Pooja Pande is the lead reportage editor at Papercuts. Growing up between Sharjah and New Delhi, Pooja has always searched for that which withstands time. The word on the page, the music in the sky, mental mathematics. A post-graduate in English Literature from Lady Shri Ram, Delhi University, Pooja spent 13 years building the critically acclaimed arts and culture magazine, First City; first as a writer and then as an editor. Pooja is currently pursuing her writing and editing career as a freelancer, working with publishing houses and authors, helping shape manuscripts such that they achieve their best potential. Her first book, Red Lipstick: The Men in my Life, a literary-styled memoir chronicling the personal life story of transgender rights activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, was published by Penguin-Randomhouse in August 2016. Pooja lives with her husband and six-year-old daughter in New Delhi, India. She’s still seeking a few answers on Time, Eternity and the likes, but she’s getting there.
A woman on the verge of death.
Writhing in pain.
It seems that she’s going to give in and heave a heavy last breath anytime now. The ground beneath her is shaking, the life inside her is tearing her apart, quite literally.
She is all alone. Surely she will die any moment now.
Except that she doesn’t.
She screams in agony, pushes with all her might, and just like that, becomes a mother.
She bites off the umbilical cord. There’s her baby.
Watching the opening montage of Season 2 of the television show The Leftovers is like immersing yourself inside the heavy, purposeful mind of a symbolist playwright. It is also the perfect tribute to both death and life and especially the in-between, because, as anyone who’s ever experienced the throes of it would agree, nothing says ‘The Other Side’ more than a woman in labour.
We’ve been where she has, this primal cave woman, in this space where death inches close and takes a stab at you, even as life fights and struggles and claws its way out. It’s anybody’s guess which side you’ll be left on.
Concepts of purgatory and limbo are very definite ideas with roots in Catholic theology, and have been part of creative imaginations ever since the artists and poets amongst us have tried to explain the human condition. Purgatory, the space where souls await the final cleansing and redemption, has found aesthetic visualization in Ludovico Carracci’s masterpieces, who envisioned it as a fiery state of being, to baroque sculpture in Spain, to Dante’s Divine Comedy, through more contemporary artistic endeavours, such as Martin McDonagh’s cinematic depiction of it – ‘In Bruges’, you could argue, is an extended vision of purgatory, in some sense, even alluded to as such in the closing scenes. Limbo, being permanent and widely understood as the final resting place of Socrates, has seen still more creative interpretations, particularly in pop culture – the Artemis Fowl series, and Christopher Nolan’s Inception, being just two examples.
And while The Leftovers makes serious playthings of both purgatory and limbo, it lives out its true meaning on the Axis Mundi.
“Other Place” by Dilip Chobisa. Graphite on paper. 12 x 12 x 3 inches. Image courtesy: The artist, and Gallery Escape New Delhi.
Kevin Garvey (played with a masterful, deliberate genius by Justin Theroux) is, on the surface, the very model of an upright citizen. He is police chief of Mapleton in New York, and works 24-7 with a sharp focus on maintaining law and order in his town, also his birthplace, a town that was for many years before him, under the protection of Officer Garvey Sr., Kevin’s father. He is a dutiful cop trying to do best by his daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley), who’s in a difficult stage of her growing-up years, all the more complicated by the fact that her mother and Kevin’s wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), doesn’t live with them anymore.
She has chosen a different life path. In the aftermath of the event that defined the world, changed and shaped and scarred it forever, there emerged a cult that opted out of the mainstream, abandoned their loved ones and their own former selves, to turn themselves into living reminders of what had happened that day on the 14th of October, when 2% of the entire planet’s population – that’s 140 million humans – simply disappeared. They were there one moment, and gone in the next – an event that came to be known as The Sudden Departure. Laurie was among those who chose not to move on, and instead act as ominous visions – in white, preferably, smoking – to those who had. As a member of The Guilty Remnant, Laurie was wont to leave behind the life she had led and appear at the doorsteps and driveways of people who were either trying hard to forget, or who were simply not affected. After all, what is one Departure when we hear and read – and increasingly watch – so many real-time happenings all around us, equally or far more cruel and violent? A man could be hacked for being of “the wrong faith”; a 2-year-old could be brutally raped; millions could die while trying to exit the war-torn shores of their own nation in the hopes to become refugees in another.
