I had no one to help me, but Jeanette Winterson helped me.
In 2018 I won the Villa Sarkia writing residency, for which I had to travel to beautiful and brutally cold Finland. It was my first international trip and my first solo one. As much as I wanted to go, I also didn’t want to go.
For most of my life I have struggled with clinical depression and anxiety, but the struggle has been exceptionally great for the past few years. One part of my fight with generalised anxiety disorder is that travelling is not easy for me. It’s not the fear of flying, but the fear of what happens once the plane lands. As a coping mechanism, I make lists to prepare myself as best I can for impending doom. And this time was no different.
My first panic attack came when I was packing my winter clothes. I paused for a bit, took a few deep, calming breaths, and made a list of things that could go wrong.
- I could be robbed and lose my passport.
- I could be in an accident with no one to take care of me.
- I could fall ill.
- I could get lost in the jungle. (In the film Kamome Shokudo, set in Helsinki, a character describes Finland as the land of forests.)
- I could lose my passport and then die (with whatever causes) and no one would know what to do with my body, and my family and friends would be sad forever. (When I imagine sadness, it is quite hyperbolic.)
Most of these fears were as improbable as they were probable. To counter them, I prepared a list of phone numbers, wrote them down in order of preference. At the top of the list, of course, were my brother and father. I wouldn’t want my mother to get any bad news first, she’d be utterly useless.
Then I had friends, beginning with the ones who were the most enterprising, who would be able to figure out my whereabouts and also manage to keep my family in the loop. And then there were the numbers and email addresses of people to contact in Finland, the residency organisers. I wrote these numbers down on several sheets of paper, one in every piece of luggage I was carrying.
I sent a picture of them to all my friends, along with pictures of my passport and the visa page, and my health insurance, not just via WhatsApp, but also email. What if they also lose their phones?
Writing down worst-case scenarios and their antidotes made me feel better. Now, the only thing left to do was actually leave the country. And soon enough, the night arrived. Language deserted me for those 24 hours. In the cab on the way to the airport I had to sit in a specific way, at a specific angle, or I would have thrown up. In fact, the minute I entered the airport, I did throw up.
Anxiety, as much as it is a mental health issue, also finds basis in your socio-political and socio-cultural reality. It is an immediate response to your environment. I grew up in a small Indian town in an upwardly mobile middle-class household. I saw our financial situation change over the years. From my father riding a Luna to driving a second hand car to our first and only one bought from a showroom.
I have, most of my life, travelled in trains, and for the major part of those years I travelled sleeper class. The first flight I ever took was in my mid-twenties. My parents took their first flight in their 50s. If I was riddled with anxiety while getting ready for my first international trip it was because no one had prepared me for this moment.
For me, it wasn’t just a mental health issue, it was also a class issue. I wasn’t like those friends of mine who had travelled internationally all their lives, who were taught foreign languages in school.
My confidence in myself was shaky at best. I was scared of everything.
In the event, I checked myself in without any hiccups. I remembered that I hadn’t eaten in the past 20 or so hours, but I had no appetite. What I had though was a long night ahead of me, a lot of time to kill.
Anxiety is that slowly unfolding tragedy that is never really over, hardly ever realised, and yet continues to thrive. At this point, I opened my medicine kit, popped a Domstal to prevent further puking, and my Clonotril 0.5 mg, my best friend in the whole wide world. My nerves somewhat calm, I found myself a comfortable enough space, and started my journey with Jeanette Winterson.
“When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said, ‘The Devil led us to the wrong crib.’” In the first line of Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, she announces herself, showing herself as unsparing, outrageously funny, and brave.
She was not going to let anyone feel sorry for her. Those who know me, and are acquainted with my work, know that my mother has been at the centre of all of my writings. Almost all of my poetry is about my Aai.
Sitting at the Mumbai airport as I finished the first chapter of the book rather swiftly, I realised that I needed to hold on to the book, to Jeanette’s words, if I was to survive in a country that could be kind to me, but could just as easily be cruel. So I closed the book, closed my eyes, and waited for boarding to begin.
