Undefeated

It’s the 19th of October, 1992, Calcutta. It’s late. People have been celebrating Diwali all evening. Shells of firecrackers are strewn across the streets. A pall of smoke hangs in the air. Oil lamps are slowly dying out. A Military Doctor’s pregnant wife has been rushed to the Presidency Nursing Home. He is in Bangalore doing his M.D and can’t make it in time for the birth. The rest of the family is terrified. She’s gone into labour and her condition is critical. She has malaria and a 107 degree fever. There’s no anaesthesiologist available. The baby was due in November and is arriving a month early. The mother’s amniotic sack has dried up and the baby’s chances of survival are negligible. In fact, the OB/GYN straight up tells the family that he may be able to save the mother but not the baby.

Bullshit, the grandmother tells him. She’s not ready to give up on her daughter and her only grandchild. Save them. Save them both. Otherwise I’ll sue you.

The threat works. By some miracle, the mother and the baby survive. The baby has to be given something like 25 injections so she can make it. She makes it.

That was my best friend by the way. Shreya Chakraborty. Or Chacks as I like to call her.

Plump and dusky, with a cherubic face, expressive brown eyes and lush black hair, she’s a fairly attractive Bong. No, not what you smoke weed with, I meant she’s a typical Bengali. She loves fish, has an opinion on everything, is an incredibly good hostess and you can often hear her before you see her.

Shreya and I go way back. Our mothers told us that we first met when we were in kindergarten and promptly became archenemies. Neither of us remembers this, but we do remember meeting again when we were 11 and bonding instantly. We lost touch after that but when we were 15 we tracked each other down via social media. By 18, we’d become best friends. I even interviewed her for a YouTube segment on life in Civil Court. Among other things, we talked about the Court’s jurisdiction, the procedure of changing your name and filing an FIR online. At one point, I asked her what I was supposed to do if I was ever arrested for anything. What would you be arrested for? She asked me, raising one eyebrow. Murder, I said. I could’ve said theft or bigamy which are far more likely, but I said Murder. Shreya chuckled and then proceeded to instruct me on my rights, unfazed.

Shreya has been practising for about 2 years. She hopes to gain enough experience in litigation to eventually become independent as long as she can get a good client base. She hasn’t had an easy time of it. Litigation is a hard profession and the competition is cut-throat. There are too many Law graduates and very few job opportunities. At the beginning of our conversation, she jokingly mentioned her back-up plan of starting a travelogue in case Law didn’t work out.

There’s some family baggage that Shreya brings with her as well. When she was 16, she lost her Grandmother, the same one who had fought with the Doctors. Then at 17, she lost her Aunt to Cancer. Bereft of his wife and daughter, her Grandfather died soon after. Her Aunt’s husband has now remarried. The Aunt was survived by one daughter, who’s studying engineering now and has been on medication for the most part. Shreya’s own father suffers from Type II Diabetes, a condition that has gotten progressively worse as he’s grown older. He’s now retired from the Air Force and wants to return to Calcutta to set up his own clinic. Her younger brother is 19. He’s a bright, sweet boy, a football fanatic and an aspiring doctor.

We did a telephonic interview on Sunday; she has a very hectic schedule at Court and she just moved to a new apartment. Things are uncertain for her right now. The family has been through a lot.

I believe the idea to interview her came to me when we started discussing our mental conditions: Shreya has been struggling with Depression while I have been suffering from PTSD. I was the one who convinced her to see a therapist.

I think before we start the interview I have to tell everyone that I call you Chacks and you call me Thaps.

(Laughs) Yes. I don’t know when that started but that’s what our Dads were called in the Air Force. It’s weird right?

I want to talk about law for a bit before I get into the really heavy shit. You’ve been working in Civil Court and you’ve got a mixed bag: Eviction notices, land disputes, money suits, nuisance, negligence etc etc. Which ones are your favourite to take on?