When we meet Kevin, he’s on the cusp of a breakdown. His father has been incarcerated into a mental health institute – not only does he hear voices, he has deep, meaningful conversations with them. His wife has rejected him and immersed herself in woe. His daughter has questions he has no answers for. And The Departure itself had wounded him in a way he has never sought to resolve.
Kevin often has memory lapses – he wakes up from time-to-time knowing that something bad has happened, or that he has done something terrible, but he simply does not remember. There are also hallucinations.
It is a quiet desperate suffering that turns into a more active macabre quest by the time the show transitions into Season 2. We now see Kevin having made something of a life with a new partner, Nora Durst (the inimitable Carrie Coon, in a surreal, luminous performance of a lifetime), in a new town known as Miracle. Miracle is in fact, Jarden, Texas, but being the only place on earth The Departure left untouched, it has been termed so.
But Kevin is now even more drawn to the abyss. He often tries to suffocate himself, and agrees to consume poison to finally experience what lies in store for us all – where, true to The Leftovers’ sharp cheek that you could mistake for humour, a nondescript hotel room awaits. Turns out hell or heaven, or the other side, if you please, is nothing but a cheap hotel room where the TV only offers static, and the closet is packed with several white linen shirts. Your only way out is a game of spinning the wheel. And Kevin’s way out is back to Jarden and Nora. Several episodes later, he’s up for trying it again, though he now has a few illusions of self-grandeur – Kevin never can decide which side is better, or perhaps, even just liveable.
The Axis Mundi goes by a few names – the quasi-mystical cosmic axis, the semi-poetic world tree, and the supremely self-important center of the world. It is a philosophy of life and beyond that suggests and urges deep self-introspection – what Ishmael indulged in, amidst the seafaring adrenalin rush of chasing a giant whale; the navel-gazing that draws its power from the very umbilical cord we were all once tied to, which gave us sustenance, and protected us. Until that horrific, overwhelming, blessed moment when she bites it off, and thrusts us into the world, to dive or drown, head-first.
The Axis Mundi is hence sacred in the purest sense of that term – dating to an era when we did not let political agendas appropriate everything that makes us who we are – it is believed to be the resting point of Mount Kailash, where that ultimate shaman lived and loved and meditated and performed miracles no less than the ones we witness in The Leftovers. The god we know as Shiva.
It is not a coincidence that Kevin flits between worlds and sets into motion a cult of believers who, in their desperate quest for redemption, fearful of cosmic turns that could suddenly wipe out 2% of the earth’s population, build him up as a Saviour. Being a man, it is no surprise then, that Kevin starts believing it himself – in a witty gender twist, the joke is on the man who styles himself as a god, even as the woman makes the real journey that offers wisdom.
The central event of The Leftovers, the Sudden Departure is also known as The Rapture – once again, staying true to the tenets of evangelism, and once again, part of artistic oeuvres and creative myths.
Nora Durst’s is an exceptional case, being part of that exceptionally rare group of people who lost everyone they loved in that single moment on October the 14th. She’s complaining about the demands being made on her time, her strength, by every member of her family one second – angst-ing about picking up that call that spells a new life, her phone slipping into a sink of dirty dishes – and she’s shocked by the complete silence in her house, in the next. Her husband, and her two children, have departed; leaving Nora behind to live a cursed life as someone who experienced and suffered the Departure, thrice over.
But what if the curse is a blessing?
The Rapture is, you could say, a much-looked-forward-to event, Biblically speaking, because the chosen ones meet with the ultimate reward. They are sent to unite with Christ – those who’re dead are resurrected. In her professional life as an officer of the Department of Departures, Nora gets to ask a series of questions to people such as herself, who lost at least one person they loved in the Sudden Departure. One of these questions is, ‘Do you believe he/she is in a better place?’
As she asks this time after time, at her professional poker-faced best, Nora asks it of herself too, each time, every second. She is embarrassed at this knowledge – a tattoo she got in the heat of emotion is a scar she hides – and she is cynical. It is when she is vulnerable, when Nora decides to visit the time and place of that apocalypse that changed her life forever that she embraces a sense of peace.
As the wizened, grey Nora sitting atop her Axis Mundi herself reveals, in the series finale, the grass was never greener, no matter where you looked at it from.
They were always identical, the two of them – this one, and the other side.