Sigma Tau Delta at JMU

In Between the Extra and Only

When I was three years old, my parents decided to let go of the "extra" baby. They were a young couple of 22 and 25 years and they couldn't afford to raise two kids. It was also around this time that I had caught a strange case of whooping cough and had strewn all the meticulously knitted threads of their marital bliss.

They'd tell me all the ways they had cherished the labor pains of parenthood. How they worked in shifts for nursing me through the night as I coughed their dreams away. My father once splashed a handful of vinegar on his face thinking it was water while waging a war against his sleep. These were told to generate gratitude for the unconditional nature of parental love. But as they rolled in their feet-deep pool of martyr complex, I thought of them as naïve, rebellious, barely pubescent parents who had planned nothing of or for their rapidly growing family and I would always, inexorably, bring the conversation back to the "extra" baby.

Yet I still think, that in some ways, they were smart. Smart enough to understand that no infant has ever appeared with enough grace to understand how inconsiderate it is to disturb the parents in the middle of the night. Or perhaps they were smart enough to understand the statistics of the exploding post-colonial population of a fledgling newborn India. A ‘Nuclear family' is what they called it. I call it a life sentence of loneliness.

We soon moved from the mountains to the rapidly urbanizing outskirts of New Delhi, a posh, sequestered neighborhood carved from the remains of a congested old city that had choked itself to death. I grew up as the only kid in a community that consisted mostly of families of four. My mother went back to college again, leaving me in the company of my grandmother who tried her best to keep up with me for the most part, except for the afternoons when she'd inevitably doze off on the couch, after that second helping of rice and most of my leftovers. Bored on long afternoons, I'd hold a makeshift sign in the window of our third-floor apartment in the hope that someone strolling on our quiet stretch of Vasant Vihar road would look up. "Hello," the sign said. "Wave to me if you see this."

In school, we read a story about Milkha Singh, an Indian athlete who found his siblings murdered and stacked on top of each other, in the midst of the Independence struggle riots in Delhi. To escape the firing shots, he laid there with them, pretending to be dead for hours. I imagined myself lying in the mud with the "extra baby." It looked a lot like the Banerjee's newborn baby from the fifth floor. I wouldn't have thought about it as much if my parents didn't bring it up so much around me. "If we kept it, it would have been five years old by now," they'd say.

I grew up believing in the sacred solidarity between siblings and it made me wonder if I and the "extra" baby would've shared the same bond. In school, I studied siblings with the particular blend of blossoming curiosity and suspicion. As a result, I gained a whole lot of second-hand knowledge about sibling behavior like how there was always a weaker one, the subject of humiliation. The other one would be merciless and hardy like a diapered slumdog millionaire, for whom life seemed to promise only a series of struggles.

I carried my observations on in college too. When a close friend told me how a newly purchased car was going to be shared between her and her twin brother. I realized that statement had zero basis in reality when she began to refer to the car as her "brother's" car. A steel colored Honda Civic that will be always be found parked outside my friend's brother's dormitory, never outside my friend's place.

The power dynamics between siblings was fascinating because my world was world hierarchy-less. I was both the weak and the strong with no one to look up to or stay under. My best and worst qualities came from being an only child, being alone: the love of solitude and the fear of it, the pleasure and discomfort of being detached, a wallflower, a freakish outlier with the integrity of a thousand suns.

I was a proud "one and only" of my parents. I began to fit very well into the stereotype of only children being some kind of maladjusted egomaniacs. I decided to live by the philosophy of minimalism after getting particularly inspired by Henry David Thoreau's Walden — giving away my old clothes, the DC comic collection. I even let go of all the extra friends — the ones that only appeared on birthday parties and disappeared for the rest of the year — keeping only the ones who I valued dearly. In this rush to breakaway from attachments, I had also, somehow, let go of the remnant dreams of the "extra" baby.

I refused to look up to my parents as role models for many years. Even though they were the only two people, persistently present in my ‘nuclear' world during childhood years. I knew I would never experience the kind of pathetic co-dependence that they shared.  Without any siblings or close friends, I looked at the things from the vantage point slight removed from the world. All the adventures I encountered were mine and mine's alone.

One afternoon, when I was 13, my parents walked into my room and asked me to turn the music down. I was blasting the song, "Whole lotta love" after a particularly romantic encounter at school. But something didn't seem right. My parents were acting rather sheepish and held each other's hands when they sat next to each other on my bed. They told me that my mother was expecting again. A vivid drawing of pink Fallopian tubes opening like pom-poms into bulb shaped ovaries swept through my head.

I began to weep, scream in denial and then stormed off from the room. It was a nasty, unspeakable thing to do. To do what the science textbooks said they did to make a zygote from the fusion of an egg and a sperm. Puke. Puke. To decide on bringing a new member to our already complete family. To give birth. To love another child that was my also parent's. To add.

