As I removed my shoes at the door, the lyrics gently drew my attention. It was a bhajan, a song of worship. In it, a devotee sweetly mocks his beloved Lord, demanding that He either reciprocate his love, or relinquish His title of the Friend of the Poor. Momentarily, the events of the past day vanished, and I smiled at the tender innocence of the moment.
I set down my bags and went inside. Shaurya neither lifted his eyes from the stove, nor allowed his melody to waver, but the second I stepped into the kitchen, a soft, knowing smile lit up his face. I stood still as time, lost in thought, until he extinguished the flame and removed the pot from the stove.
Together, we walked into the hall and sat down. Today had been special for Shaurya. I waited for him to tell me about his first day recording for composers whose art he had idolized since childhood, to spill forth the ecstasy no doubt brimming in his heart at the fulfillment of a long-held dream. Instead, he asked,
“Kya baat hai? What’s wrong?”
I met his eyes and immediately looked away. I had never regretted wearing my emotions on my sleeve as much as I did in that moment.
“Did something happen at the school? One of the children...”
Stop, I thought. Please don’t ask any questions. Today is for me to partake of your joy, and not to burden your heart with my sorrow.
Again, I lifted my eyes to his. An unhurried gaze, exuding deep love and infinite patience, greeted me. In a last-ditch attempt to dodge his enquiry, I said,
“Shaurya, I am a psychiatrist. A medical professional. My job is such that there are good days and bad. It is not necessary that the details be shared.”
With calm conviction, he replied, “I know. But on the days that the bad follows you home, it is my privilege to share it. You work with children who have been dug out of broken homes and traumatic pasts. To them, you and their teachers are gods. But I know you are trained to hide your pain in the face of theirs, and that sometimes this shield of objectivity can break.” He paused. “What broke it?”
I sighed in resignation. Decades of schooling and a medical degree could not teach me to read people the way Shaurya did, with spiritual understanding and musical words that were like salve to a hurting heart. I inhaled slowly and began,
“There is a ten-year-old boy. He is physically healthy, academically sound, and socially secure. He came in today for a routine mental health check-up, and as we were wrapping up, I asked him if there was anything he wanted to say. He closed his eyes, as though working up tremendous will, and then jerked up his left sleeve before he could change his mind. He-” My voice cracked slightly, and I looked away before continuing, “Shaurya, his forearm and wrist were covered with cuts. Some must have been from years ago, some as new as yesterday. I can never forget his silent sobbing as he stood there, completely vulnerable. Just that sound... I would not wish whatever caused it on my worst enemy. He has been at this school since he was four, and never once have I even seen him upset.”
I put my head in my hands and thought, that should have been enough. I should have realized that a child who could suppress normal negativities could easily hide much more. Mental illness was seldom a bleeding gash on the forehead, demanding immediate attention, but rather a slow plaque building near the heart, imperceptible until it was too late.
“And you blame yourself for not knowing?” Shaurya asked gently, taking my hand in his. “Even though there were no signs? Why?”
I did not respond, and Shaurya did not ask again. The dark silence settled, forming an invisible barrier between us and the warmth of the house. Finally, I said,
“Come. I’ll show you why.”
I held his hand and led him to the altar. We sat down. I picked up a sacred text that I had held onto for years, the Bhagavad Gita, and inverted the inside back cover. A single envelope fell out.
Shaurya glanced at me, then immediately seized the envelope and opened it, carefully extracting an old letter. As he read, I watched his peaceful eyes fill with tears, and his guileless heart shatter in front of me. I wondered in vain if I could not have postponed this revelation for another day.
Eons seemed to pass before he finished reading and looked up, torture writ across his face. His eyes made no judgments; as always, he simply understood. But I could not meet his gaze; this was something that I had hoped he would never understand, for to understand was to imagine, to experience.
I turned my hand in front of the altar, and the divine glow of the lamps highlighted 15-year-old scars that had almost faded away. Shaurya placed his head on my hand and cried like a child. I took a deep breath, swallowing my own tears, and explained,
“I don’t know why. Maybe there was no good reason. But the thoughts, the cuts, they became more and more frequent. No one knew. I didn’t know what to do, or whom to tell. I just didn’t see any point to life anymore. I wanted to die.” He didn’t look up, but I could tell he was listening, understanding, accepting. Even as it tore him apart.
“But then, suddenly, you came into my life.” Slowly, Shaurya lifted his head. I continued, “Long before we met, I knew you through your music. It made me realize that although there was a part of me that wanted to die, there was also a smaller part of me that I hadn’t noticed before, that wanted to live life without a safety net, to take risks and make music, to travel and learn and teach and heal. And as soon as I realized it was there, it grew stronger.” His teary eyes looked directly at me now, with deep and sincere interest. The fits of sobbing had stopped.
“These two parts of me fought constantly. The battle wore down my body and numbed my mind. And one night, I decided that I had endured enough. In a passionate rage, I wrote this suicide note, and killed the part of me that wanted to die, once and for all.” I paused, reliving for an eternity the moment that changed my life forever. “And just like that, I was free. I was content, happier than I had been in years. I know it sounds crazy. But it was a miracle. For weeks, I fell asleep at night with tears of joy in my eyes, and awoke in the comfort of Love’s own arms, ready to embrace the day.” I finished, sensing that my cliché words had not done justice to the raw victory of that night, the exhilaration that had set in and never truly faded away.
Shaurya had, till then, been regarding me with a soft focus. Now his eyes flashed with steely resolution. In as firm a tone as I had ever heard from him, he said,
“Whatever you killed that night was no part of you. It was an intruder, an enemy.” He turned his eyes toward the altar, and a characteristic expression of peaceful devotion overcame him. “But you won. And today, still victorious, you re-enter the battlefield that almost took your life, to fight for someone who may not make it on his own.”
We sat in silence for several minutes, in prayer and reflection. Then, slowly, Shaurya bowed his head, not to the altar, but to me. He whispered, “Himmatwali...”
The scars of the day faded from my heart, and in newfound strength, I smiled. I was himmatwali – the courageous one.