‘Do not be afraid of making mistakes on paper.’
The cursor blinks in apathy. Hot white lights; cold steel trolleys gliding across the polished marble floor in clean diagonals like a carrom board. The lobby swallows sober men infected with orderly panic. There’s a high roof but no room for talk. Some men disappear behind the revolving glass door that creaks in protest every time a person enters. The slight swirl fills the lobby up with a smell Shibani knows too well. An imposter fragrance – ink, floral disinfectant, a mild lemony perfume even. An imposter fragrance to cloak dialysis, bad breath, burnt flesh, salvaged livers, broken families and life support.
Shibani tosses away the laptop and leaps towards the ladies’ room. There is not a chance she will finish the letter tonight.
Minerva hospital lies on the eastern flank of New Delhi and overlooks Yamuna bank. It’s the best in the East but nobody from the South visits, except for old patients of Dr. Sinha, the antediluvian orthopedic head who’s sewed up 70% of posh Delhi’s post-partition bones.
“It’s a pity he won’t operate anymore,” Maya aunty remarks. “Now he only oversees the department and is mostly moving about the country attending conferences. You know in the 80s?”
“Nobody gives a damn, Maa!”
Maya aunty uses small talk like a closet, wraps anxieties under her thick Pashmina shawls and tosses it all in the ivory Godrej. Instead, she takes her guests by the hand, points towards the chandelier, offers wine from Nagpur, never forgets to mention that the chutney for snacks is from the tomatoes in the kitchen garden. The only thing she’s trying to say is “Look, my husband was a cheat and he left. But I survived.” The new acquaintances are spellbound by the opulence, the old familiar families smile at her oddities.
But none of them have visited since Advaita went to ICU.
It was a motor accident, a sharp left turn that spun out of control and left her limbs crooked, that could be healed, but her spine’s X-ray revealed a dilapidated abacus set. Maya aunty is bad at math, for the first time in her life now, she’s dabbling with fractions – the probability that Advaita will make it up on her feet and help her count change.
Maya aunty is better at prayer than probability. And she believes hope is made of tougher things than science, it cannot be fit in vials, or evidenced in urine samples. Its bracket is broader than an appropriate haemoglobin scale. Maya aunty’s expectation of hope isn’t a measured seasoning to salvage unsavoury circumstances, rather it is magic.
The doctors have said Advaita’s best bet is to breathe through a machine, Maya aunty believes she’ll run the half marathon in November. Maya aunty is terrible at math.
I’m sorry for everything. I write urgently because I don’t know the point of this anymore, I don’t know when I can see you. Your mother is too upset to let me around you. I am too afraid to ask. So I’ll do as cowards do, I’ll only write to you.
I didn’t mean any of the things I said that night. I don’t know how to take it back. I don’t understand how I let my words get bigger than the two of us. I have misjudged my anger as strength but it’s never done better than tear us apart. I am sorry I never did better.
If I hadn’t said you made me miserable, you’d never have rushed for a justification. You’d never have stolen your mother’s car. If I had just said the circumstance made me upset, maybe you’d have waited until next morning. The distinction between “upset” and “miserable” is the difference between demanding an apology and commanding repentance. I implied I’d at best tolerate repentance and never anything more. I lied.
I allowed my impatience with the world to crawl on you. I forgot all the wonderful things you are for a few minutes. And the things we are meant to do – your absurd ideas about visiting a zoo and your obsession with completing a 21km run. We have places to go, places I can apologize even though it will never be enough. I am thinking of ways to make it up to you but I cannot fathom for the life of me how to.
So I’ll do as distressed lovers do, I’ll only write to you, and I’ll wait.”
The receptionist on the second floor is in a frenzy updating Excel sheets. It’s 11pm, one by one, doctors trickle in for the night shift. They instruct her like people teaming in for a house gathering, tossing their jackets on a coat-hanger:
Tell Dr. Khanna to speak to me about Room 208
Check up when Desai ji’s MRI is out.
