Excerpt from Em and the Big Hoom

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29 December 2016

She was in Ward 33 again, lying in bed, a bed with a dark green sheet and a view of the outside. We could both see a man and a woman getting out of a taxi. They were young and stood for a while, as if hesitating, in front of the hospital. Then the man took the woman's hand in his and they walked into the hospital and we lost them.

 
Jerry Pinto / Photo credit: Godrej Culture Lab  

'That's why Indian women fall ill,' Em said. 'So that their husbands will hold their hands.'

'Is that why you're here?'

I wanted to bite my tongue. I wanted to whiz around the world, my red cape flying, and turn time back so that I could choose not to make that remark. But Em, being Em, was already replying.

'I don't know, Baba, I don't know why. It's a tap somewhere. It opened when you were born.'

I was repaid in pain, a sharp thing.

'I loved you. And before you I loved Susan, the warmth of her and the smiles and the tiny toes and the miracle of her fingernails and the way her scrapes would fade within the day as she healed and grew. I loved the way her face lit up when she saw me and the way she nursed. But after you came along . . .'

She turned to the window again. An ambulance turned in, lazily, in the way of the city's ambulances. Inured to traffic, unconcerned by mortality, unimpressed by anyone's urgency, the ambulance driver stopped to light a beedi before jumping out of the cab. We watched together as someone inside opened the doors and two young men leapt out and tried to wrest a stretcher from within.

'Was it like that?' she asked. She had forgotten how she got to the hospital.

'No,' I said. 'You came in a taxi.'

'What was I wearing?'

'The green dress with the pockets.'

She looked puzzled.

I rooted about in the locker by the bed, a locker marked 'Patient Belonging', and opened it. I pulled the dress out.

'Oh that one,' she said. 'Bring it here.'

She stroked it as if to rediscover a little more about it.

'The tap?' I said.

'Sorry. I must be going mad.'

 
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We both smiled at this, but only a little. It was a tradition: the joke, the smile. 'After you were born, someone turned on a tap. At first it was only a drip, a black drip, and I felt it as sadness. I had felt sad before . . . who hasn't? I knew what it was like. But I didn't know that it would come like that, for no reason. I lived with it for weeks.'

'Was there a drain?'

'No. There was no drain. There isn't one even now.'

She was quiet for a bit.

'It's like oil. Like molasses, slow at first. Then one morning I woke up and it was flowing free and fast. I thought I would drown in it. I thought it would drown little you, and Susan. So I got up and got dressed and went out onto the road and tried to jump in front of a bus. I thought it would be a final thing, quick, like a bang. Only, it wasn't.'

Her hands twitched at the sheet.

'I know.'

'Yes, the scar's still there.'

We were silent. I didn't want to hear this. I wanted to hear it.

'The bus stopped and the conductor had to take me to a hospital in a taxi. He sat in the front, lotus pose.'

'Lotus?'

'My blood was flowing across the floor of the taxi. There was no drain there either. I remember it all, as if rain had fallen. Have you ever noticed how rain clears the air? Everything stands out but it also looks a little thinner, as if the dust had been keeping things together. I felt as if . . .'

Her hands twitched at the sheet again. It slipped off her foot and both of us looked at the scar that ran from under the big toe to her ankle, a ridge of scar tissue.

'It had to be dressed every day for months. Dr Saha came and did the honours.' 'Don't wander,' I said.

'Where was I?'

'In the taxi. With the world outside clear.'

She looked a little confused.

'You said the world was clear.'

'Oh, not the world. Inside my head.'

Each time she had tried to kill herself she had opened her body and let her blood flow out. Was that the drain, then, I wondered, was that how it worked?

'And this time?' I asked her. 'Is it clear now?'

'This time I heard a small voice inside my head, just as I was beginning to slip away. I heard it say, "Please save me." '

'That was you.'

'No, I heard it.'

'It was you,' I said again.

'It must have been, no? I heard it as if it were someone else. And then you came. And Susan. I didn't want it that way. I didn't want the two of you to see anything like that in your lives.

(See interview: The world behind 'Em and the Big Hoom')





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