Saturday, 21 September 2019

Mythology for the Millennial: On Shakuntala, Dushyanta and the one ring that bound them both

I have this print of Raja Ravi Varma's Shakuntala on the wall of the staircase leading up to our house. Perhaps you know it. It shows three young women in the woods, mountains in the background. Two of the women are talking to each other, the one who has her head turned away from us is carrying a basket of flowers. And then there's a third woman, her hand resting on her companion's shoulder for balance as she grips the base of her foot, apparently pretending to take a thorn out of her heel so she can take a backwards look at her lover. We see her face, but she's not looking out at us. Instead, her whole form is one of yearning, her mouth is unsmiling, her eyes eager, her shoulders tilted backwards, so much does she long to be in a part of the painting that we cannot see. There's also an old woman walking ahead of the younger ones, but if there is an explanation for who she is, I cannot find it.

Shakuntala, by Raja Ravi Varma. Image via WikimediaCommons
Ironically, Shakuntala, the heroine of perhaps one of the best-known love stories in Hindu mythology, was not born from a place of love. I've written about her sage dad/apsara mom before in this column, but let's recap:

[Sage Vishvamitra] was chugging along at his meditations when the god Indra decided to test him — the gods were big on surprise quizzes — and sends Menaka down to earth to seduce him. Menaka was an apsara, a celestial woman created just for sensual pleasure in heaven for men and gods, no word yet on what the women got. Duly seduced, Vishvamitra lives with Menaka for ten years, and then she eventually has a kid, a daughter named Shakuntala, at which point Vishvamitra's suddenly terrorised by the idea of fatherhood and curses her into becoming super ugly in her next birth.

Anyway, this baby was found by another sage, but a much kinder one, a guy called Kanva, who found her in the reeds where Vishvamitra abandoned her, but surrounded by sakunta birds, who, much like the wolves and Mowgli, were doing a pretty good job looking after her and keeping her alive. (Unclear about which birds, but the Sambhava Parva book of the Mahabharata does mention vultures were keeping an eye on her, which would be curiously against the common perception of those much-maligned birds as evil or scavenging creatures.) So Kanva calls the baby Shakuntala, ie person protected by birds, and raises her in his ashram, where she lives an idyllic Disney princess type existence, little birds dressing her each morning, lots of fresh air and activities, some young friends who think the world of her and so on. She grows to young womanhood in this innocent environment and that's when the trouble starts.

Of course, the problems all begin with a man barging in where he's not wanted. Dushyant is hunting and shoots a deer, but he can't find it, because the creature's limped off, so he tracks it and stumbles upon the ashram where he sees Shakuntala nursing the deer, and he's overwhelmed by her beauty and wants to have sex with her right there on the ashram floor so he suggests a Gandharva marriage, which is this very interesting loophole to the traditional Hindu wedding ceremonies with like, ten days of pomp and circumstance. It's one of the eight classical forms of Hindu weddings (more on this in a future column!) and is solely dependent on the bride and groom taking a fancy to each other. In fact, it's super important that the bride is into the groom in this case, because it was one of the few times that women had control over their futures. You didn't need a priest, and most importantly, you didn't need your parents' consent. Obviously, as time went on, and patriarchy tightened its views about women as property, this sort of wedding fell out of fashion, but it did see a nice lot of weddings in its time.

Although the Shakuntala-Dushyanta story should not be used as an example for a successful Gandharva wedding. After he marries her, he has to go off back to his kingdom, and he's like, “Okay, make up a party and come to me when you're ready.” In Kalidasa's version, which I'm using as canon here, since that's the story people are most familiar with: Dushyanta gives his wife a ring, so she can identify herself as his wife, and then leaves. She's pregnant at this point, but no one knows that yet.

So, she's mooning about, dreaming about Dushyanta and generally being a sixteen year old in love, when the sage Durvasa, whose role is basically to curse people and move a story along, appears in her dad's ashram. Because she's lost in thought and does not immediately jump to do his bidding, he tells her that whoever she's thinking about will forget her, just like she's forgotten Durvasa. Great guy, Durvasa. Really a pearl among sages. (Did he ever curse men or was all his rage reserved for women?)

