Oct/Nov 2021  •   Fiction

Conspiracy Theories

by Varsha Tiwary

Artwork borrowed from Unsplash.com

Artwork borrowed from Unsplash.com

Roopa stands before the mirror clad only in a short nightie, practicing the boardroom speech. It is hot and sticky, even at 7:00 AM. Her period, like a clueless, clingy relative with nowhere to go, is back again in 15 days. Is that a shadow over her lips?

She abandons the speech practice, pushes the glasses up her greasy nose, and leans into the mirror. Ugh! she fuzzes up so fast. And the stiff, cactus-like spines erupting on her chin! And WHY today—when she is to present her wing's mid-year progress in the Boardroom?

Her Awful Body is always conspiring against her.

She reaches for the tweezers, scrunches her face, lips tucked tightly under teeth, and tugs at the unruly lip hair, one at a time. It is a miserable, touch and go process. The door pushes open, and Sameer steps into the bathroom. She shrieks. Their eyes meet in the mirror in familiar contempt, his features smoothly composed, hers un-groomed and affronted.

"Why don't you just shave," he says, looking at tiny droplets of blood beading on her upper lip, taking in her squat, thickening body.

Roopa turns and reaches for her gown. "Go on, make fun of me the first thing in the morning." Her words come out slow and sharp—as if plucked from her lips one at a time with the very tweezers she feels like stabbing him with.

"Ufff... Roopa... do you have any idea how vicious you sound? I, too, have been up since 4:00 AM working on my book. When will you stop overreacting," Sameer says stiffly, puffing his cheeks and blowing the air. "Everything bugs her. I say one word and she flares up! And please lock it the next time." He retreats, pulling the door shut.

Overreacting! She bends over the counter, focusing on deep breaths. While he chats up Ritus and Renus late into the night, each time his "students" call to discuss their theses. And how taxing it must be to concoct all those salable lies for his pre-commissioned book. "New India—the Hindu Homeland." Nomination on at least five high-level committees guaranteed as a reward.

Her upper lip zings with pain. She throws the tweezers in the drawer. Never mind the cost. She will get them zapped, she promises herself. Somehow, among all her mid-life banes, facial hair seem to be the only one with a set remedy. She takes a quick bath and searches the closet for the blouse she is sure she had laid out the night before. The closet overflows with Sameer's clothes: ties, jackets, trousers neatly arrayed. He tends to take over the space; her clothes end up being haphazardly stacked in the corners. Maybe she had forgotten that blouse. Who knew? She abandons the emerald saree she had planned and puts on a Maheshwari kurta.

It is already 8:00 when Roopa comes down for breakfast. She can hear the closing chants of Sameer's puja, the elaborate prayer ritual he has taken to performing every morning. The final operatic Aum's prefixed to his mother's, his dead father's, and grandparent's names indicate he would now be touching his forehead to all the Gods, to the framed photographs of his mother, and all his dead ancestors, beseeching them for blessings and prosperity. Roopa had married Sameer when this intense religiosity had not been so evident, and now she did not know what to make of it.

She herself had grown up in a household where her ghazal-loving Professor father presided over unruly evening gatherings of poets and radicals. As a kid, she had made friends only on the strategic logic of feasting. Whether it was Christmas or Eid or Guruparab or the Parsi Navroze, she wanted an invite to the house of festivity. A bonhomie lubricated by cakes, kebabs, laddus, phirni was what she had admired her differently religioned friends for.

The husband emerges—torso bare, a little paunch on display, clad only in a white dhoti and the sacred thread, suffused in a cloud of incense, and ghee-lit lamp smoke—and anoints everybody, including the cook and the the sweeper, with the lamp's holy smoke. The servants bend reverentially to accept it, touch their master's feet. Roopa instinctively knows this ritual display is of extreme importance. She, too, covers her head and fixes a pious look on her face and lets the holy smoke waft over her. But Sameer's mother scowls and waves him off—"Jaa, jaa, get lost."

Mata jee has moved on from a life of extreme religiosity as befitted a public man's wife in a joint family, and turned into an exclusive devotee of the television. Maybe this is her widow's way of breaking free. After having her morning meal, she sits engulfed in a flowered pink gown in front of the TV, rocking and chewing on a kitchen towel, the other end wound on her index finger. This calms her in the way sucking thumb calms infants. She sings made-up ditties: Lee Shin Ping, Albania, Tanzania , Croatia. "Cocky crooks... currency cooks..." Through the towel the words come out as a mix of hissing and distressed spitting.

