When A Screenwriter Takes Her Chronic Pain To The Far End Of The World – Outlook India

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“It’s just a herniated disc (or two). You shouldn’t be in so much pain.” Every doctor, physical therapist, chiropractor and osteopath I have met in the last few months has said the same thing. They also add that if we were to run a random MRI on even asymptomatic adults walking on the streets, every six out of 10 persons would be found to have some amount of disc alteration—a bulge, an extrusion or degeneration. Therefore, my condition is not abnormal. And yet, I wake up most mornings with a body so stiff and so much in pain that getting out of bed seems like the most difficult part of being alive. The legs agitate themselves even as I try to lay still, looking out of the window, mulling over the pain I feel.
Pain, they say, is a signal in your nervous system of something that may have gone wrong in your body. I stay in bed with my pain, trying to figure out what exactly is wrong with me—both physically and emotionally—and how exactly to describe it, which is what the doctor will ask me on my next visit. “Does it prick, burn or sting?” I won’t have an exact answer to that, for all I know is it’s an unpleasant feeling—an ache that’s sometimes dull and sometimes sharp, whi­ch has become constant—a synonym to my being.
It eventually takes a psychiatrist to diagnose it—chronic depressive disorder because of chro­nic pain disorder because of an autoimm­une con­dition known as rheumatoid arthritis. I also have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, whi­ch means my immune system is constantly at war with the healthy tissues, causing the death of the thyroid’s hormone producing cell. It’s not a life-­threatening situation, and there is no med­ical mumbo-jumbo involved in either the diagnosis or the prognosis. No treatment can be followed as quickly and simply as the regimen I have been advised. All I need to do is—in betw­een painkillers, neuropathic medicines and supplements—rely heavily on intensive exerci­ses and change dietary habits. Basically, change everything I have been faithful to all my life, which are merely five things: aate ki roti (who­l­ewheat flatbread), chai (tea), sugar, overwork and stress.
“Slow down. Gather yourself.” That’s another piece of advice my therapist has to offer, among several others I’m already aware of, thanks to all the self-help books on pain management I’ve read in the past few months. And yet, I go back to her, session after session, paying to hear the same thing again and again. “Tumhari jeb ka paisa kaatkar baahar nikal jaata hai (your mon­ey comes out by making a hole in your pocket),” an astrologer had once summed up my whole lifestyle in one sentence.
Jokes aside, it’s not an ideal lifestyle to have. My life revolves around therapies of all kinds—physical, emotional and alternative. You name it and I have done it. Including Googling and reading up copiously about writers who lived (and wrote) with (and despite of) chronic pain. Virginia Woolf, to begin with.
According to research done by Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, USA, in 2021, based on the analysis of National Health Interview Su­r­vey data, one in five Amer­i­cans experience chr­onic pain, resulting in an est­imated lost prod­­u­ctivity of nearly $300 bill­ion annually. Tha­t’s Rs 24 lakh crore. Or is it? I don’t know, and don’t care.
All I care for are the productive days I lose because of my pain. I am a freelance screenwriter and every day I’m not sitting down at my writing desk to work (or rework) on that scene whi­ch will probably define the success of a film or series (and probably also the careers of the act­ors in that scene), I lose a day of my livelihood, my income. We, the screenwriters, don’t have the privileges of stable salaries, gratuity, bon­uses or insurance. We write through our pain not just because it’s the only way to pay our bills, but also because it’s the only way to keep us sane. We, the screenwriters, are hybrid creatures—neither sombre and philosophical like authors, nor gay and energetic like other technical experts in filmmaking, such as directors or cinematographers. So, I have to gently remind myself that Virginia Woolf wasn’t a screenwri­ter and she lived some 100 years ago. I need more contemporary role models.
Till I can find one, I need to find an antidote to my pain, some sort of a purpose that will pull me through the state of mind I’m in. How about a trip to the end of the world—to Alaska? Getting to the end of the world may be the only way to save my world that’s coming to an unti­mely end, at least in my head.
This plan is so bizarre that I don’t affirm it in front of anyone except my partner-in-travel, Vinti, another fellow creator who happily gave up a career of over 25 years in TV to cook and travel. There is expected resistance to this pre­posterous and fairly privileged idea of mine, both internal and external. It’s not just a huge dent on the small savings I’ve managed to put together in years of working as a freelance tra­n­slator and writer, but will also result in the loss of productive screenwriting time of about two weeks. Will I not lose projects, then?
The only regret I have as a screenwriter is that I don’t get any time to mull over why I write, or what my writing is about. I have turned into a marathon writer, always working on something or the other. In order to deliver to briefs, and to the collective need of putting together a comprehensible docket that’s agreeable to a cast and crew of over 500 people (not to mention other key stakeholders whose stakes indeed are very high, for they are the ones putting in the moolah and faith), I have forgotten why I am in this city of dreams in the first place, and why I chose to become a screenwriter. You may call it the Imt­iaz Ali syndrome, but I need to go away not just to escape from my pain, but also to be in touch with the writer that once wanted to be. Hence, Alaska.
