Colour of pain the same in us all


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Category: Reflections Date: 16 Sep 99

A woman of 85 sits in a room smelling strongly of disinfectant, age and loneliness, and rocks on her back which has curved into the shape of a C. The room is shadowed with death, and the slow motion movements of scabrous, bilious broken down bodies. She rocks back and forth until it’s her turn to sit on a chair under the shower and be bathed, have her diaper put on, and given her medication.


She was a landlady once, she bore 12 children. They do not come to see her. They have all flown the nest. Now she rocks to comfort herself through the airless days and nights.


People form a shroud around a middle-aged woman. Her 24-year-old daughter is dead. She is aware of movement around her, knows her mouth is opening and closing and words are coming out of them, that people are talking to her, but she’s not with them. She’s in her head. She’s crouching somewhere inside her haemorrhaging heart. She sees only that beloved face, now a baby, now a teenager, now a lovely young girl. From somewhere else, she hears her voice pierce the air when she remembers the pain, and her lifeless body.


A man in his prime negotiates his wheelchair on a pavement and looks and looks at the front door of the building where he has come for a job interview. There are stairs here, no elevator in sight. He tastes salt in his mouth and swallows disappointment and rage.


A mother and father together put a cap on their toddler’s tiny head. He is two years old and bald from chemotherapy. An invisible dark shadow shrouds them, makes their mouths turn downwards even as they try to smile at him.


A well-dressed woman carefully applies makeup on the bruise over her left eye. From her bathroom window she has a view of her leafy neighbourhood, gets a glimpse of the neighbours’ pool. Where am I to go? she thinks. What about the children? What will the neighbours say? But a tiny voice in her head says a little room anywhere will do. Another answers. But I am not equipped to survive on my own.


A woman locks herself in the bathroom as two children fight and a baby’s cries pierce the air. It gets too much, she says, retching over the toilet seat. I can’t do it on my own anymore. I can’t do it. I can’t do it. Where is he? Why am I left carrying the burden?

Our televisions, newspapers and eyes everyday show us the exterior world of traffic jams, and brisk bank tellers, of men in suits and busy streets, of busy material shops, of demonstrations, and parliamentary debate, of school children, and floods.


We see, read and write about the debris (the crime, the tragedies, the waste, the frustration, the stories which, whether they are about paving the Savannah or a petty crime, come from grasping for more, more, more). It is difficult to see beyond masks: a snobbish woman, cute guy, sexy girl, young mother, ruthless businessman, honest worker, policeman, hustler, limer and so on. We box people into one-dimensional stereotypes mainly because superficial impressions are all we have to go on. But these are the stories that can stop wars, because when the layers of skin colour and circumstance are peeled off, we see that underneath, the colour of pain, like blood, is the same in us all - even if it is spread in different quantities.

Dig into human nature and, like all excavations, sooner or later you’ll come up with fiery jewels flashing into the debris.


The old rocking woman dreams of a large garden, of being a girl in ponytails and playing with her dead brother. Only now they are young. She dreams of her mama and papa. She thinks of her newborn great granddaughter, she shares confidences and chocolate with the woman on the next bed. They giggle like girls in a dorm in their nighties. She still loves the dawn and piping hot coffee.


The woman with the dead daughter grieves, but summons enough hope out of the calamity to get out of bed and brush her teeth every morning, to bake a Christmas cake, to correct her grandson’s manners at the dinner table. It implies a going on, a continued belief in rituals, in gritting courage, hope, even if it’s numbed.


The man in the wheelchair is astonished at the way his disappointment dissolves simply at the sound of an old bouncy love song. He is back home, with new application forms, renewed determination and the memory of a girl who made him crack up with laughter every time she spoke.


The mother and father watch with astonishment as their child removes the looming shadow by absorbing them in his charm. They marvel at him - his first step, the way he calls every animal a doggie and shoves cotton candy into their faces. Their eyes say: he’s here now isn’t he? That’s enough.


The woman in the nice neighbourhood with the bruised eye raises her head and looks at herself with a steely determination and without knowing she was going to do it, packs a little bag with essentials, calls a friend and walks out feeling light as a feather.


What a relief it is not to want the possessions and the social status which paralysed her all these years. They were simply traps. She will work, she thinks, and pierce her belly button, find out who she is and what she wants, and the children will understand.


The baby falls asleep. Two children shove paper napkins under the door for mummy. They hand her a cup of tea made with lukewarm water and a sticky Kiss cake when she comes out. She gathers them into her arms with a swirl of love and with it comes a return of hope. She thinks: “We are going to make it after all. We’ll be OK once we’re together.”


The stories are adapted and camouflaged - not literal, but they are drawn from life. But it took just one of these stories to make me ashamed of my own debris, my own petty worries, grouses, and frustrations, to remind me just how decent, courageous and what a tough organ the human heart is.


The insignificant human debris parts to reveal that flaming jewel of courage which allows us to go on with dignity, draws us closer, allows us to feel less alone, heal.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur