One fine morning, end of October this year, I saw a notification of Navtej Johar’s classes on Facebook. I enrolled immediately. This would be normal for most. Just that in my case, in the last 30 years since school, I had never taken a physical education class. I have walked a fair bit in my life, I am a walker, but have studiously stayed away from anything more than that much exercise. I am middle-aged now, stout; I do not care much for what I wear, how I look. I am food agnostic. Yet, that morning, I accepted the Facebook notification with absolute ease. As if it is just what you do. I surprised myself. I now see how that moment of acceptance was set in motion a while back.
A few months back, I read dancer, educator and researcher Shabari Rao’s, paper on the body. What struck me was her premise: ‘working with the body can be deeply revealing of states of mental health, and can therefore also provide avenues to address collective and individual mental/emotional well-being.’
It made me think how all my life I have mostly used my mind and not my body to address ‘collective and individual mental/emotional well-being’. It is not that I have not experienced my body. I have. Kabir talks about the body. Basavanna talks about the body. The Sikh Gurus talk about the body. Yet, my primary focus has been my mind. I acknowledged, perhaps for the first time, that in spite of my body telling me a lot, I do not fully listen to it. I mean one does listen to hunger, to the need for sleep. But on other matters, distressingly, I deny my body its voice, or worse, suppress the voice.
In her paper, Rao showed how the idea of the narrative is ‘so intrinsic to our way of understanding the world and ourselves that we often fail to remember that it is only one strategy’ and focus on narrative becomes a ‘a self-sustaining cyclical loop – or in other words a habit’. I loved how Rao went on to link experience with meaning with value leading to good/bad judgement. The paper led me to consider: what would it be to focus on the body? I wanted to email Rao. But I didn’t. When she came home, I noticed how light she seemed. I, on the other hand, feel so heavy to myself.
The reason is, as a writer I see myself so vastly different from her practice. I believe: whoever we are, wherever we are, we all live in stories. When our stories are complete, we feel located. When our stories are broken or we are unable to articulate them, we feel dislocated. As a writer, I feel language can be used to speak what we normally do not talk about. I construct narratives through which I restore people back into their stories – bring them dignity. That is why, to me, writing is a space where it is possible to reach a process of healing. Until now in my writing, my approach has been autobiographical – placing my own self in the middle of the conflicts I depict. As a subject, my primary engagement has been with mental health. As a geography, my primary engagement has been with Panjab.
Rao’s paper set me thinking. As I enter middle age, the paper and other artworks are asking me to confront the role of my earlier traumas on my body. The deeper reasons are:
- a) I come from a dysfunctional family where my mother was declared clinically schizophrenic. In such a home, my mother, neglected her body. Nightly urination in bed, lack of a sense of dressing, an obsession with washing hands but not combing her hair, dressing haphazardly and so on. Since as an infant I was in her care, I too was neglected. Yet, what remained imprinted on my mind was how society treated us – our family’s othering through madness. As a child growing up in that environment, I needed to learn how to deal with social perceptions. When I was in MA, my teacher, poet Hoshang Merchant said: ‘those we call mad are poets without language’. That set me to make a linguistic, textual argument for compassion, empathy and kindness through my autobiographical novel Sepia Leaves.
- b) During my adolescence in a military school, when militancy was ripe in Panjab, the emphasis was on the body, but in a perverse way – either tough physical exercise or in the hostels, sodomy by seniors. To deal with the system, I had to use my wits, my mind. I faced militants’ guns; the police gave me the third degree. I learnt to project myself as non-desirable. Even more so, become invisible – a fly on the wall. I wrote my autobiographical novel Roll of Honourto process the fear I had imbibed during my adolescence.
The reason located in childhood is: instead of my mother’s touch, which was cold; I found warmth in the touch of others – my aunts, my nanny, an Adivasi girl. To me, bodies coming together is more about feeling safe and warm. Love is about freedom, not just desire. Given school experience, naked desire seems to me predatory.
The experiences that led to the novels, barricaded my consciousness from accessing the aesthetic of my body – in the sense Rao’s paper means it, ‘form not just beauty’. However, in me, the mind vs body dichotomy is not black and white. For example, when I am reading or writing intently, I notice my shoulders hunch up. When I want to write but the writing isn’t flowing, my stomach bloats up. One of my big joys is when a new experience, especially nature, gives me goose bumps. Issue is, I do not listen closely to my body and try to solve body issues with external agents: muscle ointments, paracetamol, inhalers.
So, I wondered, what do I do now? How do I reclaim my body? I knew the answer lies in opening consciousness to sensory, bodily input. But I wondered how?
