Growing up in the ’80s, I was fortunate enough to live in a house with many doors. In retrospect, it seems inevitable I became a foot doctor.
My mother’s house was one of those old-fashioned Delhi havelis with latticed windows, scalloped arches, high-ceilings, multiple verandahs, nested darkened spaces, and of course, a central courtyard that in my memory is inseparable from its suspended golden light. I loved running through the haveli, in and out, in and out, threading some childish whim through the many rooms. On hot days, I would abruptly stop playing, get a drink from the matka, then press my flushed cheek to its gritty, slightly moist surface.
I became so intimate with the play of light that I could tell the time simply by looking at the shadows cast by the doors. Arre, Badri, my mother would shout, etime kya hai? The invocation of my name, not the question, would free me from the traversal’s hypnotic grip. I would glance at the doors’ shadows, and shout the time, correct to the nearest quarter hour. Then my mother would laugh. Eventually, I came to associate time as something with many doors and feet, something with an excess of parts and limbs, and even now, when I see an ordinary clock with its two beggar hands, I have to suppress an involuntary and quite ridiculous revulsion.
The haveli wasn’t fancy by any means; even as a boy I had noticed the blistering paint, the cracks in the concrete floor, the battered wooden doors and the way they creeeeaked shut when you pulled on the heavy brass ring set in the recessed panels. Later, I realised the rooms weren’t that many, and the haveli was a bit small for the seven of us: mother, sister, father, Chacha, self and a couple of servants. When I visited the haveli some fifteen years ago, it struck me as shabby. When I walked through its rooms, I suffered something of an anxiety attack. So it surprises me that when a real-estate friend of Uma’s called me at the clinic saying he wanted to develop the property, my first reaction is: over my dead body!
It is what my poor old father used to say: over my dead body! Then he would oblige us by dying, so that we could get our way. I didn’t intend to become my father. The haveli is the family, the family is the haveli. Even as I fume en route to the clinic’s elevator, I know my cousin is right. I live in New York. I plan to continue living in New York. I am single. I don’t have any kids. I am a “chronic bachelor”, as my friends sometimes introduce me at desi functions. By which they mean, I believe, that I have to rely on frustrated housewives.
A chronic bachelor isn’t the sort of fellow to be entrusted with a haveli. The right thing to do would be to sell it. Over my dead body.
I enter the clinic’s crowded elevator and the door is about to close, when Loveleen Sinha, my twenty something temporary medical assistant, squeezes in, carrying the next patient’s file. She has a smile, of course. She’s a walking smiley with a clipboard. Hello uncle, Mrs Bharuch is in Room 17. She almost sings the words, and some of our fellow travellers in the elevator can’t help returning her smile. I hold out my hand for the file, then remember, belatedly as always, that Loveleen is particular about where and when she hands over patient files. I would have to wait. But it didn’t really matter; I am familiar with this particular patient. Loveleen turns to me, her face quite serious: “Doctor Badri, I dreamt you were reading my journal. What do you think that means?”
What the hell! I mumble something about being a foot doctor, not a psychologist, and for the rest of the elevator ride, weather the hard stares of my fellow travellers.
Loveleen keeps a journal and has done so it seems since childhood. A journal is what the rest of the world calls a diary. She also has an extensive collection of childhood photos, videos, school essays. I envy her. I have to guess my past, she knows. As a child, I had frequently begun to keep a diary, but somehow always gave it up after a few days. I usually recorded my secrets in a top-secret code, a code I often changed, and so often forgot, which meant the diary soon kept my secrets from me. Each year my mother would buy me a new one, and after I had carefully inscribed my name on the first page, I would walk around with the diary tucked under my arm, content with the world. But the enthusiasm never lasted. Eventually, I stopped keeping diaries altogether.
Perhaps it is just as well. Had I continued to keep a diary, I would have only shaped its contents to suit another. Every text is written for the eyes of a future ideal reader. I imagine a young female philosopher with a sensitive wounded mouth – played, I hope, by a bespectacled Anne Hathaway – coming across an obscure volume of my musings – a small independent press perhaps – and her long delicate fingers scribbling on the margin: So true!
Some years ago, I found a page from one of my diaries tucked away in a copy of Narsingh Deo’s Modern Graph Theory. Just a single page, a date showing I had been about ten, and a one-line entry in English: Brothers and sisters I have none, but that man’s father was my father’s son; that man and me, who are we?
I don’t remember the event that had prompted the entry but oddly enough, the page evoked a sudden rush of excitement and anxiety as if I had just opened a long-sealed jar and a dead woman’s perfume had floated out. There must have been other riddles in my diaries since I was then very fond of riddles, despite being very bad at them. My sister used to share my passion for riddles, and we delighted in firing them at each other. How do you turn soup into gold? When is a door not a door? What time is the same backwards and forwards? What fastens two people yet touches only one? What is the thing with two feet and four feet, with a single voice, that has three feet as well? When is a path not a path? The answers were never important.
Excerpted with permission from The Coincidence Plot, Anil Menon, Simon & Schuster.