The way to escape lay beneath her feet. For now, earth was not hers to claim, nor was the sky. She was in the no man’s land. But she had weight and occupied mass, and could breathe—that was the problem.
The little shack that she called home stood grimly in the meandering, filthy lanes of a slum, in a city that slept better during political and social uproars. The landmarks to her dilapidated abode were as many and as complex as the woes in her life: ‘Take the left lane next to the Jivandaan Hospital and walk straight, some hundred meters or so; and then, enter the first kachhi gali you see on your right, opposite the Greenfield Park. And there, just behind the dumpsters, is the slum’. Dumpsters: where people dumped things; and, Slum: where people dumped people.
She, Jugni, had been ill, and she had a foreboding that it will soon be over. Her eight-by-ten shack was peaceful, but her cot was creaky and a little saggy. She couldn’t tell anymore whether her back hurt from lying on the cot all day, or was it something inside her that was responsible.
“Jugni eat. I am late. Can’t sit and talk with you today. Would not be able to make it back before mid-night, it seems,” said her friend as she stormed in with the dinner, some five minutes before nine.
“I will have only water. I am dying. Remember!”
“Stop this now, Aye-hye! You don’t even want to go to the doctor and now this … die then! In fact, die now but eat! And, don’t say this so loudly. Mad girl!” Jugni’s friend rolled her eyes, hitched her sari, and straightened her bun. She also stomped her feet, and then left the way she had entered—her swaying arms and flirtatious hand-waves, accentuating her serpentine gait—leaving Jugni to be ill at peace.
So Jugni just lay there like a log of wood. She could feel the malign termites in her, slowing working their way out. But then, she had been feeling many things lately: feelings that she believed had died long back had started surfacing once again. Deep down, she had given up on life.
She sighed and slowly forced her aching body in a supine position. Then she inserted her right hand between her voluptuous bosoms and pulled out a photograph—black and white, light and faded. It had started fraying at the edges, and she had gotten it laminated to shield it from any further watery assault from her eyes. Anyhow, now even the cheap lamination had started wearing off.
Jugni had written her mother’s name at the back of the snapshot in her rugged, childish handwriting. Her mother looked beautiful sitting on a stool of the photo-studio with Eiffel tower as a backdrop. She smiled in a salwar suit, holding a bouquet of flowers. Lower part of her hair was braided in a paranda and a rose rested happily over her left ear.
Jugni had always carried the photo in her small blue pouch that her mother had given her on her sixth birthday to keep her pencils. But ever since, she had started wearing a brassier under her blouse, she kept her mother close to her heart. Kissing the photo—sometimes on the face, sometimes on the name—several times a day; and talking to it every night had been a ritual of twenty-six years, now.
Don’t you …love me? Tears would well up in her eyes, and her throat would choke before she could complete the sentence. You have forgotten me, Amma, I know? I want to sleep . . . in your lap once again. Will you oil my hair and … kiss my forehead? Scold me, beat me but take me back. I will be good I promise…..No, it is too late now! I wouldn’t be able to come back to you, even if you wanted me to. But … I want you to be my mother next time also. Next time, I will be a perfect child…I promise!
* * *
Same night, in a lavish private room of Jeevandaan Hospital, a woman, Nirupa Rao Dutta, lay in her bed. She was a widow, and in her early sixties. Ms. Banita, a spinster and a qualified nurse, sat on a sofa on the opposite side of her bed, fiddling with her mobile phone.
Nirupa had recently undergone a kidney transplant. She was recovering fast, the doctor had assured. Her bungalow was on the suburbs of the city, near the Seemapuri area. Ms. Banita, her full-time caretaker, had admitted Mrs. Dutta to the hospital fifteen days back after she had collapsed in her bathroom.
Mrs. Dutta was a mother of three: two sons and a daughter. Her daughter, the youngest of her siblings, was happily married to an Aussie and lived in Sidney. Her eldest son was living the ‘American Dream’ since the day he married Katie from Baltimore, who loved Indians but ‘didn’t like the heat and dust of Seemapuri’. Her younger son was in Canada, married to a girl from Vancouver. He was a well-known yoga instructor who often told his mother how crazy foreigners were about yoga: “The business is good. I am opening another institute here, Ma. Won’t be able to make it this year also!” He had apprised her over the phone.
This was no news for Nirupa. Her children had last visited her some ten years back. “Too busy, Ma. Your grandchildren are a handful. Why don’t you visit this time”—was the usual response. They always had some or the other excuse: work, business, pregnancy, SATs! Nirupa wondered how once a typical Punjabi Hindu family, now looked like a circus. How quickly all her children had gone astray after their father’s death!
