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body. week 4.

date. 2023

location: varanasi

Image by Umanoide

November 8, 2023 - Varanasi


As a child, I often read stories about brave adventurers who, while exploring exotic uncharted lands, would catch mysterious diseases that would leave them bedridden for months.


I read about Mungo Park, a 19th century British explorer whose travelogue contains phrases like “All of autumn was spent in a feverish daze. It was weeks before I could take my first wobbly steps outside the hut.”


Or those Victorian snobs who’d spend months on end recuperating in Alpine sanatoria. The idea that someone would need to relocate to a different city simply to recover from illness seemed almost impossible to imagine. I’ve been sick plenty of times. But so sick that I would move to a small isolated village hundreds of miles from home? Not even close.


Well, until it was my turn.


This is the story of the worst sickness of my life: chikungunya. 


It is only now, a month later, that I am finally able to recount some of the details.






The night it all began was very much like any other night.


I had spent the day out and about, but made it to bed fairly early. Early enough to sip some tea and watch a movie. Slowly, I began to notice a strange tingling sensation in my left leg. Okay, I thought, I guess I walked around a bit too much today. Gradually the tingling migrated higher and higher up my thigh. By the time I fell asleep, it had reached my waist.


Around midnight I awoke in shivers. I stumbled to the bathroom.


My chest felt numb. My body shook with fever. I gulped down some water. Then peed. Then gulped some more.


By the time the sun rose, I could barely move a muscle.




I had no food at home and as the morning dragged on, hunger began to set in. At some point, I dragged myself out into the courtyard, where my neighbor noticed me sitting in the dirt. Gasping for air while I waited for a food delivery.


He quickly called my landlord.


I crawled back to bed, where I laid softly moaning, trying my best to breathe. My deadened gaze too weak to take in my surroundings, my mind too spent to formulate clear thoughts. One thought, however, grew louder: please, god, make it end.


This is how I stayed for 3 full days. A living corpse. Sentenced to fiery hell.


I had never felt so terrified, yet so useless, in my entire life.


If not for the immense kindness of Rishabh, my landlord (now dear friend), I cannot imagine what would have become of me. Rishabh, alerted by a neighbor who saw me collapsed in the dirt courtyard that first day, came to take care of me. He provided medication to treat the fever, food for my hunger, and even wiped me down with ice cold sponges to break the fever. He slept in the room next door, in case I needed anything in the middle of the night. (Just having his presence nearby was more than I could ask for.)


Those hours and days were a nightmare. Hovering on the brink of consciousness. Thousands of miles from home, plagued by a disease I’d never heard of, with symptoms beyond my imagination. In addition to the fever and aches, a red rash spread to cover my entire body. Arthritis clogged my joints, forcing me to hobble around doubled over. An extreme fatigue settled over me like a blanket, exhausting not just my body but also my mind. At one point, I lost hearing in my left ear. It still hasn’t fully returned.


Over the coming weeks, I’d develop an in-depth practical expertise regarding the Varanasi medical establishment. 10 doctor visits. Dozens of pills. Ayurvedic treatments. The works.


But at this point, everything was still a great unknown. The doctors would tell me one thing, and I’d discover the opposite to be true. Rather than warning me about what was coming, they tried their best to reassure me.


“It’ll only be a few more days. The worst is behind you. You’ll be back to normal in no time.”


Lies. Lies that not only hid the truth of what my body was battling, but even worse, invariably led to a deep dark despair as the illness lingered on and on and strange debilitating symptoms blossomed like poisonous berries.


If only the doctor’s had told me that I’d lose my ability to walk, or that angry rashes would cover my skin, or that I may find it difficult to breathe or think or eat. If only they had warned me, I would know that I was normal. Instead, each frightening discovery crumpled up whatever small fragile hopefulness that I endeavored to kindle.


The worst part is that the doctors knew exactly what they were doing. When I would rush back to them after each new problem, they would nod knowingly and assure me this was normal. THEN WHY THE FUCK DIDN’T YOU TELL ME THAT IN THE FIRST PLACE?!


But okay. So be it.




The next 10 days drip away like medicated fluid in an IV. Hours upon hours upon hours alone in bed, gazing up at the spinning ceiling fan. My thoughts left to fend for themselves in dark unholy territory.


I want to go home. I want to die. I want to get better. I hate my body. I hate India.  I hate my life. I just want everything to go away.


