It was the late nineties and some girls in my class were taking bets on which Didi would faint during the speeches on Republic Day. The winner would get treated to samosas, piping hot and doused liberally with tamarind chutney, from the school canteen. Our Didis, or the future victims of a fainting spell that would cause a stir across the whole school, were all students over 16. We were about 10. Republic Day often interrupted our all-girl Convent schools second-term exam schedule. We would all come to school on Republic Day, the pleats of our Mass Drill Uniform skirts ironed into devastating razor flatness and our canvas shoes a blinding white. The older girls would also sport dark rings under their bloodshot eyes. This was a badge of honour, visible proof of one’s industrious all-nighter. These girls, who looked tired and a bit pinched around the edges, were prime candidates for fainting. Being a prefect also made you vulnerable. Holding the house flag aloft evidently put more strain on the body and got more difficult to do as the Chief Guests speech hit the 20-minute mark.
On this Republic Day, a girl from our class had been selected to sing a patriotic song in front of the school before the flag was hoisted. She was then seated somewhere with a clear view of the school instead of being sent back to our class line. She therefore got a choice vantage point when the Red House Didi went down like a sinking ship. “Did her eyes roll to the back of her head like in the films?” we breathlessly asked our classmate later. “Did she crumble to the ground in a heap?” “No, no,” the classmate said, pleased that it was her account of events that was getting attention rather than her songbirds voice, “Her eyes were staring straight ahead and then she fell down straight, as if she was a doll that someone had knocked over.” We mulled over the information, and I stored it away, fascinated by the question “What happens when you faint?”. I didn’t get an answer till many years later, because as I have now learned, only a fainter can attest to the beautiful, liminal quality in the sacred art of fainting.The biological explanation for fainting is scientific and ho-hum. Fainting occurs when your blood pressure plummets and cuts off blood flow and oxygen to the brain. If you do not have a more serious underlying condition, you may regain consciousness within a few seconds. In those crucial seconds, your cerebral self becomes untethered from the part of you that is flesh and muscle and bone. What worlds would your mind see fit to travel? And can fainting bring visions and premonitions? Does it offer insight into the psyche in the same way dreaming does? These were the questions I occupied myself with, but I trudged through my twenties, consciousness intact, premonition count zero.
In books and on the stage, fainting is a dramatic and often gendered literary or theatrical device. Emily Bronte has her character Catherine Earnshaw do it with great effect in Wuthering Heights. Jane Austen has the Musgrove sisters faint and cause a scene in Persuasion. Shakespeare did it. So did Dickens. If Victorian and Regency women didn’t outright faint, they made up for it by violently trembling, swooning, turning sheet pale, needing a male body to fall against. Someone would be sent for the smelling salts. In literature, one greets strong emotion or unsavoury sights with fainting or an equally dramatic, corporeal response. But in the summer of 2002, as a young girl in Gujarat, I watched a policeman clinically and efficiently beat a man on the street from behind the curtain of my bedroom window. The man being beaten had broken the strict curfew imposed after riots had broken out state-wide. The man doing the beating wore a uniform that was damp in patches from sweat. I didn’t tremble nor faint. My body was cold and stiff, but I kept standing at the window, my eyes open, my ears filled with the dull thuds of lathi hitting flesh in the otherwise silent, hot, blazing street. Then I went on to live out my adolescence and my twenties.
It, that is, full-on, fall-to-the-floor fainting, finally happened to me on the morning of my 31st birthday. The day before, I had come to the hospital in my favourite maroon dress, my stomach large, out, announcing my presence. My entourage - mother, mother-in-law, husband - held the carefully packed hospital bag and filled out the hospital paperwork. My phone was buzzing with messages from my siblings and friends. I was handed over gently and tenderly to an indifferent nurse. She took my maroon dress and gave me a rough green hospital gown. I felt like the star of my own show, the main character in a life that was about to have its well-timed pivot. Yes, I was nervous, but I was about to enter a celebrated phase of life. How dramatic! How would I tell this story later? What details would I remember? A young doctor came to take my history. “Age?” he asked, “I’ll be 31 tomorrow,” I said, brightly. “Happy birthday in advance,” he said. A few hours later, my body had already started the backbreaking work of pushing out another human being.
After labour, they wheeled me out. My baby was alive and out of me, but not in my arms where he should have been. He had been borne away to the NICU, because he came out grey. Like the cartoon elephant Dumbo, I remember thinking when I saw him swing out of me amidst a cacophony of doctors voices shouting commands. Every cell in my body sang in terrible, confusing exhaustion. My green gown was soaked red, heavy like a sheet left out in the rain. My mother kissed my forehead in the hospital room. I vaguely remembered that I had had a baby and that 31 years ago, she had had one too. But hers had been a girl - me. “My baby is a boy,” I said, my voice weak, “See Ma, we have different stories.” I remember her eyes shining with tears.
I had just spent upward of 12 hours bleeding profusely and screaming my throat raw but for some reason it was really, really important that I pee. I don’t know what I needed. It wasn’t food. I had just projectile vomited my hospital breakfast, which is a lovely sort of dessert to the fantastic main course which is giving birth. Perhaps it was my baby. I had not even touched him at this point, so my mind kept forgetting he existed. It really wasn’t a need to urinate. I wanted to cry perhaps. Or to laugh hysterically. Or to have a dark, quiet room all to myself. Yet, here was a nurse hustling me out of bed and into an attached bathroom. My body was so weak, it didn’t feel like a body at all. I couldn’t believe I had signed up to do this birthing thing. And that women through history had done it too, sometimes more than once! This was hard. This was awful. This was an absolute shit show, a mind-numbing scam invented by the Patriarchy! And then, a mercy. I fainted.
Later my mother said, “The nurse cried, “Madam, madam, she has fallen.” My mother rushed in and saw me on my knees facing a corner wall. “As if she was saying her prayers,” she said.
In a way, it was fitting that my body buckled so that I fell to my knees, as if indeed, in prayer. I was praying, but not to an invisible God. I was praying to a past self, honouring her, saying goodbye. Everything had led up to this moment. My life in all its grandeur and simplicity had up until this day been tethered only to me. Now, I had split into two and I would journey onward seeing everything differently, believing different things, dying on different hills. This had been Act One with its cycles of trauma and rage, its joys and bewilderment, opinions, beliefs, its Christmas-lights string of 30 beautiful birthdays. And before the curtain rose again, there was this. A liminal place, a hushed pause, a meaningful intake of beautiful air into hungry lungs.
When I came to, I saw the gleaming metal top of a round hospital dustbin. For one brief second, I was at a music festival with my best friend. I was deliriously happy, impossibly young. I was basking in the energy from the stage, the reverb of the bass, guitar strings, song lyrics, dusk, love. And then I saw smooth peach bathroom tile and heard my mothers voice calling my name from very, very far away.
Sheena D’Lima is a former print journalist and current freelance content writer who lives in Pune. She has a Masters in Gender, Culture and Development. She likes jigsaw puzzles. She is working on finishing The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (one month, 15 days and counting). She can be found @sheenadlima on Instagram.