If Simon asks for me, tell him I’ll be upstairs and not in my cabin. We are discharging that young boy, oof I can’t recollect his name…
“Rishav” Rashikha smiles, looking up from her computer, her wiry shoulders swallowed behind the mammoth screen.
“Yes, yes. We are discharging him today. Make sure their bill is done. Thank you! And stop slouching! If the chair is bad I’ll get you a new one.”
The optometrist is always irritable and is infamous for not mincing his words.
Across the corridor, Maya aunty nods her head sympathetically, she struggles to do this without condescension. Rashika is after all, the same age as Advaita. The bright white lights have been dimmed to pave way for softer yellow bulbs, it does nothing to make the floor less despondent. But the footfall has fallen by half, no beeping monitors or unoiled wheelchairs clanking from door to door. There is a loss of the sense of disciplined emergency in the hospital that Maya aunty has come to associate with her afternoons in the waiting room. Caught in the delirium, she nowadays forgets about her 4pm cup of tea.
“Coffee?”, she offers a cup from the flask she has just filled to Rashika.
‘I’d love to, but I can’t. I’ve to work out the details now.’ She turns her ballpoint to a sheaf of papers on her desk.
“They are overworking you, you know that? They can’t have one person to remember all these details!”
“Oh, I don’t have to do anything about it. I just have to tell the right people to do the right thing. My job is just to remember the details. Just too many details,” she shrugs her shoulders and lets out a hapless smile. “I really want to study though.”
Maya aunty has grown fond of the girl over the last two weeks. The initial panic and constant activity transformed into a shapeless grief after there were no more forms to fill and no more relatives to inform. When her days began to be marked by long periods of inoccupancy, she began to notice her surroundings for the first time. Her current life is a shriveled up routine of packing lunch for herself and her son, and then waiting endlessly at the hospital, chasing doctors who are reluctant to confirm or dismiss her fears. Her ex-husband visits twice a week but all the relatives have left. Amidst all of this, Rashika is the only person who smiled back.
“Have you heard anything from the doctors? In passing?”, “How many more tests do they usually prescribe?”, “Have there been people in Advaita’s situation here before?”
Rashika has tended to her absurdities with absolute patience, nursed her open-ended queries with adequately-punctuated nods.
“There must be hope?” Nod.
“People have survived worse.” Nod.
“God is kind.” Nod.
Today however, she wonders if Maya aunty would reciprocate similar courtesy.
“There’s a girl, downstairs. She has been waiting every night…”
Fully aware of the arduousness of this exercise, Rashika gulps, “She always comes in the evenings after her work, and stays till dawn. She says… she says she is a dear friend of Advaita’s. And that she would like to meet.”
Suddenly, Rashika can fathom every fine particle suspended in light, she senses every inch of the distance between the two of them, as if someone has let out a family secret.
Maya aunty’s face is obscured in a shadow as she steps back from the bulb’s halo. “She could be a dear friend. But only family should be allowed during such a critical time. Do you understand what to tell her if you spot her again? Make sure…”
“I understand,” Rashika interjects. “I told her that. But she informed me, rather she requested that I tell you, that she is family.”
At midnight, Advaita has finally responded to the treatment. She’s howling in agony crowded around by nurses who are trying to push her arms down, the doctors inject another dosage of painkiller, but she is still gasping for breath.
Anoop is gripping onto Maya aunty’s hand, clammy with exhaustion from the predictable routine. Last week, Advaita had stopped screaming. But she’s in livid pain again. Two days ago, the doctors announced she may never regain control of her limbs, struggle to swallow food, will need to be turned in her sleep and probably lose a significant degree of vision. All Maya aunty has heard so far, is “may”, the same as an insignificant month in the calendar that must be crossed quickly so monsoon can heal everything.
“She won’t make it Maa.”
“Don’t say that.”
“You’ve got to call Papa.”
“And you’ve got to let Shibani in.”
“She’s nothing! She’s nothing! She is the reason…” Maya aunty is seething now. Her world is falling apart and this is the last person she needs to hear about. She’s been through too much. Survived abuse, a divorce, and her daughter’s vocal preferences…
“They’re not just friends.”
