On Learning The Meaning Of ‘Delirium’

I learned the meaning of the words ‘delirium’ and ‘delirious’ when I was nine. The spring of that year, I came down with a viral fever of an unknown variety. My body temperature rose sharply, and my mother responded with the usual battery of treatments: antipyretics and cold cotton wraps for my forehead. But the infection in my body had its usual course to run, and so, despite the medication, and despite my mother’s best supplemental efforts, my fever mounted.

Finally, one night it crossed the 104 degrees mark. I was coherent enough to understand two facts: a) this was the highest body temperature I had ever experienced, an impressive personal record for a nerdy nine-year old; and b) this was a number that clearly made my mother nervous.

That night, as I struggled to sleep, my mother lying next to me to provide me some comfort, I began to see and hear things. The walls of the room that enclosed us began to oscillate, sometimes expanding away from me to form a cavernous hall, and sometimes contracting till the ceiling appeared mere inches away from my eyes. I could feel a lurking presence in the room, an undefinable entity that made me shudder with fear and call out for help. And most bizarrely of all, I began to hallucinate that I had arisen, left bed, and walked to the adjoining living room where a fearsome tiger, pacing up and down its limited length, waited for me.

I could not understand what was happening; I clung to my mother in panic, my cries of alarm announcing and describing the various phenomena I was experiencing turning all too quickly into a species of frantic gibbering. My mother did not call an emergency medical service. While there must have been an ambulance service–or a local doctor–that we could have called in New Delhi in 1976, we did not own a phone. Making a phone call meant asking a neighbor for help.  I suspect my mother was reluctant to do so late at night, and that moreover, she was still calm enough to reckon that this was only a passing phase.  A high temperature fever would have been very dangerous for an infant or a toddler, of course, but I was considerably older than that. She continued to place cotton wraps soaked in cold water on my forehead, and continued to try to ‘talk me down.’

My aunt–my mother’s sister, then visiting from the US–was spending the night with us (my father was away at an air force base.) As my mother and her discussed how best to proceed, I heard my mother say I was ‘delirious,’ that my ‘delirium’ was making me see and hear things. I had seen the word in print before and not fully understood what it meant. Now I did.

Sometimes when I describe myself as a nerd, it’s because I remember incidents like this one, and my reactions to them. That night, as I lay in bed, slipping in and out of sanity, I remember thinking it was so interesting that a previously mysterious word had ‘happened’ to me. I couldn’t wait to talk about it when it was all over.

Which I did the next morning. The storm passed, and the tiger left the living room.

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