There comes that point in most people’s lives when their parents’ descent comes into relief. Bikram Sharma’s Between Waiting Rooms begins with that impossible-to-prepare-for point: “Ma called to tell me she’d had a fall, nothing serious.” There is, of course, something serious.
The son takes a train from Hyderabad, his place of work, to Bangalore, where the mother is. The Bangalore stay stretches. Then it ends. That’s the story, really, but Sharma’s eye for detail and deftness in handling interpersonal dynamics adds a poignant charge all through. We see the mother’s loneliness and the son’s despair take different forms.
Alongside the other mother-son story in the issue (Geetanjali Shree’s March, Ma, and Sakura, translated by Prachi Sharma), one finds the realism in Sharma’s story to be grey, even dirty. But it is no less necessary for being that. The reality of wilting with age is as important to literature as the possibility of blooming despite it. We must tell ourselves stories of both.
— Tanuj Solanki
The Bombay Literary Magazine
Between Waiting Rooms
Ma called to tell me she’d had a fall, nothing serious. I asked her what she meant by a fall. She said she slipped on the stairs and fractured her ankle. I asked her what the hell she meant by nothing serious then, and she clicked her tongue and told me not to worry, Mrs Noor had taken her to the hospital and a doctor had wrapped her ankle in a cast.
I booked a train ticket back home.
Rochelle dropped me off at the station after work. We walked to my platform and shared a cigarette. She asked me when I’d be back. I told her I had no idea, that I’d asked for two weeks off but Ma was in her sixties and would need help. Passengers rushed about us. Rochelle’s husband called. She hugged me goodbye before answering her phone, and then I was boarding my train and sliding away from Hyderabad towards Bangalore.
I arrived to find renovations taking place in the apartment complex. A new lift was being installed and construction workers were drilling into stone, making the floors shake. And yet the stairs, the tiles, the flickering tube light in the hall were the same. I used my old key to let myself in.
Ma was in the living room, sitting on her chair and resting her fractured leg on a stool. Next to her was a walking frame. Oh, you’re home early, she said. Like I’d just come back from school. Come close, come close, she said, waving me over and making me bend into her gentle hug. She asked me if I was tired, if I wanted food, told me I was being silly and that I didn’t need to worry about her and that everything was fine. She was smaller. Her fingers were wrinkled.
The apartment too had aged. The carpets were shabby and one of the kitchen walls was dotted with mould. The sealant around the windows had worn away and there was a strong smell of damp in my bedroom, now a guest bedroom, though actually just a room which Ma used to store her junk. My father had stopped sending money ages ago and Ma refused to deposit my cheques. Still, it wouldn’t have cost much to reseal the windows and prevent the rain from trickling in.
I unzipped my suitcase. As I unpacked, I remembered Ma twisting my ear if I didn’t put away my belongings or keep my bedroom tidy.
Will you be catching up with your friends? Ma asked, like I was on holiday. Only a handful of them were still in Bangalore. Well, not friends but classmates. They were people I’d grown up with, not people I’d chosen to grow up with. And in school they shamelessly made fun of my father.`I did bump into Tarini though. She was my senior by a few years and under Ma’s instructions she would hold my hand whenever we crossed the road to catch the school bus. Until, of course, we grew too old for that. I was returning from the market with a bag full of vegetables and she was picking up her daughter from preschool. We chatted by the side of the road while her four-year-old, Ananya, clung to her leg and recited the names of passing vehicles. They lived nearby and we exchanged numbers and promised to properly catch up soon. Say bye bye, she told Ananya, who shook her head and sucked on her thumb.
Back home I found Ma making her way from the kitchen to the living room. She was leaning on the walking frame, which clacked with her every slow step. Her arms trembled and her face was shiny with sweat. She collapsed into her chair, then clapped a hand to her forehead. Can you believe it, she said, after all that I forgot my tea! I brought it to her and asked her if she could kindly stop running around and behave her age. She swatted me away. We watched the news about the government being accused of using spyware on the opposition, and Ma shook her head. We never learn, she said, and now we’re reliving history, going through yet another Emergency, except this one’s undeclared and the Prime Minis-
Abruptly, she was silent.
