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Non-Fiction / Madhurika Sankar

Unholy Smoke

Issue 2. June 21, 2021

Will we ever learn? When we flip to the end of a riveting book to inevitably spoil the outcome? When we linger a second too long overhearing friends talking smack about us? When we ask men who’re leaving us why they’re doing so? Why do we do it? It’s a kind of self-flagellation, the origins of which have been associated with all sorts of theories. And since it’s the kind of behavior I’d gravitated toward like a sadistic moth to a bright, devouring flame, when I was a new adult, it’s something I’d been accused of often enough. “Why do you want to know?” is a question I’d rebelled against since childhood, its very utterance stirring deep rumblings of existential angst in me, as if someone were impinging on the very core of my personal sanctity to ask me such a thing. The effrontery!
             But now when I think back, as a forty-something year old, to that summer in my twenty-seventh year when I’d disembarked from the British Airways flight all the way from New York, back into the familiar heat and humidity of my beloved home city of Madras in southern India, when I was entering what ended up being a crushingly devastating year of struggles with depression and anxiety and insomnia and drinking, the likes of which no one is prepared for, especially at such a tender age, I wonder if this need for this self-flagellation, to be scrubbed to a silvery shine with the bitter truth of situations, is what precipitated what was to follow, and cemented what crystallised as the year of my decade-long undoing.
             There is unraveling, and then, there is what happened with me: nothing that can warrant being sugarcoated with pretty words and flowery prose so as to be presented in palatable form. It was ugly – my disintegration. And worse, it made me feel guilty – like I was doing something wrong, to feel that kind of depression. To feel that low. So, I hid in my shame and drank until the alcohol numbed the panic and the world outside. I was a sorry mess, wrapped inside the bubble of a pretty young girl, and it was the first time I realized how far the gap was between what one could project on their façade and what was going on, inside. People didn’t really catch on that I was a walking, talking SOS. I was beyond tears, in a battle to stay alive, the language for which only I had the legend, the key. It wasn’t safe to share with anyone else. And so, I suffered in silence.
             My parents, eventually, caught on. It’s always the vices that give you away. I often think if I hadn’t drunk so much, that they wouldn’t have had a clue that it was a broken daughter who’d returned from New York. What had happened there is another story, but now, I was in danger. In need of a miracle. And that’s when he surfaced. The godman. The seer.
             He certainly looked the part. With white, muslin cloth wrapped around his waist and legs, and a checked half-sleeve shirt that clung with trickles of sweat to his skin, this was not an unusual avatar in my nook of the world. He smelled the part too, the mixture of camphor and incense smoke and the white ash of cow dung that was smeared on his forehead, heightening the nostrils to the muscle memory of piety from childhood – all that was holy in our Hindu culture. It should’ve comforted me. I associate those familiar smells with religious functions, such as weddings, filled with relatives and gossip and South Indian musical instruments such as the blaring horns of the nadaswaram and the rhythmic, percussive ghatam, and even if I wasn’t particularly religious, I certainly didn’t relate them with spiritual dissonance. They were the epitome of what was customary in my pious corner of the world. They were almost boring for what they signified: unquestioning conformity.
             Godmen have a strange hold on people in my country. You’d think, for the power they wield over the masses, that they carried some kind of certification – some paperwork, if you will – to verify their authenticity. But how do you verify spirituality? The proverbial walk through fire that sets some people permanently apart in the realm of metaphysical experiences? In a deeply religious country like India, steeped in traditions and mystical scriptures that are thousands of years old, and in a deeply disparate society at that, where misery rears its existential head more often than you can keep count, miracles are easily believed in, and miracle-makers are countlessly, implicitly, lionized. Adored.
             I preamble what I’m about to say with the above context: I wasn’t one of those people. No sir. I was a student of science. A bastion of rationality. I listened to Western music and drank alcohol. I would’ve smoked if I wasn’t allergic. I dated men and didn’t plan on having an arranged marriage. I didn’t believe in the ritualism of religion, and while I keep my views on god private, I certainly didn’t believe in blind faith, without the universal questioning of things.
