Why it's important to draw boundaries in your relationships

Even better, draw vertical lines

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Suresh Pattali

Published: Fri 28 Jul 2023, 3:01 PM

“What I process from your narrative is you’re unable to draw lines,” she said, straightening her collar and tugging at her sleeves. Immaculately dressed in office wear, its shades of brown adding an air of sophistication to her demeanour, she drove home the point: “It’s important to draw lines.”

Every moment is precious when you are in a psychology consult, so I was stuffing her with as much information as possible to elicit a trove of advice before the ‘time up’ buzzer went off. Sipping a cup of hot chocolate, I looked through the glass facade that unveiled the Marina cityscape against the backdrop of a pale blue summer sky. Cumulous clouds of childhood memories rolled under my eyelids.

My first memory was life as a Grade One student who longed to be a perfectionist in writing the squiggly Malayalam alphabets and drawing straight lines. I would pour ounces of saliva on my black slate to rub and rewrite until I got it right while my mum — stonewashing laundry under a guava tree — watched in awe at her little son’s perseverance.

“Well done, boy. Clean steady lines. Keep drawing,” she said, her voice drowning in the rhythmic beats of stonewashing.

As I moved to higher classes, lines of different shapes and colours were drawn all around me: Lines of class, lines of religion, lines of caste, lines of gender, lines of politics, etc. Lines traversed my little life. Permission was needed to cross the line to play with children of fisherfolk. As our little ‘girlfriends’ grew up and celebrated their menarche, thick lines were drawn between us.

Lines were cast in iron between students of different political beliefs. You are a leftist, and he is a rightist. You are a bourgeois and he is a proletariat. If ever we crossed the line, it was to draw blood. We put our lives on the line to safeguard our false beliefs and ideals.

Life outside India opened a new world of civilisation where the manifold lines that delineated my previous avatar blurred with the passage of time. From the swamps of bestiality rose a sense of humanity. Camaraderie was visible across geographical lines. I dismantled all the lines around me and threw open my heart to such an extent that life became an open book and there were no more secrets. People walked in and out like in a rural puppet show. Privacy was burgled and life was reduced to a chaotic market square.

“Damage has already been done. People have trampled on your life. Let’s talk about how to salvage what is left of you from the wreckage. To start with, you need to secure the doorway, redraw lines, and knock down the pedestals of ideology.” The psychologist pulled at her shirt again, as if to clear any crease.

There was a long pause as I set my eyes on the long line of ships waiting to berth off Jebel Ali. A full life was spent knocking down the Berlin Walls and she’s now talking about rebuilding them in the sunset years.

“You need to stir yourself out of senescence. Quality of life isn’t defined by your bank balance. It’s all about happiness. You can’t be true to others if you aren’t true to yourself. Are you ready?”

My eyes drifted to the busy Sheikh Zayed Road where traffic moved seamlessly. For a second, vignettes of anarchic Indian roads flashed across my mind. Isn’t there beauty in chaos?

“I guess I’m ready.” My reply wasn’t as animated as she would have expected.

“Look at the road. There are thousands of cars on the move between line markings. There are scores of radars to monitor them. Similarly, you need all sorts of radars and lines — broken, unbroken, yellow, green — to enforce discipline in your life. Your chocolate is getting cold,” she reminded.

“I had always believed in open skies.”

“On the ground, an aircraft moves on a designated runway. In the sky, it follows a certain flight path. Even the migratory birds, which you think are the freest on Earth, follow the wind routes.”

“Will give it a try,” I said, taking leave as the second buzzer went off. I spent the rest of the week earmarking the places where I could draw lines but wasn’t able to make much progress as hands trembled like a Parkinson’s patient.

“How did it go?” she asked as we sat for the next consult.

My eyes were set on a contrail left by an aircraft in the skyscape where the swanky towers of Marina sketched a bar chart of life. Have all residents in those towers drawn lines? And are they all happy?

“It wasn’t bad. I managed to go for a long drive along an infinite black line that cut across the serene desert. I’m just wondering if the black road and the contrail you see in the sky — two straight lines — are all spoilers?”

“Did anyone follow you in the drive?”

“No, just me.”

“Great start. Talking about the contrails, it’s not about the beauty of the lines but the quotient of happiness they would create. Love and respect should be a bilateral trade. The exchange should cease as soon it becomes a one-way trade. When you give, it’s legitimate to expect something in return.” She paused for me to respond.

“Love should be unconditional, right?”

“You need to love yourself before you give it all away. Have you ever? Time you fell in love with yourself.”

A sudden surge of agony and despair lapped my heart. How do I wrench back the time washed away by the floodwaters of life? Eyes swelled.

“I understand your commitments. I appreciate your kindness. You floated like a log in the ocean of time. Have you ever thought about your commitment to yourself?”

“It never occurred to me. By the way, I am practising to draw lines, but they all turn out be curvy. Moreover, people unabashedly cross over.”

“Lines, never mind they are straight or curvy, are easy to cross as long as they are horizontal. Draw vertical ones.”

“What do you mean?”

“They’re difficult to cross. They need to be climbed over. Draw the ones like the Berlin Wall, the Great Wall of China, or the Trump wall.”

“And if people still scale them?”

“Shoot them down. Or at least throw stones.”

On my way home, the summer sun shone around me. After topping off the gas tank, I veered right to a road untravelled. Speakers blared:

Think I might

Think I might love my-

Think I might

Think I might love myself.


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