Her face was expressionless. Before I could ask her what had happened, she was tipping forward. I leapt out of my chair to steady her. She didn’t react. Her hand held on to her cup, but awkwardly, so that the tea spilt over her wrist. I took the cup from her and she blinked. Oh, she said, how silly of me. I asked her if she was okay and she told me her wrist stung but she’d run it under cold water and then clean up the mess. Never mind that, I said, what happened to you, one second you were talking to me and then the next you were gone. Gone? she asked. It was like you’d passed out with your eyes open, I said. She looked afraid, but then shook her head and said, I don’t know what nonsense you’re talking about, I’m fine, can’t you see I’m fine? Her wrist was inflamed an angry red.
I ignored her assurances and complaints and took her to see a doctor. He wrote the name of a neurologist on a prescription sheet and told us to go see him instead. Sooner rather than later. We needed to know why Ma had suffered a lapse of consciousness. I asked him what was the cause and he shrugged and said, It’s hard to say right now, but what you’ve described sounds like a petit mal, an epileptic absence seizure.
Ma and I looked at the prescription sheet. As though it had all the answers.
The neurologist told us to get EEG and MRI scans done. We went to the sleep clinic first. There was a poster of a patient with electrodes attached to her scalp. I browsed my phone and learnt that an electroencephalogram was used to detect unusual electrical activity in the brain. And that epilepsy was often misdiagnosed in India. I thought of the tube light in the hall, flickering, struggling to ignite. I thought of Ma’s fractured ankle, her fall, how she supposedly slipped on the stairs.
Tarini messaged asking if I wanted to meet up.
Work emailed asking me to confirm my return date.
We went to a hospital for the MRI. I’d torn my ankle in my twenties and knew the procedure would involve Ma lying in the heart of the machine, under a blanket with cotton stuffed into her ears, trying to keep still as it clicked, whirred and blared around her. When she came out, she was pale and her skin cold.
We caught a cab back home and I tucked her into bed. To keep her warm, I made her a cup of hot milk mixed with powdered chocolate. She held the cup to her chest and smiled. This is what happens, she said, see how our roles have reversed. We didn’t speak after that, probably because we were both thinking about what her words might mean for us.
The neurologist hummed as he unfurled the printout of the EEG. He clipped the MRI scans to his light box and the three of us peered at the illuminated cross-sections of Ma’s brain. Nothing conclusive, he declared.
A fantastic diagnosis for the price of 14,000 rupees.
Mrs Noor brought us tiffin boxes of food. She and Ma sat in the living room and talked to each other by talking at each other. This was always their way. So while Ma complained about the idiocy of doctors nowadays, Mrs Noor talked about her nieces who were visiting. They were teenagers and prone to convenient memory loss about when to be back home. Children, she said, what can you do?
I got up to smoke a cigarette and call Tarini when Ma went silent.
Before I could react, Mrs Noor crossed the room and sat next to Ma, wrapped an arm around her and steadied her. As though she’d been steadying Ma her entire life. We waited for Ma to return, and when she did with a start, Mrs Noor rubbed her back and said, I think it’s time I leave. I walked her to the lift and asked, How long has she been like this, aunty? Mrs Noor said, Oh, for years! When she noticed my expression she stammered, I thought you knew, your mother told me you knew.
I called the neurologist from the living room, standing in front of Ma with him on the speakerphone so she could hear our every word. I told him she’d had another lapse, that she’d lied to me and that she’d apparently been having lapses for years. Ma opened her mouth to speak and I slashed at the air between us.
We both listened to the neurologist say, You must make arrangements for her.
Ma had to take medicine. A low dosage at first to monitor its effect, but one to be taken daily. She also had to give up driving. The car was her way of getting around, and she kept asking me how she’d do that once the cast was removed. My answer was to ask her what the hell would happen if she had a lapse while driving? Forget that, what would happen if she had a lapse while crossing the road?
