New Age Islam
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Spiritual Meditations ( 1 Sept 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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From ‘Mad Man’ to ‘Mendicant’

By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam

1 September, 2012

(The Story of a 30-Year Old Man As Narrated to Yoginder Sikand)

Every individual is unique, a bearer of a unique story, the story of how he coped with life, of his joys and his sorrows, of his dreams and his failures. You might think that only powerful, famous or rich people can write their stories or that only their stories are worth reading. But that’s not at all true. The story of the life of every person, no matter how insignificant you may think he is, is worth listening to, for who knows what you may learn from it?

I am a failure, an utterly miserable failure, and so you might not want to hear my story. What can you gain from it, you might ask yourself. Yet, I request you to listen to it, because from it you can learn how strange life can be, and how, despite all the many trials I have faced, I continue to survive. But even if you don’t want to listen to my story that’s fine by me, because I am narrating my story mainly for myself—so that I can read it over and over again whenever I lose hope, which is very often—in fact almost every day.

I was born in a middle-class family in a small town in eastern India, the youngest of three children. My father, a graduate in Chemistry, worked in a factory. My mother is the daughter of a zamindar. Her family was richer than my father’s, and that was one reason why she and my father didn’t get along too well later on in their marriage.

I don’t remember much of my childhood, but I think I was happy till I passed the sixth grade. I remember my mother making cakes and rice pudding on my birthday and inviting the neighbourhood kids home to celebrate. But things changed after the sixth grade, when my family left the town where I was born and shifted to a village near where my maternal grandparents lived. My father bought a farm there and began cultivating it.

It was a small village, and the environment was new for me. I was pulled out of the English-medium school where I had been studying and was admitted to the local vernacular-medium government school. I didn’t know the vernacular language too well, although it was meant to be my mother-tongue. That was the main reason why I wasn’t able to perform well at school. This really bothered my parents a lot. They didn’t seem, or want, to understand why I was doing badly at my studies. They thought I was dumb and lazy, and so they began beating me. Soon, it became like a daily ritual. It started with my mother, who, for some reason I can’t fathom, developed a deep aversion to me. My father was quite loving towards me but I don’t know how my mother managed to poison his mind against me. And soon I began being beaten and shouted at by both of them for every small thing. If I dropped a glass and it broke, I would be hit. If I was late from school, I would be hit. And my parents would also fight with each other, as if they were born enemies.

Because I was not doing well at my studies my parents began controlling my every action, thinking that in this way I would be forced to focus on my books. They wouldn’t let me play with the village children, and so I grew up with hardly any friends and without the confidence to face others and interact with the outside world. They wouldn’t let me watch TV. They would lock the room where the TV set was kept and allowed only my sister and brother to use it. If they went out of the house they would even lock the fridge so that I wouldn’t be able to take any food out of it. Can you imagine! Sometimes, I’d be so hungry that I would have to steal a bit of rice and mix it with salt and eat it. At meal times, if I wanted a second helping I would be refused, and my parents would say that I was greedy. They would sometimes send me out to the market on errands but kept a strict watch on the time I took. They even calculated how much time I would need to walk to the market, purchase something and then walk back home, and if I exceeded that time I would be in for a beating and they would shout at me, in front of my siblings, telling me that I was good for nothing at all. Seeing my parents behaving like this, my brother and sister also began treating me in the same way.

With no one at all at home to love me and to understand what I was going through, and with no friends at all, I became a really frightened child. The only ‘person’ I found love in was my dog Jimmy. I would hold him in my arms and, putting my head on his stomach, I would weep for hours on end.

Is it, then, at all surprising that by the time I entered the eighth grade I began fearing that I was going mad? Yes, that is when my ‘madness’, if you can call it that, started. I couldn’t stand the way I was treated any more. I began revolting against my family. If they shouted at me or beat me, I would start throwing things about–plates and glasses and things like that—and several times I took an axe and chopped down a door or two. Once, when I was in the twelfth grade, by which time I was taking medicines on the advice of a psychiatrist, things got really so bad that I picked up a puppy that I had brought home and flung it against the wall. Blood dripped down the wall and the puppy’s body lay quivering on the floor till it breathed its last.

My parents really thought I had gone mad—that’s what they told me. And the more they said so, the more I thought, ‘Yes, I am mad! Raving mad!’ Whose fault was it, I want to know? If I had gone ‘mad’, it was because of the way my parents, and, copying them, my siblings, treated me. But they never thought of it in that way. They didn’t want to recognize their role in making me what I became. Because of my deepening psychological crisis I began to perform even worse at school, and that only further enraged my parents and made them even more convinced than they already were that I was ‘mad’.

