Any street in Jaipur is, to be perfectly honest, a crowded and unclean place—humans make garbage, loose their cows to eat the garbage, and then collect their garbage-fed cows at the end of the day. The American mind has strict cultural biases against dirt, disease, and disfigurement (the three D’s of the developing world), and is therefore trained to think of “unclean” as a pejorative term. But the cows-and-garbage system is very easy to get used to, and the sidewalks and streets of my hometown had started to seem Pleasantville-like in my memory: suspiciously clean, in denial about entropy, unhealthy. The Department of Sanitation had engineered a huge-scale Potemkinesque fraud, and we Americans were all willing participants. Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, you’re the KGB. This is the sentence I was thinking repeatedly as I walked behind Dea, my friend and fellow tenant of the Sonis, to the Moti Dungri Temple in a part of Jaipur that sold soft, over-sugared ice cream and balloons that read OH! YAY! in English.
My mind was ticking along slowly at the rate of a single thought per minute.1 I had the impression that some bubble-thing was keeping me hermetically sealed from interacting easily with other people, and although I didn’t like this, I didn’t necessarily have the energy or focus to protest it. I sometimes actually grabbed at the air in front of me in a misguided attempt to expose my field of vision as the projection it almost certainly was. Dea, the man trying to sell me henna, the kid playing with a deflated motorcycle wheel, and the cow side-eyeing me were all images that would bend and distort uncannily once I’d interrupted their X and Y axes like a disturbed moviegoer. Then the projector would flicker off and I’d be allowed an audience with whatever (or whomever) was making this happen.
“Why is it like this?” I’d lamely ask the thing.
“Like what?” the thing would ask back, because it’d need clarification.
I’d probably just gesture around me: to the torn screen, the broken projector, the blank room.
“Oh—because you’re sick,” the thing would say, and steeple its fingers. Its features would be obscured by shadows, though there’d be no identifiable source of light in the room. The thing would have a baritone voice, but not in a soothing Barry White way. It would sound vaguely Oxbridge and would probably elide its h’s. “It’s not like this for everyone, you know.”
“I figured.” I’d try to say this gamely, kind of conspiratorially, including myself and the thing in the fraud, because maybe the thing was feeling just as put-upon and disoriented as I was, and had to maintain an unpleasant veneer of crisp, detached professionalism in order to convince the higher-ups that it deserved to keep its job. “Weird stuff,” I’d try.
The thing would be silent. A few minutes would go by. Eventually I’d realize that there were no higher-ups and I’d shuffle around, trying casually—and then desperately—to reassemble the screen.
I was sick. I was lithiated to the gills. I was whichever Wizard of Oz character needed a heart. The Tin Man—I was the Tin Woman. I became aware of Dea saying something to me. It was wordy and kind and extremely self-deprecating in a way that was unique to her. Everyone at our Hindi school had contempt for the Eat Pray Love videshi2, or the “vidouchies,” as we’d smugly labeled them: Westerners with Om tattoos who were getting over divorces, wanted to “open up chakras” and be made thankful for their own good fortune by dalit poverty, and who couldn’t speak a word of Hindi except namaste, which they said in response to everyone from autowalas to people trying to rob them.3 We hated vidouchies so much because we were terrified of being them ourselves—no matter how much Yashpal you can translate or how far along you may be in your South Asian Studies PhD, if you get a tilak painted on your forehead at a temple or bang a drum in a Ganapati Festival,4 you might start to feel like an out-of-place American who’s convinced her mindless act of cultural appropriation constitutes living life to its fullest. Dea was getting at this topic very obliquely as I continued to poke at the projector screen in front of me, a cat swatting at a toy:5
“—I think it’ll actually be a good place to go right now. I know you’re still thinking like, OK, the only two white women here are going to a temple to watch other people worship.” She paused and looked at me expectantly, and when she saw that I’d registered her presence she nodded and went on: “But please give this a chance – you’re not co-opting anything if you give this a chance. I can imagine what you’re probably thinking, and you’re not co-opting anything.”