Sameer gives a quick minimal glance at his mother and tcchahs to quieten her. He has donned his urbane look in double time and come to the table looking beatific and immaculate in starched collars, freshly ironed khakis. His face has acquired a fleshiness with age, but the authoritarian mien she had once found so attractive—why on earth?—is very much intact. His assertiveness has now hardened the way fungus brackets from last year's monsoons hardened hideously on the kitchen back-door. But women find him attractive, she knows that. Roopa feels conscious of her own slightly rumpled, damp with sweat silk kurta as she passes him the buttered toast. The constant self-important pinging of his iPhone, the way he rustles the newspaper—as if he has nothing to do with the kitchen or the crazy woman singing the TV news.

"Does anyone in this house know how to boil eggs?" He pushes aside the dish Ajit has just brought in and looks around with pursed lips. The half-set yellow jiggles at Roopa malevolently. Ajit scurries to remove it.

On TV, a pot-bellied minister is wagging his index finger at the crowds in a rally. "It is not just a tempuull... rememburrr... friendsss. ITtt ISs Aaa TEsssT. OFff your FAaITH."

Matajee gleefully flips channels.

An anchor asks TV guests if those who question the government deserve to be called Indians. A woman reporter shrieks about the lynching of a man she coyly calls "from the minority community, suspected of eating beef for dinner."

Mata jee removes the chewed towel and announces, every silver chin-hair quivering in the morning light, "Trump has planted bombs on the terrace. We will all be killed by evening."

Roopa feels like shooing her, too, but does not and continues brewing the coffee. If she were not to medicate herself with caffeine, her mind would also go off-kilter. All the other stuff she can endure—the cramps, the endless periods, the pseudo-pious Sameer—but the dreadful facial hair make her feel she is turning into a crazy crone. She fingers her chin, tweezered now but covered in a rash.

The old woman flicks the TV off and is suddenly next to her, thumping a rolled up newspaper on the table. "Just because I am old, no one here ever bothers to inform me." She points the newspaper towards the son. "I demand to know, has the prime-minister Modi been programming our ID cards?"

Her husband again makes a tcchah sound at his mother. Roopa has just handed him coffee, and he has taken it without even looking at her. Maybe he does not even see me, except as a bringer of food and drink. So comfortable in his right to be looked after; to be catered to.

"Programmed for what, Ma?" She asks in as neutral a tone of voice as she can. Sameer frowns again, through his WhatsApp fog. Is he having an affair, Roopa wonders—the constant messages, all that smiling to himself? How eager she had once been to don the mantle of wifehood for this man! All the expectations she now felt suffocated by, she had embraced so willingly!

The old woman twists the towel, leans right into her ear, and whispers, "Programmed with Internettings." Spittle foams in the deep creases around her mouth. "So our address changes to Al-Qaida's, and Trump can plant bombs on us. He is very clever that way, our Modi jee. Whosoever he wants to be rid of," she slices the air with a sweep of hand, "he will, without dirtying his hands."

Roopa gets up and rummages in the side-board. "Ma, you have not been taking your medicine again."

"I demand an answer right now. It's my right to know," the mother-in-law shrieks in the style of the combative TV anchors she loves to watch, wielding the newspaper as her baton.

"Oh, okay." Roopa pushes her un-tenderly down to the sofa, pops the pill into her open mouth, and thrusts the glass of water in her hand.

The old woman says, "You know what? I killed all their plans in the darkness."

"How?" The question slips out of Roopa's mouth, and Sameer shakes his head.

"I went up the terrace quietly at 4:00 AM, and on each black bomb..." she pauses dramatically, "I threw a chaddi—an old underwear. I also put up a saffron flag on a bamboo-pole so they would know we are not Al- Qaida, but good Hindus."

Oh, no, my orange blouse! Roopa presses her temples. So that is where it is, tattered and flying on the terrace. And the potting-mix she had laid out in those little black trays... But what was the point in arguing with someone half-blind and fully mad? She'd be late again.

She forces a smile at the old woman and says, "Wonderful."

Before driving off in his gleaming Scorpio, Sameer wishes her luck and says in passing he'll be leaving for a month-long tour the next day: a lecture series in colleges in Mumbai. Roopa does not make inquiries. She gets into her battered Swift, feigning total disinterest in this sudden tour. His absences are always sudden and flimsily explained—her practiced silence, a form of rage.

