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“Hello! you have reached Lifeline Counselling Services Limited, my name is Janki, how may I help you?,” said a chirpy female voice in a sing song, at the other end of the line. Anu jerked her ear away from her phone. People who are that perky at 2.00 in the morning should be officially cancelled, Anu thought to herself.
“Hello?,” came the voice through the line, echoing through the intervening static, “anybody there?” Anu deliberated responding, she could hear this Janki person breathing, waiting, through the speaker.
Anu hung up. This was a mistake. She didn’t know what she’d been expecting. She couldn’t believe that she had actually looked up the helpline numbers online and actually called them. She should get some sleep, that’s the only thing that could help, like really help. Talking to some random person in the middle of the night, will not help.
Anu shook her head, and left her phone lying on the table in the living room, she did not want to be tempted into that foolishness again. No sir. She was being stupid, she knew that. If she really wanted to talk, and she really thought that talking would help, she could have easily just called up any of her close friends, literally any one of them; but she hadn’t called her friends, she hadn’t called her mom or siblings or anyone, she had called Lifeline Counselling Services Limited. Fuck, Anu thought to herself, this has to be a new low. Wait till the others know about this. She groaned inwardly, and vowing to never let this particular secret out, she started towards her bedroom. It was then, that she heard her phone ring.
In the complete stillness of the night, the phone seemed to buzz and ring with otherworldly loudness. Anu went over to her phone, and glanced at the screen which was showing the name Lifeline Counselling Services Limited in bold blue letters; the same number she had just called. Why would they call me back? Anu thought, her heart starting to race all of a sudden. Haven’t done anything wrong.
Anu stood staring at the phone, frozen in place with confusion and indecision. After what seemed like an eternity, the phone stopped ringing. Anu let out a breath she didn’t know she had been holding. Well, she thought, that was that, I suppose.
Just as Anu tore her eyes away from the screen, the phone started ringing again. It was them! Again! Anu started to feel panicky, which was crazy. It’s not like she had done anything. Pick up and tell them it’s a wrong number, she thought, yeah, just a wrong number, no big deal.
Tentatively, Anu reached out for the phone and answered, “Hello?”
“Hi!,” came the same voice Anu had heard when she had made the call, “This is Janki again, from Lifeline Counselling, I am sorry, but you called here a few minutes ago? I think the line must have dropped for some reason…”
“No,” Anu cut across the stupidly cheerful, maddeningly calm voice, “No I am sorry, must have been a wrong number I guess.”
There was a beat of silence in which the static blossomed through the connection. Then, Janki spoke, “You know, I had decided that if there was no answer on the second ring, I was not going to call back. But you did pick up. It’s 2.00 in the morning, and the number you dialed is not something that everyone has in their phone book; so let us pretend for a little while that it wasn’t a wrong number. What do you say?”
Anu said nothing, suddenly the phone seemed heavier in her hand, she felt herself break out in a cold sweat and sat down on her armchair.
“May I know who I am speaking to?,” Janki asked in a softer voice. “Anu, my name is Anu,” Anu said in a whisper.
“Look Anu, can I tell you a secret?,” Janki said in a somewhat conspiratorial manner, “I am the only one on shift tonight, I already finished this book that I was reading, and to be honest, the silence is kind of getting to me; I’d really appreciate some company, if you don’t mind that is. I’ll hang up if you don’t want to talk though, no pressure.”
Anu chewed on her lower lip, “okay,” she said, “I guess that’s okay.” “Great!,” said Janki sounding slightly relieved, Anu couldn’t be sure.
“So,” Anu said in a bid to get the conversation flowing, “You are in the night shift?”
Janki snorted, “Yeah, although we like to call it the graveyard shift.”
Janki laughed. “It’s a bit unusual for women to be in the night shift,” Anu remarked. “Yeah I know,” said Janki, “and to think that I had to practically beg my supervisor for this shift.” Even though Anu was talking to Janki for the first time, she could almost feel Janki rolling her eyes at this. “Oh yeah?,” Anu mumbled as a response.
“Have two kids at home see, I have to stay home to take care of them during the day, husband works days, and me, I get to work nights, with the owls and the spirits and what not.”
Anu nodded and then realizing she was on call said into the phone, “Yeah okay.” Stretch of silence, then Janki, “So what’s keeping you up this time of night, or should I say day?”
“Well,” said Anu, shrugging, “You know, stuff.” What kind of stuff? “Just stuff,” Anu said, “Random, young adult stuff, not really important.” Shrug.