I was disgusted, betrayed and threatened at the same time. I would have to tell my friends about the fusion now. I thought of the "extra baby" and how it would've reacted to this. Probably the same way I did. On top of that, my parents began acting particularly amorous around this time. I even walked into them kissing on the verandah. I was jealous, by their grandiose sense of love for each other and the incoming member. They were again acting as juvenile, pubescent parents with no plans. The "extra" baby became their victim last time, this time it was me. They were going to let go of me.

I stopped talking to them or touching them. I began spending most of the time at my friend's house and the public library. My parents took it upon themselves as a personal challenge to make me happy about the baby. The little time they'd get to spend with me, they'd talk about all the ways I would be like a second mother to the baby by helping my mother in nursing it, caring for it. In retaliation, I'd explain to them all the gruesome ways I'd treat it — lock it in the bathroom, drop spiders on it, give it away to the garbage-man, Vaadilal. He was my friend, he'd take it away to where they take garbage.

My parents would be hurt but they'd pretend to laugh it off which would only insinuate me to talk more. Two months later, my parents took me on a road trip to the beach, so that they could spend more time to convince me about the baby. It was a trip from hell. My parents acted like newlyweds and I don't remember ever looking up from my journal. The day we came back from the trip, my mother was rushed to the hospital. She had begun bleeding.

It was a painful miscarriage and both my mother and my father cried. I stood in confusion. I was confused at my relief, at my heartless, selfish reaction. At my desire to not want it in my life. I felt powerful, wicked, bad like a vamp yet remorseful. All at once I was exposed to the raw, naked insides, the complex nature of what it's really like to be human.

Had I just killed a baby with my mind to preserve the sanctity of my "onliness"? For the sake of minimalism? For selfishness and greed of absolute parental affection?

***

Emily Dickinson once described Loneliness as "the maker of the soul, its caverns, and its corridors — Illuminate or seal." Over the course of my late teenage years, I knew my isolation has evolved into something scarier. Like a spirit had come alive and had begun to snap and hound at my life. All the long aimless walks along the road, brooding on the future, romance and heroics, sudden and perfect companionship; they had all begin to feel like war a with my own mind. It's said that everyone talks to themselves, but not like this. Not like voices running through my head. Rapid-fire, imagined conversations, giving way to arguments giving way to tears.

The shrine that I had created for my "onliness," my sense of privacy, individuality, and independence had begun to crumble away. I had come face-to-face with my inherent lack of the ability to make friends and maintain relationships. The natural reticence was now plain aloofness. A side effect of my "only" existence. A price I have to pay for disregarding the value of the handful of friendships I had formed in the glory of my "only" years.

My mother's miscarriage changed the way I looked at my parents. Now, my loneliness wasn't their fault. It was something I had inflicted on myself and the guilt stopped me from going to my parents for help.

When I turned 18, my parents sent me off to America for college, severing our unspoken ties, splitting the nucleus of our family. My loneliness followed me, took a seat into the void my parents had left. However, just when I thought I would collapse under the pressure of my own emptiness, I found some solidarity in the other ‘lonelies' and ‘onlies' here. As it turns out, it's harder to live with loneliness in an overpopulated country of a billion people than living in a fairly individualistic culture of 300 million, all sprinkled at a safe distance from each other, on a giant landscape. In America, chronic loneliness happens to be as much of an epidemic as obesity is.

I began seeing a therapist who told me that loneliness, ultimately, was a longing to find happiness through social relationships. It wasn't as much of antagonists as I was making it. All I need to do was to pick up the makeshift "Wave to me if you see this" board again. It's the longing that had morphed into isolation, insecurity about parental love, hate, guilt and social anxiety. She told me how I could've suffered from loneliness even if I had siblings.

Sometime later, during an emotional conversation with my mother, she told me about how my father was suffering from an acute case of postpartum depression soon after my birth. These are things they left out from the staple love marriage story that they narrated to their friends during family gatherings. Having lost his own father at a young age, my father feared he would die even before I could learn to walk, leaving me and my mother with no savings and a life insurance worth no bigger than a looney.

She told me how both times when I came so close to having a sibling, they were faced with the agonizing decision of saving one life over the other. It wasn't a choice, it was an obligation for them to look after my father and me. It was a helpless compulsion of my mother's body to let go what it couldn't support at the cost of her own health. My loneliness had nothing to do with me being an only child.

I flew over vast stretches of the Arabian Gulf on my flight to India that summer. I knew what lied before and after. I knew where the ocean met the land, I've been on this journey before. Yet, looking down, I still felt overwhelmed. The unimaginable extents of how long and far this uninhabited emptiness would follow me was uncertain. In every life, I'll be out on the ocean, drowning in the swell. I might almost certainly never meet the people best qualified to change the very nature of my "only" existence but they do exist. They probably once walked past me in the street, they may be already in life, they may be the people who raised me or they may have never been born. All I know is that I will never have the slightest idea of the potential of connection.


This creative piece was presented on April 14, 2018, at James Madison University as a part of Sigma Tau Delta's Conference.

Alone At Sea