“Well they very well could’ve been that! I’ve raised you both to be sensible human beings and this is what it has come to! I won’t…”
“It’s not about you.”
Her son is just sixteen and if it were home, she’d have slapped him across the cheek. Her hands are itching to. A wave of remorse sweeps her, she’s mad at the world and everything it has sponged out of her. She had hoped life would be like a fixed deposit, miniscule bursts of joy for against a mortgage of suffering. But the suffering never ends.
In her heart, she knows Anoop is right. But she has no clue what to do with that piece of information. She can’t tell how much time has passed after her husband left even though she’s felt the long intermissions between two minutes, allowed seconds to prick her back, and felt a fool about the days he went missing. She wonders where the years have gone by. Her daughter found a lover when the house was falling apart, and her son’s learnt to correct her without her consent.
Shibani has gulped down 7 tea cups, her temples throb with the recent bout of insomnia, her back is stiff from staying put on the straight steel chairs. The comfort of her apartment foam mattress is a distant memory she hasn’t yearned for even once since the accident. All the anger from before has exited her body like post-fever sweat.
She’s shuffled a deck of the blame between herself and Maya aunty. For the first week, she lost her appetite, her mouth full of words she could’ve used instead of –
“Your mother doesn’t care about anything unless it is about her!”
“She just needs time. I have been talking to her. You cannot expect her to understand it and be alright with everything. She just doesn’t know better!”
“So explain better!”
“I’ve been trying!”
“Well, I don’t see it! How hard is it to understand that I am trying to make you happy?”
“You do, you do make me very happy and I want to…”
“You think so? That’s surprising given it took you so long to come clean about it. Are you even sure about anything?
“Of course I am. I just wanted to be in a place where I could talk to her about these things. She’s never thought of two men being together as anything beyond a joke, forget two women! You can’t expect things to change in a day! You have to allow it at least some time!”
“I am tired of waiting and it makes me miserable. It makes me question the entire point of us anyway. Quite frankly, I do love you but sometimes I worry whether it’s worth it.”
“I’m warning you, you need to stop. You’re saying things you will regret!”
“No room to speak up my mind right? You’re just like your mother, you talk too much and you don’t listen. Your mother and her opinion, her feelings, it takes up everything. No wonder your father left!”
All the things she’s do now to take it back. She no longer even knows what the bitterness was about and finds herself unable to stay mad at Maya aunty. Her anger’s paved way for vulnerability, and like vulnerability does, it’s opened pockets for silent empathy, understanding that it’s not people who are miserable, just that the world is unkind. Empathy she thinks, is the reverse of vertigo, when you’re angry, you’re afraid what might be left of you the day you no longer are. She knows now. It’s this – this precise reduction to a vast formless silence. Waiting at a hospital’s ground floor, caressing memories that have never been noticed, seeking the forgiveness of people you don’t deserve it from, and grieving that it may never come your way.
The screaming stops only after the better half of the hour has passed. Anoop has pulled a muscle from the long hours of stillness, Maya aunty places his feet on her lap and gently presses the back of his knee. Even as her older child has lined her brows with an additional decade over just the last month, she hasn’t allowed the younger one to slip from her mind.
“Thank you,” he mutters under her breath.
“Just sleep now. It’s late.”
Her mind wanders back to all the obscure disappointments she has nursed with meticulousness, when the world outside let her down, she turned her attention indoors. For every heartbreak, there were always more chores to do. She remembers her mother complimenting her for dusting the bookshelf, she’d clinched her thumb and said, “Maya is an expert at this, not even a tiny particle of dust.” Maya aunty was thirteen then, and the day before that she had spotted a dead squirrel. When her saplings failed, she scrubbed the floors harder. At seventeen, when Maya aunty’s best friend said he was leaving the country, she poured her attention to chai, announced that one and a half teaspoons of sugar were ideal to keep the flavor intact instead of the family tradition of leaving undissolved lumps at the bottom of the cup.
When she found out her husband was sleeping with someone else, she wanted to exit her body, to shed every inch of her skin and walk out of the house, to leave behind the backyard for the children to tend. But she couldn’t leave the children.