However, Nirupa also had her way of getting back at them—she preferred to stay where she was, she had proclaimed; she was alone but happy. She threw tantrums. And often reminded her nonchalant children over the phone how much she had missed her sarson ka saag and maaki ki roti; and had hated the weather, when she visited them some eight years back. ‘A mini world tour’, she had called it back then—from India to Australia to US to Canada and back to India.
But what Nirupa never told them was the fact that she didn’t like the way her own children and their spouses had treated her. She had her secrets that she wore on her soul like badges of honour. She was determined to take them to her grave. Moreover, diabetes and dialysis sapped the sweetness and fun out of these already exhausting trips around the world.
Nirupa had never met her English speaking grandchildren but chatted with them on Skype, once a week. Most of the time, she just couldn’t get the words coming out of their delicate lips: the accent!
After her husband’s death, fifteen years ago, Nirupa felt lonely but had managed to keep her spirits high—until her little birdies started leaving their nest, one after another. The stress and sorrow of being left alone thus had hastened the downhill plunge her health had already taken.
Visits to the hospital had become frequent over the years. Ms. Banita, as expected, had always stood by her side through thick and thin. Her younger son, who was the last one to take flight, had appointed her before leaving for Canada. The salary and the perks were good; and Ms. Banita just couldn’t resist the offer when Mr. Dutta had made one.
The nephrologist was a cheerful chap with the most beautiful handwriting Nirupa had ever seen. Too beautiful for a doctor, she had exclaimed. And as if one good impression had led to another, she grew fonder of the doctor with every visit he made to her room. His knowledge and skill; and, not to mention, the pains he had taken to arrange for a kidney at such a short notice were commendable, according to Nirupa. And after a few days of her successful surgery, she was quite certain that he was the son she had always wanted. “A delay of a couple of days would have definitely killed you. Thank God, we found a donor for you well in time,” the doctor had beamed. His patient just couldn’t have been more grateful!
Two weeks after the surgery, Nirupa was discharged from the hospital. Ms. Banita had been extra fidgety and listless that day. She had been receiving calls and messages from Nirupa’s children since the day the latter’s kidneys had failed. The children were worried the mother might die without writing a ‘Will’. “Divyan and Ujjwal want to heir a lawyer. And …” Ms. Banita had begun just as they were settled in the back seat of their Mercedes. Mrs. Nirupa had raised her hand, interrupting her caretaker, “I know what they want. I won’t hear a word more on it.” Saying this, her face had turned red and she had become short-breathed. Ms. Banita’s proposal to revisit the hospital—for a quick check up: “Just to be sure”—was frantically waved off by her mistress amidst tears, cough and sobs. The helpless caretaker had gestured the driver to move on, rubbing her mistress’s back: “There, there”.
* * *
The night that followed the day Nirupa was discharged, a procession moved down the lane, next to the dumpsters. It was a silent one. A white van that carried three people and a dead body was headed towards the crematorium. A second party was waiting at the funeral site, squatting next to a freshly dug hole in the ground. Grave that was soon to nestle a heart full of secrets: Secrets that were as grave and dark as the grave itself.
Once the body is interred, those who know will forget and those who don’t know would never know that twenty days back a group of kinnars had been busking on the hospital road. Their bodies had gyrated like the earth on its axis but much faster—at a speed that threatened to split their bodies into halves. They had clapped their open-handed clap and danced at the beat of dolki and sang in their hoarse, husky voices:
Oh, my sister’s husband!
Pay heed to what your wife’s sister says:
I will become the beedie,
That sucks on your lips.
I will become the vest,
That clings to your chest.
I will become the yarn,
That the holes in your undies darn.
Oh, my sister’s husband!
Just listen to what your wife’s sister says.
The flirtatious, graceful, passionate dancers wore deep, tight blouses and kept their pallus low; and, just at times, at whim, let them freely flow. The most sensual dance performed by the most feministic people on earth: the large, bright crimson studs shone between the thickest of the eyebrows; the reddest lipsticks that screamed on their lips; the darkest kohl that was lighter than the depravity in their eyes; the most gaudiest sarees on their half-bodies—a complete celebration of half-lives.
There was an array of chemist shops opposite the hospital. Two of the most beautiful kinnars had left the party and sashayed to one of them for buying condoms. They would need them at night for the jug, jug behind the trees in the park.
And as the two best friends stood at the counter, next to Ms. Banita—who kept the doctor’s prescription slip on the counter: “Please hurry up, bhaiya”—one of the inquisitive, agog kinnars had noticed the handwriting and blurted out, “Dr. Himanshu, right. What beautiful hand he has! I would, if he allows, kiss it.”
