Authors: Altaf Tyrewala
I used to be a poetess and would dwell on minute metaphors for days.
Now all day long I cook for Ubaid and Minaz, spend the thousands their father earns every month, and contemplate television absentmindedly.
I have nothing more to say.
The hum of air-conditioned rooms and twenty-four-hour TV has silenced me.
Twenty-six years ago I married a mediocre poetess. She gave me two kids—a son who spends every waking hour online, and a daughter who’s never home.
We live together and are still married, the woman and I.
The poetry has escaped our lives. I don’t know her any more.
Home is where mom chases me with a plateful of food and frozen poems in her eyes. Where dad is vocal with his disapproval and where my sister Minaz, on witnessing the scenes, runs out the door like an anxious squirrel.
My heart isn’t at home.
All day long I roam desolate cyber landscapes and chat with disembodied strangers—in search of a home, a heart.
I won’t be pregnant for too long now.
After we park the car near Colaba Post Office, my ‘friend’ and I walk to Pasta Lane under the severe afternoon sun. I spot Shamma Nursing Home on the ground floor of a decrepit building.
‘We’re here,’ I say, and push open the clinic’s door. Kasim doesn’t follow me in. I come out to the footpath and give him my trademark tough stare—the look that has everyone fooled.
‘Okay?’ Kasim asks. I snort.
In a tasteless display of chivalry, he lets me enter first into the nursing home’s dimly lit waiting room. It has the stench of a chloroform brewery.
A man is gazing at the frosted pane of a closed window. There is no one else in the room. Distracted by our entry, the man turns to look at us.
I can hear the gurgling in Kasim’s throat as he struggles to frame a sentence. He seems confused. He appears to have
forgotten why we are here.
‘You… you are the doctor?’ Kasim finally asks.
I snort again.
The doctor nods. He removes a sheet of paper from a deskdrawer and holds it out.
Which one of you wants this done most,
his action implies. I hum my assent and take the sheet. It is a form.
Ipshita never mentioned any freaking form! I widen my eyes at Kasim. He thinks I am asking for a pen and extends one in my direction. ‘Take.’
It’s a form,
I mime wordlessly.
Just fill it.
Are you mad?
No. I throw the form on the doctor’s desk and turn around and collide, violently and breast-to-breast, with a woman in a white sari.
Her type exists in every clinic. Nurses.
‘Can’t stand little far away!’ I say.
The nurse prevents me from walking past her. ‘Where you going? Why you acting so shy?’
‘Just shut up!’ I snap.
She grabs my arm. I look to Kasim for assistance.
‘It’s just a form,’ the nurse says.
I struggle to free myself. ‘Kasim…’ I squirm. ‘Kasim… Kasim…’
‘Come, I’ll fill it for you,’ the nurse says. Still gripping my arm tightly, she unsheathes a ball pen from her immense blouse. ‘Name?’ she asks, bending over the form on the doctor’s desk.
the nurse looks up and repeats.
‘Deepti,’ Kasim says.
I stop struggling. Deepti. Deepti. Deepti. Deepti.
‘Twenty-five,’ he says.
Kasim gulps. Unlike me, he doesn’t look a day older than his age of twenty. The nurse flares her nostrils sarcastically.
The doctor places before us an unmarked receipt for three hundred rupees. Kasim reaches for his wallet. I make a limp attempt to yank his hand from his back pocket. ‘
Just let me, okay,’
he whispers and reaches for his wallet again. He hands the doctor six fifty-rupee notes.
The doctor locks the entrance to the nursing home. He nods at the nurse. She lets go of my arm and follows her boss into the adjoining room, leaving Kasim and me by ourselves.
We stand like strangers in line for movie tickets.
No, nothing. I don’t wish anything.
‘O-madam, you can come in now!’ the nurse calls out moments later. Kasim practically tears through his pant pockets. Such urgency. And his cell phone isn’t even ringing.
He brings it out and starts punching keys frantically.
The nurse reappears. ‘Aye! You want to wait nine more months or what?’
Kasim stops punching. He doesn’t look up. He just stands there, looking down at his cell phone.
I touch his elbow. ‘Listen, if something goes wrong, just don’t call my parents, okay?’
Then I leave him with his Nokia pacifier and follow the nurse into a hot, unventilated room.
The doctor seals its doors behind me.
I am an abortionist. I run a nursing home in a seedy by-lane of Colaba. On the steely innards of trains crawling along the Harbour Line, you will find badly spelled fliers advertising my services. I get one or two customers every day. Sad cases, angry faces, embarrassed women, careless men, swelling tummies, a cut, tears, and we all go home happy. Yes, happy. I spread relief.
I save families, lives, marriages.
Now I need to be saved—from all the unborn-baby voices in my head.
This afternoon a client walked into my nursing home with her companion. Her stomach had just started to stick out. I could see through her expensive cotton T-shirt. Three more weeks and it would have been obvious. But she was safe now. I handed her a form asking for personal information. The nurse filled it out for her and handed it back to me. I don’t talk to my clients. I don’t bother to read the forms either. They always lie.
I locked the entrance to my nursing home and nodded at the nurse. We went into the adjoining room to prepare for the operation. It was over in half an hour. Don’t. Don’t ask me about the fetuses. They stopped registering after the third abortion. Now, I only see them as knots of blood and gore. Abdominal tumors that threaten to wreck the lives of decent, god-fearing people.
