How the Absence of Sunlight Made Me Realize “Muttathe Mullakku Manamilla”

“Hey, I don’t know what to write for this Tuesday,” I messaged my editor Govindan.

After trying to brainstorm a few ideas with me, he asked if I was fine. I hesitated for a moment, and then my fingers typed back…

“I can’t write anything because the Sun’s disappeared!”

So let me tell you the story of how a Malayali realized the value of the Sun…and why it’s no laughing matter.

*

I’d never stopped to consider how important the Sun is. In fact, growing up in the Middle East and then living in Kerala meant that the Sun was an adversary. My friends and I would grumble about the intensity of the heat, relatives would warn that playing football all day long was darkening my skin, tall buildings and trees were saviours that provided much-needed shade.

In short, instead of Vitamin D supplements, we were buying tubes of Fair and Lovely.

So when I came to Canada and realized the Sun goes on an extended vacation during the winter months, I was actually relieved. Finally, I could walk around without having to squint or shade my eyes in between wiping beads of sweat off my forehead.

But after a couple of sweat-free months, I began to realize something was wrong. It got tougher to get up, both from the bed in the morning and the chair after returning home from college. When my body and mind became still for a minute, it was almost possible to feel a deep sense of disquiet. I felt like a driver who is alarmed when the car is idling because he can hear something’s off in the engine.

“It’s Seasonal Affective Disorder,” my friend told me. “It’s very common for people to feel sad in the winter. Lack of sunlight and stuff…” He didn’t even have the energy to elaborate. And I wasn’t in the mood to ask any further questions.

I wondered how I would explain this to my parents. I imagined how the conversation would go. “Oh, I’m feeling a little…mood off ” I’d say.

I’m not sure how it happened, but writing this article made me realize “mood-off” was the term we used in our household for sadness. It’s a particular strain of sadness. If I didn’t get the promotion at work that I was hoping for, I’d tell my folks that “Enikku nalla vishamam undu (I have a lot of sadness). But “mood-off” is a separate term. I think the closest English translation would be…malaise.

Malaise means “a general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness whose exact cause is difficult to identify.”

And like any loving mother, mine would immediately want to understand the cause of it. She’d run through a checklist: Are you eating properly? Are you sleeping well? Are you spending time with your friends or are you alone? Are you talking to your sisters and brothers? Are you worried about your studies?

I’d sigh and shake my head, wishing she’d know about Seasonal Affective Disorder. Because the moment I dismiss her and say, “Oh, it’s because of the sun. There is not enough sunlight here, that’s why I’m feeling blue!”, I can picture her looking perplexed. Wondering if I was being metaphorical (like my friends, even though she is aware of my ‘artistic tendencies’). She might try to give me advice. On a topic she knows nothing about.

“You should go to the Wellness Center on campus,” my classmate told me. As I set out to find that particular office, I marvelled about how proactive the college was when it came to dealing with mental health. They had infrastructure dedicated to serving students and faculty that were suffering from anxiety, depression, stress…

I couldn’t imagine having such a support system back home in Kerala. As I stepped into the Wellness Center, I couldn’t have felt more alienated from my hometown environment of Thrissur, Kerala.

The doctor heard my problem and nodded sympathetically. “This happens to a lot of people here in winter,” he said gently. “There are several ways to combat this problem. For starters, how’s your diet?”

I told him that I cook my own food, and he advised me to increase the portion of vegetables and fruits I consumed every day. I made a mental note to modify my grocery shopping list.

“And make sure you are getting plenty of sleep. I know college means late nights and partying…but sleep goes a long way towards improving your overall mood.”

He then handed me a pamphlet that advertised several social activities for the month of December. There was a communal dinner on the 8th, and free ice skating activities every Thursday, not to mention board game night and movie night…

“It can be tempting to curl up on your couch and watch a movie,” the doctor said, grinning as he prepared to get up. “But it’s important to stay connected socially. The more quality time you spend with others, the better off you’ll be!”

I got up, feeling immensely grateful for his valuable advice. “Oh, and the college provides free yoga classes once a week. You should check it out. It’s a great way to destress. And remember, just take it easy, alright? Everyone goes through lows and highs….it’ll turn out fine!”

My mother called me just as I got back home. She was pleased to hear how cheerful I sounded and asked me what had happened. I simply chuckled and told her I was fine. There was no need to worry her about something I’d resolved on my own, after all.

She had to end the call because a few relatives dropped by, and as I waited for her to call me back ten minutes later, my roommate signalled to me from the kitchen.

“Yo, bro, do you want golden milk? It’s super healthy for you!”

I looked at the white guy extending me a glass of yellow liquid, and it took me a few seconds to understand. He explained why the yellow liquid was so healthy. “It’s basically milk with 3⁄4 teaspoon of turmeric, a little ginger and a pinch of cinnamon. Man, you have no idea how healthy turmeric is. It’s basically a superfood!”

“Ah…yeah? How – how did you hear about this?”

“I read this article three weeks back. And trust me bro, ever since, I’ve been having a glass of this every night and it’s really been effective!”

My mother called me back a few minutes later. She asked me once again what was on my mind.

I wanted to tell her how wrong I was in my thinking. About how I’d dismissed her concerns and treasured the same advice when it came from a doctor in a fancy office in an elegant building in a different country. About how I kept thinking she wouldn’t understand modern problems and modern remedies that were prescribed to treat them since she belonged to a generation and region that was supposedly “outdated”. About how I belonged to that group of Millennials who instinctively lapped up anything that western medicine, western culture or simply westerners advised, without pausing to think that people back in Kerala weren’t oblivious to the human condition and the ways in which it can be handled.

I still think mental health isn’t openly talked about in Kerala. But that doesn’t mean our parents don’t always know how to deal with it. We might not have evolved our vocabulary to cover clinical depression, seasonal affective disorder, anxiety, stress and depression, but it’s up to us to change that. It might start by saying, “I’m feeling a little…mood-off,” but rest assured, eventually we can learn to talk about and fix our problems.

The sun is still not out now. But hopefully, by the time it is, I’ll have improved my communication with my parents as well as my respect for their remedies. They might not have all the answers, but shutting them out of the conversation isn’t a solution.

I didn’t tell any of this to my mother. I didn’t know how to explain it all in three short minutes. Instead, I let her know that I was feeling a little “mood-off” but I was dealing with it.

And then I turned around and proceeded to blow my white roommate’s mind by telling him how healthy consuming a teaspoon of honey with lemon mixed in lukewarm water first thing in the morning really is.

“Trust me, it’s an ancient Ayurvedic remedy,” I said, “and there’s scientific research that talks about how it detoxifies the body, increases the metabolism and helps with weight loss.”

It’s funny how the further away you get from home, the more you begin to appreciate what was taught to you in your childhood, isn’t it?

P.S. “Muttathe Mullakku Manamilla” translates to “The jasmine in our front yard has no smell”. It’s a Malayalam proverb that refers to how we value others’ opinions/possessions over our own.

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