“Oh Anu,” came Janki’s voice through the speaker, and Anu thought she could almost see a hand outstretched towards her through the dark, endless static, “If it’s keeping you up at night, it is probably important.” Yeah, Anu thought to herself, probably.
“Anyway, how’s the situation around where you live?,” came Janki’s voice, changing the topic as if she knew Anu wouldn’t answer. “Oh, well,” Anu said, “Still under lock-down, some shops open during the day, for groceries and medicines, even though now they have permission to open the shops, not a lot of people have come back. I guess they moved to their home towns during the first few months. Lots of police, lots of fear.”
“Yeah,” Janki said, “I know, it’s all looking so bleak right now. It’s the same around my town. We actually had an incident in our neighborhood the other night, there was an accidental fire, there were a lot of police, ambulances…”
“Oh,” Anu exclaimed, “I hope everything is okay?” “Of course yes yes, nothing to worry about. The kids got a little antsy over the entire thing, which is to be expected I guess, being cooped up inside for so long. It’s just tensions running high.”
Yeah, it’s hard staying inside. “I know,” said Janki, and Anu jerked upright, had she said that out loud?
“People are not meant to stay cooped up like this. It gets to you, I don’t think they expected this when they enforced the lock-down. I don’t think any of us expected it, to be honest.”
“No,” Anu mused, “Guess not. I mean it was the only rational thing to do at the time, the only way to prevent a disaster. Stay inside, spend time with your family, take a well deserved break; while the government deals with this pandemic. I have to say, it worked really well in the beginning. But then…”
Anu trailed off. “But then, a month turned in two and then to four”, Janki took up the thread as if she was the one who was feeling all of this, not Anu, “And then, we found ourselves sitting at home with all these feelings, and thoughts and memories, and fears. Of past, of present and the future. We sit with all of these un-confronted things and feelings and they come at us like an avalanche. All the stuff we slipped under the rug, all the stuff we locked up in a box inside our heads, to be dealt with later. We sit at home, safe no doubt, but then the box opens, and the later is now.”
The silence that came on was like the inky blackness of the sky at midnight. “Do you think it’s worth it?,” Anu asked, “Your job, the night shift, is it worth it?” Janki took a long time to respond, “Well, it is,” pause, “It is like any other job you know, pros and cons, and we need the money.”
Anu nodded, seeing Janki in her mind, spreading her hands in a what can you do gesture. “Do you think your job is worth it?,” asked Janki. “I don’t know actually,” Anu said, surprised at the truth in her words, “I have been re-thinking my career path, I have been re-thinking a lot of stuff lately.”
“Yeah?,” Anu said as though in a daze, “There’s a lot of time these days to think. To analyse and evaluate your life choices. I mean is this all there is to life? Parents who are disappointed in you, a job which you hate, paying for a house that you never live in? A couple of handful of people who you call your friends, who you don’t think are close enough to call up at night and ask them to listen to you while you tell them how lonely you feel? There has to be more to life you know, this can’t be it. Something, anything.”
“It’s normal to feel lonely Anu,” Janki’s voice came like a soft blanket, warm, “Especially at this time. Heck, I feel lonely these days. Imagine, the house packed with the husband, and kids and all that life we have made together, and I still feel lonely sometimes. And all that other stuff you said, all of it, and more! Oh god! So much more, just whirling about inside my head and in my entire body like I am possessed!”
Anu’s eyes stung with the anticipation of tears, “You do?”
“Of course I do! There are times when you just want to talk to someone, anyone, and let off some steam and not be judged for your feelings.”
Anu nodded, feeling the tears slide past her cheeks in the darkness, and then something broke inside her and it all came pouring out, “People are so judgmental about stuff, like you haven’t even stopped speaking and they have this look in their eyes, and you know you’ve lost them. They are not going to understand. They don’t want to. I mean I know that horrible things are happening to people, I know that there are people who are suffering so much out there because they don’t have a job, or are apart from loved ones, or are being murdered or discriminated against. I know! And I empathize with all of them, I do what I can to help, and I know I should consider myself lucky that I have a family and friends and a home. I do! I really do! But sometimes it’s too much. Sometimes you can’t help being consumed by your own body, your own mind. Maybe it seems petty to complain about feeling lonely, that’s the least of anybody’s worries right now; nobody cares that you cannot seem to hold it together for a little while, suck it up Anu. Compared to what is happening out there, my problems are stupid. Meaningless.” Anu sobbed into the phone, openly weeping in the dark.
