A psychiatrist, a patient and a confession. The patient suffers from a strange disease of beards called ‘pogonophobia’. The chilling suspense story unfolds as a conversation between the two characters inside the doctor’s chamber.
Written by Shambhavi Singh who is a 21 year old medical student from Mumbai.
“This room has a sedative power to it. It’s easy to leave the troubles at the door”, she murmurs, staring into the distance, the ghost of a smile at her lips, exhaustion now starting to show on her features. I look around. My home office is a spacious room; walls coloured in soft pastels and daunting columns of my decorated certificates, sophisticatedly furnished with my name glinting off the desk plate on a fetching mahogany table. The illuminating light falls on all the homely paraphernalia I’ve left artfully cluttered around to make the room warmly inviting. And there, huddled on the sofa across the room with an unconsumed cup of tea in hand, my troubled patient sits. I have to say, I like it much better than the picture she painted a half hour ago. She had thrown herself on my door mindlessly screaming for help, breathless and sweating profusely, every bone in her frame rattling, eyes bloodshot like she was being chased by something straight out of hell. In the hundreds of cases I have treated, it is this frame of mind- this extreme, life-threatening fear, that I have found to be my most formidable opponent. ‘Opponent’ because I respect fear. Of all the emotions in the world, there’s few others that can push people off steeper cliffs. Every survival instinct you have kicks into overdrive such, there’s barely a window for coherent thought.
“Samayra. Are you ready to talk about it yet?”, I ask her gently and wait….and wait….and wait some more. Finally comes a shaken voice I have to strain my ears to hear, “He’s after me, Ayesha. He’s after me. He’s chasing me, has been chasing me since the day I started my sessions with you and will not stop till he hurts me. He’s everywhere. He’s walking around in my office, he’s at the restaurant I go to, and today, I saw him in the parking lot of my housing society! I saw him today and literally sprinted till here. And now my favourite heels are broken”, sitting up straighter she adds, “I think we should inform the police.”
“Because a man broke your favourite heels simply by existing? I know in some or the other way men are to be blamed for every ill of the society, but ……. really? My words have a desired effect. She huffs out a breath and tries to fight back a smile.
“Walking around in your office..”, my head bobs rhythmically,“ is there any possibility that you might not have noticed his professional attire?” Because her thoughts have now jumped onto the tracks of mine, her voice turns perceptibly brittle, “Maybe. May not be. It’s a frantic jump to a convenient conclusion, if you ask me.”
“Listen to me very carefully Samayra. You suffer from a very peculiar case of Pogonophobia. An extreme fear of beards. This, you already know. The fact that it can be treated and controlled, is also something you already know. Let me try to tell you something you might not know. This man you’ve been seeing, for the past almost three weeks now, is a bearded man who has never, during this entire period approached you or tried to harm you in any way- ” I hold up a finger when she starts to interrupt me. “Every time you see a man with a beard, you feel threatened. Your fight-or-flight response gets triggered and every instinct you have screams at you to save yourself. It doesn’t matter who he is or however safe he looks. Your brain is wired to take that person as a danger signal. The first step is to accept this. And understand that it’s not your fault and in no terms does it make you a crazy person”.
“Even if I’m running in my heels in broad daylight?”
“Especially then. Just makes you human.”
She sighs and leans back to look at the ceiling. “But here’s what I don’t understand yet. You are a working woman. You go to an office daily. What with facial hair trends making a comeback in men, there must be many sporting beards in your workspace. Do you have a physical reaction like this every time you see one?”, I ask.
“No. I mean, not like that. How do I explain this…..there’s a very particular type of beard I have a problem with. Stubbles and all are fine. Well-trimmed and maintained facial hair is also fine. I do notice it and get a little anxious, a little weary of approaching those men. My palms sweat a little and my heartbeat quickens the closer they are. Sometimes my mouth will get dry and I will get nervous. It’s not absolutely normal but it’s still minor and in a few minutes I am able to overpower this inane urge to bolt. I’m usually able to bring myself to calm down enough to approach or be approached. Then the more I talk, the better it gets. Eventually, they’re just harmless friends or acquaintances. I mean, I would never be attracted to men having facial hair, but I can make do with them in every other aspect of my life. I have trained and diligently worked on myself, doctor, to come here this far in life. I have never let my career or social duties suffer because of my illness.” By this point, her emotions have been ruffled again. She purses her closed lips and frowns at nothing in particular while she gets up to stalk around the room. Her fingers dextrously knot and unknot behind her back, the nails on which, I register, have been chewed bloody. This stranger is displacing her hold on her emotions, shaking the core of something she’s meticulously built over the years, one conditioned response a time. It’s scaring and frustrating her.
