Everything Offered in the Land of the Living: A Conversation with Ashok Rajamani

Dear Reader,

Ashok Ramajani’s memoir, The Day My Brain Exploded (A Spring ’13 pick) is the astonishingly true (and shockingly funny) story of what happened after the author suffered a massive, near-fatal cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 25.  He discusses the continuing, daily consquences of his traumatic brain injury, why he chose to structure the book as he did, and how his selnse of humor helps him survive, among other things with Discover Great New Writers. 

The Day My Brain Explodes begins on the day of your brother’s wedding, the day your brain “explodes.” Can you tell us about that day?
Unfortunately, I can’t; people have to buy the book to find out! What I will say, though, is that the hemorrhage was caused by the explosion of a hidden birth defect called an AVM, an arteriovenous malformation, a congenital birth defect that is hard for doctors to detect until it explodes, as was my case. An AVM can exist anywhere in the body, but is most frequently detected in the brain. Mine had been nestled in my brain from birth, awaiting its explosion. In other words, my AVM was a ticking time bomb. The event took place in the most surprising of situations, and the actual bleed that provoked the explosion, was, shall we say, something not suitable for children to hear.

Not for children? Sounds provocative!
Provocative is a good word to describe it.

Your resurrection from such extreme brain trauma is quite rare. How would you say you’ve contended with your survival?
I tell other brain-injury survivors that we shouldn’t feel so morose, because I feel we’ve been given two lives for the price of one. That’s how I look at it. I know I am lucky to have survived well enough to speak, to think, to read, and to write, and to do everything offered in the land of the living. Well, that’s not the total truth. I can’t ride roller coasters.

You’ve made an amazing recovery. Are there issues that you still have to face and overcome each day as a result of this injury?
There have been quite a few consequences from my hemorrhage. I now have erratic short-term amnesia as well as seizure disorder, otherwise known as epilepsy. Although I have not had a seizure in years, sometimes I still worry about getting another one. This is a fear faced by most people with epilepsy; no matter how long we go without seizures, we fear another incident is just around the bend. I also suffer from tinnitus, which is a consistent ringing in the ears, a sound that happens nonstop. In the book, I call the problem “chasing ambulances in my head.”

Worst of all, I now have permanent blindness in half of both my eyes. This is a condition called hemionopsia, and it is a dreadful ailment. I can only see half the world now. The trouble is, there is no demarcation in my sight, such as some sort of black line, which tells me my field vision has ended. So I truly think I see the whole world, when in fact, I don’t. You wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve accidentally walked into a women’s public restroom since I don’t see the “women” sign on the door, but only see the word “men.” Then, when I enter and see a roomful of stalls with no row of urinals, I realize I have made a mistake yet again! My visual therapist once ordered me to consistently turn my head around like an oscillating fan. Since it’s hard for me to always be conscious about the blindness, I often forget to do this. And when I keep my head in place and scan an area by moving my eyeballs left to right, I end up looking like a shifty-eyed villain from an old black-and-white movie.

Your memoir details your spirituality. How would you describe your belief system?
I was always spiritual, but my survival has made me even more a believer of forces beyond control. Whether one calls it ‘universe’, ‘god’, ‘energy’, I know there is something bigger than all of us, as individuals. And each one of us has different paths to discover this. Rivers lead to the same ocean, don’t they? After all, Love is love around the world, even though it has different names in different languages.

The narrative of the book is not chronological. Instead, it slides back and forth between different years and spaces of time. Why did you recount your story this way?
Our thought processes are far from linear. I wanted my memoir to conflate both order and disorder, reflecting such mechanics of the brain. The back and forth motion also forces the reader to be energetic, whereas a chronological narrative does not. Rather, it enforces eventuality: the reader can guess where the timeline of the story is headed, and this can be disinteresting. Many memoirs, unfortunately, take a route like this.

In most memoirs, the writer discusses his or her families. How is yours dealing with their compromised privacy due to the book?
Actually, my parents have been totally supportive. I myself was rather surprised! I do know, however, that my mom’s late mother was obsessed with the words ‘privacy’ and ‘dignity’, like the Queen of England. I’m sure if she were still with us, she would be wringing my neck, or probably choking me with her sari.

Why did you choose to tell your story?
There are not enough memoirs by brain-surgery and brain-injury survivors; for many, these survivors have become too mentally challenged or face other severe handicaps. Plus, they are often killed by their injuries. I once asked my brother, “how come there aren’t many ‘brain injury pride parades’ in contrast to parades with survivors from other health conditions?” He told me, utterly deadpan, “that’s because the marchers are either too damaged to walk, or they’re dead.”

I’ve been blessed to still be alive and functioning. I have to tell my story, and the story of those who can’t tell it themselves. I also haven’t found enough memoirs by Indian Americans dealing with racism, or folks with half-blindness, or folks with psychotic hallucinogenic vision syndromes, or of folks with many other issues that I detail in the memoir. We need such stories.

Survival memoirs are often emotionally painful to write. Yet The Day My Brain Exploded is comical and humorous. How were you able to recount your difficult journey with such humor?
I don’t take myself too seriously. And, as I often say, my laughter is far stronger than my tears. When one undergoes a hellish experience, they can either cry or laugh. I chose to laugh.

Who have you discovered lately?
Just finished Juliann Garey’s Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See. It is, simply, one of the best books I have read recently. The writing is bold, vivid, and moving. Details the issue of madness perfectly. Terrific work.

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.

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