It’s by now an old truism that science digs for causes, but fiction constructs reasons. “The queen died and the king died of a heart attack” belongs in a pathology report, whereas “the queen died and the king died of grief” wouldn’t be out of place in a story. I believe Weber was the first to spell this out in no uncertain terms, but any fool who’s watched Romeo and Juliet could probably tell you the same thing. As with most simple binaries however, it is uncertain who gets to decide where the line between what is true and what is real is to be placed.
In Mithila R’s unsettling story, it is the construction of just such a line that the good residents of Gulmohar have to draw. When the cool 30-something couple Ajay and Mohana move into Gulmohar, the living quarters for scientists working at Ahmedabad’s Physical Research Laboratory, they provoke gossip. Ajay had quit Bell Labs, and Mohana wears shorts and no bra. They are friendly. Equitable to underlings. There has to be reasons for this sort of anti-social behaviour. To the young narrator of the story, they say things like “It’s okay, we’re all casualties of physics”. What happens next is what Science is about. Why it happens is where Story takes you. But as I said, this line is less clear than we, the bourgeoise settled in our comfortable resistendial complexes called Reality, might like to accept. The Bard put it well. No, not in Romeo & Juliet— not that drippy tale– but in his darker masterpiece Twelfth Night. “That that is, is,” says Feste the Fool, and later: “Nothing that is so, is so.”
— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine
Even by the unhurried standards of Ahmedabad, where long hours of sunlight stretch the day like an unbroken dream, the suburb of Shamlapur can seem especially slow. One of the oldest settlements on the newer bank of the Sabarmati, Shamlapur boasts old money and older residents. Narrow lanes peel away from the main arterial road, pushing deeper into the quiet, giving way to hushed bungalows with private sandstone temples, whose rounded cupolas rise above the compound walls to cast a stern gaze at the neighbours. The dense, leafy canopy catches most of the dust that blankets the city, and allows things to resemble their actual colours. The leaves sway with the breeze in an emerald haze, here and there a shock of bright green or light yellow. The seething Ahmedabad sun reaches these parts shyly, filtered through the trees to throw dappled shadows on the ground. It is here, past these bungalows, round the corner from the Post Office, camouflaged by suburban idyll, that an eight-feet-high enclosure wall emerges suddenly from behind the trees.
Within this enclosure wall is the Shamlapur campus of the Physical Research Laboratory, erected in grim Brutalist fashion by a lesser student of Achyut Kanvinde, all straight lines and exposed cement, its austere geometry softened by trees and an irregular cricket ground. Inside this Modernist fever dream, men and women of science study the workings of the cosmos, hoping to figure out what makes the universe tick. One would think that people who spend so much time gazing at the stars would work in prettier buildings but perhaps romance is yet another superstition exploded by physics.
On the other end, near the campus convenience store, is a standalone SBI ATM, which is so frequently and unpredictably out of order that it has been nicknamed Schrodinger’s Cash. Some way behind it are three residential blocks, which house essential administrative as well as high-ranking personnel. In late 2021, in one of these blocks, all of them named for local flora and this particular one called Gulmohar, Ajit and Mohana Deshmukh killed themselves. I am still asking why. Their flat was bare when their bodies were pulled down from the ceiling of their bedroom. On the floor were: a chair, two bottles of bourbon, two glasses, an overflowing ashtray, and a thick envelope. Inside the envelope were: a bulleted list with meticulous instructions for their funerals, a will, and the suicide note itself. The will left their two iPhones to Kammuben, their domestic worker, and Dipenbhai, who ran the tea shop outside the lab. All their liquid wealth was to be donated, after deducting expenses for the funerals and any unpaid electricity and water charges, to Blue Cross India. They had no other possessions at the time of their deaths, except for the clothes that had to be cut off their swollen corpses.
As strange as it all was, what baffled the campus the most was the note. “The mind travels too,” it began, “and our minds have been to distant galaxies and the edge of the universe. We have seen more beauty there than we imagined. Now we return to stardust. We do not blame anyone for this action we are about to take.”
On this campus, where I grew up, the cosmos is probed relentlessly but people are, by and large, allowed their mysteries. Even so, Ajit and Mohana’s deaths drove us all to frenzied speculation, shocking us down to our last quivering atom.