The sound of Janki’s breathing was loud in Anu’s ear as she held onto the phone like a drowning person catching on for dear life. “Oh honey,” Anu felt the touch of Janki’s voice and felt the need to be held. “You know Anu, I consider myself blessed. My husband is basically an angel, very supportive and encouraging and all that. In fact, he is the one who makes the dinner these days, and puts the kids down for bed and reads to them, and does the dishes so that I don’t have to come home to a dirty sink in the morning. The kids are my life, they are a handful to be honest, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love them, and they love me. And still, sometimes, it’s all too much for me. Sometimes life overwhelms me. And all I want is to be away, alone somewhere, and relax for a bit. Breathe and not worry about the kids or money or food. Sometimes I don’t want to be a wife, or a mother even, I just want to be me. Me, with a glass of wine, some old country music or a book or two.” Anu listened to Janki spilling out her secrets, baring her soul.
“What I am trying to say Anu, is that for me, my problems are real problems, and I don’t think they are petty or stupid or irrational. Agreed that in the larger scheme of things, probably they are unimportant; but at the same time, in the larger scheme of things, despite the fact that we are so minuscule and insignificant, we are still living individual lives Anu, having individual experiences, something that is only our own and nobody else’s. That has to count for something, doesn’t it? My problems may not matter to the universe Anu, but they matter to me. And sometimes, on nights like these, I get to talk about my non-issues to people with their non-issues and I feel a little better.”
“Nobody else thinks this. The things you said, all of this…,” Anu struggled to describe. “Everyone thinks like this Anu, and probably feels like this at some point in their lives, I guess. The only reason I was able to say all of this to you, is because I don’t know you and you don’t know me; we are complete strangers, and so there are no expectations, no disappointments, no judgement.” Anu nodded, that’s why I called the agency, she thought, because I knew that mom would be disappointed in me, her independent, strong, feminist daughter daring to complain about loneliness; that my friends would probably just tell me to recognize my privilege over so many thousands of others; the world has bigger fish to fry Anu, get some good night’s sleep, you’ll feel better in the morning. It is so much easier to talk to people you don’t know. No judgement.
“Anu Dear,” the maternal note unmistakable in Janki’s voice, “The only thing we can do is to stop judging ourselves. The things happening in the world outside do not make our problems any less real do they?”
“No, they don’t. You’re so right,” Anu said, wiping away the tears on her cheeks, “Why should we feel guilty for feeling the things we feel; or for wanting the things that we want? You are absolutely right. God! I have been so stupid. To think that I could have talked about all of this and felt better! I get it now, I think.”
There was another long silence on the line and Anu could hear Janki moving about in her office space, hundreds perhaps thousands of miles away, and yet so close. Anu thought back to the past couple of weeks and the darkness they had brought, and the sense of wrongness she had carried inside her all this time. The fear of being judged as weak, of being too sensitive and emotional, the fear of not being understood, had almost paralyses her for the past few weeks, slowly coiling around her being, till she was barely breathing. Was it really this simple? Could she have talked about her fears and felt better?
Anu felt as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulders, and she felt remarkably light. Anu’s whole body seemed to fill up with affection and gratitude towards this person at the end of the line. “Thank you so much Janki,” Anu said, her voice wobbling slightly with emotion, trying to convey the intensity of her feelings in those two words, “Really. Thank you for calling me back. I don’t know how much longer I would have gone on like this, all clogged up, without talking to anyone. You… you have helped me in ways you cannot even imagine! I cannot thank you enough!”
“Thank you Anu,” said Janki, it takes a lot of courage to talk about our feelings you know. You are stronger than you give yourself credit for, I guess all of us are. We just don’t recognize that strength in ourselves, sometimes we need other people to show us, to give us a little push.” Anu nodded.
“Now,” Janki said, “If you want to see someone professionally and privately, I can arrange that for you.” “No, I don’t think that will be necessary,” said Anu. “You sure?” “Yes, positive. I think I am going to call up my mom and have a long talk with her.”
“That’s great Anu, that’s really great,” Janki’s smile was apparent in her voice, “and you can of course call back here anytime you want.”
“Of course,” said Anu. “Anu?” Janki asked, “you feeling okay?”
“Yeah,” said Anu earnestly, “I am okay. I hope you feel better too. I hope you get time for yourself to be you. It’s important.” Anu felt, more than heard Janki’s smile across the distance, “I am so glad to be of service Anu,” said Janki of Lifeline Counselling Services Limited, “Remember that talking helps, it certainly helped me tonight. Be well.”
Image source: Unsplash
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