With Advaita in the ICU, she wants to disown her mind. How convenient would the loss of memory be, to be grouped under the same category as old men with amnesia, to be wheeled around in the garden and then argue about whether she’s been given breakfast. It hasn’t been a life worth remembering, she thinks, but is interrupted by Anoop’s ankle. She must remember the boy has weak knees, her needs a new pair of glasses and that he is failing math. Once all of this is over, she’ll ask around for a new tutor.
In that moment she realizes the futility of everything she’s told her children in difficult circumstances.
“Every time you feel stuck, remember you have made it so far. Think of all the difficult times when you wanted to give up, did you? No, you didn’t. So you don’t quit now.”
No, she thinks. There wasn’t a point to any of this, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Life is simply the fact that everything you survive means you’ll have to survive through more. It never gets any easier. After enough turmoil, angst and screaming at god, resilience is no longer an act of patient courage, rather it is routine, a matter of habit. Her survival is something she simply couldn’t opt out of.
Just as she starts falling into a stupor, her phone vibrates in her bag.
“Sorry to call this late. I thought you’d be up.” Her ex-husband has become softer recently. It’s been almost eight years since the divorce, twenty five since she first met him, but this softness is a new.
“I spoke to Dr. Sinha,” he continues.
“Well, why wouldn’t he just speak to me? I’ve been sitting here day in and day out…”
“I think the doctor will speak to you too,” he sighs, “but I think it’s best we speak before he tries to talk to you.”
“Well, what is it?”
Maya aunty can hear him taking a deep breath, it’s the same, the same before announcing cancelled vacations, uncalled for guests, telling the children he couldn’t make it to the birthdays for the third time in a row, and a week before leaving the house for good.
“She will not make it Maya. Dr. Sinha has said her spine cannot be operated upon. Her lungs have no capacity and she is not responding to treatment. She is only going to get worse and be in more pain.”
“That’s utter nonsense. We’ll move her to another hospital. Dr. Sinha is old and lazy! We will seek a second opinion! We will move her to..”
“Dr. Sinha has sought a second opinion.”
“Oh!” She can no longer feel her legs, everything from the bottom of her neck has vaporized, there is no justice in the world, only the acceptance of circumstances that in an acquaintance’s life would have provoked utter disbelief. The close acquaintances will stay in a lull for a couple of days, they’ll visit often for a few months, some of Advaita’ friends who jogged with her, will dedicate November marathons to her. Once a day, Anoop will leave for college. But Maya aunty for now, doesn’t even have the energy to shift in her seat.
“Will you come tomorrow? I’d like to speak to you in person.”
“I can’t. I have to sign a few things tomorrow and then…”
“I’m sorry.”, he breaks down, “I’m sorry for everything Maya, I should have been there and I’m sorry. I wish I had been there. I’m sorry I can’t. I can’t believe what I’ve done to the family. I…”
“It’s not your family anymore. Family would have at least showed up.”
Maya aunty hangs up the phone. She removes Anoop’s feet from her lap and gently leans his head back to the wall. He wakes in mild confusion. “Sleep, ”she touches his cheek. “Sleep for now. It’s nothing.”
And then she makes her way to the ladies room and finally breaks down.
Anoop spots Shibani sleeping on a couch. One arm wrapped around her torso and the other hanging free clutching on to a few sheets. He gently nudges her shoulder and she is startled immediately.
“Hi!” she almost squeals sitting up at a right angle.
Anoop sits on the edge with his head low.
“How are you holding up?”
“Fine, alright. I just… Mom sent me here. She said you should come visit tomorrow.”
Shibani gasps holding back tears. “Is Advaita..”
“She’s here, she’s still here. We just don’t know for how long.”
By this time, it’s nothing Shibani hasn’t pieced together. She’s lost track of day and night sitting at the hospital but with every passing moment, the realization has hung on like tight paper clips around her fingers, immobilizing the small bits of her before she succumbs. She’s known in her gut all along.
“Mom didn’t want you to come.”
“But she changed her mind.”
“You stayed. And she got tired of waiting alone.”