A strange, surreal life: is it all a dream?

Ramya SriramUncategorizedLeave a Comment

My life has taken on a strange dream-like quality nowadays. In fact, it seems to get more and more surreal, in ways I cannot fully explain. I used to think that my childhood had that abstract quality about it – you know, in which the specifics jump out, but the overall image is a bit fuzzy. That’s exactly what my adulthood feels like. I can pinpoint specific incidents and experiences that prompt a certain response, but the overall experience is somewhat vague. Life seems absurd even as I live it. Not absurd in a laughable way but absurd in that I can’t seem to access it despite being in it. There’s something inaccessible and unreachable about the present, isn’t there?

I wake up and do the things I’m supposed to do. I do the things I want to do. I love fiercely and hope wildly… but I still feel slightly distant. Maybe my childhood feels so solid and real because it’s in the past. I’ve already lived it and can interpret it whichever way I like, revisiting it often, changing little details here and there every time in my recounting. Maybe the past is the only thing that can be changed, and the present is as yet static, fixed.

There are moments when I feel I’m far removed from my life. Take today, for example. I was singing carols (it’s Christmas Day) in my local church in Cambridge, England, while quickly replying to a message on my phone about whether I’ve thought about freezing my eggs. Doesn’t that make for a weird picture? I go to the church here every year because I grew up singing carols in my convent-school church in India. I know the lyrics by heart. I feel nostalgic, at home. But this time, someone wished me a good holiday “all the way up to the Epiphany” – and I blinked blankly because I had no clue what that meant. He carried on, asking me where I was from, and I started to feel slightly uncomfortable at the fact that I look so evidently different. I immediately felt that familiar feeling of being a slight misfit. Anyway, I was reading about egg freezing because, as a married woman with a ticking raging biological clock, I am supposed to be thinking about reproduction and raising a family. Carols and egg-freezing: I could not reconcile this bizarre image to a definition, to anything I could recognize.

Perhaps my life has taken on this strange, dream-like quality because I’ve changed so much in the last couple of years that I don’t know myself anymore. I never really felt like a “whole” person, I was always a jumble of pieces scattered about. A couple of years ago I started therapy in an attempt to stitch these pieces together – like a patchwork quilt, if you will. But I didn’t have the opportunity to see the impact of therapy until recently, when I lost my job.

As I sat across the table from the person who had to break the news to me – I spoke calmly and carefully. After everything was sorted, during a more informal conversation, I said to him (but maybe more to myself), “I’m not shattered.” These words were true, but I didn’t really recognize the voice that said it. We talked through my options and he offered to recommend me to other jobs. I was gracious, he was kind, and it was all professional. I told myself that it was the initial shock that was helping me behave in such a composed and collected manner. There was going to be a Dark Phase after this, when I would break down and collapse in a mass of self-doubt and self-pity and take to Glassdoor to bitterly rant about the unfair layoffs. But 10 days later, I seem to be doing quite all right. Miraculously, I’m still all pieced together.

I’m not shattered, I had said to him. I wonder why I chose that word – maybe it was because for the first time, I felt like all the broken pieces of me had come together. The minute I was told that my job was at risk, my body and mind recognized it as something that needed all parts of me to come together as a whole and deal with this tough situation. I had never felt so confident and self-assured in my life. Who was this person? Was it still me, but new and improved? Wow, I felt like I must celebrate my progress, but I was a bit scared of the new unflustered version of me.

Perhaps my life has taken on this strange, dream-like quality because I’m frequently playing a game of Memory in my head. When I stepped out of the office after my last day, I was overcome and blinked back tears, wondering if I would remember what this day felt like, what this feeling felt like. Would I remember the big brown maple leaf that the autumn wind threw in my face?

I’d checked the weather that morning: “Gusty winds.” But no gust could blow me over, nossir, I told myself as I marched towards the bus stop. I noticed a row of pine trees I’d never noticed before. Pine trees. An image flashed in my head – of pine trees in Himachal, Manali, where I had gone paragliding with my dad.  I remember the exact words “I’m flying!” that I had yelled out to the tiny figures below me on the snow-covered slopes of Manali. And that scene from colourful, vibrant India seemed so vivid, so technicolour, so close to me, so much more real that the pine trees swaying outside the grey hospital building in grey wintry UK. Would I remember this day with as much clarity a few years later?

Playing the Memory game – the sun rises over the railway tracks, Cambridge and Bangalore, taken 8 years apart. 