At this point I was already one Clonotril down. By the time I reached Istanbul, where I had a four-hour layover, the effect of the medicine was beginning to wear off. Just before boarding the flight to Helsinki, I took a second pill, something I don’t usually do.
In Helsinki, walking towards the metro station with what seemed like a tonne of luggage, I met a kind man who helped – with the bags and with reading the signs, all in Finnish. When he realised that he had accidentally boarded the wrong train, he told the friend he was with that he would accompany me to the right station. I thanked him, all the while wondering if this would happen in India, and if it did would I have let a stranger take me where I needed to go?
Had this been a romantic comedy, the guy would have dropped me off at my bed and breakfast and never left. He did ask me for my number, but I didn’t share it with him because my anxiety wouldn’t let me. They don’t make these films about seriously anxious girls, just the cute ones.
Still, he was a kind stranger. And it was a good omen that my journey had begun with an act of kindness. Something Jeanette would keep reminding me. After all, the first real act of kindness had been for her to write this book. As if she knew her actions would have long-lasting consequences on the lives of her readers. As if she knew that I would need her, as she once needed TS Eliot. This Finnish stranger, Jeanette, and I all part of the same cosmos, the same cycle of kindness.
I fell asleep almost as soon as I got to my B&B, waking up early, at six, the next morning. At this point I have to tell you that it was minus 21 degrees Celsius when I landed in Helsinki, having left Mumbai where the mercury was melting at 38 degrees. I wasn’t wrong in anticipating some rebellion from my body.
But I was armed with all kinds of medicines, from multivitamins to those that could buy me extra time should my heart decide to give up. I had to make it out alive, no matter what. After waking up, I stepped out of the house, and stood in the cold in my sweater and boots. For all of 20 seconds. I took some pictures for my Instagram and came back inside.
I then, rather quickly, got ready, had some disgusting Knorr soup for breakfast, the only instant food I was carrying with me, and left for the bus stand, where I would board the bus that would take me to Sysma, the village that would be my home for the next few weeks.
The Sysma house was big and beautiful, with a wooden floor that made just the right amount of creaking sounds. It was warm, and welcoming. Just the kind of house owned by writers in movies, though we know writers are too poor to own such houses in real life. I also met my two lovely housemates. And if I were a neurotypical I would be nothing but happy for this gift. But since I am not one, I felt overwhelmed. The nice house and people, the warm room, the cold outside, everything felt like too much.
I kept thinking about Jeanette. Her mother would often lock her out of the house and not let her in, and she would sit in the freezing English cold, not complaining, waiting for her father to return from work, so he could let her in. I had a warm house. And Finland’s weather, unlike England’s, wasn’t damp. This cold wasn’t going to sit inside my throat and rot my insides. This cold was going to be my friend.
I knew I was a little braver today than I was yesterday. The first thing I did in the house was to leave it. It’s important to say this because sitting at the Mumbai airport, making one of my lists, I had written: “I don’t have to step out of the house if I don’t want to.” And here I was, half an hour into my stay, not even unpacked, and already leaving the house. If that’s not a victory, I don’t know what is.
So, I left the house. I accompanied my housemate to the supermarket. I came back, unpacked, and organised my room the way I wanted to, cooked dinner, ate it, and slept early. The next morning, I woke up at 5.30, brushed my teeth, and went downstairs with my laptop, my notebook, my pen, and Jeanette. I made myself a strong cup of ginger tea, and settled on the living room couch. And started reading the next chapter.
“Sometimes you have to live in precarious and temporary places. Unsuitable places. Wrong places. Sometimes the safe place won’t help you.” Jeanette said to me when I experienced my first anxiety attack in this house, triggered by nothing. This house was safe. This country was safe. Perhaps the safest in the world.
But this wasn’t my safe space. My safe space was back in India, in my house, in my room, on my bed. Nowhere else. But this was a necessary place; it was going to change things for me, in small and big ways. It was going to help me, and it did.
