“The lies you tell when you are manic are rooted in delusions. When you’re inventing fantastic fictions for your audience, you almost forget what truth is. The worlds you conjure exist. You will them to. Speech becomes a ticket to authenticity, and because no fabrication can be impervious to reality, you find your inconsistencies irksome. The guilt, which amplifies itself when you are depressed, is altogether absent when you’re becoming someone you had always wanted to be, from an elsewhere you had always wished you inhabited. You lie because your world ought to have been better. The attention and belief of your listener fulfils your wish. Stories are of course undone by outlandish exaggerations, but a manic mind desperately wants to travel distances that have been impossible to cover in moments more prosaic.”
Three days after we had first met, Urvashi caught me intently inspecting my reflection in a cafe window when she came in. She was wearing a short skirt with black stockings. “This is what I wear to work,” she said, perhaps feeling compelled to clarify.
“But you aren’t flying today, are you?” My voice already sounded disappointed.
“No, but there’s still an office I show my face at sometimes,” she replied, looking pointedly at my earlobes. “Those are new. You didn’t have them the last time.” Bashfulness had suddenly taken the place of my bravado.
“I’d always wanted to get this done, and after that night of firsts, I think I found some strange courage.”
She smiled in a manner I could recognise from the other night. Picking up my pack of cigarettes from the table, she asked why I always flipped the last one.
“I find a new answer to that question each time. I can give you choices.”
She laughed and said, “I’d like you to invent a line you’ve never used.”
I must have blushed. “Because I hope someone will turn my world upside down by the time I count to twenty.” I remember fearing who I was becoming.
I didn’t tell Urvashi about the fire. Reality could puncture the lightness of an intimacy we were stitching somewhat briskly.
Aware that a Google search would rupture my careful fiction, I made only a few obtuse references to my life in Britain. We talked about how at times she’d feel bloated when she was in the air. I told her I felt bloated all the time.
She told me, “Beauty is not something I was given. It is something I create every day. It takes me an hour. You can time it.” I told her I was trying to survive without a watch. When she said she was tired of relationships that grew too serious too quickly, I took the hint. I sensed our togetherness was transitory, and though I knew the afternoon came with its limits, I couldn’t have felt more content.
“You slowed me down. Thank you for that,” I said, dropping her outside her door. I didn’t expect to be called inside, nor did I expect us to be alone. There was no guided tour. She held me by the hand and took me to her room. Before kissing my lips, all Urvashi said was, “I hope you’re counting to twenty.”
For the next hour, we had sex with an abandon that was novel. I again had the attention of my audience, but control was not a prerogative that fully belonged to either one of us. For a brief interlude, I even thought I was free of language. I wanted to communicate my gratitude to Urvashi. Pleasure had always been problematic for me. Surrender was relief. As I buttoned my shirt, she emptied her jewellery box on the bed. She found a silver earring and gave it to me. “When you take off those studs, put this on. I want to see you wear something that’s mine.”
Sadly, sex only interrupted my mania. She and I never met again.
The women I confessed an undying love for were all merely substitutes for one another.
I tailored a performance I was soon refining with practice. No bigger than a pocketbook, a collection of Franz Kafka’s aphorisms had become a manual for me in that summer of 2007. Three sentences by Kafka illustrated my quandary: “There are some who assume that next to the original deception, another smaller deception was practiced specifically for them. It’s as if when a romantic comedy is performed on stage, the actress, in addition to the lying smile for her beloved, keeps a further, particularly cunning smile for a certain spectator in row Z. That is going too far.” I was the actress, yes, smiling the cunning smile, but I was also the spectator. I was mistaking even the slightest bit of attention for adoration. I’d gone too far.
Pulling me out of his living room, an acquaintance advised, “Stop thinking you’re some kind of Krishna. You’re just a really bad actor botching up his once-in-a-lifetime part as Casanova.” I had gotten used to my interactions being bountiful, and was surprised by the ever-increasing possibility of hostility. My utterances had begun to anger those I had once considered my dearest friends. I’d often be irate when talking on the phone. I screamed so loudly when talking to Lucia once, she pleaded from Cornwall, “Will you please lower your voice? You’ll wake Turkey up.”
I berated cautious women for leading me up the garden path. Knowing I had become an object of gossip, the conversations I imagined people were having about me were more fact than supposition. When my friend arrived at her door, wanting me to leave that very minute, I assumed the neighbours must have complained. But my transgressions had become hard to dismiss as shenanigans.
Of all the belongings I left behind in my hurry to leave Delhi, I still miss most my library which I had carefully packed in three boxes. Having exhausted all the funds in my bank account and having spent all my favours, I sat in an autorickshaw with nowhere to go. An ex-colleague thankfully brought me some money to pay the hotel I had impulsively checked into. Love makes you think of affection as grace, and you then spend your time trying to match that beneficence. Kanti, my waiter, saw me type on my laptop and asked me how much it would cost to buy one for his teenage son. I made him take mine. To have absolutely nothing, I would have to make use of one last open ticket to Bombay. I left Delhi that night, thinking I was free of attachment.
My childhood friends who I met in Bombay were perturbed enough by my gradual metamorphosis to be more forgiving.
Waiting for one of them at the airport, I felt the need to test the limits of my new-found asceticism. I sat cross- legged and began meditating outside the terminal. With no luggage, the Bombay constable found it hard to believe I was a passenger. He shooed me away with his stick. ‘This is no place for bums,’ he said. My actions were becoming harder to fathom and my misconduct was becoming harder to apologize for. I was making scenes in bars and on the road. It was prudent on the part of my two closest friends to take me to see a psychiatrist. I was fidgety and impatient in the waiting room. The receptionist soon asked me to wait inside. She showed the way.
The room I was led into had three chairs and an examination table. Parvati was filling out forms when I sat down. Her forehead seemed to have locked itself into a frown. She kept removing the hair from her face as she ticked multiple boxes.
I apologised before asking, “What do they have you in for?”
Her concentration interrupted, she lifted her head and looked like a rabbit that had been caught in the headlights of my question. “They don’t know yet. I don’t even know if I should be here.”
I laughed and said that we were in the same boat.
“But looking at you, I think that boat might capsize,” said Parvati.
She was disarmingly attractive when she smiled. When she asked me for my name, I considered the possibilities for a few seconds and said, “Advaita Goswami.”
“But that’s a girl’s name, isn’t it?” she asked.
My lie had given me the chance to reinvent myself again, and I wanted to cross a threshold I had been too afraid to in the past. “Advaita literally means non-duality. More simply, it means not two. If I were a Vedanta scholar, I’d tell you there is no gender.”
She asked sheepishly, “Are you a Vedanta scholar?”
I burst out laughing. I told Parvati I was an orphan, that I had lost my parents in a car accident and that I was now living on an inheritance. I had a sister, but we, for some reason, didn’t talk much after our parents’ death. “I know I won’t have to worry about money, but I don’t know what to do with my freedom.”
She said there was only one way out for me. I needed to get up to mischief. “But the problem with mischief is that it lands you in trouble, no? I guess that’s why I am here.” Before she went back to her forms, I asked her if she’d like to meet for a drink. She tore a piece of paper and wrote down her number. Advaita Goswami was far smoother than Shreevatsa Nevatia could ever be. When the nurse came to get me, thankfully she didn’t call out my name.
As I sat across from a psychiatrist for the first time, I leant back and rested my arm on the chair. I was caught in the act. It did not take long.
Excerpted with permission from How To Travel Light: My Memories of Madness and Melancholia, Shreevatsa Nevatia, Penguin India.