Roopa's father always said, wisdom lay in not being swept by emotions, in choosing how to react. As a politically active collegiate, the irony of this had astounded her. He a shayar, his poetry awash in unabashed sentiment, was preaching emotional restraint? Of course, he himself never followed this advice. Bitter fights between her parents formed the backdrop of her childhood. But somehow Roopa had developed a lasting distaste for all emotional outbursts, seeing outward peacefulness as a positive choice.


The one hour crawl through morning rush is when Roopa listens to music without the annoying backdrop of puja chants. She hums along.

Ye rupahali shaam,
ye aakash pe taaron ka jaal.
Jaise Sufi ka tassavur
jaise aashiq ka khayaal.

Just then her friend and colleague Sonika calls. She turns the speaker on. Sonika's voice floats in bright and light, and Roopa smiles. Far more sure-footed about career than her, Sonika is always full of tips: Listen pause a lot. Don't hide yourself behind the podium, Walk to the front. Lean on it, keep moving, make eye contact.

Outside, queues of pilgrims, heads bowed and covered, wait for darshan on the Bangla Sahib Gurudwara Road. Flower-sellers, vagrants, barbers, pilgrims huddled in the shade of two ancient Pilkhan trees spreading over an old mazaar—a grave of a nameless saint—covered in green and gold silk.

Sonika continues giving updates on office politics: who is in Boss's favor and who has missed the bus, who will surely have to come to senses soon. Roopa listens, fascinated.

Her car now eases off the flyover and merges into an ocean of bikes, cars, buses, autos, push-carts from three directions. A huge billboard confronts the humanity idling at the signal. The workaholic leader's bearded, triumphant face, plastered on an enormous white space. Roopa, fingers the rash on her chin and shakes her head. Her mother-in-law's words ring: Gobi-Mobi blunder-thunder ranga-billa. Sonika wishes her luck and signs off.

The signal at ITO is a full three minutes long. Outside her window, worn out men, aging boys, and dead-eyed girls scurry, wearing thin rubber slippers on the melting tar road. Did the heat, the fumes, the dust, ever reach that face on the billboard? A girl with a bald baby hoisted on her childish hips taps at the window. Roopa always gives her a tenner, and she always smiles back a buck-toothed, heart-breaking smile and stays a beggar the next morning. The signal turns green, and the girl with the baby disappears into the sea of pavement hawkers.

Roopa pulls into her office parking a couple minutes later. The SPMG Global Consultancy. Thirty giddy, glassy floors zoom up; showing a perpetual finger to the shanties oozing from under the flyover. The automated doors lead her from the heat and chaos into the palm-potted, air-conditioned world of finance.

At 11:00 AM, she feels her stomach clench before the Board members. But once the slides light up the screen, people begin peering at the monitors, and she loses self-consciousness. Despite stuttering a couple of times, she manages to answer honestly, and the Chairman sits back, satisfied.

When the meeting ends, Sonika is the first to compliment her.

"Hey, you spoke well. All that leaning in and eye contact worked! But why on earth are you wearing that cotton suit in winter? What happened to the emerald saree?"

Roopa inclines her head to acknowledge her friend and colleague's compliment but decides against telling her how her crazy mother-in-law tore up her silk blouse to hoist a flag on the terrace of the house. That would become a forever office joke.

The two women, short and tall, contained and scattered, walk out of the auditorium: Sonika, petite, bob-haired and small breasted, in an immaculate yellow silk saree, and Roopa, tall and chunky, her stole slipping time and again off her somewhat crumpled rust and yellow checked Maheshwari suit.

"Listen, why don't you come over with Sameer tonight to celebrate? Bobby has a blue label he is dying to open. We will have fun."

Roopa shakes her head. When they reach the cafeteria and pull out chairs, Sonika leans forward to tuck an errant gray strand behind Roopa's ears and asks, "What happened to the chin?" Roopa's relief at being done with the presentation releases a flood of complaints about her haywire periods and facial hair.

"Sweetheart, you need a self-care routine. Do yoga, join a gym, get a laser treatment."

Roopa groans inwardly. Self-care is Sonika's favorite topic—there is nothing in her life a salt-bath, a chocolate cake, some yoga, and a spa massage cannot resolve. But laser treatment sounds sufficiently decisive and terminal, and she is glad the knowledgeable Sonika offers help in finding a suitable place.


