Diary: Sumana Roy, ”Exhaust Pipe“
Sleeping Farmer, Japan, Meiji period (1868–1912), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
At night I lie in bed thinking of where exactly it might be. It’s like a rat in the house. It stirs and makes a noise from time to time, particularly in the dark; its presence is everywhere, in the chewed and shredded bits of paper and food, clothes and shoes. In the morning we wonder where the rat might have come from, and where exactly it is now, so that we can chase it away. I’m talking of exhaustion—my body is that house.
To look for it seems as hard as looking for where love exactly lives. For love, at least, there is an imagined address: the heart, its uncertain perimeter. But exhaustion? One feels it in the body, but its locus shifts, like the rat at night. The rat looks for food. But exhaustion? I go to the internet, where everyone goes to find everything now, and I search for its etymology.
1640s, “fatigue,” noun of action from exhaust (v.) in sense of "drawing off" of strength. The etymological sense "act of drawing out or draining off" is by 1660s in English
Were people not exhausted before the seventeenth century? Is exhaustion a modern invention, even younger than Shakespeare? I make inconsequential calculations in my head—the dead outnumber the living; is the totality of exhaustion dwarfed by its absence?
I use the word and its relatives a few times every day—in WhatsApp messages, in emails, occasionally, when I have the energy, in a phone call. My interlocutors use the same words. I notice that it has begun to appear like “hello” and “bye,” to inaugurate and close conversations. “Oh god, I’m so exhausted,” I tell an acquaintance, and then quickly add, “like everyone else, of course.” To this, she says, “Yes, we’re all exhausted.” Typically, the word comes up again, at least once, leading to goodbye. It’s exhaustion protocol. There is more: the frequent oh god!, the sighs, the pauses. Sometimes I ask my friend whether they are speaking to me while closing or covering their eyes. It all seems too much to take in—sight and sound at once, the “audiovisual,” as the world has become. I rub my eyes and ask whether they are rubbing their neck. For that is what I do next. Even when we don’t share common gestures, we are united by one thing—it is all our fault, our bodies and our minds, and their inabilities to cope. It is a version of the Stockholm syndrome: we no longer have employers, the “admin”, to dictate how our lives—and our bodies—are run as corporations. Perhaps scared of sounding like teenagers blaming their parents, we dissect the remote signals from admin as if performing literary criticism. That is how powerful we are—as powerless as literary critics.
I think of my parents, their simple acceptance of the norms of office life and office living. I’ve rarely heard them complain about that life. And now, in retirement from those spaces, nostalgia has transformed them into sacred chambers out of which the oil that fed our lives flowed. We look back at it as one does a temple in history—with wonder, that people came as pilgrims. We are no longer pilgrims. Or, if we are pilgrims at all, it is the day, with its ample forehead of light and sound, that is the site of our pilgrimage. It is not the office cubicle or the Zoom window—those rectangular spaces with closed corners. The day, our natural habitat, is the opposite of that—it has no borders, no lines, one doesn’t know where it begins and ends; it is like the pillow that will take the shape of our head or the quilt that takes the shape of our body. The day needs no passwords, the night doesn’t either. To live with one’s spine always erect, at military attention, is asking the human—an animal—to live like a straight line. I think this is what causes the invisible exhaustion. I say invisible because that is what it is—it is not the sweat and salt of running from one stop to another, bus to train to pebbled street. This balancing of weight requires a different kind of skill, one we have not been conditioned to.
Let’s do the neck exercises, we tell each other. And right after putting down the phone, I begin—turning my head in tiny increments from left to right, right to left, chin on chest to as far as the head will move backwards. It’s the spine, I remember telling my friend, where all our exhaustion accumulates. That makes the spine sound like a trash bin, I am aware.
I remember pausing at the word “tailpipe” in Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth many years ago. I didn’t know that it was a British expression for what in India is called the “exhaust pipe” in a car. I hadn’t paid much attention to the anatomy of a car until then. “Tailpipe”—was it possible for a tail to spill out what was unnecessary to it the way an exhaust pipe does for an automobile? Where is the human exhaust pipe, how else will we be rid of our exhaustion? When there is an outlet for everything that the body rejects—spit and shit and snot and gas and much else—why is there no outlet dedicated to the emission of exhaustion?
I keep hearing another word: “burnout.” In both “exhaustion” and “burnout” is the sense of wasting away—burnout is more visible, leaving something behind, like ash. Exhaustion—such a long word, one gets tired even trying to say it. I think of the meter of exhaustion—why isn’t it trochaic? That there are so few songs of tiredness should not be a surprise. Who sings when exhausted, after all? There’s one by Rabindranath Tagore: “Klanti amar khawma kawro probhu,” Forgive me, O God, for this tiredness …
But there’s no god to blame for this and therein the dormant rage that leads to more exhaustion.
I think of the Bangla words shanti and shranti, peace and exhaustion respectively, and I wonder how the loss of just one consonant sound, “r,” can turn exhaustion into peace. I lie in bed waiting to lose that “r.”
Klanti amar khawma kawro probhu.
Sumana Roy’s arboreal reflection, How I Became a Tree, will appear in paperback in a few weeks. We featured it in Book Post last fall. She is also the author of Missing: A Novel, My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories, and two books of poetry, Out of Syllabus and V. I. P: Very Important Plant. She is Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Ashoka University, outside of New Delhi.
An aside from the editor:
“Huizi said to Zhuangzi, ‘The King of Wei gave me the seeds of a big gourd. I planted them, and when they grew the fruit was a yard across. I filled them with water but they weren’t sturdy enough to hold it. I split them into ladles but they were too big to dip into anything. It wasn’t that they weren’t fantastically big, but they were useless. So I smashed them.’ Zhuangzi said, ‘You are certainly clumsy about using big things, sir.’’’
A bit of perspective. Read and comment on Paul Kjellberg’s (yes, relation) interactive, multidimensional digital translation and commentary on this and other passages from the ancient Chinese text of Zhuangzi —AKj
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