We sidestepped a pile of manure. Now my single thought shifted to: I am sick.
“I need to be quarantined,” I said, overwhelmed by the projections. “I can’t touch them.”
Dea twitched, perhaps in an attempt to erase the nonsensical thing I’d just said. Earlier that day I had gone straight from the psychiatrist in Malviya Nagar to an open-air pharmacy, where a man was on the floor arched into the longest-lasting instance of wheel pose I’d ever seen, and the proprietor was staring at me over the counter, implying with his stare that my stare made no sense. They’d worked together to fill my prescription and then I’d taken an autorickshaw home, popping two pills immediately. By the time I got home, I was panicked with the realization that I’d once again conceded to altering myself: what could possibly be worth this? I downed a plate of gheed-up roti6 and three cups of chai, pretending that food would stop the salt and I’d have a halfway decent chance of revising my decision. Two hours later I knew I’d lost the battle: my mind’s activity had been muted, my mouth was as cottony as if I were a college sophomore who’d been absently hitting a piece for an entire night, and I was on my back on my bed in a star shape, unable to move. There was that frayed, toothless hissing: Being alive like this isn’t really being alive. I couldn’t tell if it was worse to be thinking this or to be thinking this in chemical bondage, knowing that the thought could be more damaging if I hadn’t immobilized myself with lithium. I turned onto my side. The room was punishingly hot. I couldn’t go downstairs for a drink of water because I was ashamed of what I’d done and also I couldn’t move. Whether my immobility had anything to do with my shame was a complete mystery to me. Lithium is a known dehydrator, and I became so dehydrated that I began to pant and my hearing flattened to a faint buzzing. The sun set and I still couldn’t move. At one point I estimated I’d been in bed for nine hours, which couldn’t have been right. It occurred to me that this was one way to die, though I’d really have to commit to it. The thought made me tear up. I would be like this for the rest of my life. I would eventually become psychotic, as one of my prescribing doctors had solemnly promised, and then I’d plummet back down to this state of affairs, but it’d be decreasingly survivable on the second, third, and fourth go-arounds. I began to cry.
This was how Dea found me. She wandered upstairs after I missed dinner and called my name at my door—I hadn’t heard her. She’d eventually found a way into my room and sat on the edge of the bed while I lay on my side and then sat up with her help, legs bent and hands splayed in front of me like a toddler struggling to meet a milestone. I cried and told her I was going to be like this for the rest of my life. I told her I didn’t need lithium and I was electing to poison myself for no reason. She nodded patiently.
“OK, but if you don’t take lithium, what’re you going to take?”
I looked at her sideways.
“Something else,” she answered for me. I’d been cursed with an attentive confidante. “You’ve told me yourself—you’ll take other drugs.”
There was no doubt about this. I didn’t bother contesting it.
“It’s all poison,” she said, waving her arms. “Take the legal poison. Just take it for now and let’s get out of this room.”
In an hour I was dressed and upright and walking with her to Moti Dungri, which her language partner7 had told her to visit based on advice she’d gotten from an astrologer. A more animated version of myself would have privately dismissed anything an astrologer said as specious, but there was no room in my head at that point for private dismissal. I was not prostrate and panting on a bed in an oven of a room, and that was the thing that mattered most.
The temple is typically billed by locals as a tourist attraction, but as Dea kept noticing out loud, we were the only conspicuous non-natives on the street. We also looked like we knew where we were going—or at least Dea did—which drew more stares than our always-anomalous presence in Jaipur would have in a more average situation. I locked eyes briefly with a boy on a bike who inclined his head to watch me walk past him. The look on his face seemed angry, but I wasn’t sure if or how Dea and I moving through the crowd constituted a reasonable trigger for anger, unless all videshi were just frustrating to him.
