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No Moving On: How to Nurse Heartbreaks, Personal and Political

Promona Sengupta's heartbreaks meet us - through racism, sexism and health


Sometime over the course of the last year, I had my heart thoroughly broken multiple times. Each time, I had to take recourse in healing practices of the mental health sector – constant, disciplined psychotherapy, counselling, three different kinds of medication, and lots of enforced rest. And each time I entered the psychiatry clinic, I entered with red-faced embarrassment over my problem – is heartbreak a legitimate enough reason to seek medical attention? Swallowing the doubts, I would sit tight and cry out in front of strange doctors, detailing what he did to me, what he said I did to him, and unable to fathom the meaning in mindless unkindness, I would desperately seek a resolution.

 

During a follow-up session with a well-known psychiatrist and fiction writer in Calcutta, I remember the session slowly turning into him expressing his own deep anxieties regarding the hard turn to fascism in India, with many of his close friends in the medical fraternity becoming vocal about their inbuilt mechanisms of Islamophobia and inhuman behavior. That session was special. The doctor and the patient were together admitting to a sense of heartbreak, an overwhelming feeling of no resolution that created a unison of the personal and the political. 

It is not a coincidence that the relationship that was causing me constant heartbreaks finally ended on a day when I was reaching out to him to talk about fascism in India.

 

It is not a coincidence that the first heartbreak he had caused was an action of deep-seated racism and misogyny on his part. It is not a coincidence that in the unkindness he had been showing towards a fellow human being, I was wanting to read acts of unkindness showed and carried out by the murderous Indian state on its own minorities.

 

Heartbreak is a deeply emotionally intense experience of being wronged as a human being, without the possibility to comprehend why or how to resolve pain. 

 In desperation, a state of mind that I inhabit a lot, I inevitably turn to books, images, essential imaginative strategies to find a different world without this pain that I feel. In all my years of nursing heartbreaks as personal and political moments of injustice, I have had to take the pain seriously, in spite of a society that prescribes “moving on” as a coping mechanism, and to understand and acknowledge the structures of power that underlie the state of hopelessness in heartbreak. Not surprisingly, the power structures are the usual suspects – racism, patriarchy, homophobia, poverty, class warfare – they are the structural norms from which our interpersonal interactions learn universally used codes of unkindness. And typically, for me, a person who loathes the status quoist idea of “moving on”, I have to rely on the realm of imagination – ficton, poetry, divination, wishful thinking, fantasy – to actively ideate on resolutions to injustice. But here is the thing – I crowdsource the way in which I nurse a heartbreak, as I am forced to acknowledge that it is simply not my problem alone. And to that end, I write this – ruminations on how not to move on, how to stay, how to be able to reject the pain while it is happening, how to bring into manifestation imaginative strategies of resolution and justice. 

As of today, the world has acknowledged that the COVID-19 is a medical emergency of pandemic proportions. People at large are having to cancel their active lives and relegate themselves into isolation, forced to take cognizance that other people exist with them in interconnected ways that do not even need them to touch each other to potentially harm each other. There seems to be a global acknowledgement of vulnerability as a human condition, and to what extent it is an experience of interconnectedness. The knee-jerk survival strategy of individualism that feeds the lie of living in spite of others and not with others, has not known a worthier enemy than the COVID-19.

 

It is a philosophical turn in a public health crisis, which is making a lot of us, hitherto unencumbered by the presence of people around us, as if they were props, develop ingenious ways of acknowledging that other people have a bearing on how one lives and vice versa.

 

The world is our toxic relationship that we have no suitable coping mechanism for, and the only way we can move on is by dying.

 

On Women’s Day this year, I was spending the whole day making speeches at feminist marches, trying to give people in Berlin who attended the marches information on the pogrom that was engineered by Hindu nationalist mobs in working-class Muslim neighbourhoods in Delhi in February. I have to say, without any sense of self-congratulation, that I had been crying profusely through the day. I was born and brought up in India in the 90s, and the cyclicality of Islamophobic violence, from the Babri Masjid to Godhra, Muzaffarnagar to Delhi, had simply been too much for me. I was aware of the tremendous pressure I felt as a born-Hindu upper caste woman to simply “move on” and force myself like others to swallow on a regular basis the reality of pogroms, genocide and ethnic cleansing till I would also become one of those people who somehow found peace in the pain or even pleasure. It was impossible for me to do this. I do not have such a high threshold of pain. When my heart breaks, it remains broken.

