Nandu turns five today. I’m given a list of things to get for the birthday party. Crayons, extra paper cups, Scotch tape, board pins, apples, string, Band-Aid – square ones, circular ones, long ones, Dettol, and tons of bottles of cola drinks. The last, I’m most looking forward to purchasing. It’ll be mixed, in parsimonious proportions, with the vodka I’ve procured, to help me tide over the swarm of kids expected early evening.
I’ve been asked to clear the aisles of all the large, plastic bottle versions of the dark brown and orange liquids that will keep the kids hopped up. No glass on the birthday premises. Aisles. We never had ‘aisles’ when we were young. Not to mention, fancy all-purpose supermarkets with rows and rows of East-meets-West products. A whole, separate aisle for ladies’ products. They even sell tampons now, but they aren’t best sellers. Only the really ‘modern’ girls use them. That’s what my gynaecologist tells me. I used to think I was very modern – free thinking – when I was a college kid. Now, I mostly feel like I sort of buried myself under the weight of my own expectations.
The local convenience stores, the kiranas, festoon the green and red ‘India-shining’ aura of the mega-convenience store. They still, do good business, and as I walk past the one from which we used to buy our magazines, before home delivery became a common word, I’m tempted to purchase something. Ramarajan, the owner, is still up front, and still, ensconced in a blazing, morphing reflection of heat and sweat on the many glass bell jars filled with coloured candy, in the front. He smiles, politely. I nod and decide to walk past to Buy N Go, the megastore, welcoming the cool air conditioning wafting out the sliding doors.
When I was sixteen, I’d gone up to Ramarajan and purchased a bottle of cold water on my family’s credit with the store. I remember his smile, clueless that I’d planned to run away, at that moment. I had my backpack. All it contained was several audio cassettes – Richard Marx, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan remixed – this was a year before Sarah McLachlan happened to my brain cells and the world was never the same again, a Walkman, and some extra batteries. I hadn’t thought it through, very well. I remember the oppression of my sadness, perched on the ledge of the my life’s first real disappointment: the slipping away of my medical school dreams, and I just wanted to run, fast and far away. I’d headed out of the front gate, right under the glare of my Nepalese watchman. My father was at work. It was easy. It was four thirty PM. A bus rolled by and stopped at the fork on the road ahead, but I’d no money. After getting the water from Ramarajan Stores, I’d headed further down the road, taken a right down the main artery that lead to the beach, and had just kept on walking. I’ve never been back to Ramarajan Stores.
The only thing that hasn’t changed now, is the heat. It’s like India has taken a hit in the arm of something strong, seductive and decidedly Western, in the interim, and is still floundering about in giddy little whirlpools of economic progress, and equally so, increasing socio-economic disparity, not quite sure how to add it all up. Right now, we are in flux. But, the heat is familiar and oppressive. I’m glad to be rid of it in aisle 12, where the cola bottles are lined up. I make my way down the list I’ve jotted on my cell phone.
My mother is working herself into an unnecessary frenzy when I get back, directing the staff to do this and that.
“Did you get the Band-Aid?” asks my sister. Her hair falls around her face in tired, sweaty wisps as she attempts filling up the balloons with the full force of her tiny frame.
“Let me do that, sis,” I volunteer.
“I’ll ice the cake,” Preethi says, heading to the inner depths of our cavernous home, to the pantry. I take the box of balloons, one orange bottle, and head upstairs to my room. I’m mildly tickled by my afternoon plans. It’ll be my own little toast to my niece. I’m only vaguely aware of pleasure these days, and it would seem the drink is definitely one of them. It’s one that happens without me having to do anything but open my mouth and pour something down my throat.
I look out the solitary window in my room, to the garden. There are droves of people milling about, including the official party planners. They have a standard bag of tricks, and depending on your budget, provide a set schedule of entertainment. Preethi has opted for the premium service. The centre of attraction: the Jumping Castle. We didn’t have those either, when we were growing up. I’ve forever, wanted to get into one of these contraptions, which remind me of the hovercraft slinking and dinking over the surface of the Amazonian waters, and jump about with abandon. A plastic bubble of unfettered fun.