It was when I was studying in the twelfth grade that I first attempted suicide. I went to the local medicine shop and asked for poison. Of course, the shop-keeper refused, and so from somewhere else I procured a whole lot of anti-malarial tablets, which I consumed. I felt I was about to die, but some people found me and rushed me to the hospital and I survived. My trauma continued thereafter unabated, however. Often, when my parents would beat me and shout their heads off, I would slash my arms with a knife till blood began to gush. I still have the marks on my arms which I could show you if you don’t believe me.

Being brought up in a home like mine, you can understand how relieved I was when, after the twelfth grade, I was admitted to a college and began staying in a students’ hostel. I felt so free for the first time in many, many years, and a lot happier, too. I didn’t make too many friends there—maybe because as a child I was strictly controlled by my parents, who didn’t encourage me to interact with other children—but I was glad to be out of the house. Most evenings I would go to the nearby temple, which was built on a hillock, and would sit there, enjoying the peace and the breeze and watching people perform puja.

But, as you know, all good things must come to an end. When I was in the second year of my BA, some boys falsely accused me of stealing someone’s mobile phone. They contacted the police and complained about it. I was so frightened that I ran away from the hostel. I went to a shop and bought a can of pesticide. I took a gulp of it and my head began to reel. I was about to finish off the bottle when some people caught me and rushed me off to a hospital. And so, my second attempt to end my life was aborted.

After this event, I shifted to another hostel, thinking I would be happier there. But, no! I was a quiet child, who didn’t want to trouble others and also didn’t like others troubling me. But you know how mean some boys can be, what malicious delight they get from picking on boys they consider as softies and sissies. That’s what some boys in the hostel—seniors, my class-mates and even juniors—began doing to me. They stripped me stark naked and then, with a stick, began playing with my penis. ‘Little banana! Little banana for sale!’ they laughed. They even took video clips of me in the nude and threatened to show it to the girls in my class. They didn’t do that, but they did circulate the video among the other boys. You can’t imagine how ashamed and scared I was. They didn’t stop at this, though. They would throw garbage on my bed and also broke my cycle. And, like my parents, they would tell me that I was mad.

I couldn’t complain to anyone about their behavior. I was too frightened to. What, I feared, if the boys learned that I had told on them? They would be sure to make things worse for me. And so, I kept silent, even as my inner trauma worsened, which took a major toll on my performance in my studies. One day, things got so bad that I told my parents about what I was going through. And do you know what they did about it? Nothing at all!

I really had no hope left. I wanted to put an end to this miserable existence of mine. Once, I managed to get some thirty anti-depressant tablets from somewhere and thought I would commit suicide. Before I died I wanted to speak, for the very last time, to my parents and tell them why I had decided to kill myself. I called them up and told them I was going to commit suicide. And then I consumed the tablets. My parents, who were then in the village, rang up the hostel authorities, who rushed me to a hospital. I was in a critical condition. My pulse-rate when I was semi-conscious was just around 20 beats a minute. I stayed in the hospital for three or four days.

Somehow—and it must really have been some sort of miracle—I passed the BA exam. I didn’t do brilliantly but at least I was now a BA. I didn’t want to study further and so decided to look for a job. I didn’t want to stay at home, of course, because the situation there was awful and yet my parents hadn’t changed their ways, and so I left for a city in the south where my brother was working. I took up a low-paying job in a company in that city, sharing an apartment with my brother. I began sending money to my parents every month, hoping that by doing so they might change their behavior towards me. But, that was not to happen.

As I earlier mentioned, my siblings had learned from our parents to consider me ‘mad’ and ‘useless’. My brother thought I was a burden, and he treated me very shoddily. I was earning money, some of which I sent to my parents and gave some to my brother, but that didn’t change his attitude towards me. He never spoke kindly to me. It was always in a gruff, angry way, as if I were a criminal. And, like my parents, he would go on and on at me, accusing me of being a ‘failure’.

I couldn’t hold on to a job for too long in the city, and kept changing one job after another. I think the trauma I’ve been through all these years has made me so unstable that I just can’t handle being in one place for long. I always want to escape. That’s what I’ve become—a miserable escapist—but can you blame me? And, then, the trauma I’ve been through has had such a horrendous impact on my mind that I can’t seem to perform well at any job, which is why my various employers have found some reason or the other to force me to leave the jobs I’ve tried my hand at.

Since I wasn’t at all happy living with my brother, and also because I found myself incapable of holding a job, I had no idea whatsoever as to what to do with my life. Even in trying to end my life—three times—I had been a complete failure. They say that when people are really down and out, when they can no longer function on their own strength, when they have no inner resources left to face the world, they often turn to God or religion. In many cases this is a genuine spiritual quest, but for some it may just be a crutch to hang on to.