I suggested we get a live-in nurse. It would be costly, but we could try it out and see how it worked. Ma refused. And, she said, I don’t want to be in one of those places for the elderly where the staff hum and haw and say yes, yes, whenever I speak to them as if I’m some mindless idiot. Yes, yes, I said.
I contacted Management and HR and hashed out a temporary solution. I could work remotely from Bangalore for a month, as long as I made sure deadlines were met and clients kept happy. They were surprisingly accommodating. Take all the time you need, they said, even posting a get-well card with Ma’s name misspelt. Ma read it and said, I don’t know what lies you’re spreading. Yes, I said, I’m the liar here.
I got someone to reseal the windows and get rid of the mould in the kitchen. Ma made some excuse about meaning to do that when she found the time, and I said, Yes, yes, your schedule is so very hectic nowadays. You’re asking for a thrashing, she replied.
I also tried to empty the guest bedroom of its junk. The wardrobe was overflowing with clothes that were old, moth-eaten, or stained. Why keep them? I always felt light and clean getting rid of clothes I no longer wanted, even if they were in decent shape. What was the point in holding on to things I would never use again?
But my attempts to tidy the apartment ended after I found, under a stack of yellowed papers, a photograph of my parents. They were in their early thirties, well dressed in a suit and a sari and posing for the camera. Ma was cradling me in her arms. Drawn over the photograph in black ink was a crude sketch of my father holding a dagger in his hand. Blood dripped from the dagger tip. Ma’s breast was cut open and she was weeping over me. The pen lines were pushed deep into the photograph.
That night I asked Ma if she wanted to watch a movie with me, or play a card game, or do anything she wanted, her choice. She scrutinised me and said, What’s up with you?
Tarini and I made plans to meet. I asked if we could do a late dinner because I figured by then Ma would be close to sleeping. Still, I checked with Ma to see if she’d be okay without me. She told me not to be silly and demanded to know who I was meeting. Only a friend, I said. Oh yes, she said, only a friend you’re constantly messaging and talking to late in the night, only a friend. I told her to shut up, and she hooted.
It took me ten minutes to walk to Tarini’s place. It was an old house that she and her husband had converted into a dental clinic. After they separated, both in marriage and practice, she downsized the clinic so that the ground floor was where she worked and the top floor was where she and Ananya lived. She let me in and led me past a tidy waiting room to the stairs. There was a smell of plastic and disinfectant.
Upstairs was very different. Music played softly and the room was lit with candles. There was pasta and a bottle of wine at the table. Toys were piled up in one corner of the living room. I picked up a wooden car and rolled its wheels. We ate dinner and kept things light at first, though eventually our conversation turned to Ma and Ananya.
Her daughter was at an age of energy and outbursts. And it didn’t help that Tarini’s ex-husband didn’t want to spend time with them. I asked her why that was the case and she repeated his words, You’re strangling my life. To make matters worse, her in-laws shunned her and her parents kept trying to convince her to get back together with him. They refused to accept the reality of the situation, that he was the one who left, not her. Her eyes held mine as she said, It gets lonely.
We finished the bottle of wine. My body felt heavy. It was late, and I told her I should get going. She asked me if I was sure and if I didn’t want to spend the night. My heart rate bumped up. I’d like that, I said.
We moved to her bedroom. She didn’t turn on the lights but took off her clothes and whispered, We have to be quiet. We lay on the bed. We kissed. Her hand traced my chest and slid down to hold my cock, squeeze it, though she didn’t stroke it. Do you have a condom? she asked. I searched the pockets of my trousers. As I did, she reached for a tube of lubricant in her bedside drawer. She squeezed a blob onto her fingertips and applied it to herself before asking me, Ready? I eased into her. She hushed. She wrapped her arms around my neck, pulled me close. I got into a rhythm and her breathing grew shallower and shallower till she whispered, Stay, stay, and her face and body clenched tight and she let out a muffled moan. She fell back against the pillows and said, Fuck, I really needed that. We laughed. Are you close? she asked. Pretty close, I said.