Only the noisy ceiling fan to break the silence.


About a week in, I tried to go for a short walk by the river. Just to get some fresh air and a change of scenery. I made it just a hundred meters before I had to turn back, exhausted from the effort.


That night, the fever returned.


You don’t have to tell me twice. It was another week before I even thought about stepping foot outside again.



November 10


The latest:


About 50% hearing loss in my left ear, along with a constant ringing. Went to the doctor a few times. They prescribed some meds + ear drops + they yanked some nasty looking fungal infection from deep inside my ear canal. It hurt so bad I nearly passed out.


Three days later, I still can’t hear. I’ll give it another few days before going back.


On the bright side, with my hearing loss, the noise in Varanasi is slightly more tolerable.




My ankles and feet are insanely sore. I hobble around like an old man, grimacing just like my bubby, holding onto walls. I never know what to expect when I wake up. One day, I can walk smoothly, the next I am forced to take tiny steps, using all of my resolve just to make it to the bathroom.


I call Bubby on the phone. I tell her that after a few weeks of arthritis, fatigue, and muscle aches I now have a new appreciation for what the elderly are constantly living through. When I moan just sitting up in bed, I am reminded of the countless moans I’ve heard from her throughout my childhood. When I hold onto the walls, trying to navigate to the bathroom at night, I am mimicking the tragic dance I’ve seen her perform all too often. Until now, I had just assumed that that’s what Bubbys do. They moan and they hobble. But now her moans echo in my own throat and I feel her hobbling in my own legs.


I am in awe of her strength.


She nods along sadly. We commiserate over the challenges of living in dying bodies. She begins to recount some of her recent struggles, and perhaps for the first time in my life, I truly listen.




November 14


The meds are kicking in and I can walk again. The doctor asked me to stay in bed for another five days, but it was Diwali yesterday and Maahir invited me to his party and I just couldn’t resist. Stayed out until 5am. I know, I’m an idiot.


There hasn’t been any real improvements in my ear. Feels extra stuffed today. So I’ll visit the ENT again.


Beginning yesterday evening, my stomach began to feel bloated. Like I just ate a large meal, even though I’ve skipped breakfast.


But, my spirits remain mysteriously high, with only periodic flashes of terror.


To be helpless for so long…


To be cared for by so many new friends and old strangers.


I asked for an adventure. Here, I was given one I did not ask for. An adventure of the body. Right at its core.


When I can, I talk to my friends and family back home. But they are home and I am not.


For now, no matter what my body throws my way, I have my breath to hold onto. I just hope I don’t lose that too.



November 16


A Guide to Treating Ear Infections. The Indian method.


1. For three days, take a mixture of nondescript pills and ear drops. This is meant to ‘soften’ it up.


2. Next, return to the doctor who will insert tweezers deep into your ear and forcefully rip out the infected body, tearing away a good chunk of your brain in the process. Grip the table as hard as possible and try your best not to cry.


3. When he’s done tearing your ear apart with tweezers, he’ll switch to a high-powered water jet that could power a small watercraft. He’ll aim it directly into your now-supremely-sensitive ear canal, and hose it down. This will break away any lingering tissue as well as your desire to live. At this point, you should be seeing stars. Enjoy the view. Make sure to lie down on the examination bed before passing out.




Of course, I still can’t hear. Of course, he prescribes new medications. And of course I’ll need a few more days of bed rest.


Apparently, I’m playing Russian roulette with doctors.


Click goes the trigger. Down goes my faith in doctors, healthcare, and medicine.


The score so far:

India - 10

Me - Nil.


I ditch the doctor with the tweezers and water gun and defect to a new ENT. She says that the infection is gone but I have water stuck behind my membrane (I wonder how that got there, cough cough). It needs to drain out. She says not to worry. Sure. Why would I be worried?




I arrived in India with so many plans. I wanted to study philosophy, learn Hindi, practice yoga, teach children, and travel the country.


A small mosquito put a halt to all that.


Good things take a while to happen. Bad things happen all at once.


These days I do my best to walk slowly beside the river.



I can read palms now. When I'm outside and unsure if I should be heading home, I glance at my hand. If it's red, it means I need to get back in bed.


I'm a human traffic light. Pink means go. Blotchy means slow down. Red means stop.



