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Trials by fire

Last updated on May 11, 2019

27-year-old divya dureja has accepted pain as a part of her life and does not let it come in the way of her aspirations

A cliché will do justice to this special person: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That’s the story of Divya Dureja, a 27-year-old who is rich in experiential wealth. She has a special relationship with pain, which has been her constant companion for the last 15 years. “I have a high threshold for pain. I have made peace with it,” she says.

Nor did she let her suffering go in vain. Instead, her story became one of courage in adversity. Her family of 11 doctors, especially her sister, mother and father are her support system. She has faced multiple ailments, both transitory and permanent. Yet she wears many hats — she is a psychologist, a slam poet and a queer activist, to name a few.

Her prolonged relationship with pain began when she was 15 years old with an ankle injury and the pain that was discovered during sexual intimacy was at the age of 18. Sex was never had, any attempt to have it was an extremely painful experience. But then, she was told that the first time is always painful. In her case, however, this plain fact never altered. To the extent that she started associating sex with pain. As a result, a feeling of vulnerability haunted her, she felt “insufficient”.

This pain that she used to experience every time she tried making love had no name until she read a BuzzFeed article in 2016. The article described a condition called vaginismus—a spasm in the pelvic floor muscles that can make sexual intercourse very painful and highly avoidable.

“I felt like a wall blocking the entrance of my vagina—and felt a fiery pain at each attempt to do it-there was a wall,” the article described; that’s exactly how Divya would describe her condition. After so many years, she could finally put a name to her relationship with pain. She was both relieved and fearful.

“A myriad of emotions gripped me,” she recollects. That night she wrote a poem that is almost an anthem for women dealing with vaginismus. Usually poetry is crafted keeping readers in mind, but this was an outpouring. As if pain found utterance and resonance; both men and women, identified with the poetry.

Medical tests that followed confirmed vaginismus. Divya is amazed to this day how little the medical fraternity in India knows about it. And there are some popular fallacies about this condition — that it’s essentially psychological or an outcome of a traumatic sexual experience. But that’s not the case. There’s primary vaginismus that’s physiological in nature. Her mother, Dr Deepa Dureja, and elder sister, Dr Jayati Dureja are both gynaecologists. They not only helped her deal with this condition, but also aided many others.

A German visual story teller, Catrine Val, came across her poetry and approached Divya to make a film. A beautiful visual rendition of emotions that created the poetry in the first place. The film is a big hit — it serves a purpose, and has helped many come to terms with their condition.

She’s experienced so much in so little a time, and calls it “inner turmoil”. Her formative years were challenging. This was the phase when she became aware of her sexuality. The relationship with pain was not entirely an outcome of vaginismus.

A national level basketball player, her career as a sportsperson was cut short by compounded ankle injuries. Her ankle had suffered multiple injuries in a short time that made full recovery difficult. Her father, Dr Kamal Dureja, an orthopaedist, took the onus on himself, and could fix her ankle in five years.

Even as she underwent treatment, she suffered from sudden lung collapse for a mysterious reason that usually ails taller men who smoke a lot.

She also went through a phase of depression where the feeling of being incomplete haunted her. It was not only because of a painful vaginismus but culmination many factors, stress, was recovering from lung collapse, was sexually harassed for four times in event space where she was pushing forward a start-up.

Being a psychologist helped, she could understand what was happening to her, and did what was required to pull herself out of this mental morass.

Slam poetry is one of her many ways to interact with the world. She’s upfront about things people are even embarrassed to acknowledge as they are afraid of being judged or categorised.

Now, queer is how she identifies herself. She doesn’t have only female partners. All these years she had felt guilty that she can’t offer her male partners what they, most of them, want the most: copulation. She doesn’t feel this pressure when she’s with partners of her own gender. She’s forthright: Men and women are not substitutes for each other. The intensity and closeness that she feels in the company of a woman is lacking when she is with a man.

She has travelled all over the world. Her poetry and her tryst with destiny have inspired many to deal with their own challenges of body and mind. She was in New York to be a part of an initiative by International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) also known as OutRight.

As she talks about the challenges life threw her way, she’s positive and sensitive. She doesn’t hate or love pain — she has just learned to live with it.

Divya has a way with words, pain having given her life a certain direction towards an extraordinary existence. Poetry has given her existential reality potent words, helping others relate and relive in substantial measure the plethora of experiences that are denied to many.

Most people lead a mundane life and are scared to step out of their comfort zone, terming it the normal. But she’s comfortable outside such normative boundaries, and is assertive and confident enough to roam the world at peace with “my normal.” This is the only way she knows to live, to express herself sexually and to feel complete. “This is me. There’s no other me,” she concludes.