Dea, whose Hindi was much better than mine, negotiated the purchase of sweets to offer at the shrine in the temple. We removed our shoes, walked up some stairs, and pushed past a pedestrian-looking metal turnstile to enter the antechamber of the Moti Dungri, where we were expected to ring a bell on the ceiling in order to signal our presence to the deities within. Up ahead I could see an indistinct orange shape that came into focus as Ganesh Ji, Hindu deva8 of intellect and wisdom, notorious remover of obstacles, elephant-headed. People wore bright faces and rang bells all around us. I turned away and leaned against the antechamber wall, breathing heavily and almost in tears again, freshly exhausted by the thought that I had wanted to end my own life just hours earlier. Dea took my hand and walked me into line, where I stood clinging to two metal guardrails and staring at Ganesh. I’d poisoned myself in order to stay a strange person in a strange place, and everyone who made eye contact with me probably knew this and probably thought worse of me for it.
“Jai Ganesha,” whispered a woman in front of me. The she began singing it: “Jaa-aai Ganeeesha. Jaaaa-aaaai Ganeeeeshaaaaa.”
Behind us, a baritone joined in unselfconsciously. I turned around a studied him: wide-set eyes, long hair, a simple and prominent red tilak. He wore all white, which made me wonder whether he was a priest, and if so why he was standing in line with us and not up front handling the sweets at the shrine. Dea noticed me staring 9 and turned around herself, at which point she and the man smiled at each other and hugged and she said “Apunam Ji! Aap kese hain?"10 They chatted for a while in rapid Hindi and then he turned to me and Dea introduced me in English as her friend Rebekah. She explained that Apunam Ji was a prominent Jaipurite astrologer who had come to speak to her advanced Hindi class last week about horoscope readings. The accuracy of his readings was a well-known fact all over the city—at that Apunam swatted his hand bashfully—and he had a practice in Malviya Nagar—apparently minutes from where I’d been treated for bipolar. Apunam shook my hand and looked into my eyes.
“You are feeling sick?” he asked. “You look exhausted.”
I nodded slowly.
Dea looked between us, obviously worried I’d been exposed. Apunam pulled a business card from his pocket and handed it to me. “Come in Monday, when school is done,” he said, and then explained in Hindi to Dea why he was doing what he was doing. I didn’t understand a word. I turned his business card over in my hand. It was in English that was almost indecipherable in its weirdness. He was billed as a “psychic understander” and the word “Hello!” appeared before a phone number that was three digits too long.
“He just wants to talk to you,” Dea said. “He apologizes for being forward.”
I pocketed the card. Apunam Ji smiled kindly at me and re-shook my hand. We offered our sweets to Ganesh and left the temple.
On Monday after class, I found myself in a rickshaw tracing the same path up J.L.N Marg I’d traced only a few days before with Shyam Ji. The autowala was talkative, his English excellent and his demeanor bro-ishly good-humored. He asked me questions in English and I responded in Hindi, not wanting to be perfectly understood. I was deep enough into the lithium to have forgotten what extroversion—as well as a whole host of other things—felt like, and the autowala’s desire to socialize scanned as strange and threatening to me. When he remarked that it was a beautiful day,11 I shrugged in ambivalence and pretended to be studying a bunch of dogs sitting in a pile of sand by the side of the road.
I had been persuaded to keep the appointment by a mixture of Dea’s enthusiasm for the plan, my own desire to get better at any cost, and my medicated apathy to everything that wasn’t specifically about my getting better—including the origins and validity of a practice I would’ve once dismissed as quackery. The only other person I’d told about the appointment was Mumal, who had clucked, looked over her glasses at me, and informed me that “Typically, modern India does not believe in such things like this anymore.” But when I asked her which was better, Apunam or Western medicine, she shook her head in disbelief at the stupidity of my question and said: “Apunam of course. Come on.”