Partition cases are a lot of fun. You learn a lot actually. I know this is going to sound strange but I love Muslim clients because Hanafi law is so beautifully complex. It takes ages to figure out what belongs to whom. I have to study a lot, but I think it’s the most interesting. We have one Muslim client who has like 8 cases going on at the same time.

Do you think it’s hard to get into litigation when you don’t have any contacts? Are Pune Courts easy to work in or is it mostly a grind?

I don’t know how to say this because I don’t want to offend anyone, but the truth is Pune is not as welcoming to outsiders as it once was. I’m not a local. I don’t speak the language. I’ve lived here for a long time but it’s quite plain that I’m not from here. Pune has a very conservative community and people judge you. It’s not easy to get a job under those circumstances but I’m incredibly lucky to have found a very good senior to work under. My training has been fantastic. It is definitely a grind, but I think litigation in general is tough, so it’s not just Pune.

You started therapy this week. How are you feeling? Was it like how they show it in the movies- beige couch, beige walls, beige coffee table and a beige therapist?

Is that what your therapist is like? (Giggles) No, mine is this very sweet woman. She has a house and she’s converted part of it into a clinic. It’s maybe a 5-minute walk from my apartment. I’ve done two sessions so far. In the first one I wasn’t so sure what was going on. She was very kind but she had to tell me that I’m hyperactive so she can’t use CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) on me. What I’m really glad about is that she didn’t put me on medication right away. That’s stupid, when they do that. “Oh you’re feeling sad? Right! Here are some drugs that’ll basically switch off your brain.” But my therapist really knows what she’s doing. We’re trying out something called EMDR right now. Have you heard of that?

I have! I heard about it on a podcast. Isn’t that something you do for serious trauma?


Yes! Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing. It’s about using your own eye movement to help recall disturbing events from your life. My therapist is going really deep with this.

It isn’t easy for anyone to accept that they have Depression. We say we’re feeling low, but after a certain point it becomes a constant state of mind. When did you finally realise what was going on?

I think I’ve had Depression for about a decade. Yeah…. since I was about 16 or so I know I’ve been feeling not quite myself. I’ll be fine mostly and then something will happen and I won’t be able to deal with it and it’s like someone has pulled a thread and everything has unravelled. I just fall apart. I have no confidence and I’ve always had low self-esteem. I go into this bog of negativity and I just sink. And then sometimes, I get suicidal. Then I cry so much that I get tired and go to sleep. It’s a black hole. I can’t even get up in the morning. I remember talking to you about this a lot and you’d just started therapy and you were telling me how much of a difference it had made. It got me thinking…..could it actually work? Could I actually stop feeling so shitty about myself?

What do you think actually triggered it? How far back can you look and say, yep that was it. That was the thing that fucked me up?

That was when I had my first heartbreak. The first time I fell in love.

(Brief silence)

You’ve gotta give me more than that. 

(Laughs) Ok so seriously? We were 16 and we had this very big group of friends while we were posted to the same airbase. We went to the same school and everything. And there was this one guy, that I absolutely, madly, truly fell in love with. Everyone knew it by the way, including him. We had this friend in common and he actually had a crush on her and she asked him out when she found out. And then she came to my house and she was gushing about how happy she was and if I was cool with all of it.

OK let me stop you for a second. Are you talking about who I think you’re talking about? Is this the girl who calls herself an actor but she was fired from a television show because she couldn’t actually act?

(Laughs) Yes that’s the one. I’m not one to bear grudges but there’s a reason I don’t talk to her. Anyway, so I told her- yeah cool it’s totally fine I’m OK with it- and she started dating him. Then a few months later he comes to me, crying and all and tells me she’s broken up with him. Apparently her father didn’t approve of it or something and now this guy is absolutely devastated. So obviously, being a good friend, I comfort him and I even go to her house and tell her that she should give him another chance.

You’re such a good human being that I want to throw something at you.

