Apr/May 2014  •   Fiction


by Indira Chandrasekhar

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream

My shoulder was at it again, swivelling and turning like a mechanism lubricated with a heavy machine oil. I tried to pretend it wasn't happening, that my body wasn't giving in to the mobility, and continued walking under the orange-red of the gul mohar trees. Just as I was losing myself in the brilliance of their elaborately bracted flowers, a man on a scooter veered towards me and snatched my bag. Which yanked my arm right out of its socket.

He must have been startled by how easily it dropped out, for I caught a split-second sight of his face, and it seemed to widen grotesquely before he skidded and fell. But he was quick to recover. By the time I caught my breath, he had sped past the corner kiosk, leaving a crushed, scarlet trail in the fallen flowers. My bag was gone with my medicines in it, and my arm was swinging about wildly.

I must start carrying my pills in my pocket, one part of my brain said, while another recalled techniques for getting out of panic mode, like counting to 10,333, or breathing with my diaphragm; but such tricks, I've found, are only useful well into the aftermath of an emergency, not during the crisis.

Like an injured homing pigeon, I fled erratically back towards the house. If I were fine, it would only have been seven minutes away, on a lane carpeted not red but lavender from jacaranda petals. I don't know how long it took me, but when I managed, finally, to crash through the front door and collapse out of breath on the cold tiles of the entrance hall, I could barely see from the headache and the pain. The lingering smell of the masala I had used on the brinjal fry that afternoon induced a wave of nausea; it was as if my head would burst, and my gut.

"Ma," Charu whispered in my ear, "get up, get up. Mr Narasimhan is here for my math tutoring."

"AaHAhhh," I groaned, unable to rise.

"Shall I call a doctor?" I could hear Mr. Narasimhan say. "My sister's husband's cousin-brother is a doctor, and he lives only in the next colony. I can contact him." His habitually rapid speech was more exaggerated than usual.

"No, no," my daughter replied, "it's nothing."

"Nothing? But, but... oh, I see." His tone turned sympathetic. "Some ladies-type problems. His wife, that is, my sister's husband's cousin-brother's wife is also a doctor, a ladies' specialist. Quite well-known in her colony. She..." Mr. Narasimhan's voice rose in high-pitched excitement, causing my eardrums intense agony. My legs started to thrash as I tried to get away from him.

"Manu, Manu," my daughter bellowed. There was a complex series of sounds upstairs—chair pushed back, feet landing on the floor—each of which felt as if it was driving a hammer into my skull. As if to protect me, my auditory system seemed to sink into a fog as my son came jumping down the stairs. Everything sounded like it was travelling through some dense, absorbent substance, emerging muffled and warped. But his words were distinct enough: "What? Couldn't you solve it? Don't worry. Here comes the calculus expert..." he was saying. He saw me, stopped abruptly, and said, "What the fuck?"

"The math dude's here, Man," Charu responded, "Watch your language."

Manu bent over me. His mouth was open, his teeth—he really needed to see the dentist—seemed to move towards me ahead of his face. "Come on, Ma," he said, his voice gurgly as if he were under water. "Let me take you to your room." He lifted me up and staggered towards my bedroom off the entrance hall. I could sense the warmth of his rangy young body as he held me, then settled me into bed. The pain began to dissipate, and the sponginess in my ears began to clear somewhat.

"Mr. Narasimhan," I could hear Charu saying, "this differentiation problem... I need to answer it for tomorrow's class." She apparently succeeded in focusing him away from my agonies. His voice rose in a happy squeak as he intoned the relevant rules of calculus. I could imagine my daughter's face glazing over as she thought about everything but the sums.

I wished his voice had less ability to carry. He was slowing down, emphasizing, rounding out the words and pressing them into the rhythm of a mantra, "Dee yex wover dee wai." I didn't want to make fun of him, even in my head, but the combination of pain and muscle dysfunction made me unable to regulate myself.

"Dee yex..." I mimicked.

Manu gave me my pills, and within minutes I was easier. My body was tightening and loosening in the right places, my shoulder was easing back, my tongue under control. I was becoming human again. He sat on the chair near my bed and watched me. The minute I could blink without my eyelids going into high-frequency mode, he said, "How could you allow this to happen to you, Ma? Did you feel the symptoms? Your shoulder spinning? Faces melting? You didn't take your pill, did you?"

My voice was not quite back to normal, and I deliberately made gagging sounds, hoping his annoyance would turn to sympathy. But he just waited, and eventually I had to reply. I thought of feigning incapacity, but one time when I had tried to get out of answering him about forgotten pills by pleading illness, I'd slipped up; my mind had wandered as I lay there pretending, so when he'd leaned over anxiously, I wanted to make him smile and started telling him some long gossipy story about the family. He was so angry, he grabbed me by the forearms. I could see he wanted to twist my shoulder right out of its socket. He wouldn't have done it, I don't think, but he most certainly would have screamed and cursed. Instead, he'd let go, ground his teeth, stood up, and scolded me with great gravity. My poor little man. My condition had forced him into feeling he had to be an adult.

