On Escape

Where does one seek refuge from the mayhem that plagues the mind?

Words by Shreevatsa Nevatia
Illustration by Shawn D’Souza

15 Mar 2019

My bipolarity follows a pattern. Suddenly, almost without warning, mania creeps up on me and devastates my otherwise calm, stable, unobjectionable life. If I have a job, I have to put in my papers. If I’m in a relationship, I have to break up. Bipolarity is usually that dramatic. I need peace and quiet to find anchors that I have lost, and to survive the depression that follows. More often than not, I escape to Calcutta. This is the city where I grew up. I might not belong here, but it affords some relief.

I was 18 when I left Calcutta for university. Young enough to think that my resolutions had the legs of a lifetime, I said I would never live here again. Frustrated by the city’s slowness, I was convinced that life happened elsewhere. I wanted to strive, not amble along. I had not learnt to temper my promises.

Writing this essay from Calcutta today, I feel contrite. Having blunted the extremities of my youth, the world has again led me back to the room that was mine as a child. The path it has taken to get me here is circuitous. It is marked by illness and other minor tragedies, but the city, I find, can nourish me.

Five years ago, when my parents were refurbishing the house, they asked what I’d like added to my room. “Shelves,” I answered, “lots of book shelves.” Consigned to boxes, the books I had spent all my savings on were inaccessible to me when I needed them the most. I did not want a personal library that would help me boast of the books I had read. I only wanted to be reminded of those I still hadn’t.

Stacked according to height and genre, I make sure my books keep each other good company. Having lined three of my four walls with books, I do not have to leave my room to escape. I simply have to stay in. Somerset Maugham had written, “To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.” On most days, my room proves Maugham right.

An escape can also be a maze. The room that one finds escape in is also a room that one inevitably needs escape from. There are times when all the titles around me threateningly merge into one. On occasion, I find there’s nothing around me that I want to read. I feel bored, spent and claustrophobic.

Earlier, in moments like these, I would begin plotting my return to a Delhi or a Bombay. Their bustle, I’d argue, would see my ennui through. But these days, my measures are a little less drastic. I tell myself that what I need is not a change of city, but more a change of scene. I have learnt how to pack my room into a bag, and I have found in my neighbourhood, a café that allows me to smoke copiously.

Like a surgeon laying out his instruments, I empty onto my café table the contents of my bag with careful precision. There’s a laptop, an optical mouse and a pair of headphones. There are always three books — a book that I’m reading, one fiction and one non-fiction title in case I change my mind. I carry a Moleskine diary to make notes and two planners to map my future. There are sharpeners, erasers and coloured pens that match almost all my moods. If I need to run, my rucksack has everything I’ll need.

Smoking in the outside enclosure, I think of myself as an escape artist. Restraints can have literal connotations for the mentally ill, and you come to cherish the dexterity of your wrists only after they have been bound. In a flash, I feel delighted to find I have both my hands free and all my wits about me.

The wonderful thing about escape, I realise, is you have to stop to find it.

Shreevatsa Nevatia is the author of How to Travel Light (Penguin India, 2018). He tweets at @shevy_nevy.

Shawn D’Souza is a textile designer who moonlights as an illustrator. He draws as a way of understanding his surroundings better. He is on Instagram as @dsouza_ee.

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