I know. He totally friend-zoned me after that. They never got back together and he never saw me as anything other than a friend. In fact, once, he said he saw me more as a sister and that he could never see me any other way.

What a dick. Can I tell you something? This guy’s a dick.

The funny thing is, we’re still good friends. He even apologised to me later. We’re still in touch. But it was just one of those things that made me realise that I’ll never be good enough. The thing you have to know is that it was a very bad phase for me. I’ve always been chubby, dark and not very bright. I think it started in school: I was terrible at Maths. In India, if you don’t get Maths then you’re stupid. I’ve grown up hearing how stupid I am. So I’ve ended up having this really skewed perception of myself.

As if that weren’t enough your mother lost her sister and both her parents within a span of 2 years. So your social life wasn’t great and neither was your family life. Do you look back and think that was really traumatic for you? How did your mother cope with that?

My mother’s an incredibly strong woman, but that broke her. I used to wake up in the middle of the night and I’d see her crying. All I could do was try and console her. We still haven’t wrapped our minds around it, how it all happened like that. I think the only way she got through it was to take care of me and my brother because he was very young at the time. So we really needed her. She’s not the same anymore, obviously, death has changed her. But I think in her own way she’s accepted it and moved on. We know we’ll always have their blessings with us.

Do you believe that they’re still with you?

I do. I try to pay my respects to them by following the things they taught me. My grandfather taught me to not be rigid about religion and to help those in need. He also taught me the joys of a simple life. My grandmother was the reason I made it at all, without her I wouldn’t be here. She always told me to be strong. My Aunt, I really loved her. She was very elegant. She showed me the value of kindness, compassion and forgiveness. I also get my madness for lipstick, jewellery and home decor from her. So I think when I follow what they taught me, they continue to live. I believe they’ll always watch over us.

You believe there’s something out there, beyond death?

Absolutely. If we didn’t believe that, how could we possibly go on? We all need to have faith.

Your father has diabetes. I know a lot of people will be able to relate to that. But for those who don’t know, what is it like to be diabetic? How do you take care of him?

He was diagnosed with Diabetes in 1998. So I’ve grown up watching what kind of life that is. He can’t eat any sweets, obviously, but occasionally he might sample a treat. A year back, he started losing sensation in his feet. Then this year he had to have a cataract operation. He’s very prone to anxiety. If I’m Depressed, he’s Anxious with a capital A. My Dad was pretty normal when I was growing up but now, well, he’s different.

I remember you telling me once that you had to take him to the ER because he hadn’t realised he’d cut himself?

Oh yeah. A few years back he was in the bathroom and he slipped and fell and cut his chin on a bucket. He didn’t think it was major but it kept bleeding. Diabetic people can have very thin blood so it wasn’t clotting and he bled a lot. Then I took him to the ER and it was taken care of. This is normal life for us now. Diabetes is a slow-killer. It’s only going to get worse.

You’ve talked about how you don’t think you’re very smart. You’ve struggled with weight issues for a long time. You don’t think you’re attractive. You keep putting up pictures of kittens on your WhatsApp and I always beg you to put a picture of yourself because I think you’re lovely. Can you see why you have low-self esteem?

This is something I talked with my therapist about just the other day. She said my sense of worthlessness comes right from the womb. Because it was such a difficult birth and because I was as good as dead and everybody thought ‘oh she’s not going to make it’, I think I carry with myself this guilt of not truly belonging. Like I don’t deserve to be here. Like I’m not worth it. It was a revelation when she told me that.

How do people- friends, family, colleagues, strangers- compound the problem of Depression? Do you find yourself wishing sometimes that people were kinder and maybe a little more sensitive?

At the end of the day, people are people. 99% of the time, they’re not nice. Deal with it. Life isn’t fair. I think the only thing you can control is how you respond to people, not what they say to you. I’m a very spiritual person and I think if you are on your own team, you don’t need anyone to cheer you on.