Last night a new problem appeared. I’d been battling my bloated stomach for several days — ostensibly a reaction to my new meds — but yesterday my guts went on full purge mode. To be honest, I need to consider moving my bed closer to the bathroom. It’s getting a bit ridiculous.


Still, I can’t help but laugh. I spend a lot of time laughing these days. It's the least I can do. When I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, limping along like an old grandpa. Or when I notice my dramatic moans, they'll magically morph into gleeful giggles. Or when I consider the sheer ridiculousness of my situation; how utterly confused and lost I am. I just shake my head and cackle at my ceiling fan. My friends call on the phone to share their sympathy, but I just laugh and tell them of my latest freak symptoms. (Guess what! At first, I couldn't poop for days and now all I do is poop!)


Okay, maybe I cry a bit too. But only late at night.



November 20


New battle lines have been formed. As I reclaim my ankles and feet, the enemy has regrouped in my guts and lungs. 


By now, I’ve been to so many doctors that they’ve even started to prescribe medications to treat other medications.


Case in point: my ENT informed me that my stomach issues were caused by the steroids prescribed for my ankles. She gave me some pills to calm my stomach. Then, my GP blamed the same issues on the antibiotics prescribed by the ENT. He wrote a script for a round of probiotics.


At this rate, the chikungunya will be long gone by the time the doctors stop attacking each other with my poor body.




But okay, let’s look at the bright side. The arthritis and joint pain have mostly subsided.


Emotionally, I’m in high spirits. Made it out to the Banaras Club yesterday to watch the Cricket World Cup with some friends. And I visited Rishabh’s family’s farm the day before. So there’s some definite progress.


The bloating has gone down. Or maybe I’m just used to it by now. Or maybe I’m actually just getting fat.




November 23


A new kind of bartering economy has emerged between me and my body.


I think it’s safe to say that I’ve partially healed. I’m on the road to recovery.


I can finally do things. But carefully. If I visit the university one day, I will have to pay for it that evening with an elevated temperature, breathlessness, or a limp.


If I visit my friend’s farm or have a drink out, that will cost me two days of working from bed.


The costs are inflated, but not prohibitive. Finally, after 6 weeks, I’m open for business.


And so, I’ve begun taking yoga classes. I call it yoga, but so far I’m just getting used to rotating my wrists again. 5 weeks in bed has left me feeling like a human egg shell.


The head of my philosophy department told me to talk to an old retired yogi who then referred me to an old student of his that teaches at a nearby ashram.


And so, I begin meeting Ritesh at Ravidass Ghat at 7am for our daily sessions.


My right hand, wrist, foot, ankle are so sore that I can’t complete even the easiest of postures. No matter. Just being here is magical enough. Standing upright on the bank of the Ganges, chanting the morning salutations to a glowing red sun.


For the first time in what feels like forever, I remember why I’ve come to India in the first place. And why I’ve stubbornly resisted the urgings from my family and friends (and my own conscience) to Just Come Back Home Already.


My mornings on the Ganges remind me why I am the way I am and why I do the things I do.


Forget philosophy. I have become a full-time student of this new body that chikungunya has molded. My teacher may be cranky and full of unspoken demands, but yoga makes the lessons delicate and graceful.


It will take me a while to learn what I can and cannot do. What I can and cannot feel. A toddler once more, each day I take a few uncertain steps, teeter, and fall. And then stand up once more.


Yoga is like those outstretched arms just up ahead, urging me on, guiding me home.





I learned a new word today.







  1. Provide with the food or other substances necessary for growth, health, and good condition.

    1. Similar: feed, provide for, sustain, maintain

    2. Opposite: starve

  2. Keep (a feeling or belief) in one’s mind, typically for a long time.

    1. Similar: cherish, nurture, foster, harbor, nurse, entertain, hold

    2. Opposite: repress, discourage


From the Latin: Nutrire - to feed, cherish




November 24


On the advice of Matt, the Australian owner of Terracotta Cafe, I picked up a vial of Eupatorium Perfoliatum from one of the many homeopathic medicine shops around Assi.


5 drops, 4 times per day. To treat muscle soreness and other post-viral symptoms, I’m told. The droplets burn my tongue as they land.


It’s so unlike me to try homeopathic treatments, but isn’t all of this so unlike me?


Let’s see how it goes. It can’t exactly hurt, can it?




