In this novel, secrets long buried tumble out, mysterious and dreamlike: a grieving mother finds solace in a newspaper photograph; a ghost comes to life in an abandoned fridge; children fill empty jars with the night’s darkness; a young couple plan how to seek permission for their love; and three men with a phone camera turn a family’s world upside down.
The custom of every good mother is to wake up before the child does, so she is up even if her head throbs with a hangover the morning after a late night she had with her best friend on turning thirty-five, their first get-together since the second wave of the pandemic killed six people in her apartment complex. She needs to iron her daughter’s blue pleated skirt for school, this morning they have resumed classes in hybrid mode, online and offline teaching on an experimental basis after the curve has flattened, and we are taking all precautions, the school said.
Her daughter is nine, thirteen years more till she finishes college, maybe fifteen, sixteen years before she starts earning, living on her own.
All the talk these days is about too many young people in this country, too few jobs, but the good thing is she has a daughter, girlhood is an irreversible force, she heard on a podcast, girls are growing up in homes more equal than ever, they are being given opportunities their mothers didn’t get, her daughter should do well if she works hard.
As for herself, she will be fifty by then, fifty-one, she likes to do this math.
So if she watches what she eats, does a little running, walking, some stretching, if she does weights for her muscles – her arms are weak, they hurt when some nights she has to carry her daughter to bed from the living room sofa where she falls asleep over her unfinished homework – she should be fine but there is one worry. It lurks in her genes, her mother had cancer at thirty-eight; two years and a mastectomy later, she was gone.
So she got a mammogram a year ago, it was all clear, but why take chances, the doctor said, because it is in your family, keep getting tested each year. Why do I have these thoughts of cancer, she asks herself, as she waits for the electric iron to warm.
Years from now, when her daughter is on her own, doing her thing, living in a city where the sky is blue, where you can lie down in a park and read a book even if you are a woman all by yourself, once her daughter is there, she will choose a day, preferably in winter, when the sun is gentle and the wind cold, she will wear her favourite woollen scarf, she likes its touch on her skin, soft and warm, like a little rabbit she had when she was a girl, she will walk up to her husband, and she will tell him: I don’t love you anymore, I am going.
Before he asks why, what happened, how did it happen, did I do something wrong, she will say that I loved you for a while, in fact for quite a while, but I don’t know when exactly that switch switched off, the current stopped flowing, I can’t recall that exact day, I never told you this because I was waiting for our child to grow up, to be on her own, and a kid needs both parents whatever the books may say, and now that she has grown up into a young woman, independent and brave and strong, and, of course, thank you, thank you very much for supporting us all these years, for signing the checks, paying the bills, her school fees, everything, I am leaving now, I am sorry, forgive me for not preparing you for this but it’s over, I am going. No, I don’t need anything, I will sign any piece of paper you want me to, please take whatever you want, you don’t even need to split your savings, our daughter is fine on her own, she is earning, please do not contest the divorce I shall file, let’s keep it amicable, I have contacted a lawyer, she will email you the notice in the next hour or so, I am going.
I am not going to be like my mother, my mother who called me once from the hospital bed after her third round of chemo and said that the good thing about my cancer is that I get to be away from home, that I get to be away from your father. I could never understand how fighting cancer with blisters on the soles of your feet, inside your mouth, both your lips, on palms of your hand, severe bouts of diarrhoea every half hour until your insides are burning, is less painful than living with a person.
I don’t want a repeat of this so let’s not prolong this, that’s it, I am done, my words have been spoken, I am going.
She will then be single again, she has saved enough to live on rent on her own in case he cuts her out completely, her Provident Fund is a neat sum, she has done this arithmetic too, she will find a 1 BHK, rent about Rs 20,000 a month, she can find a job as a teacher, the one she left when their child was born, schools are always short of teachers, she will fall in love with herself, as someone called Tracy McMillan says in a TED Talk her friend WhatsApped her, your ideal marriage partner is yourself, so nurture a relationship with yourself. Yes, she will do exactly that but then there is someone in the building she likes.
He has moved in recently, it’s not love, lust, no, none of that but when he is in the lift with her, twice there has been small talk, she likes how the air moves around him, how its atoms and molecules reach her, through the sudden static, maybe one day she will ask him out for coffee, just to chat, because how can she expect someone to sign up to her plan that doesn’t kick in for another ten to twelve years when they haven’t even exchanged a word?
She has no idea who he is, is he single or available, but she is happy she has a plan and there’s another individual in it, her heart grows lighter, she straightens the pleats of her daughter’s skirt, the morning sun falls in two yellow lines over the ironing board, warms her face.
There is a tiny grass stain, pale green in the blue cotton of the skirt’s fabric, must be from long ago, she scratches it out with her nail, it causes a fresh wrinkle which she steams away.
She switches off the iron and as she turns to call out to her daughter that her uniform is ready, that there are only three minutes left for the carpool she’s arranged given that the bus service hasn’t begun yet, that she should better hurry up, she is aware that her arithmetic, this plus that minus this, this calculation, this conjecture at the heart of her future, is mere imagination rather than the product of any hard-nosed, rigorous thought.
But the very fact that she has a plan this morning, after her birthday, a plan to travel to a world that is more on her terms, fills her with an overwhelming sense of happiness she hasn’t felt in years.
Excerpted with permission from Patient in Bed Number 12, Raj Kamal Jha, Penguin India.