The next day, during lunch hour Roopa slips out of office to check a place Sonika has vouched for from reliable sources. The posh laser clinic on the first floor of Jeevan building in Connaught Place is called "Freedom." On the landing, a woman's fair and glowing face covers an entire glass wall. Below are the words, "get Freedom. That nice, smooth feeling. Permanently."

She smiles. With her husband out of her hair for a whole month—yes, Freedom is indeed a nice, smooth feeling. But is it a permanent one?

In the consultation room, a fair woman with a hairless, colorless face—like a plump, skinned lychee—speaks in a thin voice. She seems to be addressing the wall—papered in golden Arabesque—and the effect is unnerving. "We will use electrical current on roots of individual hair follicles... multiple treatments, thirty or more ....It all depends on the density and the rate of ......All payments must be made beforehand........ no refund. .....any side effects and .....due precautions required. You may fill the forms now...madam."

Roopa blinks at the Buddha's head table-lamp, glowing neon-green on a sideboard. She thinks of the monthly installments that went on the house loan, the college fees for their son who is studying in the US. The clinic is costly, but some problems do need a final solution.

"What is the best rate you can give me?" she asks a bit uncertainly.

The woman makes a face, as if Roopa has proposed lesbian sex or asked for address of a porno parlor. Roopa buys time by reading the fine print. In sentences littered with conditional clauses, the clinic skirts around all liability, providing zero guarantees. She shakes her head at Sonika, happily trying out lipsticks, indicating they should leave. The promise of freedom on their billboard is just that—a promise.

Just then a painfully thin girl comes in, offering water glasses on a tray. When Roopa takes a glass, the girl slips in her hands an address and cell phone number offering electrolysis at reasonable rates. Roopa walks out of Freedom without signing the cheque.

The address is dodgy and down-market. That's a muslim ghetto Sonika says. Who knew what kind of conspiracies such fly-by-night places might be up to?

Seeing the determined look on Roopa's face she warns, don't be stupid Roopa.


Roopa takes the red-rexined Trickshaw and arrives in a different Delhi. Men in salwars and skull caps throng the pavements. Toothless women sit on the pavement amidst swarms of flies, selling freshly cut kidneys, brains, and liver in wicker baskets. Tethered goats munch leaves on string charpoys. Little head-scarved girls walked sedately—like they have already grown up—alongside their mothers who wear tent-like burqas. Waiters stand outside restaurants shouting "Kebab rolls" and "Best fried brains" at ridiculous prices, brandishing identical menus. Mongrels and monkeys keep watch for morsels falling off plates. Roopa instinctively hunkers to the side, scrunches her nose, walks faster, keeps her head down. No one looks at her, but she feels like an outsider. No matter how much Urdu poetry she recites and how much she adores the Big Khans of Bollywood, she cannot help her reaction. She loves their food and culture but not these tribal mores. Lost in thought, she walks right into a swarm of grey doves who take off in a loud, nervous flap of wings. Adolescent boys laugh at her consternation. She ignores them and turns around to arrive on a wider road. The goats and mongrels now rest in the covered walkways in front of the shops selling spices and groceries. Here, the crumbling Old Delhi winds around the newer city.

Nostril-tingling spices from a block of pickle shops have overtaken the fug from diesel fumes and stench of rubbish dumps. Hare Krishna bhajans from a temple loudspeaker float over the constant din of horns and traffic. A mosque's enormous dome frames the temple's ornate one. Differently same. She stops there to make inquiries. An old lala, sitting cross-legged on a shop platform below a wooden temple niche brimming with garlanded images of an entire pantheon of Hindu Gods, looks up.

"Is B-1/44 around here, uncle?" The man takes off his glasses and sets aside the Urdu magazine he was reading. He gets up, his knees creaking.

"The entrance is not this side. You take the back lane." He points the place she should turn.

She smiles and asks with interest, "And what are you reading, uncle jee? I too love Urdu, but don't know the script."

"A poem by Sahir," he says. "Yes, yes, how would you know? These are different times. In our days Urdu was taught in all the schools. It was the language of the cultured."

"Sahir is my favorite," Roopa exclaims.

The man reads out for her: "Gandhi ho ya Ghalib ho dono ka kya kaam yahan abke baras bhi katl hui ik ki shiksha, ik ki zabaan."