 

It is impossible for me to be normal. Call me crazy. Do it. 

 

That night, seeing the full moon above the women’s prison in Friedrichshain where the Internationalist Feminist March ended, I felt like I had done the best I could that day, and in doing so, I had survived that day, and that for me seemed like a superhuman achievement. I decided to crumble in bed and use the superhuman feeling to do something that I believed would make me feel good – apologize to the man who broke my heart. The feeling was this that he had put me through the ringer emotionally, but I would treat this unkindness as a human act that is learned, and stemming from fear and hurt and sadness, which I was sure he was feeling, and I, in my small capacity to reject the cyclicality of unkindness, would acknowledge our interconnectedness of hurt and heartbreak, our trauma bonding, if you will, and put out an unconditional apology that dignifies pain and vulnerability of a fellow human being. It did make me feel better to do this.

 

Unsurprisingly, this led to more heartbreak. I had previously been blocked out of his life in various ways, even before things turned heartbreaking, and now the message was one of complete need to sever communication. I am very bad at masquerading as a dead person. What’s more, the call to masquerade as dead for me was a political issue – too often had I been checked by complete strangers about my loudness, my clothes, my reason to be “here”, as if somehow my existence itself was up for questioning, as if, if questioned thoroughly enough, I could be proven to be dead to them. The flaming need of the society in which I live to convince me to not show any sign of life, or if I do then to constantly explain why, come with statutory warnings and user manuals as if I was some sort of anomaly to the human form – this was what I felt every single time I was cut off, I was refused an audience, I was publicly insulted for being different, I was told that “I sent a picture of you to my Mother…she needs to open up to new possibilities as well”. 

 

For those readers to whom this seems like the self-indulgent crying of an attention-seeking child, I urge you to look at yourself and to what extent your daily existence has been a complete celebration of the normal subject, and how you behave when your humanity is challenged even one little bit – such as when a person of colour arrives in front of your eyes and somehow that itself is a deep questioning of your existence that forces you to question why they are there in your vicinity. A child who has all the attention does not need to cry for it.

 

Back to heartbreaks.                

 

In the throes of pain when one experiences or witnesses acts of dehumanization, one is forced to imagine other realities and will them into existence.  

 

These are realities as concrete as our physical surroundings, as these are actual affective architectures that are checkpoints and healthpoints that reset us to keep going back to a toxic environment and have the will to live on despite being told to die. In our imaginative utopias, there is an understanding of everyone having equal and valid wisdoms, as they have been through mighty struggles in their own right and have had to learn survival from them. One such utopia that I constantly fall back on is the online industry of tarot readings, horoscopes and ASMR videos. It checks every single red flag of patriarchy – women, making money, telling lies, being creative, affirming lives, being vulnerable, being soft, loving each other.

 

The harsh screams of “pseudoscience”, “placebo”, “not proven to be true”, “mumbo jumbo”, simply pale in comparison to the endless comments under the videos that say “Thank you. I was feeling suicidal. This saved me.” The depths of shame attached to admitting that one takes a tarot reading seriously is a peculiarly gendered form of shame. The overarching idea is of course that acts of divinatory imagination by women are obviously baseless and escapism because women are baseless and escapist, unable to form concrete ideas and thoughts based in rationality. However, the reason that this utopia is important is not predicated on how well it stands the test of science – it is based on the possibility of immediate psychological care it gives to people who are finding it hard to access, for whatever reason, more “legitimate” mental health assistance.

 

For those who need the name of famous old white men to be convinced of the legitimacy of a thought may look up Carl Jung’s usage of the tarot as a means to achieve active imagination. 

 

Imagination is hard work, especially when you are heartbroken. You find it hard enough to feed and clothe yourself, let alone meditate on the possibilities of justice in your own situation of heartbreak. This heartbreak is not your individual subjection, it is the heartbreak of living under deep oppression and still having to act like you are surviving well, having to act like you are ok with the status quo, having to tolerate the constant denial of humanity to you, by your leaders and your lovers. And therefore, the justice is not individual either – it has to necessarily be collective, substantive, transformative.