And that’s what happened to me. One day, I was surfing the Internet and learned about a hermitage. It was associated with a religious tradition very different from that with which my family is associated. I saw pictures of hermits wearing their simple robes and performing worship. How happy they seemed! How peaceful they looked! And so, I got in touch with a person at the hermitage. He had recently left his family, renounced the world and become an ascetic.

The hermit told me about what life was like in the hermitage. It seemed so appealing. Puja and meditation through much of the day, and also social service. And then there’s no insecurity about where you’ll get your next meal from and where you’ll sleep, because that’s all provided for by devotees. And so, I decided I would become a hermit. I had read stories of hermits, one look at whom had transformed sinners into saints, and I thought to myself, ‘Maybe this will happen to me, too, if I become a hermit. Maybe in this way I will find happiness at last.’

That is how I joined the hermitage. I was given a new name on becoming a hermit and was given a set of robes to wear. To be honest, I knew next to nothing about the beliefs of the religious tradition that the hermitage was associated with. But, still, I liked the people and the place. They seemed friendly and kind. Life in the hermitage was simple. What a contrast to the world outside, in which sensitive people like me have little or no chance of survival!

There was not much to do in the hermitage. Everyone got up early in the morning and then went to a large hall for meditation and puja. Then, we’d have breakfast, after which I was left to do pretty much what I wanted. I wasn’t really interested in doing anything major at all, so I would while away my time till the next meal, and from then to the evening meditation and puja, somehow or the other—chatting with the junior mendicants, reading some books, strolling around the hermitage and so on.

I stayed on in the hermitage for a few weeks. I rang up my brother and told him I was there, and he informed my parents. They were aghast when they heard of it. They thought I had betrayed the family by joining a religious order different from the tradition of our family. They insisted I should leave the hermitage and go back to my brother’s place and search for a job.

Now, as I said, I have never been allowed to take decisions concerning myself on my own. From childhood onwards, my parents decided everything for me, and I simply had to do as they said. That’s why I buckled under the pressure of my parents and quit the hermitage. I came back to my brother’s house, but, of course, I was not happy there. Nor could I find a job. And so, in a few weeks I came back to the hermitage. I have to say that the hermits were very kind to me when I returned. Not once did they scold me for having left the hermitage without their permission. They welcomed me back and I thought that this time it would be for good.

But you know how unstable my mind is. Maybe it’s the case with everyone that in a while we get fed up of being in one place, and where earlier we saw everything in a positive light we soon begin to find faults or even invent faults where they don’t exist. That’s what happened with me, too. I stayed in the hermitage for a month or so and then decided, once again, to leave. I heard of another hermitage, located in a distant village, and I decided to go there.

The hermits in this second hermitage were also very welcoming and trusting. They believed that I was serious about the spiritual quest, although, really, that wasn’t at all the reason I had sought their permission to stay with them. I needed to have my basic needs met and that’s basically why I came there. I was clearly aware that I had come there for a very wrong reason—after all, people should become hermits and live in a hermitage only if they are serious about realizing God or attaining liberation, which wasn’t at all the case with me.

I’m still at this other hermitage. It’s been over two months now since I joined. I had thought that on donning the robes of a hermit all the many thoughts that continued to haunt me would be set at complete rest. But, nothing of the sort has happened. I am just as miserable as before, and the storm of thoughts doesn’t seem to go away. Maybe I’ve fallen in love with my misery and don’t want to part from it. Maybe I’ve become so used to being miserable and pitying myself for so many years that I just can’t and don’t want to change. Even as I want to be happy, maybe inside I still want to be miserable.

I feel like a real hypocrite, and I know that I am misusing the hermit’s robe. I do feel bad that I am cheating the hermits here, who are so trusting and loving and genuine about their spiritual quest. When I step out of the hermitage, people, on seeing me in my robes, think I am a saint and bow low and reverentially fold their hands to greet me. How disgusted I feel about myself then only I know. I wish I could tell them, ‘Brother! I don’t need your respect. All I want is the joy that I experienced as a little child.’

I have nowhere else to go, and that’s really why I am continuing to stay in the hermitage. Where else will I get my basic needs met, and that, too, free of cost? Where else will I get the care, compassion and love that these hermits here extend to me? You may say that since I am educated (although not highly so) I should get some sort of job and lead a respectable existence instead of pretending to be a hermit and taking advantage of the kindness of the hermits among whom I live. You are right, in a way, but I don’t have any of my documents with me—not even my school certificates and identity card. These are all with my mother and brother, and they refuse to give them to me. They’ve very clearly told me, ‘We don’t want to see your face again. You are a pathetic loser. Never come back home.’ Since they won’t give me my documents, how can I get a job? Who will employ me, even as a home-help, if I don’t have any papers to prove who I am?