I like mapping new feelings and emotions to something I’ve felt before, a sort of in-built pattern recognition tool, possibly as a way to help my brain to figure out how best to process it and provide an outcome. When there’s a new pattern I don’t recognize, my brain rushes to protect me, forces me to step back. When there’s a Memory card I’ve seen before, there’s an aha! moment. I know how to deal with this one. I have navigated this before. But if there’s a new card, I close it and put it back. I’m secretly delighted to be able to feel a new feeling, but I need to see more of these experiences to train the algorithm for an ideal response.

Perhaps my life has taken on this strange, dream-like quality because I simply can’t make sense of the world anymore. I sometimes have conversations with people who seem perfectly nice and sorted and suddenly they say something that seems fundamentally wrong (hint: political views) and I’m thrown off guard. On the rare days I decide to read the news, it seems to be Surreal Amplified. In India, a Hindu lady was banned from entering a temple because she ate beef. In the UK, a neonatal care nurse killed newborns. This is all ridiculous, so I go to Instagram to seek the solace of artists and musicians. The first thing I see is an artist whom I used to admire calling someone a “piece of faecal matter” because the commenter did not agree with said artist’s view on the Palestine conflict. Said artist has also proclaimed himself to be peace-loving and anti-hate-speech but will not miss a chance to exhibit moral superiority and use divisive, nasty language in the same breath. Huh? I move on. I notice a celebrity in a lovely saree. I click to see where saree is from but in the comments I find a barrage of body-shaming dialogue including names of choice animals. What on earth is going on?  Surely this can’t be real.

Perhaps this strange dream-like quality is brought on by me living in the UK. Since I moved eight years ago, my life has been divided into a great big Before and After. At first, I was determined to live in two places mentally at once, and I did it successfully for five years. When I decided I could no longer carry that burden, I was shocked to find that I was doing absolutely fine –  even better – by committing to my current life. I never thought I’d be eating Digestives with the same gusto as I ate Parle-G, or saying “Cheers” as often and easily as “Chalo”. I feel the same guilt as an NRI as I did as an Indian resident in India – the guilt that comes with the passion to do something but having that passion dwarfed by the enormity and complexity of the country’s problems. Ah, this conflict of staying suspended in between the home you come from and the one you build. Never gets old. All adding to the peculiarity.

Perhaps my life is becoming more and more dream-like as I’ve learned to rely not on people but on the predictability of nature (how ironic). I know that the horse chestnut will grow leaf-buds in spring and that the sun will come out after the rains. As a defence mechanism, I’ve learned to be wary of depending on humans, and I refuse to admit how much I need people around. I’ve learned that music and art and books and nature can not only be refuges for escapists like me but can also be steady unflinching companions, capable of offering comfort in the loneliness of times. I remember places and incidents and even people by the song I was listening to at that time, a bird I spotted, or a book I was reading. They’re very similar to the details we remember about a dream.


I spent a week in Cornwall on a solo trip and this picture of a gull above my head on a bus stop is the detail that I’ll never forget  

Perhaps my life has taken on this strange dream-like quality because it’s so different from what I imagined it would be. I thought I’d be doing life-changing work, juggling a high-impact job with two angelic children, living in the same city as my parents, have aprons neatly folded in the kitchen, and possibly even having a pet dog that my dog-whisperer husband would eventually love more than me.  But now I am, mostly by choice, pet-less, without children, not living in India. I can’t claim to be changing lives, and I’m living quite far away from my parents. There is one apron hung clumsily on the handle of the kitchen door but my t-shirts and pajamas have thick dustings of flour on them. My imagination was so real, and reality is so different from what I had imagined, that I’m taking time to catch up. And perhaps that’s why it’s impossible to be in the present – I feel like by the time we catch up, it has changed.

And so I live my life in the in-betweens – the space between who I was and who I am becoming. And perhaps this is how life is supposed to be – weird and absurd, with the rare moments of clarity carrying us through. Perhaps it’s supposed to have all the filters that give it that dreamy effect: sepia tones, grainy paper, a few things in sharp focus with the rest largely blurred. The present will always be out of reach;  we’re constantly moving forward. I think of how peaceful I feel when I’m on a train, in between destinations. I suppose that extends to life to. Aren’t we all simply in between a beginning and an end? And, perhaps all of this is really just a dream.

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The Sibelius Monument in Helsinki, Finland.  I spent a lot of time wandering around this majestic, massive sculpture, which has 600 steel pipes arranged at specific heights. Absurd but beautiful. 

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