Ah Pain, that Old Frenemy

In Memory of Kamla Bhasin (1946-2021)

Internalizing the no pain no gain dictum beyond trendy work-those-glutes mantra, P revisits the battles of the body and mind. It’s pain-processing month here at Outspoken-ish, so don’t hold back on the baring of wounds - revelatory truths in disguise.

So We Meet Again

Screengrab showing the character Allison baking cookies in Kevin Can F Himself. The scene opens with her head inside the oven — a Sylvia Plath-esque moment.

It hangs in that coming together of the studio lighting (that changes from bright-to-the-point-of-harsh cheery family sitcom to whatever the go-to handy genre term is for dark interior monologue - oh right, there isn't one - but real regular lighting comes close), the camera that shifts from wide-angle to close-up, the transformation the actress goes through reflected in her face, her eyes, and that piercing one-note strain that personifies in sound, the distress wedged inside her head, between her ears.  

It’s a palpable display of pain.

When Allison moves from one room to another in the suburban house she shares with her manchild husband Kevin in Kevin Can F Himself, she also moves in character - from the unidimensional sitcom wife we’ve all grown up on (there are so many, but I find myself thinking of Joan Lawson in Small Wonder) to a flesh and blood woman struggling to keep it all together in a dead-end phase of life. In this movement, in the moments we witness her witnessing herself, we stay with her, with the pain, as she stays in and with it. 

A Great Indian Kitchen set in New England, the show manages to pull this off - staying with the pain - each time Allison is alone on screen with only her exploding head for company. That it does this without any of it seeming like a stunt is to the makers’ credit, but it was somewhere during Episode 2 that I realized why it felt like such radical viewing. (You know in ways that A Promising Young Woman, for instance, was not. And yes, having moved beyond Allison being permanently branded in all our heads as Alexis Rose). 

It’s because pain hasn’t really been engaged with as material in this manner, has it? As a spectrum to traverse, as shades of emotions, a world that we can possibly stay in and with, one that we’re not always escaping from - but even in fact, escaping to

As the show progresses, it also becomes the world in which Allison plots her freedom - a world that allows her to express her inner thoughts and feelings, share with other women who are in pain too. From the anonymous woman wincing from her sciatica while getting a blow dry at the salon, to her neighbor Patty whose personality leaves her painfully bored in the world of men. 

In a week defined by the tragic news of Kamla Bhasin’s passing - she who knew it so well, recognizing it in illness and death several times over - pain, that ancient frenemy,  is once again, on my mind.    

But what part of pain is good for me to bestow it with that term? After all, there’s nobody I know of who doesn’t wish it away in the very instant it comes. But that isn’t about pain, is it? That’s about how we deal with it - do we recognize it for its inherent inevitability or do we run from it, once again discomfited by it?   

Our relationship with pain is always a fraught one, downright destructive at times. Denial, justification, rationalization, trying to give it the slip, frustration, anger, impatience, nagging irritation, nerves, and the rush to get it over with, bracing for it, all to go back to how we were. But the occurrence of it, its mere existence even, makes this relationship of ours redundant, foolish even. 

We all know we’ll meet again, but we’d rather not think about it. And so it is that pain jolts us unawares the next time. Catches us by horrid surprise. Yet again. And again. 

In Pieces of a Woman, you could say, Martha suffers the ultimate pain. Losing a child, research tells us, is one of the most painful experiences a human being can go through. While Martha loses the baby in the very act of giving it birth, all of her self, body, mind, each tingling nerve-end, prepared to greet a life and have to face a stillborn, Kamla Bhasin went through this agony having seen her daughter Meeto grow from an infant to a toddler to a child to an adolescent, a teenager, and finally a young woman who took her life. Neither’s pain is any less - the only thing it demands of both is moving on.    

Pieces of a Woman, as the title suggests, follows Martha on her journey of piecing herself back together, getting through to the other side, to perhaps become a different Martha. Kamla Bhasin endured her journey, forever defined by her pain, setting off and sparking feminist movements not just in India, but globally. 

There is simply never an opportune moment for excruciating pain to burn you and recast you. But when it comes - and come it will - therein lies something not quite unlike (dare I say it), the precious possibility of us flawed, fearful humans taking a shot at wisdom, at growth.