Waking up early, making tea, or chai tea as everyone else in this house called it – thank you Starbucks – reading Jeanette, one chapter at a time, then making breakfast, and writing till noon was my morning routine, something I would go on to follow till my last day in this country. I had also joined a nearby gym, where I would go swimming at least thrice a week, sometimes more than that.
I was now walking more and more, it was no more braving the cold. I was just absorbing the beauty of Sysma. There was a lake nearby which was completely frozen. I’d go take a walk on the lake, sometimes gazing at the sky, sometimes enjoying the snow which I had never experienced before.
My writing was new here. The first poem I wrote in Finland wouldn’t have come to me if I wasn’t finally feeling calm. “Creativity is on the side of health – it isn’t the thing that drives us mad; it is the capacity in us that tries to save us from madness,” said Jeanette, and I believed her. I wouldn’t have when I was younger; I used to think I was driven by the deep sadness I felt inside me. But not anymore. Or else this poem wouldn’t have come to me.
So, the doors are shut, and I am stuck in Santa Claus’s
village. Mrs Claus brings me hot cocoa which has been
over sugared. For she knows what others don’t.
Too much sugar will rot your soul.
There are beautiful lights in this village.
Empty carousels of death spin in circles making me
dizzy. When I vomit here, I vomit rainbows.
And Aai reminds me to clean up the mess I
leave behind. No matter where you are, don’t
forget your manners. When they kill you,
don’t spill too much blood. It’s a mess she
won’t come to clean.
My mother has always been the woman I write about. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t there; I had to bring her to Finland, because she is everywhere. In Sysma, it was a whole month of understanding my mother better, and writing more poems, and finishing my first poetry manuscript that I have titled Origami Aai, borrowed from another poem I wrote sitting on the residency couch.
If my mother was at the heart of my poetry, Jeanette gave me the strength to write in Finland. But it wasn’t just the writing. Jeanette helped me do things I never would otherwise, smaller things, things you might even call inconsequential. Like helping me find joy while experiencing my first snowfall.
She told me I could be silly if I wanted to be, and so I was. When it happened, I ran out of the house in my pyjamas, and stood there with my arms open, watching the soft snowflakes fall on me. I brought my tongue out, and felt them melt in my mouth. I even sang Sinatra’s version of Let It Snow, waking up the entire house, recorded a video, and posted it on Facebook and Instagram. I was brave, and happy, and I wanted to share that with everyone.
Jeanette helped me travel through cities alone. I went to the neighbouring city of Lakhti and walked around by myself, armed with all my necessary supplies of medicines, my passport and visa and insurance paperwork, and Jeanette. Whenever I wanted to pause and take a breath, I would fish her out from my backpack, read a random page, feel better, and start walking again.
When I first unpacked all my clothes on day one, I put a saree I was carrying with me with hopes of maybe wearing it one day at the very bottom of the pile of neatly laundered clothes. Now that it was time to pack up my things, that saree was taunting me. So, I went to my housemate who was good with the camera, and asked her if she’d click a few pictures of me in a saree, surrounded by all the snow.
I told her it was my childhood Bollywood dream, and it was ridiculous, but there it was. She laughed, and agreed to do it. I am someone who is used to being invisible, a lot of times you can see it in the colours I wear. Aai often expresses her disdain over my dull choice of colours. But here I had brought a bright mustard saree with multi-coloured tassels. Standing against the very white snow, as my housemate clicked away, and made me pose, I was anything but invisible.
It took me a total of 18 days to finish Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. Exactly three days before finishing it I made a Facebook post about the book, about how Jeanette had made me strong, helped me create. And I had also written this: “I want to write about this book and I soon will. And about Finland. And how this book has kept me warm in this brutal and beautiful country. For now, I just want to thank Winterson for writing this book. I will hold on to it a little while longer.” And I let this book sit inside me for almost a year.
However, as 2018 faded into 2019, I felt the desire to finish what I had started, to write this essay and fulfil the promise I had made to no one in particular, not even to myself. This one is for you Jeanette. I wouldn’t have made it out alive, had it not been for you. And so I repeat. I had no one to help me, but Jeanette Winterson helped me. She really did.