Scherezade Siobhan (2021-22)

Scherezade Siobhan

Scherezade Siobhan is an award-winning writer, psychologist, educator and a community organizer who founded Qureist — a therapeutic space for psychosocial wellness. Her work and words have been featured in Medium, Berfrois, Quint, Vice, HuffPost, Feministing, DIAGRAM, The London Magazine, Indian Express, TOI, Midday among others. She is the author of “Bone Tongue'' (Thought Catalog Books, 2015), “Father, Husband” (Salopress, 2016) and “The Bluest Kali'' ( Lithic Press, 2018). She was a writer-in-residence at the University of Stirling as the winner of the Charles Wallace Grant in 2022. She is a core member of  Human Rights Resilience Project (HRI)'s Defender's Wellbeing Collective which comprises 20 global leaders in the field of social development, grassroots, community, and survivor-led human rights organizations or movements and social justice activism. She has led workshops, lectures, panels, readings and programs across India, USA, UK, Europe and Hong Kong. Her next book is called "That Beautiful Elsewhere" and it is scheduled to be released in October 2023 via Harper Collins.

Time at Stirling

My evening ritual since arrival at Stirling is to feed a tribe of haughty mallards, stern-faced gulls, wobbly, raucous oystercatchers and a family of graceful but indolent swans who split among themselves the kingdom of a loch next to my current home. The geese are quite picky about the type of bread I bring as an offering. In another life, I want to be born with the chutzpah of a Scottish duck shouting insults at you for daring to throw it substandard white bread after getting accustomed to artisanal sourdough. What fascinates me particularly about this collection of mallards is how they decide to group and go for a swim right when the rains are at their heaviest battering. Last evening as the rain-infused winds chewed up the lavender patches, I went to my favourite bench next to the cordoned off barge, umbrella in hand, to feed them. It was a last-ditch attempt to dispel a persuasive depressive spiral that had me in its grip for days.

Just as I thought, the ducks were in full practice of whatever synchronised swimming teams they are forming for the next summer Olympics. Their reflections and movements carved out a peculiar geometry across the loch. I noticed them dip their heads into the water, almost in an homage to ashtanga yoga, and stay feet up for a brief few seconds, follow it up with a complete disappearance inside the water before tipping their whole bodies back to the surface. These creatures amble towards the loch when it is copious, aim for balance right at the heart of the turbulence. They are trusting of the exchange between their little bodies and the gigantic body of water to work out in their favour.

I wish to perform a feat of this contradiction tying simplicity and complexity on a word doc. I haven’t written a poem in 2 years. No, that’s not entirely true. I haven’t written a good poem in 2 years. The pandemic stole several of my anchors. Our anchors. Individually and collectively. It stole the quotidian pleasures that served as a ballast for the increasingly muddled directions we are thrown into, daily. The DIY poetry readings, walking tours for bargains at the vintage, second-hand furniture and home fixtures shops, midnight kulfi at Marine Drive, a stroll through the local flower market in Dadar; these ordinary ceremonies of connections and communing all but disappeared in those two years. I stopped writing because the urge to create erased itself in the face of unspeakable loss both within and around. To write is to either bring into awareness or bring into existence. Both of those journeys require the presence of possibility; the crucible of a belief that will allow space for distillation of ideas, observations, and allow experiences to transmute on the page in the shape of words. We flail trying to maintain love through approximation.

I work as a psychologist and psychotherapist. I sometimes feel that the polarities of illness and wellness are more blurred in my profession than others within the domain of health sciences. The pandemic spilled a denser fog limning the outwardness of this terrain. Learning to live with an indefinable auto-immune disorder in the last two years has thrown me into an antithetical churn of perpetual restlessness and restricted movements. I feel captive to Time even as I have an abundance of it on some days because my body enters its own peculiar civil disobedience. Having lived with clinical depression, I often think of the psychoanalyst Darian Leader offering the lens of looking at the depressive experience as a form of protest. Perhaps the depressed state is as much an act of resistance against the powerlessness encountered due to domination, separation, abandonment and lack of safety. More and more as my to-do lists extend, my focus wavers and my arc of completion lags. The worlds I toggle between can sometimes feel suffocatingly shrunken by themselves without needing an external latch to shutter them into invisibility. Writing is how I try to stretch this margin out into a horizon. But for a long time, I have been unable to see anything beyond the concrete jaggedness of buildings resembling fossils of trees surrendered to petrification. There is grey inside my brain and grey outside my body. Everything has arrived prefixed with an un-: unwilling, unready, undeserving.

