Fear and Trembling—the Borderlands of the Sane

— Murali Sivaramakrishnan

As a young boy I was almost always afraid of the dark. Even now while an older person I would rather venture less in dim-light. Give me bright sunshine and daylight any day! However, either way, my imagination churns up fantasies untold while alone. Among the many things that gave me distinct fright was what I saw once while as a school boy I went with a certain friend, a class mate of mine, to his home. This chap was generally a bright and cheerful sort who joked and played pranks. One evening on our way home, he took me to a large house and disappeared inside while I simply hung about in the drawing room, not sure as to what to do. Then all of a sudden, in the faint evening light that trickled in to the large room, I noticed a thick curtain in one corner that began to flap and twirl. Drawn by curiosity I went close to it and lifted one edge to peer in. What I saw was a sight really pathetic and gruesome at the same time: there was a sort of haggard and mangled face with twisted lips and beady eyes that stared back at me. It took me some time to realize that it belonged to a human form, attached to that face that defied description. It was practically nude and wallowing in excreta. There were bars that separated this thing from me and yet I was petrified and rooted to the spot with a fright indescribable. I didn’t even see or sense my friend come in with coffee and biscuits; he explained casually that it was his younger brother suffering from some inexplicable brain-fever of sorts—and it had no cure. Long after we left the frightful place, the mad boy remained in my mind for a long time and still does. More than anything it was the cursed state of being to which a human was reduced to simply on account of being “abnormal.” All my life I have never been able to figure out the difference between sanity and insanity. Over the years I have had several encounters with other insane and mad people and have been called upon to aid and help. But the figure of the little guy has been forever etched in my insides.


Another image that lingers inside from childhood was that of a visit to a lunatic asylum. The house that harbored the insane was a bleak one buried in the shade under dark foreboding and huge rubber trees. We walked in silence and were greeted by sounds as eerie as ever a child could imagine. The lunatics who were incarcerated inside were silent sentinels with distant looks and expressions almost inhuman, almost non-living! Some songs and bhajans were playing in the background and as I hung on to the hands of my elder sister I could make out the clang of cymbals and smell the incense. It was all indistinct yet memory borders on the inauthentic and moves through sheer meaningless associations. What is real what is unreal? What is now and what is then? What is sanity and what is insanity?

Our present civil society has certain distinct patterns of behavior and every individual if they need to belong should tow the order of the day, dissimilarity and distinctions are tolerated to a certain level. As has been mentioned, if you have a mentor all your oddities could perhaps be sanctioned—because you have someone to vouch for your general sanity. Otherwise if you dissent and act at variance you might be mishandled and find yourself chained or incarcerated. The order of things as Michael Foucault has demonstrated, is manipulated by history and culture and controlled and conditioned by certain unseen forces that operate on societies collectively. As Karl Marx said: it is not human beings that create history, but on the other hand, history creates human beings! Those unseen forces that coordinate our behavior as collective individuals moving sensibly in time and tune and harmony with others at a given time mete out our roles and regulate our destinies. Our identities are given to us; we do not create the same. All of us are players—fearful and trembling in the borderlands of the sane.

William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience tells of how he encountered a wretched human being in a subhuman condition on a fateful dark night that changed his outlook on life completely. He speaks of how he was suddenly relieved by a heavenly feeling of grace that the hour had not struck for him as it had struck for that thing that he encountered! This is a sort of existential experience that leads one outward and inward at the same time! The recognition that there is a strange separation between suffering and relief, between pain and that un-resolvable recognition of pain in the other, is a semi-mystical one that transcends our little world of sense and sensitivity.

Madness and insanity, suffering and anguish, pain and agony, are experiences that evoke profound feelings that drive us toward a sense of the real in the world that otherwise would not have been felt at all. Seen in retrospect the fated encounter with the wretched life incarcerated behind caged bars instilled a fear that mounted my insides and shot up through my inner veins into my very being. The fear I felt was a sort of abnormal terror that tore me apart and reunited the pieces into a different order. Nothing occurs from within perhaps—everything strikes from the outside. The violence of the encounter had shattered the very order of my experience and reinvented a different self. Was it a spiritual experience after all, where the insides vanish and outsides submerge in a reversal of roles?

Kierkegaard says: Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. We move in silence as if through the narrow corridors of time and history when sometimes all of a sudden someone or something flashes a lightning to illuminate the entire stretch of our experiential landscape that we sense the order of fear and trembling. What is sense after all? The scream that tore my insides that evening, the gongs that reverberate in my memory afterwards, the thoughts that emanated from the outside and the sense that reorganized them in a feeling of some sort of order are what my mind had arranged much later. True, those unseen forces that coordinate our behavior as collective individuals moving sensibly in time and tune and harmony with others at a given time mete out our roles and regulate our destinies. Our identities are given to us; we do not create the same. All of us are mere players. The world outside is as real as the world inside. And our consciousness of the same is identical with our self-consciousness. Pain and anguish, fear and terror, doubt and anxiety are all the wayside thorns which prick us to being alive within. It might be that we organize our lives, our social being as per our collective wills; in such spaces we mark out sanity, insanity very much like civility and uncivility. We order and dissect the world outside of us; the screams and pangs of fear and trembling sear through us like hot knife through butter. We are alive to the unseen. We live by our senses that thread the inside and outside.

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