“Padma, you’ll break the damn thing,” Preethi harrumphed, when I’d asked if I could get into it, only half in jest.
“How could it? Look at the number of kids who’re gonna be in it!” I’d protested. She said something about pressure and overall load. Preethi’s an engineer. I’m a science journalist now, for a national paper. Neither one of us had really worked out the physics here, but the glare from the party planner supremo decided it.
In my room, I’ve a tiny fridge with an ice shelf. I take out the miniature ice tray and head to the bathroom, where I’ve got the soft drink and vodka waiting. I empty the glass cup that holds my toothbrush and paste, rinse it out and take a deep breath. For a person who likes her drink, I cannot tolerate the smell of alcohol.
I think it has something to do with all the time I’ve spent as a scientist in laboratories, swathed in the smell of 2% ethanol, 5% ethanol, disinfectant, sanitizing ethanol. I also think it has something to do with the syrupy sweet darkness of my very first days experimenting with drinking, back in college. The liquor was indiscriminate and cheap and not very nice smelling.
“Our body knows best,” Mrs Kapoor, our high school biology teacher, used to say redundantly, although I’m quite sure she didn’t have me getting soused in mind, at the time. All those parasympathetic nerves, conditioned responses, repressed memories, psychosomatic reflexes, working in a symphony, seemingly messy at the surface, but teeming with biological brilliance and exquisitely timed precision, just so we may try and protect our visceral selves.
The ice tinkles in the glass as it’s bathed in the clear liquid, which is then infused with the thick orange sweetness of the soft drink. The concoction sizzles and settles down. The sunlight and the blazing heat seeping in through the bathroom window, juxtapose with the icy coolness burrowing into my fingers, which have now made the glass stick to my sweaty palm, and I gulp it all down without breathing. All I can smell is the sweetness of the drink lingering in the air and the warm rush that tells me, and it has spoken to me many times before, of how, for a brief while, in the words of Sarah McLachlan, ‘the memories seep from my veins.’
I notice the first guests have arrived, when I go downstairs, a half hour later, a bobble of balloons trailing behind.
“Padmaji! How are you madam? Where’ve you been hiding?” asks uncle Jayaraman, pushing away balloons that have sought his face.
“I’ve been trying to use my modest lung capacity to fill these balloons!” I say. “And, I’m really dizzy now!” I smile inside.
My father wants to introduce some wine into the adult side of the revelry, but it is, I notice from the hushed exchanges between my parents, and the familiarly alarmed glance from my younger sister, a notion that has been vetoed.
“Padma, can you go inside and tell them where you kept the bag with the Band-Aid and Dettol?” asks Preethi, preoccupied with a bleeding girl, who’s fallen on the cement driveway and was now, bawling uncontrollably. I notice my mood has, based on the fleeting, silent signals exchanged amongst my family members, over the wine, turned dark and dull.
In stilted Tamil, I say, “Krishna, take this out to Preethi’ma,” and then, I walk resolutely upstairs, all things cold and orange and icy on my mind. I gulp my second drink neat, with only ice for accompaniment. When I let my breath out, my mind turns to the Band-Aid I’ve just handed over to Krishna. If you look down at my right forefinger, you won’t even see the mark where I’d cut myself a few weeks ago, with surgical precision.
I’m thirty-one years old, and not well versed with astronomy, but I can tell you, last week, when it was close to midnight, I’d sought the roof. And, as I’d stared into the night sky, littered with little luminous bodies, I could safely say I appreciated nature, and the place of our humble abode in the galaxies. I’m quite aware that we’re in the middle of miracles here, and three weeks ago, when I was at the neurosurgeon’s office, Dr Prasad agreed that the human body was a shrine of divinity.