I started again. But it was different this time. There was less urgency, and her body wasn’t so tautly held. We breathed into each other’s faces and I smelt the sharpness of wine mixed with her perfume and the chemical scent of her lubricant. I kissed her. I bent my head and sucked on her nipple. I concentrated on coming. In the darkness it was hard to tell if she was enjoying herself or if she was just waiting for me to finish. Her bed creaked, like the beds in our apartment, and I thought of Ma huddled under the blankets, the clack of her walking frame, the illuminated cross-sections of her brain, the drawn dagger, tea spilling from the cup over her wrist and her eyes vacant as she tipped forward.
Are you okay? Tarini asked. I’m fine, I said. She rubbed my shoulders. I closed my eyes and tried to get harder, tried not to think about what Tarini was thinking, but that only made me soften quicker. I stopped. I sat next to her and leaned against the cold wall. What was wrong with me? And how had this happened? How was I back in this fucking city taking care of Ma with Management insisting that I take all the time I need? That was really nice for me, Tarini said. I smiled, and then to my horror I was blinking away tears that fell on my wrist. Do you want anything? she asked, her voice kind. I reached for her hand. She took it, interlinking her fingers with my own, and my throat tightened and I bowed my head while she whispered, It’s okay.
Ma was asleep when I got home. Rochelle had sent me a naked selfie and asked when I was coming back to Hyderabad.
I didn’t tell Ma, but I called care homes and live-in nurses to learn about our options. We were driving each other mad. If the bell rang, I would tell her not to get up and I would answer it. If she wanted tea, I would tell her not to get up and I would make it for her. If she wanted to go for a walk, I would ask her if she was planning on breaking the other leg. How many times do I have to repeat myself? I asked her. Look at this nonsense, she huffed, you’re telling me what to do in my own home. These squabbles led to her grumbling to the walls about the miseries of having an idiotic child who couldn’t tell his ass from his elbow.
The boundaries between work, taking care of Ma, meeting Tarini, making enquiries, and running errands blurred. I would crash into bed but struggle to sleep. How had Ma done it? All those evenings when she worked late and I stayed up, wet-eyed in bed, waiting for the front door to open. How had she taken care of me by herself after my father left? How did Tarini do it?
Sometimes Tarini asked a friend to watch over Ananya while we went out, and sometimes we stayed in like we did that first time. The nights always ended the same way. Drunk or sober, once we started having sex, I would go soft.
For me, it felt like I had entered a room with a door. I would open the door, and there was the same room with the same door. I would cross the room, open the door, and find the same room with the same door, again and again and again, repeating in an endless loop.
Tarini was kind. She told me not to worry about it, that it was normal and that it used to happen to her ex-husband as well. He would get so stressed about work and Ananya crying in the night and instead of talking about it he’d swallow his upset till it exploded out of him. Like the time he smashed a pressure cooker against the kitchen floor. Her husband reminded me of my father. How quick he was to anger. How quick he was to leave us. I’d visited him years ago to collect some legal documents. He was living by himself, with two maids, a cook, and a security guard looking after his needs. I hadn’t wanted to stay long after watching him raise his legs so a maid could clean the floor beneath him. He shuffled with me to the door of his house, and even though I never asked him for his fucking advice, he said, Don’t let others dictate your life.
Why did you stay with him for so long? I asked Tarini. She looked at me like I was a child and said, That’s a stupid question.
Stir-crazy, Ma took to clacking around the apartment and interrupting my meetings. She hadn’t had a lapse in a while, so I agreed to go with her to a park. We sat on a bench. I smoked as she ate peanuts and slapped at mosquitoes. A stray dog sniffed our palms. It lay down beside us, rolling over to rub its back against the ground. The grass had been watered and the air was filled with the pleasant smell of wet earth. But there was no escaping the sounds of traffic. Or construction. Bangalore is always so noisy now, I said. Is it quieter where you live? Ma asked. I thought about this and knew it wasn’t. If anything it was louder, and yet it didn’t bother me as much. Ma patted my cheek and smiled. What to do, this is home, she said, maybe I can visit you in Hyderabad one of these days. I didn’t ask what would happen if she needed to come live with me permanently.