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The Hierarchy of Pain

From among the many myths around motherhood we like to perpetuate as a culture,  I find the one about forgetting the pain during labor and birth the most curious one, because of my own experience with this so-called truth, since I gave birth 11 years ago. There was, first and foremost, intense anger (it always begins with rage) at what was just so obviously a blatant lie. ‘Aha!’, I thought ‘You say this so women don’t stop procreating. It is, most literally, one of those myths that are crucial for the survival of the human race’. I would fantasize about grabbing glowing, pregnant women by their arms and shaking them up with a ‘You have NO idea what’s coming’. Why does nobody dwell on that excruciating pain, I wondered, not so calmly. To tackle it head-on and shove aside the glorifying of labor pain, I wrote an entire chapter on it in my book on motherhood

But the pain of birthing a human is well-documented in a way. It is measured, clinically even. On the pain spectrum, it is up there in all senses of the term. There is also something hugely singular, and unique about it. Not all experience it, only biological women can (choose to) experience it, and it is, increasingly, a once-in-a-lifetime event.

It is also very much applauded and celebrated. To the extent that cervix dilation and epidural choices are deconstructed and judged no end for years after, like unhealthy obsessions. “Oh she opted for a Caesarean, she has a very low pain threshold”, is a breezy dismissal I’ve heard frighteningly often.

It remains, unarguably, a pain that is respected immensely. Precisely because there is social-cultural-biological acceptance and even ironically painful pressure on women to feel this pain. What our not so celebratory monthly cramps have been building towards, we’re told. We can flaunt our stretch marks and scars like wounded soldiers on the battleground who lived to tell the tale of victory. We can be heroes. 

What of the lesser pains? The common pains? In the hierarchy we like to build so much like with everything else, and so with pain - what of the inferior pains? The ones we all share, irrespective of other facets and identities that define us?

It took a fracture of my right shoulder joint a few years ago to make this one real.

Or rather, the physiotherapy that followed after weeks of going about life in a sling and shoulder-restraint.

This was a different kind of pain, searing and sharp, bone-snapping stuff, and since it involved daily sessions, regular. Indeed it was the routine-ness of it, how I had to slate it into my schedules, calendar it in, to walk myself literally to a room where pain would be inflicted upon my body for a predetermined length of time and I would howl and feel murderous rage towards the physiotherapist, ration out the painkillers and then compose myself for several minutes, before walking back home and curse the day I had the nasty fall. Even the city it happened in. (Since it was Mumbai, the curse pretty much wrote itself out, I must say). 

Over the years, the pain settled in  my body in ways the perineal tears of labor did not. I feel it each time I do a yoga asana that involves my right shoulder. But it does not provoke me in that familiar way. It is more of a reminder of those weeks in therapy and the miracle of bone healing and that week in Mumbai defined by sinfully delicious sandwiches and the spurt of luck that came in the form of (magically) no-rain outings and the turbulent flight back home. It seems to say, in a way not unlike the perineal tissue healing from the birthing room: I have lived, I am alive. Pain, it says, I came, I saw, I conquered. I look you in the eye, and I am not scared. (epic music plays in the background)

So far, so good.

But even this admirable relationship with pain, I learnt, is a dissonant one. Because if you’re looking to battle with pain, like it’s your arch nemesis, you’re bound to lose. And since you’re getting older everyday, it’s destined to be an un-pretty loss.  

As we climb down the rungs of the pain ladder into territories where it shapeshifts into something else, this is a painful realization. Call it wear and tear or the more acceptable “chronic condition”, the truth is that there is downright pain, the glory of it, the vindication of it - it can be deeply cultural such as the pain of birthing being celebrated or it can be the snapping of a bone - but either way, what it has is recognition. 

But then there is its abandoned cousin - discomfort. In the misery hierarchy we all love to build, discomfort has some pretty low-key PR. There is no feeling superior here, there only is.

But it was only during an exceptionally prolonged bout of vertigo I went through recently - my very own “chronic condition” it seems - that Susan Sontag truly spoke to me. The kingdom of the ill, the dual citizenship, how we transit from one to the other, and how it’s a fact of life as permanent and real and true as death itself. Chances are we might not experience extreme hysteria more than a handful of times in our lives but we will most definitely experience pain, discomfort, plenty of times. 