The chemist had sneered and retorted, “Only his hand Noori?”
Noori threw the chemist a deadly glance, “Come on now. Be fast! I don’t have time for this nonsense.” The chemist lingered while handing over the condoms to her: touching Noori’s coarse hand gently with his long fingers. She pulled her hand back and caught her bestie, whose eyes were glued on the counter, by her arm and shoved her away from the shop.
Secrets galore: more and some more …
Some secrets were only for the doctor to keep. For eighteen days before Nirupa’s discharge, he had said, “Ten Lakh rupees is what the kidney donor is asking for. It is a perfect match. You are very lucky.” Nirupa had happily signed a cheque there and then: no questions asked. But the doctor with the most beautiful hand had the vilest heart. The donor had approached the doctor willingly; had not asked for anything in return. The day after Dr. Himanshu encashed the cheque, he had taken out the donor’s kidney; and had ensconced it carefully in the Nirupa’s limp, sinking body.
Then there were secrets that were only for Nirupa to keep: how she let her eight-year-old child go. He was the third born. Mr. Dutta didn’t like the way he behaved: wearing her mother’s jewellery and makeup. He walked funny the father had said. “He is not my son. He can’t be my seed. Get rid of him … or, I swear, I will kill him.”
Jaggi didn’t let go of his mother’s pallu. He had simpered and wailed and howled with his mother’s pallu in his mouth. He had chewed it wet with his saliva and snot. He had somehow managed to lock himself up in his mother’s room: latched the door real tight. But they broke the door and took him out after mid-night. They came in a taxi and carried a sobbing, slobbering mess of him away.
In the morning, when the neighbours asked: “Your Jaggi was crying a lot last night. All well?” Nirupa had lied and told them he wasn’t well—extreme stomach-ache. His uncle has taken him to a famous child specialist in Punjab and she will be joining them soon: “Have to take care of the other three as well. His father has gone with him, though.” After a month the whole family had disappeared for a few weeks. When they returned, they told the neighbours Jaggi passed away; they had cremated him in his uncle’s place.
No one ever asked Jaggi, but he had his own little secrets to keep. However, his secrets were like closed closets; and he never knew how to be in one. He was an open book of half-tales. On the first night of his separation from his mother, he saw red and wanted to bleed to death: “Take me to my mother, or kill me”, he had said. Poor soul: he was still unaware that his body would never comply: it would never bleed from the place his soul wanted it to.
And then more…unwilled secrets unveiled…
The body that was buried in the freshly dug grave had its own secrets to keep—yes, time had closed her book of life: staving it off in its closet of secrets, sealed real tight.
When her bestie, Noori, and others threw shovels of mud on her, they didn’t know that one of her kidneys was missing. And that she had approached the doctor; and enquired about the patient mentioned on the prescription slip that she had seen on the chemist store’s counter, written by him in his beautiful hand. After what the doctor told, she had offered to donate her kidney. “No, I don’t want anything in return,” she had stated; but to see the future recipient of her kidney from a distance—just a peek through the glass in the door of the patient’s room. She had to bend her knees a little for a proper view.
As an eight year old, she had used a stool to reach the latch; and then, the photo of her mother in her wardrobe, the night when her mother unwillingly gave her away.
Jugni knew her end was near: they are twisted, these demigods! They know a lot. Perhaps much more than the straight ones around them—the harsh reality hits them way before puberty does; leaving them mature enough to be considered divine. Yes, they sell their blessings and their bodies too: because there is nothing wrong with their stomachs down their—they are normal. From where do they inherit the blessing they squander thus? They give what they never receive. Though, denied a body of their liking, never do their souls they sell.
An hour before her death, Jugni had gently removed the lamination and tore the black and white, light and faded photo into tiny pieces; and then, had swallowed those pieces with water, one by one. Something of hers in her; something of her in hers. Yes, it had Nirupa Rao Dutta written in a rugged, childish handwriting at its back.
And just one more…
Then there are some secrets that are for no one to know: not even to the ones who are the cause and effect of them. The doctor with the most beautiful, skilled hand had done a shoddy job: he had unintentionally left one of his scalpels in Jugni’s body for the infection to spread slowly, and end the mockery of her unwilled existence.
This is a work of fiction based on a small section of our civilized society. Kinnars have their own funeral rituals. The song in the story is mine. It is inspired by the folk songs sung on Ladies’ Sangeet Nights during the Indian weddings.
kachhi gali: unmetalled road
pallu: loose end of a saree
sarson ka saag and maaki ki roti: delicacies from Punjab
paranda: a decoration for a braid tassel
jug, jug: crude sexual connotation used in Eliot’s well-know poem, ‘Wasteland’
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