We’ve both been obsessing over Mark Manson’s book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. I think that book has transformed me. Have you also started figuring out that we are actually responsible for our own shit?

Absolutely. That’s the epiphany I’ve had as well. This novel concept that I have to be accountable for how I make myself feel. When I started therapy, I told my therapist, look, think of me not like one person but two people on your couch. I want to get to know myself. I want a better relationship with myself. Try and tell me how I can become more….more….whole again. I’m broken and I want to piece myself together.

Do you have a happy place Chacks? Where do you go when you’re feeling lonely? 

I have to tell you I’m in a really bad place right now. So it’s ironic you’re asking me that. I do have some quickies that can cheer me up though. (Thinks for a moment) So this is going to sound weird, but I stalk Owls. I’m totally obsessed with them. Stand-up comedy is also pretty great. Just go online and find a good comedian and watch their set. At least you can laugh. I’m also into esoteric jewellery. I have a collection of rings that I absolutely adore. So it’s good to have a hobby. I stare a lot at the colour purple. It just makes me feel better. Also I’ll keep saving pictures of elephants, pandas and puppies on my phone. Music is also really relaxing. But in the end what works best is sleep. Just sleep tonight and things will be better in the morning. At least that’s what I tell myself every day. 

Before I conclude this interview, there’s something I’d like to tell you about Shreya. Shreya primarily functions on two levels: Either she’s riding a wave of frenzy or she’s drowning in a torrent of self-doubt. So it won’t come as a surprise when I tell you that it wasn’t easy to get her to do the interview. Her low self-worth is rooted so deeply in her psyche, that you have to convince her she’s worth it until you’re blue in the face. Her therapist put it quite succinctly. When she’s hyper, she cannot make you understand what she means and she cannot understand what you mean. It’s the main reason why I asked her to go for therapy, because I knew it would be impossible for her to figure out what was going on in her head.

Ordinarily, our personalities would clash. She’s frenetic while I’m calm. But in spite of her idiosyncrasies there’s an anecdote that I will recount here, which will explain why our relationship has blossomed.

When we were 11, our fathers were posted to the same Air Force Station. My father was the CFI (Chief Flight Instructor) and her father was the MO (Medical Officer). I’d arrived before Shreya, so it fell to me to introduce her to all the kids. Everyone liked her and everyone knew she and I were buddies. A girl from our group decided to cause some trouble and went and told her that I’d said some really nasty things about her behind her back. Being naive, Shreya believed it and stopped speaking to me. I’m sure she was very hurt. I tried telling her that if I wanted to say something mean, I’d say it to her face, not to her backside.

It didn’t break the ice. Shreya went home after playtime and I was sure that she’d never speak to me again. That evening, my mother took me along to visit a couple that lived in the same neighbourhood as hers. While my mother was talking to them in the living room and having some tea, I was sitting and watching TV in their bedroom. The doorbell rang. The lady of the house said that Shreya had heard I’d come over and wanted to see me. Without any awkwardness whatsoever she told me that her mother had told her off her for listening to idle gossip and snubbing a good friend. She apologised for believing the rumours and treating me badly. I was very touched. I’d never been offered an olive branch before. As an act of goodwill, I told her I’d been watching a horror movie and now I was terrified of going to pee alone. Would she stand outside my bathroom door and keep the bogeyman away?

Don’t ask me why I thought that was a good way to bury the hatchet. She’d come to apologise, not to watch me pee. But 11 year olds are not that bright.

So there we were, in someone else’s house. I was taking a pee, she was guarding my door and at one point she started giggling like mad and had to stuff her fingers into her ears so she wouldn’t hear me.

15 years later, we’re still going strong. Slightly worse for wear, but still together.

And I’m pretty sure if I’m ever afraid of going to pee alone, Shreya will stand outside my door and keep the bogeyman away.

{Author’s Note: If you’re depressed and need to talk to someone, here’s the AASRA 24×7 Helpline: 91-22-27546669 }

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