All seems well, as I make my way along the ghats bathed in the pre-dawn haze of fog and pooja smoke.


I arrive a few minutes early, so I meditate for a few minutes before class.



The Gita teaches that at a certain point all action and karma becomes meaningless.


And it is at precisely that moment that action becomes knowledge.


And it is at precisely that moment that action becomes meaningful.


My wish for today: may our worst moments become our favorite moments.




November 28


On Saturday, Ritesh took me to Vishvanath Temple. He picked me up on his motorbike around 6 and off we sped through the misty morning alleyways.


We laid our mats down on the wide ghat in the shadow of Kashi’s holiest temple. On our left, burning corpses smoldered on Manikarnika Ghat. Ahead of us, boatloads of pilgrims unloaded at the bottom of Vishvanath’s wide staircase. All around us, birds and cows mingled with the crowds. Across the river, a pack of camels trudged along, preparing for dev dewali.


During the aum chanting, the hearing in my left ear suddenly came back. I mentioned this to Ritesh later on, expecting him to be amazed by the clear miracle. But he just nodded distractedly and mumbled “oh, that’s great,” as if this was to be expected.




Learning to walk again has been a fascinating and infuriating process.


As usual, my mind and body struggle to stay in sync. My mind’s expectations vs my body’s capabilities.


Back to basics. Doing chores around the house, walking to the cafe just down the road, strolling along the river. I’ve even begun visiting campus now and then.


The world slowly absorbs me back into the fold.


I am no longer an outsider, watching through the window.


My open prison gently expand. It even has a yard now.


Every day is a new day with new potential. What was possible yesterday is no sure sign of what may be possible today. A kind of dialogue develops.


This morning, I stopped myself mid-shower and realized that I had been casually scrubbing my body. Wait, I can do things again! I can lift my arms without having to breathe through the pain! I just stood there, transfixed, as joyful tears mixed with the soapy water streaming down around me.


No, this isn’t some kind of lame sermon about appreciating the small things. This is about something much larger. It’s about progress. And adventure. And magic.


Today, I did something impossible. I washed my body with soap.


I crossed over. I stepped outside.


And something wonderful — I don’t yet know its name — rushed on in.





I’ve begun compiling a list of medicines that I was prescribed these last months.


  • Aciloc RD

  • Calpol

  • Cedolam

  • Cetirizine

  • Omnacortil

  • Nucoxia

  • Enterogermina

  • Celmon

  • Otain

  • XOXE

  • Alergy-M

  • Flutizen

  • Otrivin

  • Ceftalin

  • Bilasure

  • Albendazole & Ivermectin

  • Deflazacort

  • Pantoprazole



In addition: two Ayurvedic treatments, Eupatorium extract, endless paracetamol, and countless tears, electrolytes and prayers.



December 1


My birthday is coming up soon. After the hell I’ve survived, I want to do something special for myself. A small gesture to say thank you for putting up with me.


So I booked a handful of days at a lakeside cottage in a sleepy Kerala village.


After the chaos of Varanasi, I’d like to take it easy and slow and gentle for a change. I’d like to disconnect and reconnect. I’d like to do some writing and drift aimlessly on the water.




Each morning, after yoga, Ritesh and I sit side-by-side on our mats and study Patanjali’s yoga sutra.


I’ve really been looking forward to studying yogic philosophy with an ‘insider’. A guru, one might even say. I wanted to see the things the way he sees them, discuss the nature of Brahma, and consider how it feels to be alive.


Instead, we spend 30 minutes each morning learning to pronounce Sanskrit words.


Just the pronunciation.


We completely ignore the meaning of these famous sutras.


At first I was rather impatient and frustrated. I didn’t come all the way to India to learn how to roll my Rs. I don’t care about the words! I want to know what they mean. But I sucked it up and followed Ritesh’s instructions. I continued to recite.


It was only today that it occurred to me what was happening. As I let the possible meanings drift away, the sounds themselves took on their own identity, their own power.


I asked Ritesh about this and he nodded vigorously. “The words themselves are holy. You must make sure to pronounce them properly.”


The words themselves are holy. Make sure to pronounce them properly.


The body itself is holy. Make sure to treat it properly.


Leave it to me to travel all the way to India to study philosophy with a Hindu swami, only to have him tell me to forget all of my ideas and just listen to the sounds.