So, I slowly and secretly begin to work on the plan, at a time when my pain is so excruciating that I mostly stay flat on my back, with an exercise ball as a prop to supp­ort my sore hips and gluteus muscles. As my departure day gets closer, my pain gets worse. That I am already falling behind deadlines, thanks to the prolonged bouts of pain, doe­sn’t help my case either. I am so worried about being snig­g­ered at over my outlandish travel plans that I don’t tell anyone about it till the very last minute, except family and very close friends, whose apprehensions, concerns and fears I am used to circumventing.
In the meantime, I firmly keep my fingers crossed, my gluttonous tongue under control and my body fixed on the yoga mat at every stipulated hour, religiously following every advice my doctor, physical therapist and trainer have for me. In between, I discreetly work overtime, like a maniac, to meet impossible deadlines despite the knowledge that sitting up for long at the writing table may just push me back into the vicious cycle of pain and depression.
The most severe case on the pain-o-meter is of childbirth, and the most undiagnosed kind of depression is postpartum. If I could survive those with grace and poise, I can definitely survive this bout of both. Much like love, pain turns us into a believer. It makes us rue and bend, surrender and change. Is that not what writing is also about? Things one does and lies one tells to oneself, for love and to travel.
I do manage to get to Anchorage, some 10,000 km from Mumbai, surviving three flight changes and over 30 hours of sitting. The foreplay of light and shadow for the midnight sun over the Arctic Circle, the tundra vegetation and the spouting whales one sees from the aeroplane—everything seems surreal. For the next 10 days, we drive and cruise through the crisp and salty air of Alaska, through the lakes, rivers and waterfalls made out of glaciers, on the long-winding roads that warn you against moose crossings, via the gigantic national parks made of grasslands and relentless jungles of spruce, birch, pine, fern and acres of bright fireweed fields—gentle rem­i­nders of the summer gone by. And then, there are oil pipelines and defunct gold mines, towns devastated and rebuilt post-earthquakes. As is evident from our tour director Jesse Holt’s non-stop commentaries while we travel across the interiors of Alaska, every nook and cranny of the largest US sta­te by area has innumerable stories of things humans can do to survive and thrive, for need and for greed.
I don’t share photos till the very last day, as if sharing will bring in a bad omen and pain. Alaska is the kind of place where you either have to walk a lot or sit down a lot to find your way around—both detrimental to a back that’s suddenly behaving well. It is probably the delight of seeing the unseen that makes me forget the pain. This is probably what staying in the moment means. This is why travelling has been sacrosanct to monks and spiritual practitioners. This is why travelling should be a part of every writer’s lifelong learning syllabus.
As my stay in Alaska comes to an end, I look down at my all-weather shoes, and then at the phone which hasn’t sto­p­ped buz­zing. There are calls to be attended, scripts to be reworked, other urgent medical matters to be worried about, missed parent-teacher meetings to feel guilty about. I open Final Draft every now and then—in Valdez, in Fairbanks and even in Denali—to work on a scene or two, to finish the bro­ad story I had been struggling with. (By the way, this is not the literal ‘final draft’, but the screenwriting software—the biggest joke ever on screenwriters.)
And yet I am in no hurry. I’ll let time watch me instead of the other way around, as I zoom in and out of the script I’m working on. In the meantime, as I get ready to get back to city life, I also wonder if there are different ways of living and making a living as a screenwriter. There must be a whole new world of employment opportunities available without hustling in Andheri, no? Can one not sit aside and still write towards earning one’s wages, say by staying in a motel in some far-flung place, having some coffee with half-and-half in the mornings, and arrange for meetings on Zoom calls while having a buffet breakfast? Would the pain not become more manageable if it weren’t constantly subjected to more and more abuse that big city life keeps putting us in?
The biggest irony is I had to travel all the way to Alaska to arrive at an answer, which is largely ‘no’. No, because, the day one chose to become a screenwriter, one decided to write not for oneself, but for others. For others’ approvals, validation, appreciation and criticism. Therefore you need to be available for others more than for yourself. And hence the realisation that the pain, even if you escape with it all the way to Alaska, is here to stay.
When I asked my fellow screenwriter and friend Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh if there was anything I should get her from Alaska, she texted back saying all she wanted from me was a promise—that I will bury all my pain and anxieties in Alaska. Now, this is one promise a writer can probably never keep, at least not forever, even as I make a genuine attempt at drowning all my anxieties in the Pacific. Here is a little note to Sanyuktha, and to all fellow screenwriters: just as pain is inevitable for a writer, so is escaping the suffering by getting away from the madding crowd. We’ll keep writing through our pain and sufferings, and we’ll keep finding and escaping to yet another Alaska for ourselves every now and then. That is how some of the biggest hits and greatest flops of our times will be written.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Downeaster Alaska")
(Views expressed are personal)
Anu Singh Choudhary is a mumbai-based screenwriter
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