So of course, our heroine loses the ring her husband gave her and turns up at his kingdom with her dad and extended friends from the ashram, only for Dushyanta to tell her he's never met her before in his life. Worse, he's all, “How do I even know this baby is mine?” Weeping, Shakuntala leaves, and that's the end of the story for about three or four years, until a fisherman shows up with a ring he's found in the belly of a fish. It's—duh—Shakuntala's missing ring, and Dushyanta goes in search of her, we're hoping he's kicking himself after doing all that royal ghosting. He finds a little boy wrestling a lion, it's his son! Bharat! And the family is reunited and that's I think the last we hear about Shakuntala.

Kalidasa made Dushyanta into a more sympathetic guy though. In the Mahabharata, Shakuntala goes to him only after she's had her son, and reminds him that he promised to make their son his heir. Dushyanta remembers but pretends not to, and says he has no idea who she is. Shakuntala makes a plea for her own behalf, tells him she's a good wife and it's a sin to cast her and their son aside and so on, a nice flowery speech, to which Dushyant says (and I will quote directly from the text here, so you can see what a dirtbag he is): “O Shakuntala, I do not know having begot upon thee this son. Women generally speak untruths. Who shall believe in thy words? Destitute of all affection, the lewd Menaka is thy mother, and she cast thee off on the surface of the Himavat as one throws away, after the worship is over, the flowery offering made to his gods. Thy father too of the Kshatriya race, the lustful Viswamitra, who was tempted to become a Brahmana, is destitute of all affection. However, Menaka is the first of Apsaras, and thy father also is the first of Rishis. Being their daughter, why dost thou speak like a lewd woman?” Wow.

I hope Shakuntala was able to forgive Dushyanta after all that — no matter what version of the story you prefer, he still forgot her and their kid.

(Source: Firstpost)

Friday, 20 September 2019

In Ahalya's Awakening, Kavita Kané questions the penalty for infidelity, and its significance in Indian mythology

History was about to repeat itself. The newly appointed Indra, king of the heavens, desired his queen Indrani. Nahusha, king of the Aila dynasty, coveted Sachi, wife of the former Indra Shakra. He was compelled to renounce his throne after a horrifying curse, leading to his downfall. It rendered him powerless, turned his body into a thousand vulvas, and his throne remained forever insecure. "She is the wife of another, you cannot have her," Rishi Brihaspati reasoned with the new king, but Indra was adamant. "I can and I shall," he stated when a soft voice said, "Don’t."

Menaka, the ethereal apsara, had glided into the courtroom to warn Nahusha of the toll his intransigence would invite, not only from the king, but also from Indralok, as it had happened once before. To him, she narrated the story of Ahalya.

Thus begins Kavita Kané's mythological tale of the first of the five virgins or panchkanya — archetypes of female chastity in Indian mythology — revered for her purity, yet condemned on account of her infidelity. Ahalya's Awakening, as the author notes, traces the paradox of its eponymous protagonist, who is "deemed promiscuous", and yet, is seen as a symbol of chastity.

Cover of Kavita Kané's latest work of mythological fiction, Ahalya's Awakening.
In the book, Ahalya's story takes off from her infancy, right up to the point where she blossoms into her extraordinary beauty and intelligence, after a childhood spent under the wings of sages Vashisht and Bharadwaj. This is followed by her subsequent departure to Rishi Gautam’s ashram. Yearning for an identity independent of her physicality, here, she vows to become a learned rishika, and immerses herself in the study of scriptures and Vedas.

Kané's sixth book, not unlike her previous works, sketches the lives of mythological characters that play their part on the fringes of a greater, more significant story, but whose silent struggles epitomise extraordinary strength and resilience. The former journalist’s sublime portrayals of these lesser-known women of the epics flavour the cannon of mythological literature with the spice of an alternative perspective: one that offers a study of womanhood and of women whose lives underwent dramatic upheavals as a direct consequence of the actions of more prominent heroes and heroines.

In the same vein, "there is very little on Ahalya," Kané suggests, and "more on the impact and implication of this episode mentioned in the Ramayana."