I remember Mrs Kapoor giving us many examples of these corporeal riddles in the humid afternoons we’d spent holed up, away from the oppressive heat, in the biology lab, at school. The cool interiors of the funny smelling room, and the rhythmic clicking of the dusty fan on the ceiling marked the moments, as she explained how it was a miracle that the heart knew how to beat and the body coped with stress. I knew all those years ago that I would become a doctor, a surgeon. I thought, in understanding, feeling, these miracles of flesh and bone, I was going to understand the stars and skies themselves, and how we’re all connected by something larger and ethereal. It was such a grand notion.
Near twenty years have passed, and I can tell you there are many things I’ve learned along the way that have also, added to my understanding of natural mysteries. I can tell you desire, at some point, gets tempered with practicalities, if we’re not careful, and even if passions remain, they’re subjected to a royal thrashing by the hands of caprice. I think I just got tired, these past few years, of being optimistic, of being un-bored.
Dr Prasad had prattled on, that day, about how I shouldn’t lose my faith. While he was doing this, I was still thinking about getting my medical degree. My other secret, guilty pleasure: wildly imaginative fantasies. I needed a consultation when I’d noticed I’d started losing sensation in my left pinkie finger. I’d taken up guitar lessons, and the little appendage refused to follow the instructions from my brain. Dr Prasad gingerly broached the subject of drinking.
“The progress you’ve made has been nothing less than exceptional,” he said, as he stretched my legs out at the knees judiciously, and tapped away with his metal apparatus.
“You mustn’t give up hope.” He says this each time we meet, and I know he doesn’t mean to insult me, but that he does. Is he referring to my little finger or my life? What is he talking about?
Getting back to that childhood image of high school, etched into my brain like cinders on a cold stone, us sweaty students buried somewhere under the Indian sun; I can say the rhythmic clicking of the fan above symbolised time well spent for me. Excitement rose and quelled in our youthful chests, and perhaps, it was the genuine deftness of our biology instructor, but we were left wanting more knowledge. The hours were valuable, and at some level, I’ve always enjoyed accounting for time.
I was willing to pardon Dr Prasad’s indiscretions, and there were inevitably quite a few, as the glint of his surgical tools, displayed in symphonic symmetry on a tiny aluminium tray near his examination bed, caught my eye. Why did he display them in his examination room? Do all surgeons do this? Just in case we doubted their prowess in another, more no-nonsense kind of room where these tools would take centre stage and not meekly sit in on the peripheries of doctor chit-chat, boring and carving their way into the very gross anatomy they were trying to salvage. There were blades of different sizes and scalpels and some menacing looking scissors.
“Excuse me, I’ll be right back,” said Dr Prasad, hanging up the phone. I slid over to the tray, and after glancing back at the door to make sure it was closed, picked up a tiny scalpel. I held it the way I’ve seen people on medical TV shows. For those few hours, all that mattered was in my lighted circumference of vision, and that all the minutes and seconds would be accounted for in a scientifically precise manner. And, it’s the same reason why, after two decades and no medical degree to claim as my own yet, I started guitar lessons, last September, and a hair-dressing course, this April. Accounting for seconds; snipping away at the unaccounted texture of existence. Dr Prasad took his time, and I didn’t mind.
I’ve always been very uncomfortable with the word ‘boredom.’ Possibly because, in this culture, we’re always told we need to keep ourselves occupied and busy. That it’s a failing of character to feel restless and bored. A weakness. I probably believe that myself, at some level. I was never bored growing up, much too preoccupied being a good student, and then, all the way through university, blocking out any negativity with tunnel vision and focus on the future. Beyond a point, we make our own drudgery and so, we need to find ways to dig ourselves out of it. I didn’t think there was anything wrong in sharing a small amount of that drudgery with a snifter of something, once in a while. To take the edge of the evenings. Of solitude. I was too focussed on other aspects of existential excitement, to worry about limits.