Through the vertigo weeks of August, there were days I felt alright and there were days I could barely stand, and they were all mixed up in a big fat dizzy, blurry spell. I was feeling trapped in my head, in my body. There was no neat healing trajectory, no recovery arc I could rationally map out in response to ‘Are you feeling better today’ texts. It is as if we demand our pain to follow some rationale and logic, at least the one about Time we love so much - “But I thought you were better now, how could it be worse today? Have you called the doctor?” - and when it doesn’t, we are ready to scream murder. Or we pray, make promises like deals in our heads, some of us try to breathe and meditate. 

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Pain is my Fave Frenemy

Pain winks at you with its dot-black eyes and tries to make the sign for “I love you.”

Pain folds up its wings and legs and spindles quietly and blinks up at you when you say, “I know.”

Pain understands that you cannot say “I love you” back but that there is something bigger behind “I love you” that you do not have the words for.

-  Sonya Huber, What Pain Wants

While seeking pleasure in the pain might not be everyone’s go-to method of rocking boats, there is wisdom in a BDSM lifestyle for all of us to absorb, simply for its navigation of newer, more affirmative equations with pain. 

The first book I read when I came out of the vertigo stupor and the days of self-pity and rage that eventually morphed into a begrudging acceptance was Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother. In it, a character who’s thrown out her back on the very weekend she was looking forward to, considers tweaking her plans so she doesn't die of FOMO, one of which is a ‘low impact shag’. I don’t think I’d laughed out that loud in months! Now that is a pretty fantastic way of speaking back to your pain, isn’t it?

As my super-wise friend said to cheer me up at that time, “Try talking to it. If it doesn’t want to go away, it wants something, right? What do you want, ask your pain.” (Swaati, Sonya Huber has answered this, as I discovered thanks to T. In phenomenal, striking, inspiring verse, no less.)

In the transitions and flux and uncertainties that we’re constantly in the churnings of, which pain and discomfort bring into sharp relief for us, the revelation is not that they are transitory. At least not anymore than being healthy, feeling whole, that beatific sense of well-being. 

Instead of jumping to fix it, running away and hiding from it, I have vowed to greet it next time. Oh hello frenemy, what do I need to learn now? (Please don’t say more patience!) Or at least I’ll try. 

Lived experiences are helpful - they make the pain not-so-distant. For me, there is of course writing - the act and process of it are so very painful, the joy only evident in hindsight. But the living experience that most vividly captures pain for me is motherhood and parenting. As Kamla Bhasin, a mother of revolutions and a motherhood writ in pain,  said when I met her for an interview for my book, Momspeak, having lost her first born at 27 and caring for her second child who is quadriplegic, “These beasts take over your life… Mohabbat kaise na ho jaaye?”

The humor, yes. The acceptance. The practice. The peculiar pleasure that is so mingled with pain - as parents, we’re always dual citizens in a sense - that feeling I live through so often of wishing I had never had a child and in the same thought, also being certain of never wanting a life or a world that doesn’t have my daughter in it. 

Go figure? Well, I guess it’s what pain’s been telling us all along.  

If only we’d listen. 

Yours,

P

Postscript

Want more on pain (more pain?)

Listen to the Pain playlist curated by P, Now Playing Pain, on Spotify.
A thought-vignette and two recommendations from T.

Like many of you, I stumbled on K-dramas (Korean TV shows) during the pandemic. Something to do with the Netflix algorithm, I guess. In the process, I discovered a ‘sub-genre’ of shows called ‘Healing Dramas.’ The genre expectation is as follows: One or more of the protagonists will psychologically and emotionally heal over the course of the show. And as the characters heal, the audience, too, can feel restored. Emotional contagion at work. In several respects, K-dramas are like better-produced and serialized Bollywood films, but their treatment of loneliness and ordinary pains make them quite distinctive. Although I do read South Korean literature (translated into English), I have not watched enough K-dramas to have a culturally-situated, informed opinion about why they treat pain the way they do. But I can recommend an interesting “Healing Drama”--Naui Ajeossi Or My Mister. It is slow and subtle in its treatment of ordinary afflictions. If you want a softer and lighter landing into “Healing Dramas,” then there’s Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha, currently airing new episodes on Netflix.  

More from T & P

T has a book on stories, minds, and media coming out next month and spoke about it on the WAMC Northeast Public Radio and Who’s Afraid of the Humanities podcasts.

P wrote an essay on Parveen Babi and the narratives and cultures of mental health for Himal SouthAsian