Ajit and Mohana moved into Gulmohar in 2016, a few months after my fourteenth birthday, into the flat below ours. My mother dragged me along to welcome them, to ask if they needed sugar, milk, anything, but I’m sure what she really wanted to know was why anyone (Ajit, in this case) would quit Bell Labs (leave the Yoo Yess Yay?) and come to PRL.
Mohana opened the door wearing shorts and a tee shirt, with no bra, which I knew immediately would embarrass my mother. I had known they had no children and I assumed they might be young, perhaps newlyweds, but Mohana looked almost as old as Amma. She stuck her hand out cordially and when we shook hands, I could see her breasts jiggle slightly.
While they exchanged pleasantries, I cast a bored look about the house, and one of the first things I saw was a large framed poster leaning against a wall: various hand mudras of Bharatanatyam were embroidered in yellow thread upon dark green silk cloth. The shifting sunlight cast ripples in the silk, now dark and velvety, now shimmery gold. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
“Let’s go, kanna,” called out my mother and I turned away from the poster reluctantly, trooping back home behind her.
The Deshmukhs were not friendly but they had a dog who was. Doctor, for that was his name, was a sandy Lab who quickly sniffed the measure of everyone on campus. He was often left with Dipenbhai, whose little tea stall was the lifeblood of the lab, so much so that he had his own PRL email account to let everyone know if/when he was on leave. Doctor was often to be found lolling around Dipenbhai’s stall, hoping someone would toss him a biscuit. He seemed to dislike being in the house, and the Deshmukhs felt it was healthier for a Labrador to roam around and get exercise or he would get fat. Most of the scientists were middle-aged South Indian men who disapproved of dogs, jealous of a creature that could lick its own balls at will, and it was mostly children and maintenance staff who stopped to pet Doctor and play with him. One evening a few weeks after the Deshmukhs moved in, I found Doctor trotting around outside the lab, his little chew toy hanging from his slobbering mouth.
Half an hour later, I was trying to teach him a new trick. I would say, “Roll!” and twirl quickly, trying to get him to do the same. He cocked his head at me in puzzlement but I persisted. “Roll, Doctor!” I would shout and twist on the spot. Although he barked and wagged his tail obligingly, I was left spinning by myself for the most part. I kept shouting “Roll” and twirling and giggling, spinning and jumping and spinning and jumping until my vision blurred and my stomach started to roil. Then I suddenly doubled over and vomited. I groaned and swayed but a strong hand held my arm to steady me.
“It’s OK,” the owner of the hand said, handing me a bottle with his other hand and trying to nudge Doctor away from the pool of sick with his foot. “Drink some water.”
I hesitated. I had never seen him before.
“I’m Ajit,” he said, letting go of me and bending to drag Doctor away by his collar. “Mohana’s husband. I work with your Dad.”
“Oh, hello,” I mumbled weakly, hoping I had wiped all the vomit off my mouth. He was very tall. Dark muscles swelled at his sleeves as he scratched the top of Doctor’s head.
“I’m sorry about…” I gestured at the sick on the ground; I was embarrassed.
He smiled. “It’s OK,” he said, “we are all casualties of physics.”
He turned to leave and so I pretended to sway again and held my palm to my forehead. Ajit was forced to hold my arm steady once more, this time all the way across the campus to Gulmohar and up three floors in the lift to my house.
Their house was full of art and artefacts from all over the world. Statues, masks, beaded objects, ornamental plates, and cream-coloured lampshades decorated with silver jewellery from Law Garden. We had never been invited but Kammuben, the woman who cleaned our house, also did theirs and she filled us in. “Lots of books,” she said. She leaned in towards Amma and said, “One book, a big one”—she gestured with her hands to show its size—“old photos of naked people. From some jungle. Not a thread on them.”
Amma shook her head. “She also doesn’t wear a bra, no.”
“Do you know she is older than him?” asked Kammuben, looking at my mother slyly. “Eight years.”
Amma gasped, her eyes wide. “Really?”
“Really,” said Kammuben, satisfied with Amma’s reaction. “Families were unhappy. They don’t speak to them.”
“They ran away and got married?” Amma asked.
Kammuben nodded. A conspiratorial look passed between the two women. Then, realising I was listening, Kammuben wrung the mop noisily and swung it across the floor with a business-like flourish.