 

The women, young and old, on tarot and ASMR and horoscope webpages and youtube channels, regularly help me visualize that my reality of oppression has answers in the realm of imagination – “let your angels guide you”, “your near future holds the justice card”, “you are safe now, no one expects anything from you”. I do not pray to a god, and have not been to a temple to worship ever. But I need these affirmative imaginations that there are other people, perhaps imaginary people, entities who believe that I exist and I am living, and who acknowledge my pain and heartbreak and want to see me in joy.

 

This is my coven of women who I do not know, but whose word I implicitly trust, in whose wisdom I have absolute and full faith, in whose performances as mediums I am willing to invest with a suspension of disbelief, as I can see why they need this and why I need this and why we need this. We need another reality, and we are manifesting it through simple words of hope and simple actions of active imagination with visual prompts and codes of performance.   

 

My best friend is a fantasy fiction writer and tarot reader. He has unwavering faith in the fact that I am alive – it has simply never been questioned. His readings often help me when I am feelings deeply heartbroken, as he invites me to visualize meanings of past, present and future, with symbolic prompts and spiritual intent. Let this be told, it does little to give me the sort of justice that is needed for the world to finally acknowledge that I am a person and not something to pick up and discard according to will and convenience – for that I have to keep up everyday activisms, everyday education of people who harm me, everyday stretching of my aliveness for purposes of being spotted and acknowledged.

 

I have to willingly subject myself to regular heartbreaks as I do not have a choice to live in another material reality full-time, as it doesn’t yet exist. But it is in the utopic reality of the divination health industry, perhaps the spiritual health industry, which includes among other things the writings of bell hooks and Ursula Le Guin, Suniti Namjoshi’s cat Suki, the whispers of WhispersRedASMR, the midnight chats about angels taking the wheel with my yogic practitioner friend in LA, that I find a temporary acknowledgement as a human being, a little cushion of comfort that I can rest in, before I once again tackle the toxic relationship that is my society. And I am so, so thankful. 

 

 Perhaps it is because of, as Mia Mingus puts it, my “pod people” – Daphne in LA, Bedatri in New York, Kaju in Bombay. Bedatri willingly acts as my suicide prevention hotline – willing to hold my hand as we revisit a crime scene in my head, and slowly piece together a dignified truth from it, keeping in mind the humanity and weaknesses of all actors in it. It helps that she has infinite wisdom regarding the creation of feminist utopias towards a material world of justice. She has had to survive after all. She patiently clarifies my truths, bringing into consideration real structures of power that underlie injustice and heartbreaks every time.

 

Daphne channels the Pacific Ocean from her backyard, and together we reach uncomfortable conclusions regarding how to escape the clutches of patriarchy with mindfulness and spiritual practice, things that are being stolen as consumerist babble to work for the onward march of productivity. For some of us, in conversation with each other, these are survival practices – these are interruptions of the “move on”, these are being still, taking responsibility, and combating violence with dignity. For us, these are not excuses to compromise with realities of oppression. Kaju reminds me amidst his imaginative divination practices that he would never be able to say “practice caution” to me – how to be cautionary in imagination? Reality is uncomfortable, heartbreaking, toxic, and the survival strategy of creating another reality and holding it as a possible material reality that could be accomplished needs among other things fearlessness in the face of violence. 

 

The material reality of oppression is that the Modi government passed a brutally disenfranchising legislation to negate the existence of minorities in India. The imaginative material reality that also exists is that working-class Muslim women have been leading indefinite sit-ins in various parts of the country, rejecting this negation and heartbreak outright. With their sheer bodily presence as an interruption in the “move on”, they have attracted many of us to their wisdom – it is possible to keep existing, simply existing, sitting still, in the face of a call to act dead, and bring about a different reality that does exist in plain sight.

 

We are here. See us. Another world is here, in us. Imagine with us. As I still struggle to comprehend the minutiae of interpersonal violence that led to the crumbling of my relationship, I am invited into the Shaheen Bagh pod, in the survival practices of imagination that makes it possible for me to turn violence into stillness and listen patiently to what my head voices are saying, with an understanding that I am not alone in this.

 

I am not alone.                  

About the author

Promona is an academic, cultural practitioner and community organiser from Kolkata. She is currently based in Berlin.

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