Ahalya’s Awakening then, is also distinctive, for it launches into a story that is twice removed. Contrary to the author's earlier works, such as The Fisher Queen’s Dynasty (2017) — which recounts the belligerence and ambition of Satyavati that would culminate in the Mahabharata — the protagonist of her 2019 work is not related to the principle characters of the epics and appears only briefly in Ram’s journey to the kingdom of Mithila.

Of Ahalya, the author says: "She is an enigma, almost a silent woman, known essentially for her seduction by Indra, her curse by her husband Rishi Gautam for infidelity, and her liberation from that curse by Ram."

Ahalya, wife of Rishi Gautam, the first among the panchakanya or the five virgins in Indian mythology as depicted by Raja Ravi Varma. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Kané adds that ironically, despite being a rather revered figure, Ahalya is also among the most doubted characters in mythology. In spite of being a complex woman, she is rarely ever perceived as one. "Rather she seems a mute, voiceless spectator of her own trials and tribulations," the author says.

But her novel puts these qualms to rest. "I have shown her as a human with her human flaws, mistakes and courage to carry out her decisions," she states.

According to the Brahma Purana, Ahalya, the one without ugliness, was brought to life by the creator of the universe, Brahma himself. The most beautiful woman in the entire world, she was married to the much older sage, Gautam. Later, seduced by Indra in the guise of her husband, she succumbed to his advances and was cursed into living as a stone. She was to remain completely invisible, until one day Ram’s feet brushed against her form, and her ascetic brilliance, attained through years of penance, became perceptible to the world.

However, the thread that intrigued the author is to be found in Jinasena's Harivamsha Purana, which suggests that Ahalaya — the one whose name also means an infertile land — was in fact a Puru princess, and not a divine creation of Brahma. Accordingly, she attributes to Ahalya two doting parents — King Mudgal and his queen, Nalayani, the daughter of Nala and Damayanti, and a twin brother, prince Divodas.

Ahalya’s episode in the Ramayana centres on the motif of punishment for infidelity and seduction, that foretells Sita's banishment from Ayodhya, brought about by a washerman's comment on her character. Ahalya's story also appears much before the story of her grandparents, particularly Nala (with a weakness for gambling), who first finds reference in the Mahabharata.

In Kané's rendition, the king of Indralok is consumed with desire for Ahalya. When the strain of marriage affects his duties, and causes sage Gautam and Ahalya to drift apart, Indra further discovers a want and loneliness in Ahalya that ultimately provokes him into disguising himself as Gautam. Ahalya falls into his arms knowingly, giving in to the charms of the man who has been in hot pursuit of her ever since their eyes met for the first time long ago in a palace courtyard.

Enraged at this infidelity, Rishi Gautam curses them both.

Indra descending from the heavens to meet Ahalya as depicted in Raja Ravi Varma's Indravalokan. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Kané's Ahalya submits herself to her stone-like existence. A perfidious woman, abandoned by her husband and children, and subjected to the jibes of society, she falls into deep meditation, turning her thoughts inwards.

One day, years after Ram liberates her from the curse, Ahalya finds a worried Sita in her ashram, looking for her young boys. Subtly wound into the fabric of the story is a dialogue imagined between the two "most visible victims of patriarchy, both condemned by society." In that instance, Sita, forsaken by her husband-king, and Ahalya, infamous for her sin, find comfort in each other and their common sufferings.

"That’s the reason these ancient stories still appeal to us," Kané points out, "– of the contemporary man, contemporary woman in contemporary times. Of Man with his follies and flaws — they are telling us stories of ourselves. The status and subordination has come through down the ages, through social times, through changed perspectives."

Kané imbues resolute strength in Urmila — Laxman's sultry enchantress — in Sita's Sister, and in the timorous Urvi from Karna's Wife; on her Ahalya and Satyavati, she bestows the qualities of courage and power. She also endows Ahalya with the temerity to commit a transgression, and then accept its consequences. She empowers her with the ability to comprehend human desire, coupled with spiritual awakening.

Ahalya's Awakening brings a short episode of Hindu mythology into the spotlight, highlighting its relevance in a modern society caught in similar tussles of adultery, loyalty, divorce and patriarchy.

