12. Prologue

In The Mahabharata, Karna is a kshatriya (warrior) born out of wedlock to the sun-god Surya and the unmarried princess Kunti, who had impetuously tested a boon permitting her to fuck a god of her choice and bear his divine children. She abandons him at birth. He is found, adopted, and raised by a childless suta (mixed-caste) charioteer and his wife but is stirred by his blood to study archery. Despite his formidable talent, he is repeatedly overlooked for being a suta's son. Aspiring to study under master archer Parashurama, who only teaches Brahmins, Karna lies about his caste, claiming to be a Brahmin, and is accepted by Parashurama as a student. One day, Parashurama falls asleep with his head in Karna's lap. As Karna meditates, a frightful flesh-eating insect alights on his thigh and begins boring into his leg. Its stings and bites are agonizing, but Karna doesn't want to disrupt his guru's rest, and so he bears it silently, holding still so as not to jostle Parashurama's head while the insect feeds and the wound bleeds freely. Inevitably, the blood drips onto Parashurama's face, waking him. Realizing what had occurred, Parashurama declares that only a kshatriya can withstand such pain and fatally curses Karna for the deception — essentially, for his stoicism — proclaiming that his memory and essential knowledge will fail him when he needs it most.

The myth of Karna's curse frames endurance as a voluntary act and an involuntary characteristic, undeserving of praise outside of physical contest, and knowledge earned through endurance as unreliable, especially at the critical moment.

Withstanding pain results in retribution.

As a decolonial, biocultural framing device, this myth contains its own messages about the effects of the Eurocentric biomedical model of chronic pain; the persistent, specious linkage of digital capture, diagnosis, and cure; and the dispersal of power: who helms the course of treatment and education and what happens when the pained student attempts to conform.

In Western biomedicine, modern pain is constructed as an unshareable, interior experience despite its external expressions, legitimized only by ocularcentric approaches to assessment like facial cues, visible palpation signals, and imaging exams. "Authentic" pain can be confirmed through these techniques, and once located, can be eradicated through targeted treatment. However, this philosophy is designed for acute pain, which is temporary, curable, and frequently attended by visible signs (like wounds or screams), and not chronic pain disorders like fibromyalgia, the incurable, non-progressive illness that is my flesh-eating insect. When you're inhabited by constant, whole-body pain, pain becomes infra-ordinary, no longer provoking responses (like crying or flinching) that are apparent to nondisabled witnesses. Even the unpredictable flare-ups that are as visibly eruptive as acute pain are as fated and anticipated for me as Arjuna's Anjalikastra that strikes Karna down. My fibromyalgic uyirmey unsettles social perception and medical expertise and imaging: I make pain look easy and nowhere while declaring its omnipresence; I have mythical and modern Eelam Tamil understandings of being a student with chronic pain and brain fog, of the stakes of conforming to the expected role. In challenging established knowledge and its purveyors, I endanger the security of the expert class. When I approach physicians and gurus, when my bodymind's stoicism reveals me for what I am, I become a (racialized) threat, a provocateur whose objective is entrapment, exposure, and overthrow. I am blamed for the undermined expert's preemptive strike.

As the ascetic reacts to his failure to perceive Karna's identity by cursing him to forgetfulness, so the clinician and academic respond to their own lapses with disbelief and dismissal, cursing the subject to be forgotten. Each is a deadline ending in debility and death.

This text, my uyirmey, is the bleeding thigh, the chariot wheel in the mud, Anjalikastra, the fated deadline, the life lived knowing what is to come. It's an exercise in/about the institutionally unacceptable Other, a cross-pollination of mythologies, experiences, masquerades and writing styles that relies on critical theory and critical imagination. It claims diverse genres and methods: autoethnography, fictocriticism, disability studies, performance art, visual culture, textual analysis, media studies, the rhetoric of health and medicine. But like Karna, this text/body exists in a conflicted lineage. It is a "contaminated writing" in conventional Western epistemological production (White et al., 1990, pp. 10-11). A ghost story encompassing "both the stories of material colonization and the webs and wisps of narrative that are woven around, under, beneath, behind, inside, and against the dominant narratives of 'scholarly discourse' . . . a story that mixes worlds and ways, one that listens and speaks" (Powell, 2002, p. 12). A set of parables and puzzles akin to the Vedic tradition. A quest for rasa (aesthetic pleasure/taste) (Banerjee, 2004). A dissection of a life that is not entirely unfortunate (Borges, 1977/2000, pp. 482). And so "the chapters that follow are of 'no fixed abode.' Crisscrossing geographical, theoretical and disciplinary locations, they are offered here as a set of always partial and provisional reflections, intensities and hauntings from a state of absent presence and present absence, of being 'missing in action'" (Perera, 2016, p. xiii).

This text is my kavach (breastplate) and kundal (earrings), my immunizing armor freely given to you as alms though it leaves me exposed and vulnerable to the experts who gatekeep the credentials I seek. It is Vasavi Shakti, the astra that would have saved my life, expended out of necessity on you before a more fatal confrontation.

Defining this text is antithetical to its aims. Writing it has brought me closer to the deadline.

The fibromyalgic bodymind is always in biological, sensory flux, but in pausing its events, this text shows how I read my chronic illness and acute ruptures through Vedic myths. South Asian medical scholarship locates illness metaphors in figures from Sanskrit literature, but this isn't a story I can easily tell in the Western clinic or classroom, where I am often the only Eelam Tamil, where it's taken for granted that my touchstones are white.

Karna is formidable, the royal preceptor Drona says, but also distracted.

Understand that I am not supposed to be this person, but I am.

(–51. Murder in the Dark)