Eighteen years ago, a speeding Pepsi truck rammed into historian, poet and cultural critic Lata Mani’s car on a freeway in California, US. The head injury she sustained plunged her into an abyss of pain and helplessness. Chronic pain and physical weakness meant she was bedridden for four years and housebound for eight.
This period of bleakness gave her an intimate comprehension of pain. Interleaves, first published in 2001 and released in a new edition in 2011,is a slim volume comprising prose and poetic meditations that charts her journey through those years. A meditative and contemplative mood pervades the book, as if testifying to Mani’s gradual acceptance of her condition, a fact illuminated by her spiritual reflections which make up the second half of the book, aptly titled Contemplations. Mani, who has now recovered from her injury to a large extent, presently lives in Bangalore and is an independent researcher and scholar.
Interleaves: By Lata Mani: Yoda Press; 148 pages; Rs 195.
The following extract is from a chapter titled “Pain”. It offers a peek into the author’s struggle with her condition and her attempts to come to terms with pain. The word “pain” appears frequently in the passages, in what seems to be a conscious attempt at acquainting the reader with this sensation’s ubiquity. “Yet in truth, pain is no more and no less profound than any other sensation,” she says in the book. The author then segues into a wiser comprehension of pain, bringing its banality into sharp relief. Edited excerpts.
It is often suggested that pain is beyond description, that language breaks down at the terminus of pain. It is certainly true that when one is in the midst of the cluster of physical sensations that we call pain, the last thing on one’s mind is finding the right words to make poetry out of one’s suffering. But there is nothing essentially mysterious about pain. It can, and for the body in pain must, be spoken of, even if only in the abbreviated cry to God, taking the form of a groan, curse, or a helpless “I don’t know how much more of this I can take”. No, pain is not beyond the horizon of meaning, beyond conceptualization. Rather it is squarely within the world of signification.
Pain throbs. Pain shreds. Pain darts. Pain weaves sly patterns across the length and breadth of the body. Pain stabs. Pain pulses. Pain plummets the body into a vortex unknown and at times fearful. Pain nags. Chronic pain drones repetitiously, monotonously, ad nauseam. Pain flays the surface of the skin, turning it almost translucent with frailty. Pain makes one so weak that the whole world is experienced through its omnipresent filter. Pain drains everything into its core. Pain can be focused as the point of a pinhead or as dispersed as one’s consciousness and, if suffered long enough, the pinpoint can seem to grow and swallow one’s entire physical being. Pain can be as hard as steel or as soft as a ripe pear. Pain shudders. Pain shivers.
Yet, to speak of pain like this is to suggest that it is an entity, a thing, when it is in fact something very difficult to grasp and hold. For when one does not resist pain, it pools, swirls, finds a crevice in the body in which to stay put, pain is revealed as a diaphanous energy permeable, dissolvable, transformable by breath. Pain, it turns out, is not an ice floe that must be hacked away, but a little pocket of stuck energy that can be released by softening, loosening, relaxing, by conscious breathing.
It hurts: Pain is depleting and can wear a person down.
Pain is depleting. It wears one down until one feels like a rock whipped into a slippery, slimy slenderness by the ocean waves. Constant pain can blunt one’s perception of the external world even as it heightens one’s consciousness of one’s inner universe. Pain can draw one inward into a deeply stilling practice of mindfulness. As we breathe into the pain, as we dive through breath into the whirlpool of stuck energy, we experience the truth that pain, for all its seeming density, is no more solid than air. It is only our resistance that makes it so.
Pain has often been privileged over other sensations. It has been represented as a somewhat enviable experience, has had something of a heroic career in spiritual literature. Yet in truth, pain is no more and no less profound than any other sensation. Pain offers the same potential for learning as any other experience. In that sense one can simply say that pain...just...is.