Culture & Society

Short Story: The Elusive Sense Of Being

Suvrat Arora writes a short story for Outlook on the theme of mental health, suicide, and societal perception.

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Little is it known that the week when God created the world, the Devil was not sitting idle. On the sixth remarkable day, God conjured breath into humans, and the Devil conjured the anti-human. But the term “anti-human” seemed derivative of God’s creation. Perhaps, the concerns of originality and the prospective abasement of being termed a plagiarist caused the Devil to rename it as Depression. 

Depression was an eternal hypnotic stare into the abyss. It was the venom that seeped in no time. Once bitten by its serpent, it morphed itself into a corpse under your bed you ought to hide. It annihilated the elusive sense of being. Once you lose it, you become foreign to yourself and a reintroduction is almost unattainable. Depression elicited actions contrary to life — it induced an urge to not move, an urge to not eat, and an urge to not breathe. 

The Women who wore White had come up with an impeccable idea to keep the children of the church away from the contamination of depression — they had simply banned it. A broad bulletin, thoughtfully named the ‘Journal of God’, hung in a sacred corner near the heart of the Lord. It enlisted, in big, assertive letters, the things children of the church were prohibited from: missing church services, use of profane language, and being depressed. Esther did not shudder a bit as he stared into the bulletin. It was a long stare into the void — almost hypotonic.

When Esther was 10 years old, he had once found the nerve to ask a Woman in White, “Why is being depressed not allowed in the Church?” A thousand expressions flashed across her face; the Woman in White finally settled with one of distress. She held Esther’s hand and took him to the room of prayers. They sat somewhere in the room. Where exactly? Esther does not remember now. But what Ester could never forget were the words that dripped from the tip of the Woman’s tongue. She said, masking all her distress, “Esther, those who spend time in carols, candles and cross — are guarded by the Lord’s holy sceptre. By that means, if depression finds shelter in your head, it signifies that you’ve let the Lord out of your mind —that your prayers lacked devotion— which is a sin, Esther. It is a sin to be depressed.” Esther could feel the blood in his body freeze. He did not fidget for a while — that day Esther decided that he would never be depressed.

The discourse of depression did not meet Esther for the next few years. Until the day he stood outside the room of reconciliation. He had always seen visitors enter the room with the priest — he knew they made confessions. But what kind of confessions can a man make at the feet of God? Does frolicking around in the yard at night qualify as a confession? Or should it be a grave killing to make it to the room? These questions flitted around his head like a family of moths. He put his ear close to the door with a formidable guilt. He could only hear sobs — a man crying. It was only then that he felt a hand on his shoulder. Esther knew it was one of the Women who wore White. They loomed all over the Church like spirits of the graveyard. They were everywhere —in the walls, windows, and flooring— like shapeshifters. He turned and asked her, "Is he depress…?"

Before the word could exit his mouth, the Woman in White gasped in haste, "The Lord hates it!"

“Just tell me, is this dep…,” Esther stopped midway himself. He struggled for another word for it. But language has a scarcity of alternates for words seldom used. 

“The inquisitiveness towards something is an early sign of its manifestation. One must take charge of curiosity; because when curiosity takes charge it unhinges the gates for Satan.”

Esther fell silent. 

Budge away now.” 

So he did.

But today, 17, staring at the bulletin, Esther was not curious. A tree had sprouted from his head inwards. Its branches flared in every bone of his body; roots entrenched deep in his mind — feeding on his thoughts. His brain felt amorphous and brittle. Nothingness grew inside him. Esther was cold. Esther was sweating. Every breath demanded effort and seemed illicit. In a riveting moment, Esther ceased to have authority over his body. Or perhaps, he began to gain a kind of authority he never had. He ran up the flight of stairs of his residence until he reached the terrace. By now the inertia in his feet was set. Esther ran at speed until his feet found no flooring beneath. 

A flock of Women in White screamed in perfect unison and dispersed before they gathered again. They knew that the serpent had bitten him. Or that he had let the serpent bite him. Whatever the case, the human in Esther could not battle the anti-human that seeped in.  

More than grief, the Women who wore White felt anxious. Once an example is set for a rule broken, it becomes a possibility. If one child had dared to be depressed — others might too. This is when the Women knew something needed to be done. They could not see the children collapse this way — just forbidding depression was futile.

The next day, towards the end of Esther's funeral, the sun rose again as it promised. The Women who wore White swelled with an eerie elation they ostensibly harboured in secrecy. They had come up with a solution that ensured Ester's fate never reiterated. The Journal of God was amended. The revised bulletin stood unveiled. It enlisted, in big, assertive letters, the things children of the church were prohibited from: missing church services, use of profane language, being depressed, and dying voluntarily.

(Suvrat Arora writes across genres. His works have appeared in The Quint, The Chakkar, and Borderless Journal.)

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