Professor Rao entered the classroom and slammed a pile of textbooks onto the table. Even though it was halfway through the semester, she still announced the name of the seminar after the morning bell.
“Insect control and toxicology,” she said in her high-pitched yet oddly sturdy voice. “You are all expected to memorise the pain scale for your final exam. No multiple choice. All comprehension.” She paused and looked around the room like a magician about to unveil her next trick.
“Miss, will you give grace marks,” someone asked from the back corner.
“No. You’re all seniors now. What grace marks. Open your books to page two hundred and twenty-nine. Someone read.”
Zena glanced at the skeletal system illustrated in her entomology textbook. Mandible, thorax, petiole, wings and stinger. Did paper wasps experience consciousness as a stream or as a series of ruptured sensations? Why had she chosen biology as her major?
“The tarantula spider’s bite is exponentially more painful than being stung by a bee. However, damage and pain are separate categories.” Zena didn’t recognise the voice. Life is all about choices, she wrote in the margin. She enjoyed some varieties of pain.
“The insect-sting pain scale was created by a man named Justin Shuh-mid,” the voice continued. Zena looked at the picture of him printed in the book.
“Ma’am, why is pain always measured by the experiences of men,” a woman sitting at the front of the classroom asked.
“Quiet down,” Rao said, anticipating the flurry of chatter this comment would cause. She told the voice to keep reading.
There were rumours about Professor Rao. That she was vice-principal Thampi’s ex-wife. That she was the reason vice-principal Thampi had nine fingers. That she ate non-vegetarian food three times a day, including beef. That she had a scar on her ring finger from soldering off her wedding band with a crème brulee torch on the day of her divorce. From their desks, ten feet away from her lectern, students were unable to see the scar. Zena remained in awe of Rao’s ability to work the rumours in her favour: classrooms hushed when she entered.
Once, during an exam, Rao placed a palm on Zena’s desk. The gesture made Zena’s heart race, even though she hadn’t done anything wrong. Zena would never pass a lie detector test. Authority figures made her body switch into flight mode. Rao’s fingers, Zena had noted, were devoid of scars.
After class, Zena took a rickshaw to Lek’s house. She continued flipping through the textbook and imagined a pain scale for everyday catastrophes like stubbing your toe and getting scratched by an outdoor cat. The insect-sting scale didn’t take into account how pain gets magnified on days when you get a bad haircut or accidentally break your favourite coffee mug or get dumped and feel doubly stung.
Two years ago Zena had fallen for an older man who took her to a dive bar in Thane on their first date. At the bar, a stranger tried to flirt with her, and her date beat him unconscious. When they kissed later that night, she could smell the stranger’s blood on him, and she tried not to flinch. Their relationship lasted five months. He was gentle with her, but every moment felt like a tightrope tense with the events of that first night. Zena never took him to her place, and he never questioned it. When they broke up, she changed her phone number.
Since then, she had lost her ability to feel aroused by men, until she met Lokesh, whom she called Lek for unknown reasons. He had long hair up to his shoulders, and wore a green sports headband that always looked stained with sweat. She fantasised about throwing it away in a wifely gesture, but they had been together for only six months. She would have to wait until month nine.
Zena used her key to open the door to Lek’s apartment. He lay on the living-room sofa with his laptop on his belly, fingers manically pressing down on the keyboard. “I found a video game about ecological activism,” he said. “There’s a giant thunderbird. Look at this. And before I forget – I’m going to need the house-key back temporarily because Raj lost his.”
Her stomach dropped, and the cold metal key burned against her fingers as she handed it over. Red fire ants crawled up her sides. “Do you want to have sex,” she asked.
“Let me just complete this level,” Lek said.
They went into his bedroom and Zena sat at the edge of the bed while Lek rummaged for condoms. The sex had gotten monotonous ever since Zena refused to spank Lek with a paddle he’d bought as a surprise. He wanted her to be cruel, but she found his request paradoxical. How can you be a sub and still be so demanding, she reasoned.
“Do you still have the paddle,” Zena said. “I”d like to try it out.”
“Bottom drawer on your left.”
Zena took the paddle out of its clear plastic wrapping and slapped it lightly against her left palm. She wondered about the relationship between pain and intimacy. “Use it on me,” she said.
Lek avoided eye contact but walked over to her, and she handed him the paddle. Without speaking, she got on the floor on her hands and knees, and noticed a mass of spider webs underneath the bed. She made a mental note to mention this to Lek after they were done.
“I don’t really want to,” Lek said. “I”m going to make some noodles. Do you want some?” He walked out of the room before she could lift herself off the floor.
A few days later, he broke up with her in a text message.
Extracted with permission from the short story “Entomology”, from Principles of Prediction, Anushka Jasraj, Context.