We learned quickly to leave them alone. All attempts to befriend them in those initial months were politely rebuffed. If they ever passed us on campus, there was a nod and a smile but nothing more. Invitations to lunches, dinners, and parties were declined, though always with a note of thanks. They paid their share of the donation for all communal festival meals but never showed up themselves. The first time this happened, the Pongal after they arrived, my mother, who was in charge of lunch celebrations, dispatched me to their house to let them know everyone was waiting for them in the community hall. I rang the doorbell, tugging at my paavaadai, trying to smooth a crease.
Ajit opened the door, putting on a tee shirt at the same time. I caught a flash of skin above the grey band of his shorts.
“Mo-Mohana Aunty?” I stammered, unable to think of anything else to say.
Ajit opened the door a little wider, though not enough to let me inside, and called out, “Mona.” Mohana came to the door, also wearing a long tee shirt, no bra. Her nipples poked through the soft cotton and I thought of the knobs on my chest of drawers at home.
“Happy Pongal,” I said, trying not to look at either of them directly. “Are you coming for lunch? In the hall?”
“Oh, didn’t Padma get my message? You guys carry on without us,” she said, leaning closer to Ajit and looping one arm around his waist. “Happy Pongal.”
I nodded and turned and fled down the stairs, my paavaadai flapping at my ankles, my cheeks aflame.
It wasn’t until later, in the community hall, while the ladies huddled together and shouted “Pongal-o-pongal”, ululating and banging on plates, that I realised Doctor hadn’t come to the door.
“Snake bite,” said Kammuben.
Around two years after they moved in, Mohana told Kammuben she need not come anymore. Kammuben was the campus’s sole source of gossip on the Deshmukhs and without her, we had very little to go on. They were not on social media, at least not under their legal names. We knew they were both smokers, they drank coffee without milk and they had managed to obtain a license for alcohol. No doubt Kammuben knew other things that she didn’t see fit to share when I was in the room. Campus gossip from Jabeen, my friend from the opposite block, indicated that Ajit was into fitness; she had spotted him through her window doing push-ups. He kept chat to a minimum in the lab, and anyway, his team was all-male, all of them like my Dad, monosyllabic unless someone brought home a sub-standard report card. Mohana rarely stepped out of the flat, going out only late at night, to feed the strays. Kammuben had told us that she did some sort of work from home. They spoke to nobody, participated in no campus activities.
“They are non-reactive particles,” my Dad joked, “inside a very stable nucleus.”
One day in 2019, around the time that many scientists got in trouble for holding an anti-CAA protest outside campus, we saw a large gunny bag deposited outside Gulmohar’s lift. A WhatsApp clarification revealed that Ajit and Mohana were disposing off some books. They would carry the bag out in the evening, but until then could it please remain outside the lift? Someone in the group asked if they could take the books for the PRL library instead.
“Ajit Deshmukh is typing…” it said for a long time. Then his response: “ok”
I went to the library after a few days to look at the list of these new additions that Anitaben, the librarian, drew up: science-fiction, as expected, but also comics, pulp, thrillers, big tomes, lots of physics, many of them with annotations in the margins, written in a neat, precise hand.
The next month, another gunny bag full of books was found outside the lift. It was only after the bag was heaved to the library and opened did Anitaben realise that all the books had been shredded. Two more gunny bags appeared the following week with more shredded pages. We took the hint.
Other items appeared soon after. Several sets of china, two carved wooden chairs, a beautiful roll of carpet. Jamnaben, the caretaker of the residential blocks, swooped in to take them to her office. Once the workers realised the Deshmukhs did not mind them taking the items, they started making a beeline for Gulmohar. A queen-size mattress, several appliances, a model of the solar system made in crystal, Tupperware of all sizes, a large box with 213 silver ink pens. The guards reported that Ajit and Mohana had carried other bags outside at night, dumping them in the large metal bins at the end of the street.
More gunny bags appeared around Diwali, full of clothes. Sensible trousers, beachy shirts, silk saris, Polo-necked tee shirts, kalamkari kurtas. Kammuben described one black dress with abstract patterns. “Very deep,” she said, with her index finger between her ribs.
“Where are these clothes?” I asked her.
“I took some shirts and pants home. Other workers took some things,” she said.
“What about the dress? Black?” I asked.
Kammuben snorted. “That I turned into a mop.”