Today, therefore, as soon as my system allowed, I explained to him about the man on the scooter who'd snatched my bag. He was horrified. I did not want him to feel burdened and to worry every time I went out, so I said, "My shoulder had started to give way by then, or I would have been able to snatch it back from the man. Or knock him off his bike."

"The collapse had gone that far? Before he attacked? You have to take the pill immediately, as soon as it shows itself. Why the fuck didn't you?"

"Don't swear," I responded while I thought about what to say. How could I explain to him I hadn't taken my pill because I wanted to savor my independence for a little longer, wanted the freedom to walk without the oppressive thickening of the medication for just a few more steps.

But there was another reason why I wanted to delay my medication. One I couldn't share with anyone, least of all him. I could never admit to being tempted, every time, to give in, to relinquish control and allow my body to go where it would, where it could, and to take my mind with it. I had been close to the edge so often, had begun to sense the enticement of transformation so many times, but had held back, terrified. For myself, for my children. My dear, sweet children...

Now, however, it was becoming irresistible, drawing me, pushing me to an extreme where every neuron was extended and maximally alive.

I lay back, silent, as Manu talked about managing my illness, and I felt sorry I had to impose so much on him. Each thread on my bedspread, a beautiful blue and pale green printed cotton with a curiously European pattern of thistles and stalks, rather more widely spread than the fine Sanganeri flowers usually were, stood out, distinct and visible. The woody resinous aroma of eucalyptus mingled with the scent of jasmine and travelled in through the window, carrying with it the colors, the waxy ivory and pink of frangipani and the amber and ochres of the crotons. I was filled with a kind of hyper excitement, my chest shivering from having gone as far as I had, and I stretched up to hold the volatiles, elongating my extremities to immerse myself in them, allowing them to attach to me.

Ecstasy. I could fly.

"Ma, Ma." Manu's voice was loud. Loud and intrusive, taking me deeper into myself to escape it. "Charu!' He was sobbing now, and I could feel him shaking.

"Please go, Mr. Narasimhan."

"You are not needing some help? I will stay, or bring the doctor."

"Thank you, thank you, no we don't need anything, please..." The front door banged, and Charu, my beautiful Charu, came in on a cloud, no harsh sounds to accompany her. She laid her cool hand on my skin. Which was brave of her, I know, because she had always been horrified, even as a little girl, when my skin began to mottle with the strange mobilities.

"Why, why?" Manu was saying. "I was just here, watching her. Why did she let this happen, why didn't she ask me for another pill?"

I drifted back towards my other existences, where everything was intensely felt, every sensation magnified. I was a stretched, vibrating string, highly tuned, separated from the low noise of everyday. I could do anything, I was alight.

But Manu was loud, holding my arms, shouting at me, interfering. I started to hear the words and participate in the children's emotions even as I strove to float above and shape my world in wild and wonderful ways. "The thing is, Man," I heard my daughter say gently, "I know why Ma's done it. It's happened to me, too. Feels like magic."

Manu's breath turned to desperate, gasping sobs, full of loss and fear. Just like it did when his various cats died, and his father... whenever it happened, he would collapse into me, clutching my shoulders, leaning into me. And even after I was weakened by the increasing frequency of the morphing, I always found the strength to bear his weight till he could breathe again.

"Pull it together, Man. I am here. I won't go away, I can come back from the other state whenever I want."

"I can come back, too," I called out. "I can do anything. I can come back, too."

"Watch out, she's starting to vibrate. Stay out of her way."

"She won't hurt us, Manu, she knows us."

But Manu wasn't listening. He was backing into the wall and screaming, "Get out, lock the door."

"It's her, Man, it's Ma. Just stay quiet, and nothing will happen."

"Yes, yes, listen to Charu, it's me," I responded, but as my external vocal chords had begun to resonate, the words lost in the giant buzzing sound they made. I had to stop, or I would slice my children into bits. I tried to hold my abdomen tight so I would control it all, but I couldn't anymore. I was panicking. The sound reached a higher and higher pitch.

"Manu, Manu." I could hear my daughter. But I couldn't see anything anymore as I started to rise and hit the walls and the ceiling. I could hear glass break, and the perfume my daughter had given me pervaded the air and entered the pores of my underbelly, oversweet and strong. I bent down to look.

"Now," I heard them shout. I felt Charu's cool hand on my tight body, reaching to still the viciously sharp chord. I could feel Manu's firm, warm grasp. I had to stop moving, or their fine young skin would be lacerated. I tried to breathe and count to 3,673, even as I could taste their blood.