She had to come to this odd, pickled corner, to witness this beautiful thing: this crusty worshipper of Ram, his voice cracking over Sahir, the Shayar who could speak of Gandhi and Ghalib in the same breath, bemoaning the loss of truth and beauty. An intense desire to weep, to hug someone, seizes her. She turns. A boy is topping the pickle vats with mustard oil, and the air turns pungent. Her eyes smart as she passes the mounds of glistening, red oil, slaked; mango; lime; ginger slices coated in chilly powder; anise seed; fenugreek; nigella; cumin—every shade of flavor mixing together to make a new pickled thing unlike anything that goes into it.

At the head of the narrow stairs, she reaches a bright blue wooden door—the old fashioned kind with two flanks and a metal slider to bolt it.

A small yellow board affixed to a dirty white wall, announces Rejuva as "Experts in removal of unwanted hairs, and all beauty treatments." She knocks and enters a shabby room full of frying smells. A curtain partitions the one-room enclosure into a private area and business area.

"Didi aayiye, come, I am Shaziya, and this is Rukhsar, my cousin. She used to be the best technician in the Connaught Place Freedom clinic."

Rukhsar greets her in English and points out the framed diploma on the wall. Her electrolysis machine is displayed in an alcove. A third sister, Nusrat, applies hair color to two obese women wearing plastic aprons.

"Why did you leave that clinic, Rukhsar?" Roopa asks.

"Didi, please don't doubt our expertise just because we are not fancy," Rukhsar says.

Shaziya chimes in, "We will do your job in fewer sittings at half the cost."

Seeing Roopa wants to hear more, Rukhsar says, "After the madam in Freedom trained me, they insisted I work for them—without pay—for one whole year. They get tax rebate from the Government for giving free training to poor girls like us. But still they want us to work for free."

A mongrel puppy claws at the door. Shaziya lets it in and feeds it Parle G biscuits. She calls out at someone from the window to get samosas and tea.

Rukhsar goes on talking. "Didi, training us poor girls costs two months of our salary, but they make us work free for a whole year. When I argued with them, Devika madam, the owner, lost temper. She said, if you have such a fine sense of justice, you should leave this place. Girls queue up every day here, begging me for jobs. But what will we eat, madam, if we don't earn?"

Piping hot Samosas still wrapped in newspaper are ceremoniously produced. Roopa removes the paper respectfully and offers first bite to her hosts.

Shaziya shyly but proudly tells Roopa how Rukhsar applied for a loan to buy the electrolysis machine. "It's tough for us—we haven't been able to break even, as in this area few can afford even the lower costs. Madam if you are happy, and we promise you will be, please pass our number on to your friends."

"Do I need to sign any forms?"

The sisters start laughing. Rukhsar says, "Madam even after all the forms in Freedom, in the end are they responsible for anything?"

"So shall I just take your word for it, Rukhsar?" Roopa asks with a smile.

"Madam, I will say no guarantees, but trust yourself enough to make a judgment. My late father taught me that."

Roopa cannot but help smiling. She fixes a weekend appointment, feeling she has done the right thing. There is something so earnest and immensely hopeful about the three Rejuva sisters running this household-cum-business on their own. Between them, they take care of an old mother and a younger school-going brother while dealing with the clinic and the egoist Devikas of the world—all by themselves, without any man to lean on.


Two weeks later Roopa and Sonika meet over lunch. It is a place they both love: a colonial style bungalow converted into an ethnic specialty restaurant with high ceilings, brass utensils, and hand-painted walnut wood furniture from Kashmir.

Roopa has been too wrapped up in herself, sneaking in lunch-time appointments with Rejuva sisters and for once enjoying Sameer's absence instead of wondering which of his "students" had accompanied him this time.

They order a main course of khatta meat, slow cooked potatoes, onion naan, and a half portion of lamb biryani and a bottle of red wine to go along.

Sonika is disconsolate because her rival Arun has bagged the Shanghai assignment.

"Imagine, Boss chose Arun over me to head the delegation to Shanghai! When I had worked all along on that proposal. I think he wants to kill my case for the London posting and prop up one of his stooges. What do you think..." she says putting a big piece of lamb rolled in buttered naan in her mouth. "This is so tender and moist!" she exclaims, and the flavors take over the conversation.