(Source: FirstPost)

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Thailand Tiger Temple: More than half have died since rescue

More than half of the 147 tigers that were rescued from a controversial Thai Buddhist temple just three years ago have died, officials have said.

A total of 86 tigers have died since they were moved from the Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua temple, a tourist attraction known as Tiger Temple, in 2016.

Thailand's park service said many had died of a virus, having been weakened by the stress of relocation.

Officials also blamed genetic problems linked to inbreeding among the group.

But conservationists have questioned whether authorities were holding the tigers in safe conditions.

The temple's monks, meanwhile, have denied accusations of animal abuse, trafficking and illegal breeding while the tigers were under their care.

The temple has been closed to the public since 2016.

What happened to the tigers?
Since police raids in 2016, the tigers have been held at two breeding stations in nearby Ratchaburi province as it is believed they would have little chance of survival in the wild.

But only 61 of the original 147 have survived in captivity. Thai authorities said some fell ill with Canine Distemper Virus or CDV. Many had difficulty breathing or eating, and died as a result.

Tiger Temple attracted thousands of tourists before it was closed to the public 2016
Speaking with Reuters news agency, temple caretaker Athithat Srimanee denied the accusations that the tigers died because of inbreeding. He said the government was playing a "blame game".

Edwin Wiek, founder of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT), told the BBC that the big cats were being kept in small, cramped cages, making it easy for disease to spread.

He added that Canine Distemper is treatable with proper food and supplements, access to clean water, and enough space to move around. But a limited government budget made this impossible.

"To be very honest, who would be ready to take in so many tigers at once?" said Mr Wiek. "The authorities should have asked for help from outside, but instead insisted on doing all work themselves."

A lucrative trade
Analysis by Jonathan Head, BBC South-East Asia correspondent

The deaths of so many tigers in two government facilities has refocused attention on the challenges of managing an ever-expanding population of captive tigers, not just in Thailand, but in neighbouring countries like Laos and China.

Despite pledges by both Thailand and Laos to reduce the numbers of tigers held in captivity on so-called "tiger farms", the populations have continued to rise.

There are now around 2,000 captive tigers in Thailand. Many are held by private individuals, not state institutions.

Captive tigers are a lucrative business, popular in particular with Chinese tourists who now make up nearly one third of foreign visitors in Thailand.

They breed easily, and there is always a suspicion that some are diverted into the illegal trade in tiger parts, which then encourages the poaching of South East Asia's dwindling population of wild tigers.

Wildlife campaigners say state institutions in Thailand need better funding to start taking custody of these privately owned tigers, and the tiger industry should be regulated more strictly.

What is the Tiger Temple?
The attraction, run by Buddhist monks, was located in Thailand's Kanchanaburi Province, west of Bangkok.

At its height, visitors were charged 600 Thai Baht ($16, £11) for entry, with additional costs to pet, feed, or take pictures with the tigers.

The bodies of 40 tiger cubs were found in a freezer in the temple's kitchen
A National Geographic report alleged that the monks were operating a for-profit breeding business.

The WFFT also alleged there was evidence that wildlife trafficking took place, but has not provided specific examples.

In December 2014, authorities were alerted after three adult male tigers vanished from the temple. They had been micro-chipped, a legal requirement for captive endangered animals in Thailand, which allows them to be tracked.

The temple's veterinarian Somchai Visasmongkolchai later came forward after resigning from his post and said the microchips had been cut out of the three males.

When police raided the site in 2016, 40 dead tiger cubs were found in the temple's kitchen freezer, along with other animal body parts.

(Source: BBC)

‘We never moved back to Kashmir, because we couldn’t’

A writer tries to make a home everywhere to dull the pain of losing hers after militants targeted the Hindu minority when the insurgency against India erupted.

We vacation hard, my family. Ideally three weeks, and always a home rental, never a hotel. We settle in like we own the place, and have always owned the place. We start with a grocery store, a thrift shop for toys, a visit to the local library. We scope out playgrounds and children’s classes, make some friends, set up play dates.