I am married. She has the mentality of a farmer. Won’t let me touch her willingly. I am violent with her every night. She says she won’t give herself to me willingly till I stop harvesting the wombs of mothers. She even has the rhetoric of a farmer. If only my wife could see the gratitude in my clients’ eyes. Like the girl this afternoon, the one in the expensive cotton T-shirt. She kissed my hand before I administered the anaesthesia. When she regained consciousness she wanted to know if it was a boy or a girl, she wanted to know if it was fair or dark, she wanted to know if it was normal or deformed, she wanted to know… ‘Or is it too early to tell? Can you tell? This soon? Tell me doctor! Am I right? Can you tell this soon?’
I didn’t answer her. I don’t talk to my clients.
I too will have a child someday. I will have several children, several. The collective cries of my children will hopefully drown out the unborn-baby voices in my head.
This is how my flier reads. Yes, it is badly spelled, unimaginative, but it gets the message across:
GET RID OF UNWANTED PREGNUNCY IN 1 HOUR
RUPEE 300 ABSOLUTELY SECRATIVE
SHAMMA NURSING HOME
OPP. JANVI MANZIL (BAHIND COLABA POST OFICE)
I composed it. My ‘nun’ pun makes me burst into amused hiccups every time I spot one of my fliers in a train. It is the only comic relief in my life. The family dramas that are occasionally staged in my nursing home don’t amuse me any more. Their horrible echoes don’t die for days: daughters pleading with incensed fathers, husbands kneeling before heartless wives, brides begging with misogynist mothers-in-law to overlook the damning sonogram.
I have read that in America abortion is a source of perennial controversy. If you are ‘pro’ you are a murderer, cruel, careless. If you are ‘anti’ you are stupid, religious, but still careless.
I am neither.
And I am never careless. You can be either qualified or careful. I am very, very careful. That is why I get repeat business. Mostly from slim, college-going girls. There was one who visited me six times in two years. I haven’t seen her for three years, now; doubt if I ever will again. Also, married women with their husbands. The first time is shameful and painful. The second time on, a routine sets in. Like visiting a dentist to fill a recurring cavity in a sweet tooth.
In a willful attempt to decay and self-destruct, I have started smoking. Never in the nursing home. Always on the street outside the entrance. I never carry matches or a lighter. Asking for a light is my only excuse to talk to others. Unfortunately, the only people in the by-lanes of Colaba are pimps or German tourists in search of Aryan India—they first want to know if you are Brahmin. The man next door, the one who owns a souvenir shop, doesn’t talk to me. He is a Jain, the epitome of nonviolence. Won’t even eat potatoes because their extraction deprives and kills underground insects.
I am an abortionist, and a Muslim to boot.
I have grown used to people avoiding me. Friends and relatives have gradually forsaken me over the years. They avoid me at the mosque. My wife and I are invited to marriages only out of formality. Even then we are ignored. Treated like well-dressed gate-crashers who can’t be ejected (because you never know), but are watched from a distance.
Two years ago, my mother went to Mecca for Haj. For my sake. Just before boarding her flight, right there in the crowded departure lounge, Ma had looked at a point about two feet above my head and said, ‘Oh Allah, I am undertaking this journey to your home so you may forgive my son and cause a change of heart in him so he may stop taking lives of children and find a cleaner occupation so when he has a child of his own he can love the child with all his heart and realize what a wondrous thing it is to nurture life…’
When I am in an irreverent mood, I like to believe that Ma paid with her life for such convoluted appeals to Allah. She was trampled while rushing to stone the Satan’s pillar during Haj.
Of all the physical metaphors that thrive under an otherwise abstract Islam, the Satan’s pillar—Jamarah Al-Aqabah—is most potent. After trekking back to Mina from Muzdalifa on the morning of the fourth day, as per tradition, two million pilgrims made a dash toward the Satan’s pillar. They all wanted to be the first to stone it.
A woman who had been with Ma told me that Ma ran the fastest that morning. She pushed at the burgeoning crowds the hardest. She cursed the devil the loudest. Like some hysterical lioness whose cub was being snatched away. But in that crowd, there were people far more desperate than Ma. People whose sons were worse than abortionists. They, too, wanted to vanquish the devil with all their might. Those very people—those wretched, god-fearing fathers and mothers of sinners—ran over Ma and pounded her body into the Holy Ground.
Of the seventy thousand Indians who had gone to perform Haj that year, Ma was the only one who died in the stampede. She, and three Nigerians. My father, my wife, and I got the news a day later. By then, they had already buried Ma’s two-dimensional remains on the outskirts of Mecca.
When I try to imagine how she died that day in the Holy
City, I stop believing in Allah. But only for a short while. I can’t afford to remain godless for too long. The only way I can hide from myself is by being religious—or delusional. Call it whatever the hell you want. Ma’s voice is now a part of the unborn-baby voices in my head.
‘Buy the cassettes. For fuck’s sake, man, I need the cash. My whole collection for a hundred rupees only. Come on, dude, buy the friggin’ cassettes!’
I didn’t say no. I had bought all five audio cassettes from the drunk American who had barged into my nursing home six months ago. I didn’t ask what kind of music it was. I didn’t care. I wanted him out of my nursing home. He was making my nervous customers (two women) even more nervous. This happens all the time: cash-starved foreign tourists randomly barge into business establishments in Colaba to sell their personal belongings.