Roopa likes dipping her naan in the radish chutney and then loading gravy on it. Sucking on a marrow bone, she asks Sonika, "And who are these stooges?"

"Well, Roopa, you would know better than me, isn't it? Isn't the boss calling you four times every day?" Sonika sips her wine and looks at her.

"But honestly Sonika, I have no idea. He calls me for the restructuring plan I had presented." Roopa employs a soothing tone, thinking, why had they had ordered so much food and drink? And why exactly were they meeting?

Sonika spoons in gravy and shrieks in agony. Green chili: she has no tolerance. A waiter rushes in with a jug of water.

All the fussing mollifies Sonika, who now says, "Your face looks nice. Did you pick up a clinic?"

Roopa, glad for the change of topic, tells her about her adventure in Old Delhi and the wonderful Rejuva clinic.

The waiter clears the plates and places the dessert menu before them.

"Really, Roopa? Who knew you are such a Muslim lover? I've heard the kesar-kulfi here is really good."

Roopa earnestly tries to explain, their being Muslim was immaterial. It was their sincerity, their desire to make it in an unfair world, that had touched her.

Sonika tells her to relax. "You don't have to apologize or explain, Roopa. We are friends, colleagues, neighbors, and Hindus. At least between us, we don't need to pretend to love Muslims, do we? We can talk openly about the way things are."

Roopa is seized by an urge to get up from the table. In her father's house she was taught not to talk loose like this. These are not her values. Instead, she laughs her discomfort off.

Sonika, on the other hand, begins speaking in a strangely vehement, wooden rhetoric. "Do you realize, it's our land, and they have outlived their welcome? For the first time in the history of our nation, the westernized elite peddling borrowed liberal prattle have met their mettle."

Prattle, mettle, on the kettle. Roopa takes another chug of wine.

The waiter places little silver bowls of diced kulf garnished with falooda before them. Roopa stares at the rich, creamy mounds ebraced by pink noodles, strands of saffron, and slivers of almond.

"Sonika, she says softly. "How can you call liberals westernized elite? Don't you wear western clothes, smoke, drink, swear? I don't understand it."

Sonika had not expected Roopa to say anything except in agreement. "Relax, yaar. Roopa. Had no idea you were such a libtard!"

Roopa feels nausea rising up her throat. Why had she surrounded herself with the Sameers and Sonikas of the world? She wants to climb on the table and shout, Sonika, you astound and disgust me. War and peace, love and hate, a dozen religions, a hundred faiths have so intertwined in this ancient land, it is impossible to separate any one thread and call it pure. It is laughable. It is stupid.

But, nothing comes out of her mouth.

Then the word flashes in her mind again: libtard.

"Sonika would you be kind enough to not use that word libtard," Roopa asks, too loudly.

Heads turn their way.

Then as if a dam had been breached, words rush out.

"And by the way, I really need to understand this, Sonika. Since when did Hindu nationhood become your favorite sport? The biryani we just ate was brought by the Mughals­, like this kulfi before us, which I am sure you have been eating since toddlerhood. We are sitting on hand-painted Kashmiri walnut wood furniture made by Muslim craftsmen. On top of that, Sonika, you are wearing a pink and gold Banarasi silk dupatta. A hand-woven design, perfected by skull-cap wearing weavers. How come, if I am a libtard and you are a believer in the Glorious Hindu past, it never occurs to you that you should wear only Hindu woven cotton and eat only vegetarian shhtaatvik food? And what should we say of this wine? Your metamorphosis Shonika, is quainter than Gregor Shamsha's..."

Roopa was slurring on her s's, but her mind felt totally clear.

"Roopa, you are drunk! It is hardly possible to have a sensible dialogue with you in this state." Sonika gets up. "Thanks for the meal. And the lovely conversation."


Roopa stays put, orders more wine—wanting to exist in a dimension where no solutions had to be searched for: body hair, insanity, state of liberal secularism, what to eat for dinner.

There is, she realizes, always a pain. The pain of uprooting hair, the pain of incinerating it. The pain of ugliness, the pain of looking good. The pain of not mattering, the pain of other people's constant needs. The pain of being sane in an insane world.

Her cell is buzzing insistently. What has the old woman done now, she wonders.

Her mother-in-law speaks: "I saw just now, they came to torture you. Fight me first, rascals... I locked them up... don't worry... will save you."

"Not taken your medicine again, ma?" Roopa chides her.