Apunam’s office was clean and gorgeously furnished, a far cry from the psychiatric practice. I was the only patient there, and busied myself in the waiting room rearranging the pebbles in a multitier fountain until a woman who turned out to be Apunam’s wife—and whose first name I never learned—informed me that he was ready to see me. I must have looked at her strangely, because she asked, “Are you quite alright?” in the Britishized English of the Indian upperclass. I told her I was fine, which we both knew was a lie, and followed her back into the examination room, where Apunam was staring intently into a laptop. He smiled when he saw me.
“Sit down, please. My wife speaks better English—she will interpret.”
I sat down, and so did Apunam’s wife. He continued to click around on his laptop. The fountain was distantly audible in the next room.
“Your birthdate, birth time, and birthplace,” he said.
I gave them to him: December 15th, 1989, 7:25 pm, Arlington Heights, IL.
Apunam’s wife smiled politely at me and then began rapidly texting someone on her smartphone while Apunam plugged my information into his laptop. When he finished, he leaned back, eyes darting across some readout on the screen, and steepled his fingers beneath his chin. “Ask questions,” he said.
I decided to toss him a soft ball. “What happened in January of this year?”
He whispered something to his wife. She turned to me: “You were extremely sick. January through March was a horrible time for your health.”
I swallowed hard. I had been in the hospital in January, and spent February and March attempting to void my mind with whatever I could get my hands on: weed, painkillers, coke, ketamine, etc. “What’s wrong with me?”
Again, Apunam scanned and conferred with his wife. “It is a disorder of the mood,” she said. “Neptune is in K2 for you. Do you understand what this means?”
I shook my head.
“OK—it is—yes, it means only that the planetary alignment is very poor for your mental state. Since 2008 you have been experiencing fluctuations of the mood with increasing disturbance more recently. Did you become depressed in 2008?”
“Yes. In college, freshman year. Fall term.”
She nodded energetically. “Yes, yes. This will be over by 2017. Until then, you must focus on your health and stop taking so many drugs.”
Shocked, I pulled out my Hindi binder and a pen. I wrote down everything she’d said. I’d been expecting “you will have many new challenges to overcome” or “the future will be bright if you buy this beaded necklace.” Not this—not by a longshot.
My questions morphed in complexity until I was asking Apunam for his opinion on my distant future with the same devotion I usually reserved for tiled offices and white coats, hanging on his wife’s every word. I learned about my career. I learned about the family I’d have. I learned about my parents’ retirement and old age. Going from being a strict compatibilist to having my future described with metaphysical certainty—and enjoying it—is one of the strangest things that’s ever happened to me. I cried. Through my tears, I asked Apunam what was really wrong with me. He shook his head at the unintelligibility of the question, and then his wife explained in Hindi: Does she have a sickness of the mind?
Apunam answered in English: “No, of course not. This kind of disease is impossible, anyway. I told you, it’s the planets. Do they make you take medicine?”
“Yes,” I responded eagerly. “Lithium, sometimes Lamictal and Lorazepam. They want to start me on Seroquel if I get manic.”
He shook his head in disgust. “Get rid of it, all of it. It only makes things worse.”
“You are better to meditate,” his wife said. “And keep a dog. There are stones, also, that you can wear.”
I asked for the names of the stones: yellow sapphire, red coral, and pearl. I would have to go to a jeweler and get them made into rings with silver bands. I wiped my eyes on the sleeve of my kurta and thanked them both.
“You are fine,” his wife said as she walked me to the door. “You are healthy.”
I left the office, my mind buzzing as much as it could beneath the leaden blanket of the lithium. On the way home, I chatted with the autowala. I hugged Dadiji Soni12, who was sitting on the front porch sewing some slippers when I got back. I went up to my room and waited thirty minutes for a reliable internet connection, at which point I promptly put my Iowa City apartment up for sublet on Craigslist. When I got back stateside, I’d purge the apartment of all drugs and related paraphernalia. I’d get the rings made. I’d even take Apunam’s most obscure suggestion, which was to fill a small silver box with ocean water and a silver sheet and keep that box somewhere in my bedroom. I would solve the problem this way. Really, though, there was no problem—I was like everyone else in that I was just a person in the world at the mercy of interstellar magnetism. I believed this with the strength of conviction I had at times believed I was organically bipolar, bipolar as a result of circumstance, and definitely not bipolar. My “sickness” was context-dependent, just as I had expected.