“And this man?”
“This man looks like him”, she says in a trance.
For the first time in a very long while, I feel something akin to a chill. I am suddenly faced with the realization that we both might walk out of this today with way more progress than either of us bargained for. Breakthroughs……quite the coveted stage with each of our patients, and yet somehow, we’re never quite prepared for all the weight they always seem to bear.
“He was the husband of this neighbour we had. She was a very friendly lady and he, a quiet man. But still, amicable enough to befriend our entire family. Before long, they started being invited to the family functions, major festivals. I was sixteen at the time. I was pretty young, but not young enough to mistake the shadows under the wife’s eyes. For a friendly woman, her eyes always seemed to shift around a room relentlessly. One day, I happened upon the bruises on her legs.” There’s a pause. I don’t know its purpose but it feels like the kind of respite I always associate with the promise of a sinister compensation. Without a warning, her voice restarts. The morbid drift of her narration fraught with her quest for a purge. “She tried to joke about having two left feet. But here’s the thing- I never found her to be a clumsy woman, never saw her fall, never saw her trip. But like I said, I was young at the time and it didn’t seem like my war to wage.”
Did it take a toll on you though? I wanted to ask. Is the guilt what consumes you raw? I keep my mouth shut because Samayra, in the past month that I had known her, for the first time looked absolutely …. lost. Defeated. Resigned. I, didn’t dare breathe audibly, afraid that the slightest sound might shatter her to pieces. She continued in the same lifeless tone, like there were no emotions left to infuse anymore. “He had long curling hair on his face, wiry and unkept. Long. Almost till his chest. And an equally repulsive moustache. He would keep getting food morsels stuck in that mesh. At the time it used to inspire unparalleled disgust in me. I suppose the only feature of his face you could really see were his eyes.” She shudders visibly,“ And I will always remember his eyes. The way they looked. His hands had to do very little to force me down on the bed that night; the bloodlust in his eyes was paralytic enough. That’s not to say he came unprepared. A razor. Those cheap ones you find by the roadside? Except that night it looked far more macabre than it did cheap. Ironical. Since his beard was one of the things that was chaffing my body merciless. It loomed and loomed over me like shackles that had drowned out my voice. Stolen any sense of justice I had and then went on to shadow every breath that I have taken since. I know you understand. I’ll spare you the gory details of it all.”
Her voice now seemed to come from the hollows. Or my ears were ringing. I can’t be sure. The upheaval and vulnerability of the account seemed to have overpowered the entire room. If I hadn’t dared move afraid for her before, I didn’t dare move for the meagreness of gestures now.
“Safety is always an illusion, doctor. We are never safe alone; we are never safe in a herd. Nothing can ever really protect you. Except how hard you fight. So, you fight like hell. You fight to the death”, she says in a voice steely from her conviction. Standing up from her seat, she starts for the door, “Thank you for today. You might be right. So, I’ll ask my secretary to run a background check on that man. Maybe he is an employee of the same company and goes to the same restaurants and maybe he lives in the same society as me. Even if one of these boxes don’t get checked, I’m informing the police. Things like these always end up bad for somebody.” At the door now, she opens it ajar.
Bad for somebody? There’s a thousand tumultuous questions clamouring in my head, only one manages to slip out, “What happened after that?”
A thousand emotions flicker on her face in that one second before finally coming to settle on one I can recognise. Defiance. Unapologetic defiance in the enigmatic tilt of her chin. Every muscle taut, every pore of her skin seems to dare me to say a word as the deafening silence hangs in the air.
“Roadside razors are truly cheap. I made sure to cut all of that hair before burying his body.”
And the door shuts with a resounding bang that remains poignantly suspended for the longest while.