The Google map I create during my research phase is color-coded, layered, intricate. We set up temporary lives everywhere from Greece to Japan. On our last trip, to Oahu, Hawaii, we did five grocery runs and nine loads of laundry, and spent the rest of the time washing dishes. In the places we stay, there is no turndown service, often no air conditioning, and the elevator always breaks on day two (I’m looking at you, Paris).

The drive to settle in immediately is pathological. I am compelled to ensure that my children are protected from unease or confusion, that they feel safe, enriched, fed, wherever we are.

I originally thought my bone-deep aversion to hotels was borne of all of the moving. Travel aside, I have lived in so many places I have lost count. Born in India, stints in Britain, Saudi Arabia, New York and then dragging a garbage bag full of clothes from a decrepit house to a more decrepit house as a student in Ann Arbor, Mich., plus some time in Italy and now, five addresses in Los Angeles.
Sarah Mazzetti

I have spent a formative amount of time in sterile extended-stay suites while a bunch of these homes were found, furnished or built. Hotels make me feel unsettled, unmoored, worried, and now that I have two children, the logistics are beyond me. How do you cram so many people into a room and all manage to sleep? If you don’t sleep, is it even a vacation? What happens when a growing boy needs breakfast at 5 a.m.?

But I have realized recently my “travel style” runs deeper: I don’t have a home. Yes, I live in a house. But you know how most people have somewhere to go home to?

Despite my best efforts to move beyond it, I have been thinking of my lost home since the eruption of the most recent crisis in Kashmir. I was born a Hindu in Kashmir, as was almost everyone in my family, for probably thousands of years. My parents decided to move abroad for work opportunities in the early 1980s, really so that they could gather funds to build their dream house in Srinagar.

We spent every summer and holiday, probably four to five months a year, in Kashmir. I was born in Habba Kadal, a neighborhood in central Srinagar, its maze of streets lined with narrow, four-story wooden houses.

My parents built their house in the suburban area of Natipora, which at the time had open fields, fresh air and an unobstructed view of the Himalayas. We gently, by hand, carried home china, linens and decorative items for the house. We clambered over rocks and beams at the construction site, watched them polish the terrazzo, proud and excited for our return.

I split time between there and my maternal grandparents’ house, or “matamaal,” in a verdant central Srinagar area, where I was the first of eight grandchildren, doted on by a boisterous extended family. I could draw you a detailed architectural map of both homes. I remember the hidden staircase to the roof at matamaal, the heavy curtains I wrapped around myself, until I dislodged a family of mice.

Afternoons cleaning string beans and corn from the vegetable patch. The time my mother told me not to play badminton in the evening, and it got so dark that I smacked a shrieking bat instead of the shuttlecock. I woke up once in the middle of the night and saw a bear dancing on its hind legs on the lawn. Nobody believes me about this one, but it happened.

After one of many picnics in Pahalgam, a hill town so picturesque you can see it in every Bollywood movie, I was halfway through a tourist-trap horse ride before realizing a pound of chocolate-covered walnuts was too many.

This is all to say: Have you ever heard people talk about how incredible Kashmir was? How beautiful, how peaceful? “Paradise on Earth” is the cliché, right? It was absolutely all of that, no exaggeration. To my 9-year-old self, it was the most magical, joyful place in the world.

At the same time, being Kashmiri has always been difficult. My parents’ generation had seen two wars between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, followed by an insurgency against Indian rule and rapid militarization in the winter of 1989-90. When the violence began, many Pandits, as Kashmiri Hindus are known, were targeted and killed by militants, which terrified us, leading to rushed middle-of-the-night departures by most of our community, including my extended family. I realize I recite these facts simply and without emotion, as a child would. That is so I don’t cry.

We were last at our house in August 1989, and it is now a pile of rubble, I think. The roof was burned off by militants, and snow seeped in to dissolve the rest. In a lifetime of talking to my parents every day, I have never asked for updates. I didn’t want to know, didn’t want to talk about it. I hear my beloved matamaal is a tech sales center. Even typing this out makes my heart clench, and I go back to the drawings in my head.

