. The second is your own.
In March 2020, tremors run across fault lines, waves flood countries, borders rapidly shrink. Within the first few days of the pandemic, you fly back home to India to be with your family. You are finishing your master’s degree then. Attending classes and meetings online, getting used to your own reflection on the screen. It isn’t so bad, you think, aware at the same time of how safe you are in the privilege of separate bedrooms. However, you struggle to read and write all month. This will be the first time.
It takes you about a month to think that fiction isn’t useless again. You read Deepa Anappara, you read Madhuri Vijay. You read Woolf, you read Austen. More surprisingly to you, you write. Perhaps, more than ever. You learn what it means to begin a novel. You struggle with what it takes to continue.
In the middle of the year, you shift homes thrice in the pandemic. You move back to Scotland, move out of student dorms, shift into a flat. This rattles you more than the turbulence of the aircraft does, but you will only feel it later, when the damage is done. You used to think you were the kind of person who could write anywhere, in chaos, in change, in coffee shops. Maybe you aren’t.
The cracks creep up inside you. You were busy looking at the world, and you failed to notice that you had formed fault lines of your own. You are in a country you love, but you aren’t yourself. You’re struggling to get a single word down. Each one feels laboured, heavy, filled with the weight of a thousand moons. Some days, you revisit your novel in a hurry, not stopping to think or even to freewrite. You hope that momentum will carry you into the story and from the top of the white page to the bottom. But your characters, they won’t be fooled. They look at you with the distance of strangers on the bus, with cold, hard stares that send shivers down your spine. Some days, they stay stuck inside one room, refusing to get up from the sofa they once sat on. Others, they don’t appear human at all. They talk like robots. Their arms move lifelessly, their eyes vacant like ventriloquists. You stop trying.
You’re reading Writers & Lovers by Lily King. You have always been moved by stories about writers. So when King’s narrator, Casey Peabody, speaks about the struggle to get her characters down the stairs, you underline the words, thrice, then four times and your pencil is slowly showing on the other side, tearing a small hole through the paper.
Visiting a therapist terrifies you. But you know that this can’t be an ordinary writer’s block. The ‘tortured artist syndrome’ isn’t one for you either. You need to feel happy, calm, even overbearingly joyous to write. You have to feel content and loved. Your therapist agrees – it’s easier for ideas to arrive when you’re grounded. So you start to drill.
You look around the internet, searching for words to soothe you. You ask writers you know how they do it, write instead of getting distracted. You read countless interviews by famous writers about their routines. You despair when they say something that contradicts yours, you smile when they talk about their pain. You go to therapy.
You’re back in India by now, another shift that changes you. For the longest time, the idea of settling down in one city unsettled you. Now your bones feel shaken by the movements you’ve taken the past year. You want, for a while, to stop. When strangers ask what you do, and family asks you how you’re doing, some days, you’re ashamed. You mumble ‘writer’ and ‘writing’. You scurry to the corner where they can’t ask you more questions because you have no answers, you’re just trying to make it through each day.
It’s easy at this point to become convinced that you aren’t ever going to be creative again. That this is it. The sadness is you and you are the sadness. But then, you have your first public reading as a writer and show up. They don’t know that you will cry afterwards at the feeling of feeling alive. The feeling passes in two days, but for that moment, you’re exhilarated. You know you want to do this forever. Some days, you get an email that begins with, ‘We are delighted to inform you…’ and you rejoice. A future date of publication brings optimism. You speak more honestly to friends and family. Other people’s kindnesses uplift you. Slowly, you begin to meditate and exercise. You try not to focus on expectations and regrets. You’re just a person trying to write.
You write because it’s fun. You read because it helps you write. You write phrases borrowed from conversation. You write about the texture of aubergine skins, you write about limes and oranges. You write in your journal – things that prickled that day, things that made you laugh in your dream. A lot of the time, you write crap. It’s hard still, but at least you’re writing.
When the second wave of the pandemic hits India in April, this time, everybody feels the earthquake. There are no desks to hide under, no outdoor spaces to run to. People around you suffer from the disease. So do you. You lose someone – someone loved by someone you love. People around you lose someone every day. The losses are mounting now. You are afraid. But you are meditating, you are writing.
It’s July, 2021. Things are settling, they are mid-air. You don’t want to romanticise sadness – this isn’t that. But right now, you know to be grateful. You are here. You are loved. Your characters have made it down the stairs. You’re alive.
Bhavika Govil is a writer from India with stories in Extra Teeth, Gutter, Vogue and the notes section of her phone. She studied creative writing at The University of Edinburgh. She recently won the inaugural Pontas & JJ Bola Emerging Writers Prize for her debut novel-in-progress.