That is when the BARPS course called me. Actually, the thirst is far deeper. When anyone of us finds ourselves in a tough situation that we have not willed or wanted, our mind, our body seeks a system where we are accepted without judgement. All these past 30 years, I have sought such a system, my mind has been silently scanning everything the world has to offer, but I never zeroed down on anything. Now, I did.
With this course, with the facility to turn off our cameras, the instructor not seeing us, I got the necessary privacy, I could avoid the gaze, which prevented me from exposing my vulnerable self earlier. But when I accepted the course, I did not know I will be allowed to turn off the camera. That spurt of confidence to join the course came to me from how I have known Navtej all my life. This goes back to the 1990s, when growing up as a confused adolescent, Navtej on a magazine cover: long haired and bearded, performing Bharatnatyam, had inspired me. I had seen in that image a possibility of what Sikh boys could be – an alternative way of being, other than the roles their society forced upon them. I had met Navtej warmly in the 2010s. That sense of Navtej, that assurance and belief in him, was my little bridge to move from passivity to activity.
That brings me to our classes. From day 1 to 3, I kept burping in class. I wonder if instead of water and flesh, I was full of gas. From day 4 to 9 or so, the classes put me in a sort of trance. Even after class, as I took copious notes from the recordings of the sessions, I stayed in the mood of the class. I cried when Navtej talked about Buoyancy. As I write this, I realise the act of signing up for the course was actually my giving in to buoyancy. In the last three classes, on Preparation, Poise and Permission, I smiled to myself. I was very clear I wanted to do the full 16-day course at the same place everyday but I had to break the practice for a day to go to Kerala to speak on the farmers protest, something I am actively engaged in. To return I needed an RT-PCR test done. At the laboratory queue, as the hour of the class was approaching, I was fretting. Then I remembered Navtej say, ‘this is not a task’. The climate of my mind changed. I became calm, got the test done and rushed back to the hotel room to attend the full class.
Yet, I had a fear: what after the course? I wondered if I could develop a practice which keeps me in the wonderful trance-like state I experienced. The sense of floating.
On the day we did Poise, Navtej gave the example of the humming bird. I realised, everything he says relates to not BARPS alone but to WRITING! To my practice. For example, in all my writing you would notice, I hover a long time on my subject of study and dip exactly when I find it most appropriate. That dipping in at the exact time and depicting the experience is my writing. With the realisation that BARPS is also about writing, I feel I have found a ledge to hold on to in all that Navtej has showed us in the course.
At one point, Navtej asked: why are you on the mat?
Here is the answer: I am on the mat because it gives me goose bumps. It makes me feel lighter and float. This sense helps me live easy, write better.
I have two observations:
- In Availability, Navtej said: make yourselves visible. That might be true for actors and dancers but as a writer (given how I practice being a fly on the wall) I prefer to lurk for long and be visible through my writing, not my physical self. This is just a response. I get the point.
- Navtej often asks us to evoke – Buoyancy, Availability, Agency, Reciprocity, Preparation, Poise, Permission. While evoking these in our classes, I wonder about my mother. What do the mad evoke? Isn’t madness a result of too much evoking? Perhaps evocation is also about Balance.
I am reminded now, suddenly while writing this piece, of a little private secret: for very long, between the ages of 18 and 28, I used to dance alone in my room. Put on some music and dance, dance, dance – experience buoyancy. I used to listen to SD Burman a lot but while writing both my novels, I discovered Kabir, through Kumar Gandharva’s nirgun singing. Mind you, I am tone deaf! At a Sahitya Academy conference at Kochi many years ago, after my first novel, I asked poet Sananta Tanty about sagun and nirgun, form and formless. Tanty was born in an Assamese tea estate to Odia tea-picker parents. He pointed to a table on which there was a pool of water. ‘Look, lying like this the water is nirgun, it has no shape. But when in a bottle, it has shape, it is sagun. Water, for more than half of us are water, can be both sagun and nirgun’.
That is what life is about, it flows. I now need to evoke my agency, permit myself to go back to that ritual of dancing freely and listening tunelessly. Life or our practice, is not a task. It is our pursuit to float, or as Navtej says, happiness.
Through the course, I loved the game Navtej played with us: through all these material body experiences, what he was actually prompting was a change in our minds through the furthering of ideas.
Gratitude! Navtej, the course, came at just the right time in my life. The bud has cracked, may the flower blossom.
Amandeep Sandhu is the author of PANJAB: Journeys Through Fault Lines.