Part of the unwillingness stemmed from an increasing failure to concentrate without drifting away. My attention spans have been growing more asymmetrical and distorted. A lot of people in therapy have reported similar experiences since the onset of COVID. I could start writing a simple paragraph for my in-progress manuscript and suddenly get tangled in some phrase or word like a sparrow caught neck-first in the wires of a window net across a Mumbai high-rise. My writing was riddled with syntactical errors I was unable to weed out despite running through each line with a fine tooth-comb. I was still replacing “t”s with “d”s in my words without any specific, conscious recognition of doing so. Someone recommended a battery for ADHD. Someone else recommended medication. Someone else tried to convert me to some new mindfulness app. Every recommendation was added to an endless to-do list.

There is an anecdote that the editor of Novy Mir began to read a pre publication copy of Solzhenitsyn’s ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ in bed. And then found himself so impressed that he not only got up but put on a suit and a necktie to finish with what he felt to be the requisite respect. I have experienced similar admiration and ever adoration for the written word. Sometimes the only thing that has got me out of the bed has been a book asking me, even forcing me, to make a cup of tea and continue to communicate with it. It is my most trusted transport. I have carried a book with me everywhere like a compass. Reading to me a form of unconditional regard. Reading has offered me remembrance and forgetting in ways that nothing else could. I dissolve, become simultaneously amorphous and trenchant in my pathfinding. Writing to me is an extension of reading. It is the reciprocity of a mutually caring relationship. Reading offers me joy and I return that joy to reading by writing. When I stopped writing, I felt like I didn’t deserve to read either. It felt like consumption, not companionship. It felt as if this was the final emptying.

Once I entered my 20s, I started viewing depression differently. The pathologies surrounding it seemed poorly constructed and incapable of answering any of the questions I had both for myself and for my therapy patients/clients. The commonly over-arching and frequently regressive explanations about its presence within the realms of both psychiatry and therapy were either infuriating or tiring, or both. My own depressive cycles were more and more a series of (mal)adaptive responses to an increasing burden of helplessness about various overpacked compartments of my life. I felt I was destined to carry these with me as some Sisyphean punishment.

Living with and through depression for nearly 20 years now, what I most easily recognise as the first knock of a depressive cycle is the departure of hope. You become bereft of hope. I notice the ease with which I start declining possibilities of faith in connections and relationships. I start telling myself it won’t work out. It has never worked out. I recognise how early-life betrayal of trust was repeated like a circus act that should be banned in so many of my critical relationships. My inner monologue during an intense depressive breakdown is one of abject hopelessness — I shouldn’t exist because what is worthy of me and what am I worth of. Once it fades, the question of worth ebbs. When it is unforgivingly arm-twisting me into admission, it is a cessation from relational exchanges.

I sometimes think that depression is a type of cruelty I subconsciously direct towards myself in retaliation to the cruelties and emotional insults I endured from others across my lifetime who were incredibly important to me. Depression, in these moments, is anger with its tongue cut out. It is a form of misguided resistance. It is a resistance to participate in anything and everything outside of me. It is a detachment from the nurture of relationships because there is hopelessness in the aftermath of their culmination. 

Stirling was, is, not an escape. It is a return. As with everything else in my life, my arrival to the University of Stirling was fraught with hiccups and roadblocks. I arrive outside of the usual semester. There is solitude. There is aloneness. I have access to a lot of books. I decide to not read “writing” books. Instead, I start reading “Folkbiology” on a whim. It analyses the rules and rituals of commonplace biological taxonomy juxtaposed against scientific classification. It explores people’s everyday understanding of the biological world — how they perceive, categorise, and reason about living kinds. The study of folkbiology not only sheds light on human nature, it may ultimately help us make the transition to a global economy without irreparably damaging the environment or destroying local cultures. In a section detailing Itzaj Mayan folkbiological taxonomy, I was struck by the discovery of how “mushrooms” (“xikin~che’, tree-ear) have “no heart” as per Mayan idiom. They take life away from their hosts and are not counted among the living eve though they are “alive”. Depression is my mushroom. It becomes my “ear” and my “eyes”, it takes over all my sensory experientiality, saps me of my nourishment in order to maintain itself.

