by Shahnaz Habib
One of my favourite things to do when I go home to Kerala is visit an Ayurvedic doctor. Ayurveda is an ancient medical science that originated in India. In America, Ayurveda is delicious-smelling creams at Whole Foods, plush spas, soy candles and massages in exotic sandy beaches that seem to exist only in travel magazines. In Kerala, Ayurveda is poor people’s medicine. It is wizened vaidyas in small, dark offices that smell of herbs and hard work. It is bitter brownish-black potions that you drink while pinching your nose to avoid smelling them. There are of course high-end resorts with tall walls that are laced with pieces of broken glass. But Ayurvedic clinics and hospitals tend to be matter-of-fact places where doctors tell you unpalatable truths. Over the years, I have heard some, and in this, its bleak view of life, Ayurveda is very much the fruit of Kerala soil. In my essay in AGNI 84, “A Letter to my Daughter About Palindromes,” I write about the rudeness of my mother-tongue, its can’t-do attitude, its tough love. When I visit Ayurvedic doctors, and they shake their heads and dispense their glum wisdom, I know I am home.
- Here is your medicine. A bitter potion for the morning and a very bitter potion for the evening. Do this for six months. Wash your feet with warm water twice a day. Avoid eggs and tomatoes. That’s the first phase of the treatment.
- You won’t be able to do it. You will eat tomatoes. I can just see from your face. You will not be cured.
- The face says everything. What you say is nothing compared to what your face shows. You think this is superstition. It is, in fact, a science.
- In the old days, the food was made at home, and the toilet was outside the house. Nowadays, the food is from outside and the toilet is inside the house.
- Yes, we have room for patients. But I am requesting you, unless you are seriously ill, don’t get admitted. There are thousands of people who are sicker than you. They need us. If you want a massage, go to a resort.
- This is what elephants eat in the forest when their stomach aches. They are smarter than us. If it is good for them, it is good for us.
- Yes, this oil smells. It has a special herb that can be harvested only once in six years. That’s if you can find it at that time—in the mountains. We do not ask such a herb to smell nice.
- This medicine will not work in America. It was meant to be used in the weather here. The weather is an important element of every cure.
- You want an appointment this Wednesday? Can you come at 3 AM?
- You think you are eating organic food. How can it be organic when so many people in the world cannot afford it? What is organic about that?
Why is such pessimism so medicinal? Several years ago, I was unemployed and some boy had broken my little heart and I was walking around the city feeling doomed in the way only twentysomethings can. Then one day, I was talking to a monk. We sat under a tree and I cried, “I just want to know that things are going to get better.”
“It will not get better.” he said. “This is how life goes. You suffer and you suffer. You might forget this boy and you might get a job, but then you will suffer about something else. Life is just an endless series of suffering. Do not expect it to get better.”
And immediately I felt better. Immediately. What? I didn’t have to be happy? I didn’t have to get better? Sadness and suffering is normal? So there was nothing wrong with my suffering? My monk friend was not lamenting that life was suffering. He was simply stating it as a fact. The tree we were sitting under, the bench we were sitting on, the green coat I was wearing, his ochre robes, the suffering in life: these were simply realities, to be accepted. It was not his job to make these facts more palatable.
When pessimism becomes the new optimism, you stop expecting life to treat you like a server you will be tipping heavily at the end of the meal. Instead of asking “why me?,” you start asking “why not me?” You feel the softness of the ground underneath; you notice that the river of melancholy is always flowing nearby.
But sometimes, the tyranny of niceness can mask this perspective. The banality of “It’s going to get better,” “I am fine, how are you?” “Everything happens for a reason,” and “This is great!” can make us forget that every little joy has to be deftly fished out of the river of melancholy as it flows by you quickly. This is why I savor the loving rudeness of Malayalam. When I visit Ayurvedic doctors, I know I will not hear polite nothings. When the person you are talking to does not feel obliged to be likable, your interaction with them can become more honest, more intimate. And so in my own writing, I try to resist the temptation to be likable. I am curious about the relationship that opens up between a writer and a reader when the writer’s goal is not niceness, likability, happiness.
A few weeks ago, during the Malayali harvest festival of Onam, I heard about a Kerala restaurant in the outskirts of New York, where they were serving the sadya, the traditional banana leaf feast. I gathered some friends, persuaded the only one among us with a car to drive, and off we went. I spent the whole ride worrying if the food would be any good, if this Wednesday afternoon wild goose chase into the suburbs would be a waste of time. When I walked into the restaurant, the chairs were arranged in a long row (as they would be at a sadya at a temple or wedding in Kerala), not facing each other the way it is in restaurants. “Can you rearrange those chairs around a table for my group?” I asked the server in Malayalam.
“Absolutely not,” he replied.
I knew then that the meal would be delicious.
Shahnaz Habib has been published in Agni, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Elsewhere, the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, the Caravan, Afar, and other magazines. Shahnaz is the founding editor of Laundry, a literary magazine about fashion. Born and raised in Kerala, India, Shahnaz works as a press officer for the United Nations and as a creative writing instructor for Gotham Writers’ Workshop as well as Bay Path University. She has received awards and residencies from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Ford Foundation, I-Park Foundation, and the British Council. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.