Holding Dr Prasad’s scalpel in my left hand, I looked down at my hands. I have long fingers, meant for motor skills. Meant for music and medicine. Meant for being wrapped snugly around a snifter of brandy. I pressed down with the sharp end on my right index finger, around the middle between the two joints whose names I’d have known had I been a doctor. The blade went in, effortlessly. It didn’t hurt for a few millimetres and then, a stinging emanated from deep within. No blood yet. I thought if I just quickly and forcefully pressed it down in one brisk motion, I could remove the half in a clean, single act. The pressure would be off. At least for a while. The counting clock could start ticking again, but for other things. I had a long life ahead. Screw surgery.
New York. City of a million dreams, unlimited longing, and tunnel vision. That’s where I’d ended up, in my twenties. McLachlan searing through my headphones. The avenues and cross streets of Manhattan funnelling yearning into a juggernaut of a beast, throttling forward at full speed. The night skies in New York, on the roof of a thirty story building, in the crystal clear of a biting winter, seemed very different from their Indian counterparts. It seemed as if the nip in the air shrunk the stars themselves into shivering specks and somehow, they seemed farther. My dreams were farther, and though I was on the right course for a best shot at medical school, I hadn’t counted on life happening along the way. My yearning for the heat and dust and humidity of my homeland increased. I would think of sitting on the white hot cement steps of my home in India, eating raw mangoes dipped in red chilli powder, and watching my mother hum a Tamil tune from the sixties, as she dried her hair with smoky incense and smiled in my direction. I knew I couldn’t stay here for long. Lost in the mists of that smoky air, was my future. Whenever the professor with whom I’d accepted a research assistant position, said I was a natural at surgery, when the little mouse surgeries I’d perform for his experiments turned out neatly – mini-splenectomies and gall bladder removals – I would feel excitement. But, these were the last rushes of a dying dream.
There is smoke in the air now, of a different, wispy kind. I’ve made my way downstairs after a last, very big swig of the vile vodka, and I’m juxtaposed to my niece as she’s blowing out the candles.
“I’m getting into the Jumping Castle, Preethi,” I tell my proud and distracted sister. Her look turns immediately, into alarm. “Padma, please, please don’t,” she begs, holding me at the wrist. I understand from her look that she knows I’ve been drinking. I’m not even drunk. I excuse myself from the activities and go upstairs and lie down on my sofa. The terror of boredom. That is all I now, care about. Don’t we all need tunnel vision, to an extent, in our own little bubbles of reality, to get by?
At Dr Prasad’s, I pushed the blade down a little further and buckled over. A tide of frozen possibilities revealed themselves, and I knew I had to go one way or the other now – up or down – any lateral hesitations would only lead to trouble. Little droplets of red trickled onto my clothes and lap. I thought of my high school lab, the heat and the clicking of the fan, and my sweat that would smell of excitement and youthful vigour. I thought of the miracles and the ethereal connection between the stars and the body and the heart and the cells.
I removed the blade and squeezed the tip of the finger forcefully shut, to close the slit into a white, bloodless sliver, barely indicative of the morbid, quixotic notions that’d led to its inception. I pocketed the blade into my purse like a criminal. I wiped the gushing blood on my suit, and was very grateful for the dark colour of the flowing robes of my garment.
It was late evening when I left the clinic, and I felt giddy with adrenaline. I could hear my heart thumping in my ears. I was light-headed, and went home and drank a shot of forbidden vodka. I bandaged my finger so tightly, it turned from brown to pale white. My heart and finger settled into a comfortable, palpating warmth. I felt the centre of the universe.
When I’d run away at sixteen, and had gone to the beach, I’d sat on this little promontory of wet sand, a few feet away from the lapping water, and was listening to my Walkman full of sad songs. I wasn’t going anywhere, I just wanted to breathe some freedom, unshackle myself from the oppression. I’d noticed a group of gentlemen in their sixties, sitting in a circle near me, enjoying what I’d imagined to be tea from a hot thermos and some jam sandwiches.
“What’s the time uncle, if I may ask?” I’d asked the spindly man sitting closest to me.