I was fine. I was healthy. I was well.
I tore open the packet of lithium pills and flushed them all down the toilet, Department of State be damned.
1 I’d wager the average TPM rate for a healthily self-interested mind is somewhere between thirty and forty-five; a hypomanic mind tops out at something like 120 and a manic mind probably can’t be clocked. A discussion of a complete v. incomplete thought/what exactly constitutes a thought is probably beyond the scope of this essay, but I’ll just go ahead and arbitrarily designate Gross Thoughts Per Minute (GTPM) as a measure of all thought-abstracta, complete and incomplete, and Net Thoughts Per Minute (NTPM) as a measure of only those thoughts that can be considered complete (the estimates above were all GTPM, by the way). A complete thought is something like: I would have been very good at being an actor in the film Flashdance. (Sub-thoughts entailed by this thought also count as complete, such as I think if I’d been born at a Flashdance-appropriate time, I’d probably be good at dancing anyway. And I once met Cynthia Rhodes when I was six.) An incomplete thought is something like: We need sounding boards. The sentence is complete, but a professional experienced in the measurement of GTPM v. NTPM will easily recognize that the “we” designates no one and the type of sounding board (figurative? literal?) is left undefined. In this way, a thought like “Bananas” can count towards NTPM while a thought like “There are twelve or fifteen sleepwalkers” will typically only count towards GTPM. This isn’t rocket science.
3 Although with the videshi ka dam (foreigner price) that autowalas usually charge being what it is, these two might as well be the same thing! Eh? Eh? That was a Dad Joke. But seriously: the British Empire exploited and bankrupted India, so we should probably just suck it up and pay the three American dollars we’re being charged for the several-kilometer rickshaw ride across town to catch that recap of last Saturday’s cricket match.
4 This is a festival held in Pune, India in honor of the Hindu god Ganesh Ji. I’m mentioning this specific festival because a friend of mine and I actually attended a drumline Ganapati rehearsal while visiting another friend of mine, M, a trilingual Brahmin prodigy whom I’d met the summer before in Berlin. After the rehearsal, we all rode motorcyles in the rain.
5 I really dislike and am terrified of cats, so let this metaphor be indicative of the massive amount of self-alienation that had contributed to my deteriorated condition.
6 Ghee means “butter” in Hindi, and it’s the cornerstone of the typical North Indian diet. Ghee and sugar (cini) and grain-based carbohydrates. A secret fantasy of mine is to someday watch while an anxious ex-Brooklynite desperately scans the menu in a Rajasthani restaurant and then tries to describe a juice cleanse to the waiter.
7 We were each assigned language partners, or native Hindi speakers to conduct conversations with us in Hindi once or twice a week. These language partners were typically friendly and idealistic Rajasthan University students who wanted to study the weird habits of Americans in a controlled environment.
8 Sanskrit for “deity.” Sidenote: if you’d like a shortcut to learning just about any Indo-European language you can think of, learn Sanskrit.
9 A fact about India: staring is not only OK but really commonplace, which often makes eye-averting Americans uneasy. I took this as an opportunity to do all the staring I’d had to repress out of puritanical politeness stateside, which was a controversial decision in retrospect, because reciprocated eye contact can mean anything from “Yes, I’d love to buy most of the mango bars you’re selling,” to “You’re a twenty-something dude who wants to drive your motorcycle in circles around me while yelling Hey pretty! repeatedly? Yes please!”
10 “How are you, Mr. Apunam?”
11 I remember it was only 85 degrees that day as opposed to the usual 100+ of Jaipur in the summer.
12 The paternal grandma of the Soni family, who did not understand English and was fond of telling me in Hindi that she knew I was smart even if I couldn’t speak very well.