By the time January 2020 arrived, the Deshmukhs had been disembowelling their flat for several months, and the novelty had worn off. Only the very good stuff received interest and many things simply stayed piled up in the parking area for days. My mother complained about it sometimes, something about mosquitoes.
One evening in February, I was walking back to Gulmohar and saw a pile of things behind the block: a wooden table piled with some DVDs, a half-deflated exercise ball, a rolled-up yoga mat. Leaning against the table were some large, framed paintings. The one at the very back was the largest. Dark green silk and yellow thread, slender fingers in a dance.
“Why did you take it?” asked Amma when I brought it home. “You know they don’t like it when we take things.”
I took down the poster of the periodic table my father had long ago hung up on my bedroom wall and put up the Bharatanatyam one instead. Amma frowned when she saw it but said nothing.
Come March, the campus shut down, like the rest of the country. Last minute arrangements were made for the maintenance of the lab instruments and lists were drawn up to allow a careful rotation of people who would periodically take readouts of the various projects to keep them on track. We huddled behind closed doors all summer, drinking bitter kashaayam, thrown into a panic at every sniffle and every headache. Sometime in April, my father used household items to try and demonstrate Young’s double-slit experiment at home. In the evenings during those first few months, my friends and I would do group video calls and paint together.
We had no Amazon or food delivery or grocery delivery, and within three weeks the campus convenience store ran out of supplies. My mother and I would step out in the morning to run errands, during the three hours that some shops were permitted to open every day. One morning, as we waited to buy milk, we noticed Mohana in line, struggling to carry two different bags in one hand while digging for change in her pocket with the other. The neighbourhood dogs milled about her, sniffing at her bags.
“Shall I help?” I asked, offering to carry something.
She turned around, a little startled. “I am OK, thanks,” she said.
We exchanged awkward chit-chat for a few minutes, shouting to be heard through our masks and standing “be gaj ni doori.” My mother, suddenly overcome with compassion during this time of crisis, asked if they were managing OK.
“We’ve had lots of time to think,” Mohana replied slowly. “Mental clarity.”
“Good, good,” said my mother. “If you need anything, please don’t hesitate.”
A short round of goodbyes and take cares later, she was gone.
Come June and we were still stuck indoors. All through April and May the sun glowered at the campus outside our windows and we kept our ACs on nearly all day. My father tried to make a lava lamp at home. Some people caught the virus but recovered in a matter of days.
At night, the trees sighed and the earth turned and I stared at my Bharatanatyam poster, feeling plucked out of normal time, unable to sleep. Sometimes, the moonlight would animate the dark silk and the slender threads looked to me like they might move. I would think back to an evening long ago when Ajit’s fingers had closed around my arm, all the way home, and the memory burned beneath my skin all summer long until the rains came.
The lockdown was lifted in July even as cases continued to rise. Before long the crowds were back in the shops, restaurants were full and traffic choked every signal. Dubious “herbal” remedies circulated on WhatsApp, right under the nose of the PRL Director, whose office had sent out a stern mail to “Dear All” cautioning us against “fake news”. Around December, strict curfews were imposed once more as cases skyrocketed. All of us had family and friends abroad, and we watched in horrified fascination as America and Europe fell apart at the seams during the second wave.
Around New Year’s Day, I spotted Ajit and Mohana heading out of the gate with bowls of food, late at night. I didn’t recognise them immediately—they had shaved their heads and wore large, dark masks hanging down to their necks. The guards told me later that even through the lockdown, they hadn’t skipped a single day of feeding the dogs.
The months blurred together until March when every phone connection was preceded by a recorded message about the “ray of light” marked by the vaccines. There was a special vaccination drive organised by the campus for personnel aged 60 and above. Mid-April, we allowed ourselves a careful, socially distanced gathering for Vishu where we all brought our own cups.
Our optimism had been premature; we were unprepared for the horrors of the second wave. Ambulances howled all day and night and every day the papers were plastered with images of people who gasped to death outside hospitals. No beds, no oxygen, nobody to hold their hand while they died. Homebound once more, we drank our kashaayam, wore two masks, and tried not to think too much about the pyres, pyres, pyres burning through the night.
The campus limped back to life in August, as more and more of us got at least one dose of the vaccine. There was no Onam sadya and, a month later, no garba either, out of “abundant caution”. My professors continued to bear down on me through tiny windows on my laptop screen. My father informed us casually during dinner one night in October that Ajit was on leave for a month. He had emailed my father saying he and Mohana needed to visit her mother in Trichy, to check on her.