Someone suggested to me that I should take legal action against my family for refusing to give me my documents. But I simply can’t do that. You know, even though my family hates me, I still—and I don’t know why—love them in a way. I can’t ever think of dragging my parents to court. So, I guess I will stay on in this hermitage as long as I am allowed to, because I have no other choice.

It isn’t that my heart is here, though. I really wish I could leave this place. But one thing stops me: the reality that I have nowhere else to go. I wish I could find a job in a place where I can help people in distress, in no matter how humble a way. I’ll earn their blessings that way—maybe even just a smile—and that’s enough for me. But I don’t have any papers or certificates, as I said, so which organization will employ me? And, then, I have just a thousand-odd rupees with me, which isn’t at all enough to travel about and look for an organization that I could work with. I don’t even have a simple identity card, which you need if you are going to travel by train, so how can I ever get out of this hermitage?  

You might want to know what my life is like here in the hermitage. It’s almost as uneventful as in the previous hermitage where I lived. I have to do whatever the head of the hermitage says or else he’ll probably ask me to leave because he’ll then know that I am not sincere. I have to put on an immense act from morning to night, pretending as if I am really serious about the religious quest that the hermits here are expected to devote the rest of their lives to. I get up for the morning puja, which is done in a language I don’t know. I have memorized some of the lines, which I mechanically repeat. Then, there’s time for silent meditation. I haven’t been able to still my mind—which is what meditation is all about—and it keeps buzzing around all the while as I sit there pretending to be immersed in deep silence. Then, I go back to my room and read a bit or sleep or relax till breakfast. After that, I help out in the kitchen or go back to my bed or take a walk and chat with fellow mendicants. Sometimes, the hermits go out in a group to a villager’s house for puja, and I accompany them. Then, there’s evening puja and dinner, after which I go back to sleep.

So, as you can see, my life here is really quite uneventful. And I guess it will go on this way till I die or perhaps till I am told to quit this hermitage or till I am able to get my papers and certificates and then can finally leave and get a job somewhere.

You may say, ‘But you have to think about your future. You are so young—hardly thirty—and you just cannot give up on life like this.’ Honestly, I really don’t see much of a future for myself. Whenever I think of it I only see darkness all around. When I have no desire whatsoever to live, how can I think of a future, of a job and marriage and so on?

I can’t move a step forward on my own. I wish I had someone’s love, someone’s support, because I can’t do anything myself, so handicapped have I now become. I have lost all my ambitions. I feel I’ve lost my soul, too. It’s like as if I was about to write a major thriller but even before I could set my pen to paper the ink has all dried up. I’ve really been forced to surrender to destiny. Let it do whatever it likes with me, because I don’t have any strength left to fight anymore or even to think about what to do with myself. I’m a puppet whose strings are being pulled by some external power, and I can’t do anything about it.

One thing good has come out of all the trauma I’ve been through, though. And that is that the hatred I once harboured for my family for the way they treated me has gradually given way to a deep sadness. I used to really detest them, but now I don’t. I only feel sad that I didn’t get their love. I feel sad that I’m a loser, having lost among the most precious things one can have in life—a father’s love, a mother’s affection, a sister’s care and a brother’s support. I’ve lost all the dreams I had as a child, of becoming this, of doing that, in life. I even dreamt that I would grow up to financially support my parents and do whatever I could to make them happy—that was one major ambition that I had. But I’ve left my family now, not because I wanted to but because that’s what they wanted. I did so to make them happy and to relieve them of what they consider to be a burden, although it pains me greatly.

Now, only one dream remains—of meeting my parents for one, last time, even if they don’t want to meet me, and of seeing their smiling faces. In particular, I wish I could see my father just once, even if I have to disguise my face because he says he doesn’t want to ever see me again. And then, if my death comes it’s fine by me.

I can’t seem to stop asking myself, ‘Why did all this have to happen to me of all people? What crime have I done to merit this? Why did God allow this?’ After all, I’ve tried to be good and kind, and if there’s one thing I like doing it is to help people in distress. I don’t like harming others, so why have so many people harmed me? I know I can’t find answers to these questions, but, still, I can’t help asking them, over and over again, day in and day out. They say one’s fate in this life is shaped by the actions or karmas committed in one or the other of our innumerable previous lives. If that’s the case, maybe I did something really bad in some previous life for which I have had to face such trauma in this one. I don’t really know if this theory is true, but at least it helps me make some sense of my suffering.

You’ve very patiently listened to my miserable story, and I thank you profusely for it. I request you to ask yourselves the same questions that I can’t seem to stop asking myself: Why are family relations so complicated and tense-ridden? Why can’t parents treat children as unique individuals, rather than as their own private property? Shouldn’t parents be trained or counseled as to how to look after their children lovingly? Why is it so difficult for sensitive people to survive in this world? Why do they have to suffer so much, often for no fault of their own?