Illustrator and writer Mari Andrew calls depression “jet lag of the soul”. Arriving in Scotland on a Charles Wallace scholarship during the perfect spring, I slept for 2 straight days barely waking up for meals. Unusual for me who doesn’t experience jet lag generally. I realised my tiredness was something of a legacy burden which I fought myself to balance even if it quite literally landed me with a slipped disc. The pandemic depleted me of my fawning resilience. I was forced to see and feel myself as human. Stirling is almost nightless. Unlike the glittering motherboard of Mumbai’s expressways and bylanes that contrast against the pitch black midnight,  summer nights in this part of the world remain bright and light-infused till 10:00 PM or sometimes, even later. 

My “mushroom” was dried out by this heat and light back home. The geographical distance from the focal point of my life’s most traumatising experiences meant it was no longer allowed to grow roots inside the porous membranes of my sensory perception. I failed my first hike but didn’t find myself collapsing in self-doubt. I realised I can’t do inclines at the same rate as before because my body is simply unable to function in the same way. For the first time, in a long time, I didn’t equate acceptance with defeat.

Walking through a Scottish village, picking raspberries with a colleague who pointed out how her teenage daughter calls a poem “a ruined song” making it open to interpretation and adaptive grace, I realised that all this insistence on life as a collection of “skills” can sometimes be the precise barrier from viewing life as a series of chance encounters where your skills might be useful once in a while but even when they are lacking, the lack isn’t a definition, it is a direction. There is a possibility of return.

My colleague at the University mentioned how she is not a prime candidate for strenuous hikes but her husband and kids love them. She pointed out that her injuries take a lot longer to heal than theirs. It was interesting to think of her perceived “lack of strength” for a hike as an adaptive response to her body’s natural slowness in healing from woundings. It was almost preventive; a type of safeguarding. She was excellent at swimming long distances at her own pace. The water, she murmured, was more forgiving.

In the writing workshop I conducted at the university, one of the student participants is a 60 years old woman; a farmer with regal silver hair and an affinity for silk print skirts who is now fulfilling her life-long goal of “staying close to the arts” , educated others in the class about why the oystercatchers were noisier during this month. Apparently, their hatchlings had emerged and the gulls were circling them in all their predatory fervour. A group of oystercatchers is called a “parcel” and these parcels are at their loudest best to ward off predators against their little ones who resemble grey balls of fur. The parcel surveys the entire area in order to protect their chicks. Collective responsibility for collective safety. It does take a village, after all.

On a grey morning, I could feel like I was at the brink of a surrender to depression again. I ran to the exceptionally well-stocked library at the University and picked out a bunch of books to browse through. I was convinced my focus would dissipate but I wanted a distraction in lieu of people. My attention held onto the hand rails of those pages. I was still restless, I flipped through pages of 5 different books but slowly a sense of peace started to descend. The books, in the beginning, felt like a parcel of loudmouth oystercatchers. A calculated cacophony. Signalling safety. After a few hours, I moved to the speaking section of the library where some students were ideating their projects, thesis et al. There was laughter, excitement, curiosities and debates. I was a silent witness. My finger rested on a line by Cynthia Ozick where she calls an essay a “fireside thing, not a conflagration or a safari.”

Very often the way out of a depressive episode is conveyed as some explicit door you can’t miss. I have found that this is usually not the case with me. Depression taught me to be afraid of my emotional states, to distrust their expanse out of a fear of drowning. To walk through this world with my eyes and ears closed to its existence because my sensitivity was to be interpreted as my sabotage.

In Airthrey pond, the ducks fling themselves into the vast emotionality of waters against which their diminutive shapes are like flicked stones. They chart the immensity and turbulence collectively. They have marked the areas in which they congregate with each other, bury their heads in a nest of their own wings and go to sleep without fearing the outside. My person back home writes to me in Hindi –

आजकल तकरीरों से तस्वीरें बनायीं जाती हैं

I leave it (and the rest of my time at Stirling) largely untranslated.