We went to the hospital again. A doctor removed Ma’s cast and inspected her ankle, pushing his thumb into her flesh and asking her if it hurt. We met with a physiotherapist who prescribed a number of muscle-resistance exercises to help her regain strength and flexibility. At first, she avoided placing weight on her ankle. The walker continued to clack. But she kept at the exercises and suddenly she was stepping out of the apartment without telling me, going for walks around the complex with Mrs Noor or gassing away with uncles and aunties in the parking lot. Thankfully, there was no inflammation, no need for ice and elevation. Her ankle looked fine. She looked fine.
I didn’t hear from Tarini for a few days. When I called her, she sounded exhausted and our conversation was cut short by Ananya wailing in the background. I wanted to see them, but her messages were terse, like she was pulling away. It was difficult to sleep. I kept checking my phone.
Finally, she invited me over. We spent the afternoon watching cartoons with Ananya and playing with her wooden toys. After we tucked her into bed, Tarini and I lay side by side on the sofa in the living room. She told me Ananya had picked up an ear infection and her mother had come to stay with them and look after Ananya while she worked. This was why she hadn’t been able to talk to me. She would’ve been slaughtered if her mother had found out about me. Especially considering her mother had harped on the entire time about how Ananya needs her father. I’m right here, Tarini said, doing everything I can for my daughter.
We had a quiet dinner. She yawned as she cleared the plates away and said she might go to bed soon. Do you want me to stay? I asked. Not tonight, she said, I’m too tired.
She stood there, her back to me, rinsing a plate, stacking it up to dry, rinsing a plate, stacking it up to dry. There was the room and the door. But now I couldn’t even open the door.
Does it ever get easier? I asked. What do you mean? she said. You’re always tired, I’m always tired, I said, does it ever get easier, or are we stuck like this and we’ll never get our lives back? She stopped doing the dishes and turned around to face me. My ex-husband used to say the same thing about wanting his life back, she said. Is it so bad to want an easier life? I asked. No, she said, but for me it’s not about easy or difficult, it’s about choice. Choice, I shouted, what choice are you talking about? She raised a finger to her lips. Listen, she said, you can act like the world’s against you and has made your life so difficult, or you can grow up, accept that your life is built on your choices, and decide what happens next instead of blaming others. That’s not what I’m doing, I said, can’t you see you’re projecting? Please, she said, it’s late, I don’t want to do this now.
I got back to find Ma still awake. She was sitting in the living room and massaging her ankle. I asked her if she was okay and she said her ankle was stiff from the cold but otherwise no big deal. She was surprised I was home so soon and joked that she’d expected me to come climbing in through the window at the crack of dawn. I unlaced my shoes but did not take them off. The conversation with Tarini had slipped away from me so quickly. Are you okay? Ma asked. I told her I was fine. Everything okay with Tarini? she asked. I told her everything was fine. My voice sounded like someone else’s.
Ma must’ve guessed. I could tell she was going to say something, and I wanted to get the hell out of there before she started. But I was too late.
I’m sure you know this, she said, but it can be difficult to be in a relationship with someone who has a child, and the fact is you have to be mindful of their needs because their needs will always be different and more demanding than yours. Why are you telling me this? I asked. It’s something you should know, she said. But who even said I was in a relationship with Tarini? I asked. She raised a hand to calm me down and I cut her off and said, I told you everything is fine, you don’t have to raise your hand like that or share your great wisdom about what I must or must not do because the entire time I’ve been in this city the only thing I’ve been doing is taking care of other people and their goddamned needs.
There was so much more in me, a bitterness at the back of my throat that stuck deep. As a child, whenever Ma punished me, I would push my head into my pillows and scream that I hated her. I would hurt her by saying I wanted my father.
Maybe it’s time for you to go back to Hyderabad, Ma said. There was no anger in her voice and she was looking at me with a sad smile. I know it’s been difficult for you, she said, and I’m very sorry about that, but I’m better now and you don’t have to worry about me anymore. In any case, she continued, you can’t stay here forever, you have your own life to live, no?