“What?” he said.
“I just wanted the time,” I repeated, feeling guilty that I’d disturbed them and that, somewhere inside their hearts, they’d also known of the misdeed I’d committed. He brusquely told me it was five forty five PM.
“Thank you, uncle,” I said. I turned back to the waves. Time to leave.
“Would you like a sandwich?” he asked me. I was surprised.
“No thanks. Thanks, though,” I said, smiling.
It’s hard to describe. It was, no doubt, unusual, in Madras those days, for a young girl, barely out of childhood, to sit alone with a backpack, on the beach, looking sad. But, in that moment, I really felt more understood than I’d been by anyone, in a long time. I started getting teary, and got up to leave immediately, afraid I’d alarm the gentlemen and embarrass myself. I walked home and when I reached, half of my father’s office and my extended family were there. I walked past my balking, blinking father, horrified mother and sister, like I’d walked in after murdering someone, and was glad my vision had blurred over with numbness, focussing on the stairs that would take me to my room.
Like they have, today, when I realise I can’t use the Jumping Castle: It’s that same look in Preethi’s eyes. ‘Please don’t bring that side out,’ they seemed to say. Dark Padma. I’ve never felt ‘dark,’ to be honest. I don’t even allow myself boredom, remember? Kids’ parties are boring. I’d ensured I wasn’t. End of Story.
Tonight, as I wake up, it’s terribly dark outside and I can’t hear the children anymore. I look at the clock: it’s nearly 10 PM. I’m allowed to ask for two cans of beer before 9 PM. I’ve missed last call. As I check my email, there’s a soft knock at the door.
“Amma, it’s Krishna.”
“Come in,” I say, and swivel around on my chair.
“Would you like these chocolates? They were gifted to baby Nandu. They’re liqueur chocolates. All different brands,” he says matter-of-factly, looking at his feet. “Leave them, thanks,” I say. I feel the rumblings of that sentiment from that day on the beach at sixteen, when I was offered the jam sandwich.
The chocolates are big and filled with all sorts of delicious, expensive liqueur. I look out the window, over my laptop. The Jumping Castle is still erect, swaying in the rain-laden wind. The exhausted party folk are going to dismantle it, tomorrow. I collect the box with the remaining chocolates and head quietly, down the stairs. I make my way to the Castle, unseen by the watchman, as he is asleep, and climb in through the tiny entrance. I’m swaying on unsteady feet and surprisingly, I don’t like the feeling, though I do want to jump. I sit down in the middle of the gigantic orange and brown contraption and munch on another chocolate. Rum-filled. The smell and taste of several alcohols twist and spread their way over and across each other on my tongue, and through my nostrils, but I am, for some reason, able to bear it this time, the sweetness keeping the darkness and nausea at bay. I lie down and look up at the looming rain clouds, darkly etched out against the night sky. There are no stars visible tonight although, I can sense they’re there, hidden behind the curtains, waiting to explode with fiery incandescence, given the right chance.
Yes, twenty years have added to my understanding of Nature’s ways. I’ve learned that it’s easier to chop off a finger than it is to circumcise dreams. And, that perhaps it’s okay for the clock that keeps corporeal count to beat dimly and slightly off-tempo for a while, as long as the possibility of it beating with former glory and precision remains, if ultimately, only in our visceral hearts. Perhaps, it’s okay to drink and use it as a crutch, but only for a while. That time, is soon ending.
But, like Mrs Kapoor had taught us all those years ago, beneath the clicking fan, if the heart can teach itself how to beat, and if the body can listen and respond to our emotional distress with biochemical symphonies, perhaps it’s okay to look up at the stars and hope that there’s some unimagined finale to be acted out, with beautifully timed precision. For now, I’ll keep time with my guitar lessons and hair-cutting experiments. A second is a second, and the stars that festoon the night sky, shimmering with possible magic, are as far away from me, whether I were to wield a scalpel or choose to dream.