             Then, how the hell, on that sultry, late morning in May, did I find myself sitting across from the godman in his place of business, palms extended out so he could ‘read’ my future? My prospects? I couldn’t believe I’d let it happen, but a relative of mine (whom I’d prefer to keep anonymous lest kindred karma comes to bite me in the ass) was going to meet him and she happened to ask if I’d like to join. I would’ve – 99% of the time – said no. I didn’t believe in this folderol. People can’t predict the future from wrinkles and folds on our skin or by just basking in our presence. It was ludicrous. But people do it often enough in India that you learn not to judge those who partake. To each their own. But in that moment, when my relative posed the question to me - in that fateful moment - dripping with the after-effects of a quart of gin and some serious depression, and when I’d felt I couldn’t talk to any normal mortal about my shameful mental health crises, I surreptitiously, stealthily said: yes. I would go along with her. I didn’t tell my mother (I lived with my parents at this juncture.) I told no one. My relative, if she had any clue how desperate I’d been to have some kind of existential respite, didn’t let on.
             So, I’m sitting in front of the godman. The seer. My relative is also, there. She has finished asking him if she’ll get married to a rich husband. He nods his head. She seems pleased. He then roughly takes a hold of my hands, stares at my palms for a few silent minutes, and then tells me this: that I’m a goner. I’m mentally fragile, and that nothing good would come of my life. That it’s best if I prayed a lot and sought him out for spiritual guidance along the way. For mine was a treacherous road filled with misery and failure. These were the words shared.
             Even in the peculiar world of seer-seeking and metaphysical guidance in India, there are rules. You don’t tell people their lives are hopeless. It’s, apparently, not done. Because people predicate their vulnerability on the assumption that you hold supernatural powers to see into the future. Prognosticate. This needs to be meted out with responsibility (method in this madness.)
             I came home and collapsed for the rest of the afternoon. Not because I’d believed him. Not because I’d trusted him. But because I’d felt violated. I’d felt disgusted for putting myself in that situation. I couldn’t tell anyone, further. I was a creature of rationale and science, remember? It would dampen my street cred. And it would’ve hurt my parents. This was another shameful secret to take to the grave. Wherever this man, this godman, was finding these snippets of foresight into my life, my existential alarm bells had gone off. His was a pernicious presence, and this was an utterly wasteful, embarrassing episode in my life, never to be discussed again. I’d been, net result, traumatized, but I’d asked for it. Who does something so utterly, irrationally stupid? Consult a seer?
             Godmen in our country, of late, are equally likely to be found inside prisons as they are preaching to their adoring devotees. Many have fallen by the wayside, accused and convicted of grave crimes such as rape, fraud and murder. The vulnerable, in some crises of suffering or other, flock to them in desperation, and many exploit these individuals for money, sex and power. You’ll often hear people say, a particular godman was a ‘fraud’. I mean, is there a certificate, I ask again, to prove he’s authentic?
             I have my own theories about how the godman had painted such a ‘spot on’ portrait of my life at that time. But I’m alive and very well and many years removed from that extremely trying time in my life. I haven’t relented to depression or drinking or been driven to seek the prognosticative powers of conmen. I don’t relate to that kind of suffering anymore, nor recognize it. I am quite saved. Not by the lines on my hand that purported to predict my future, but by the traction of hard work and self-belief that’s far more indelible than any incense that may fill the ephemeral gaps in our journeys. The godmen in our lives are all around. In the friend who disbelieves. The teacher who mocks. The politician who lies. The lover who deceives. But we don’t need any of them to affirm what we already know from the day we’re born. The rest is unholy smoke.

 Madhurika Sankar is an impact investor ( and freelance journalist whose work frequently appears in The Hindu, India’s leading national newspaper, in the Op Ed. She’s an engineer and holds a Masters in Biotechnology from Columbia University, New York. She loves to write but lives for music. She plans on pursuing her PhD in Cancer Biology, soon. She lives in Chennai, India. Madhurika’s short fiction was recently published in The Bangalore Review, a prestigious literary journal: The Hindu Op Ed link:

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