I have mapped out the houses, room by room, obsessively, for the past 30 years, so that I can remember them. Because I can’t (or won’t?) revisit, it is my only way to access the happiness of those summers at home in Kashmir. It is why I try to make a home everywhere I go. Feeling at home grounds me. It makes me feel the loss less.

We never moved back to Kashmir, because we couldn’t. We just kept moving. But summers in India continued, nothing like before. After we lost our home and our house, six of us spent the summer of 1990 crammed into one room in Delhi, sleeping fitfully. So, no thanks, hotels. The next summer we had two rooms. Eventually, an apartment, also in Delhi.

And I, throughout all of this, was one of the lucky ones. All we lost was a home. So many people suffered much more than we did. So many people are suffering right now. So many Kashmiris’ grief and loss outweighs mine by a factor of thousands. Can we ever go back? Should we ever go back? I have long avoided discussing Kashmir. I am neither historically nor politically fluent enough to unpack these answers.

All I know is, I loved it. I loved it so much. But I live here now.

Priyanka Mattoo is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles.

(Source: NYT)

A farewell to summer

By the time I went to school, I knew the world was changeable the way people were changeable, especially people like parents, with their moods and regrets and sore shoulders. Over the winter holidays, the world was lit by little yellow bulbs on garlands. There was the peacefulness of surprises that would come and that would not be terribly surprising: our stockings always held one orange, one apple, and a pack of chewing gum, along with something else like stickers or brand-new socks. In the car, the world grew purposeful; at the dollar theater, where our dad could take us to see The Princess Bride on a Tuesday afternoon for fifty cents apiece, the world grew relaxed.

Swimming pools turned the world glamorous. Every year my sister and I would look forward to the afternoon when Tulsa’s public pools would open. The pools hosted block parties with free sandwiches served in a long, perfect row, like the world’s biggest snake just lurking in the shadows, and even free cups of pop, which was prohibited at home.

In high school, I would make friends whose parents owned their own pools, but back in elementary school, the swimming pool was still a gift the world would only give for a precious few months out of the year, and only when our parents could make the time to take us. We occasionally also stayed in motels on our way to see our grandparents in Kansas or on our annual family vacation in Nebraska, though these places rarely had pools. But when they did, then the world shot clear up to the tip-top of the peak of glamour, and my sister and I became princesses from Lichtenstein or maybe Switzerland who’d been kidnapped by the Oklahoma criminals who called themselves our parents, and accordingly, on those rare nights, we would not speak to them at all.

Glamour and heartbreak have one thing in common: they both wear off faster than you’d think. By the time I turned ten, I was an old hat at hotel pools, stomping around on the damp cement that encased them like the world was an old, filthy toy I no longer had time for. I no longer cared about underwater handstands, or floating. I slipped quietly into the water wherever the ladder was, suddenly incapable of leaping with abandon.

In the same way, I became inured to the strangeness of hospitals, to the never-ending cries of children in pediatric wards, or the somewhat softer but equally painful sounds their relatives made in the hallways as I drifted by.

It happened in the blink of an eye. One day my sister and I were at school, as usual, and then she was having her first seizure—the first of the many thousands that would come. We rode in ambulances only for the first few times. After that we just carried her out to the car, not even exceeding the speed limit.

When she was six, my sister had brain surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and for a while my grandparents paid for a hotel for themselves and my parents and me. Every second I could, I spent with my sister. But when she was asleep or I wasn’t allowed, my grandmother would take me swimming and read a magazine on a lounge chair while I stood motionless in the very center of the pool, breathing in the chlorine, the water severing my torso like a magician on TV.

When the grown-ups told me my sister was going to be fine, I knew from their tone not to trust them, even though I couldn’t yet figure out what the opposite of fine would be. My sister and I had known for a long time that grown-ups weren’t to be trusted. They lied to us about how the apples and oranges got inside our stockings, and they lied outlandishly about swimming, like that pee would turn the water red. The worst part was not the betrayal, but rather the necessity of continuing to listen, just in case amid all that drivel there might be something that would protect us from some danger so terrible we couldn’t even begin to imagine it ourselves.

