He was a cave dweller near the banks of Lake Limboto, the largest lake of Gorontalo in Indonesia. Aba Una called it his home until a severe leg injury pushed him out of it. A limestone, said The Jakarta Post, fell on his right thigh, rendering him unable to walk for days. His half-sister, Salma Sune, and other relatives intervened and moved him out of the cave on a stretcher. Right now, Aba Una and other homeless denizens in the area have settled in a former primary school complex.
Aba Una’s story resonated with me and the life that I had in another country that came undone. Before that sliver of memory lodged itself in my heart (again – it does that every now and then), I was struck by his sheer determination of leaving behind his old life that was overwhelmed by pain – his marriage collapsed and became a cave dweller after the divorce. The aphorism “no man is an island” came to mind after I read the first few sentences of the feature story. But Aba Una bucked that bandied about saying. He was an island to himself and, if not for that leg injury, would have continued to live among the starving rats and the snakes that crawled and slithered quietly into his humble abode. Two of the snakes got caught in the protective netting he put up at the entrance, which saddened him. He has a soft spot for animals – he would have released the two captives had he had known earlier he was quoted in the article. It was mind-blowing when I read the part when a cobra emerged near his head and, amazingly, glided away after he finished his prayers. He tried looking for it but it was in vain.
The memory then, like a rolled up curtain, unfurled itself. I was living in a cave albeit sans the creepy crawly creatures, mosquitoes (Aba Una solved that with mosquito repellent), darkness and damp walls. The thought never occurred to me until after I had read the tale. I had retreated into my little cave, in my flat in Cavenagh Gardens. I dropped out of the Net, abandoned my hand phone and, well, I simply backed away from the world. Propelled by pain, my life became a monotonous routine of waking up, trying to eat, combating the grief and heading back to bed. I unrolled my yoga mat frequently to keep the demons of pain from howling in my head and, thankfully, a session brought me a few hours of silence and blankness. I felt empty and cold but I preferred it that way. I didn’t want to feel anything at all. What was the point of feeling when all I felt were stabs of misery, hopelessness and betrayal? Joy completely vanished and I had no intention of going after it. At one point I had an intimation of everything coming to an end when a very sharp pain suddenly impaled my left side when I was alone in the flat. This couldn’t be the end, I thought to myself. My mother once mentioned of how my maternal grandfather passed because of a broken heart – the love of his life left him too early. My heart went out to the grandfather I never knew and would have wanted to gotten to know more at that moment. Quelling the panic welling up inside me I dropped to the nearby sofa and sat still, breathing slowly as my inner voice rallied me to calmness. Tears rolled down steadily and then my academic self surface. First epiphany: a heart does get broken and the pain does cut up anyone inside badly. Second epiphany: others survive while others don’t. Third epiphany: a former friend could be right about C after our acrimonious break up: “He’s in pain. He’s hurting inside – believe me.”
I would have stayed in my cave forever if not for a friend who came for a visit and uprooted me. Forced out of the flat by hunger and throbbing headaches to walk to the nearby Cold Storage to get food wasn’t leaving my cave and going back to the world of the living, was, as she put it, not undoing the cave dweller syndrome. I was resistant at first but she wouldn’t have any of that and made sure that sunlight filtered through the flat and my mind. She was as disciplined as a staff sergeant on 24-7 duty, checking that I stuck to my new routine of living that she drew up.
Unlike Aba Una who is barred from going back to his old cave, I decided to leave my cave in Cavenagh Gardens forever. Having his ghost as my flatmate wasn’t going to do me any good and would just push me off the edge of sanity so I gathered the shattered pieces of my heart and placed them in a box. I’d piece them back together slowly I thought to myself. That was my frame of mind three years ago. I haven’t been back to that cave but the recluse in me is still with because it’s something I took with me after I left the cave. I like being a recluse every now and then, but not because the pain demons are back. I go back into my little cave to rejuvenate from exhaustion, to collect my thoughts and simply to be by myself for a few hours.