I could’ve cried when she said those words. I swear to god, she knew exactly what she was asking me to do.
I’ll manage, she said. And then her eyes went glassy. She was there with me in the living room, but she was also gone. She tipped forward. I crossed the room, placed a hand on her shoulder and waited. When she returned, her eyes widened, but then she blinked, smiled, placed her hand on my own and said, Okay, beta?
I went back to Hyderabad. Colleagues asked after Ma. They didn’t complain when I neglected clients or messed up reports. Management called me to their floor, but there was no reprimand. They wanted to know if there was anything they could do to help. No one asked, Why did you leave? No one said, Fuck you, you’re fired.
At the end of the month there was a dinner in the office to celebrate a record turnover. No thanks to me. Rochelle and I sat together. Under the table, she rested her hand on my thigh. At some point we excused ourselves, pretending to leave but taking the stairs to a meeting room and locking the door behind us. She turned on the lights. I don’t know who made the first move, but within seconds we were on the floor, fucking with our clothes on and making so much noise that someone must’ve heard us. I came in less than a minute. It didn’t matter. We had sex two more times, and each time it was fast and easy and rough and I fantasised about her husband opening the door and finding me utterly destroying his life.
We left separately. I sat in the back of an auto and waited for a crash, for the auto to topple into a gutter and my world to tilt sideways and collapse.
My knees were sore the next morning. They burnt under hot water. It was a Saturday and there was nothing for me to do. Tarini hadn’t spoken to me since I’d left. In her last message, she said she wanted to be with someone who wasn’t afraid of what they had.
There was a power cut, and my neighbourhood fell strangely quiet. There were no sounds of construction. I could hear the family next door leaving. The girl shrieked and thudded down the stairs, chased by her brother, while their father laughed and their mother shouted at them to be careful. Their sounds drifted away and then returned through the windows. They were in the parking lot. Their car engine turned on, the apartment gate opened with a clang, and then they were off.
I’d been waiting for too long. So I called.
Yes? Ma answered on the first ring, like she too had been waiting. And? I asked her. And what, who taught you to speak on the phone? she said, laughing, before telling me that her ankle was fine and she hadn’t had any lapses either. But how do you know if you’ve had a lapse or not? I asked. I just know, she said, I’m fine. Why do people always say they’re fine when they’re not? I asked. She ignored me and talked about how Mrs Noor had been visiting every evening and I cut her off to ask, Would you have ever told me? She clicked her tongue. What is this interrogation? she said, I’ve told you already, I didn’t want you to worry. Didn’t I deserve to know? I asked, imagining her alone in the apartment, falling down and never getting back up. She was silent for so long I thought she’d cut the call. It’s difficult growing old, she finally said, you’d been away for years, I didn’t want you to feel like you had to abandon everything for me, like I was this horrible person dictating your life.
I knew. I knew that was why she hadn’t told me. And yet hearing it was to see Ma press the pen against the photograph, to feel my father’s hand rest on my shoulder. Who was I if not his son for her to have felt that way? I thought of Tarini, the look on her face when I told her I was leaving. What was in front of me was a choice that was no choice at all. But maybe I was closer to understanding what Tarini had meant. How that too could be okay. How it didn’t change the fact that everything was still mine to lose or keep. Ma, I said, my voice catching like it did those nights when I waited for her to open the front door, can I come home?
Image Credits: Jyoti Bhatt. “Mayoori” (2019), intaglio on paper, 13 X 10 in. Art Centrix Space. Occasionally, a cover image occurs to us that is such a perfect fit for the story under consideration, the story almost feels like an ekphrastic exercise. That is how we felt with this image, though of course Bikram was driven by very different considerations. Incidentally, does the labyrinth in Bhatt’s intaglio have a way out?
Bikram Sharma is from Bangalore. His debut novel, The Colony of Shadows, was published by Hachette India in 2022, and his short stories have been published by various literary magazines including Shenandoah, The Masters Review, and Litro. In 2017 he won the DNA-Out of Print short fiction contest.