“I thought they were not on speaking terms?” said my mother but my father only shrugged.
My mother was determined to do something nice for Diwali, for the sake of everyone’s spirits, while still remaining safely distanced. It was decided eventually to light diyas on the lab terrace in the shape of the words “We salute Corona Warriors”. It was also decided to provide a larger-than-usual bonus to all maintenance staff and guards, who had remained on campus to take care of us, locked down and away from their own families. While doing the rounds for residents’ contributions, we realised that the Deshmukhs had returned—their flat was no longer locked from the outside. The guards confirmed they had been back for two days. We rang the doorbell but there was no answer. They must be quarantining themselves after their trip, we thought.
The day after Bhai Dooj, all of Gulmohar woke up drenched in a dreadful stench, a foul, sickly-sweet smell that made our stomachs clench. As we approached Labh Pancham, it was unbearable and everyone knew this was no dead cat or monkey. The block’s secretary sent out a “wellness check” message on WhatsApp. Everyone responded except the Deshmukhs. He called them but their phones were switched off. He sent Ajit emails, cc’ing my father and the PRL Director but there was no answer. He finally called the police. The beat constables set one foot in Gulmohar and immediately knew. One of them tied a handkerchief over his mask and manoeuvred himself onto the ledge of the balcony of the flat next to the Deshmukhs’. From there, he was able to leap onto the ledge of their balcony and peer inside the bedroom through the window. He said there was a body of a very large man hanging from the ceiling. We were shocked. A large man??? Who was this person? How did he get inside? Where were Ajit and Mohana?
Once the rest of the police arrived, they took a master key from Jamnaben and went inside the flat in full PPE gear. They found no man. What the constable had mistaken for a large man were, in fact, the bodies of Ajit and Mohana, hanging from the same hook so close together that the two corpses had fused into one large, bloated mass. There was nothing in the room except for two bottles of half-finished bourbon, an overflowing ashtray, an envelope, and a chair from which the two of them must have jumped.
As far as the police were concerned, there was no mystery. There was a suicide note, and a will; the post-mortem did not indicate any illness or drugs in the system, other than alcohol, and the cause of death was definitely asphyxiation. Open and shut.
No family members arrived to take possession of the bodies or to conduct the funerals. We wondered how deep the estrangement ran, especially since they had just visited Mohana’s mother. A lawyer arrived a few days later to complete police formalities and execute the contents of the will. Mohana’s mother was too ill to travel so far, he said. He did not seem surprised that the will left her nothing.
Ajit’s family had no idea he was working at PRL in Ahmedabad; they hadn’t spoken to him in years. They had been notified by the police but they received the PRL Director’s condolence call by phone and asked him to please make whatever funeral arrangements he saw fit as they would be unable to attend.
There seemed to be no friends, no family, nobody who called asking about two people who had just died.
“How does a life turn out this way,” asked Amma one morning not long after, “to end like this?”
PRL placed a small memorial advert in the local newspapers, but the campus newsletter carried a longer tribute. “Ajit Deshmukh was a brilliant scientist,” it said, “whose exciting work on Langmuir probes held great promise before being so tragically cut short. He was passionate about the power of science to transform the world and it will be a privilege for PRL to carry his inspiring legacy forward.” About Mohana we knew even less and so the tribute simply referred to her habit of feeding stray dogs, saying “her compassion was an example to us all.”
My father retired a few years later, in 2026, and we moved to Madras. While packing our things, I took down the Bharatanatyam poster from the wall and removed the large square of green silk from its frame. I bunched it up in my fist, as much of it as I could gather, and heaved it out towards the trees outside my balcony. It carried on the wind, spinning and fluttering, a casualty of physics.
In 2013, Ahmedabad University’s Centre for Heritage Management celebrated World Heritage (April 18) with a five-day “materials exhibit”, showcasing the shared colonial heritage of Manchester and Ahmedabad. British and Indian artists set up their works in Old Rajnagar Mill (estb. 1925), an abandoned mill site. The place is all rusted up now, but the exhibit itself seems to have been completely irony-free.
Author | MITHILA R.
Mithila R is completing her final year of a post-graduate degree in English at St Joseph’s University, Bangalore. “The Uncertainty Principle” is her first published story.