POSTCARD 150: Delhi: To start with, it felt like a small insect bite. The painful part was just out of my vision on the back of my shoulder – impossible to see it in the mirror, so I ask Jiab to come and take a look. She studies the mark on my shoulder and says, “it’s a…” (pause), silence for a moment – looking at it thoughtfully, “It’s a…” (can’t think of the English word). I find a small hand mirror and try to see my reflection in the large bathroom mirror. Twisted around, contorted and awkward, but still can’t see it so I ask Jiab to tell me what she thinks it looks like. She says, “peempo” (pimple) her voice is so close to my ear it’s like she’s shouting. Then, silence, focused on trying to squeeze it with fingertips… doesn’t answer my questions because one can’t squeeze pimples and speak English at the same time. I can hear her holding her breath, small sounds of effort: mmmnh… but I find it’s too painful; get the phone out of my pocket, go to the camera app and ask her to take a photo of it. She takes a close-up: click! Shows it to me… oh, I see! It’s not “peempo” (pimple), singular; it’s pimples, plural. Many of them… and then I’m aware they reach up under my hair too.
We go to see the doc, show him the unpleasant skin rash and tell him about the headache and neck pain all the time. He takes one look and says: herpes zoster virus, it’s Shingles – Jiab says chingo… in Thai they call it ngoo sawatdi (snake says hello again). The doc tells me it’s the chicken pox virus we get when we’re children that remains dormant in the body for decades, then “wakes up,” or reactivates. Why? Maybe because I just came back from four weeks in Scotland, fresh hilltop air, and must have lost the immunity to infection I’d acquired as a long-term resident foreigner in South Asia. Who knows… it just comes back.
This is how it is for me now, headache, pulsating on and off, all over the right side of the head and neck. Doc gave me ant-viral tabs, ointment and pain med, saying it’s a neural reaction to the skin lesions, and (interestingly) the nerves below the surface of the skin tell the brain there’s pain inside the body. This sets off major alarm systems and you feel it deep inside. I have to get around the fact it’s telling me all the wrong things about the location of the pain – stated also with a kind of urgency, like, Pay attention! This is serious… so I’m starting to worry it’s a brain tumor. And it’s not that, it’s actually in the upper skin layers.
Sometimes I sit on the meditation cushion and wait for quietness to come; thinking and thought has its own momentum, takes time to settle down, then the openness to the pain experience is just totally there for a moment. There’s the default sense of self: hey, this must be happening to ‘me!’ then an initial frantic search for an alternative that runs on automatic takes it out of the normal context. Mind does a bypass, and for an instant the pain is not happening to anyone – there’s no ‘me’ engaging with these thoughts. The awareness that a thought was just there, but now nothing remains except the awareness that I can’t remember what it was… and the sensation of pain, like the hummmm of an old fluorescent tube light that needs to be replaced.
‘The mind is the canvas on which our thoughts are projected and is part of consciousness. Our body is a holographic projection of our consciousness.’ [B. M. Hegde, cardiologist]