At 18, I learned how to live through different types of death. Every disillusionment before that had been strong enough to kill a part of me. At 18, I discovered that death is, in fact, an opportunity for rebirth. Once you experienced the exultation of resurrection, it was sheer fun to die. To resurrect is to opt for a surreal life. It is more artistic, more creative. I believe that I am still 18, ready to dare death, only to return more creatively.
The most haunting memory of the eighteenth year is of taking my father for de-addiction treatment. I believed that it was the last resort to save our family, future and our middle-class honour. It was still too early to realise that people change only when they want to change, not when others want them to. It was too early to realise that he might have been equally sad and helpless. He might have been weighed down by the fear of meeting the enormous expectations placed on him by all of us around him. But I am grateful to dad for giving his 18-year-old such an immense sense of self-relevance then. For the first time in my life, and, perhaps, for the last time, dad was listening to me.
But it didn’t work out. That was the moment when everything I had built upon the idea of a father figure collapsed. Some one within me died an agonised death. That death liberated my soul. I was no longer the 18-year-old who loved her dad, begging for his affection and acceptance like an uncared for pet, in spite of his many letdowns. I was a reborn adult. A much-older adult, who was completely in tune with the painful realisation that she was not good enough to win people’s love or not enough, at least, to change them. I think that such a realisation at an early age set me free and shaped my character and personality, for good and bad. I started reading more and dreaming more. I became perennially angry and permanently rebellious. Because I could not take any more wounds, I chose to be insensitive. I chose to be lonely, securely and powerfully lonely.
It was a time when I was reading a lot of political fiction. Animal Farm was disturbing; 1984 was scary. Dharmapuranam by OV Vijayan was provocative. I was devouring every play of Oscar Wilde, too. I was reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Pablo Neruda and wanted to destroy the imperfect world I was living in. I was agitated and depressed. I wanted to be in love, intensely and passionately. I was ready to die for it. I wanted a well-read man, no less than a scholar, with immense integrity like Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. It was not easy to find one in the closed middle-class world I was living in. Still I dared. But, in those days, it was like being a bird who stole out occasionally only to return early enough to convince the world that the cage was intact. I could have flown away. But I returned unfailingly, because deep in my mind was this fear of uncertainty after renouncing the cage. An easy solution was to pretend that the cage was a nest and not a cage, forgetting that both cage and nest have only one signifier — koodu — in Malayalam.
At 18, I was disillusioned with the government, too. I had trusted the Mr Clean Prime Minister and was looking forward to a clean and corruption-free India. So, when the Bofors scandal broke out, I took it personally. In the tiny single room of my ladies’ hostel, I wept over my miserable life, under such an irresponsible prime minister and insensitive father. I was reading all the reports on Bofors I could lay my hands on. The woman I was obsessed with was the journalist who exposed the scandal — Chitra Subramaniam. I had imagined her as an example of the ultimate woman I wanted to be. At 18, I decided I was going to be a journalist.
At 18, I became an atheist, although secretively. God, especially the goddess Durga, was someone very real for me till then. She was a part of the day-to-day life and was convincingly reliable. She was always there to wipe my tears with surprising gifts of joy. After a prolonged atheist life, I returned to a temple when I was 25, because, one day, I missed her terribly. I missed all the myths and legends, all the fantasies. I missed the cosmic imagination. And I had grown up enough to realise that it was wiser to trust imaginary gods than real humans, men and women.
It has been three decades since I turned 18. It is so funny to look back and remember how important I felt as the voting age was reduced to 18 that year. It was when Margaret Thatcher was ruling the UK, Ronald Reagan was ruling the US and Mikhail Gorbachev ruled the USSR. It was a time I learned every poem I read by heart. It was around that time that I decided to stop writing. I had dreamed of being a writer from childhood, but, suddenly, at 18, I felt I was a lesser writer and I shouldn’t make a fool of myself by penning down my silly thoughts. At 18, I had imagined that the world would be transformed by the time children were born to me. By the time, they crossed 18, I had imagined that there would be no poor, no unemployed in our country and there would be no communal feelings. That women would be roaming freely just like men, that the old ones would not be seen working for a living. I had imagined a clean and green world where there was no corruption, violence and caste.
I was just 18. Maybe I am still 18, for I still dream those same dreams.
KR Meera is a Sahitya Akademi award-winning Malayalam writer.