Because the watery world was the most alluring to us, we assumed there might be something to all their warnings about aquatic disasters. Otherwise, swimming was too good to be true. We had never known a person who had drowned. We had known a girl who got kidnapped. She was a classmate of mine; it happened on the day before my birthday; I don’t remember her name or face or anything about what happened, only that my birthday did not take place that year.

But we both belonged to an organization called the Camp Fire Girls that rewarded heroism, and every year at our big gathering, some girl would be honored for saving some other girl’s life. I think that made us both hope to save each other someday. That is, at any rate, the effect it had on me.

I always expected my sister to nearly drown. I hoped every summer it would happen. It never occurred to me that I would not be by her side; it was outside the realm of the conceivable that I would for any reason be unable to rescue her—that for any reason she might actually suffer, let alone die.

Once she slipped in a stream, and I grabbed her by the strap of her overalls and tried to drag her toward me until she squealed at me to stop. The water was so shallow I was dragging her over jagged rocks.

When she was in the hospital, and I was at the swimming pool alone, the possibility of my sister vanishing entirely turned the world solid, ejecting all of us, making me too miserable to move. I tried to make friends with the other siblings, and even the other sick kids when they were in periods of outpatient care, in remission or just waiting. One day I played a game in the pool with a boy around my age, nine or ten, who had leukemia, both of us pretending to be pirates, our treasure of a couple of wooden blocks he had stolen from the waiting room at the clinic, thrown to the bottom of the pool.

His presence did nothing to diminish the absence of my sister, but it did restore a little air into the world. My grandmother looked over from her magazine and smiled at us, and I smiled back. Then, all of a sudden, the little boy who had leukemia swam up, pinched my bottom, digging his nails as far into suit and skin as he could manage, and then swam off again.

The world of childhood can seem so much more instinctual than the adult world; children’s behavior can verge on animalistic. On that day, I did not hesitate. I did not, out of sympathy, move on to some new aquatic game. I did not try to reason with him, or explain to him my feelings. I didn’t even yell. Instead, I just got out of the pool and informed my grandma we were leaving. When the boy tried to follow, dripping helplessly onto the concrete, I ignored him. He was dead to me, even though it had already been explained to me that he was dying.

I often think about the disappointment in my grandma’s eyes that day. It was a disappointment I had no sense of yet, the disappointment of all the contradictions of the universe thwarting her progress toward hope. We never talked about what had happened, and I never told anybody else. I knew at the time that I was deciding how to feel, rather than feeling, deciding to have this particular principle rather than any other.

Yet now when I look back on my smaller self I don’t see a conveyer belt of moral precepts. I don’t even really see a self. I see a fluid being struggling to adapt to the damming off of its sister, the first real indication of the boundaries between other and self. I see a creature that felt pain in its veins every time my sister’s blood was taken, that scrambled to escape while she was held in the gigantic tube of an MRI or a CT scan, and that stopped being able to swallow a burger by the side of the road after making the connection between animal suffering and ours.

In some ways, my boundaries have remained permeable. I have now been a vegetarian for thirty years. Now, when my sister has a seizure, or when her lupus or rheumatoid arthritis act up, I must remind myself that our bodies are separate, that they always have been, that I can help her better if I’m not ailing, too—and that often enough my attempts at rescue only bruise her more.

I still think about that boy, and sometimes I associate him with later, more serious assaults by grown men; other times I regret hurting a sick little boy’s feelings, depriving him of a worthwhile distraction, even just a small thing that would have helped him pass the time. But on that day, I did the only thing I could have done.

In my early twenties, my Fulbright stipend proved generous enough that after my year in Warsaw I took my first adult vacation in Dubrovnik and afterward on the beautiful Croatian island of Brač. I had never seen the sea before. The Adriatic overjoyed me. I photographed the sand and shells and pebbles as the water washed over them, bursts of brilliance and their afterglows, their steady tempo. I combed the sand for shells I kept in an old blank CD case to give to my grandma when I had enough.

At first I was scared to drown or accidentally infiltrate a school of fish, in the same way I was scared of getting lost and getting hit by buses and of completely cloudless skies. But, after a while, I started swimming again. Heartbreak and glamour fade, but everyday joy—just like everyday strain—fades less.

(Source: The Paris Review)