Just perfect.



December 10 - en route to Kerala


It occurred to me how interesting it is that the two most physically challenging experiences of my life — trekking in Nepal and chikungunya in India — took place mere weeks apart.


In the space of two months, I went from summiting Himalayan peaks to learning to walk again.


In the space of two months, I got to experience the body in its polar extremities.


The body in its strength. And the body in its fragility. 


Illness is like a drug though. Wherever it’s present, even the most ordinary moments become extraordinary. Particularly, the ordinary moments.




In the beginning, man worshiped many bodies. Then we began to worship the spirit. And now, finally, we bow to the spirit within the bodies.




Personally, I prefer the biblical account of creation. The world viewed as a 6000 year old toddler. Still learning to walk.




Each morning, I sit quietly at the riverside waiting for my guru to arrive.



So where does all this leave me?


I had a call with Effy the other day. We spoke about how I’ve lost trust in my body. I now guard over it with the annoying fussiness of an overprotective jewish mother. Every pain, every little sensation is detected, analyzed, catalogued, and monitored.


A slight pulsing in my leg will kick off an evening of fearful speculation and worry. What could it be? Probably something severe and horrific.


I understand. I fucked up. I let my guard down a couple months ago and I got really hurt. I only want what’s best for my body, and I just don’t trust it to take care of itself anymore. If I don’t stay focused, anything can happen.


But it’s not just that.


I no longer trust my environment either. I now live in a dangerous world. I wear long pants, long sleeves, closed toe shoes, and only stay outside for short periods of time. I don’t linger in crowds, and I certainly don’t linger in nature. I avoid insects and I inspect my body frequently.


I’ve picked up a new habit of brushing off my arms now and then, ridding them of imaginary insect intruders.


Today, after chikungunya, my body is a bit more fragile and my world is a bit more dangerous. I’ve seen this happen with others. But I’ve always trusted my instincts and always felt welcomed by the world. I guess it’s my turn now.


What to do? What to do? Here are a few suggestions that Effy shared with me.


Patience. The war has only just ended. The treaty isn’t even dry yet. It takes time for scars to fade. And sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you’re left marked. A memory traced into your skin.


Some bodies tell their own stories.


Community. I am not alone. Many others around me are struggling with their bodies and with a world out to get them. I’ve already spoken with Jo about her battle with Malaria, and with Bubby about getting old. They’ve welcomed me into a new and ancient kind of community.


Share. Wounds fester in hiding. Let the light in. Talk about the innocent safety that’s been shattered. The suffering that lies just beneath the skin, a restless volcano waiting to erupt. And the narrow perilous path we are all lumbering along, from the warm womb to the cold grave.


But I’ll tell you what. I will not wait to go visit Thailand’s beaches. I will not wait to study philosophy with Varanasi’s gurus. I will not wait to spend the weekend in bed, watching football and eating pizza. I will not wait to tell her I love her. And tell him as well. I will not wait. I cannot risk it.


I don’t know my future. I barely know my past. But the present is here all around me, just waiting to be unwrapped.



Dear A

You stand with your back toward me.

Brushing your hair in the bathroom mirror.

Just as you’ve done

Every other morning.


I sit up in bed, ignoring my coffee,

And watch your careful, quick movements.

A secret sign language. Or perhaps a dance?

I try to decipher your meaning, but am left speechless.

Just like yesterday. Just like tomorrow.


With your soft mouth, you promise me that everything is ok.

But your eyes tell a different story.

Your eyes…

4 years ago I got lost in your eyes. I still haven’t found my way home.


As you brush your fierce angel hair,

My eyes journey from your sharp elbow down the gentle slope of your back, before finally settling on your bare hips swaying to the rhythm of forgotten desert melodies.


And I fall back in your bed

And you keep on brushing

And I keep on hoping

And you keep on humming

And that’s just the way it is

And that’s just the way I want it. 




To all those who selflessly cared for me these past few months, thank you from the bottom of my heart.


Thank you Rishabh.

Thank you Praveen.

Thank you Rahul.

Thank you other Rahul.

Thank you Prof. Mehta.

Thank you Ritesh.

Thank you Woman Who Came To Cook For Me.

Thank you Varanasi Medical Establishment.

Thank you for lifting me up when I was at my lowest.

The plane has begun its descent. I better stop here.

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