Saturday, December 16, 2017

2017 DNA-OUT of PRINT Short Fiction Finalist: Sohini Basak

And if that Looking Glass gets Broke...
Sohini Basak

In my ten years with the doctor, I have never seen his hands shake like that. He looks around the cubicle again, as if seeing it for the first time, taking in all the surfaces: walls, table tops, the floor. He walks over to the other side of the slit-lamp, sits on the stool and checks the height of the chin-rest. ‘I don’t understand,’ he mutters. ‘I don’t understand why they need to be back this soon.’ He glances at his watch, sighs and then looking at me, says, ‘You want to take that off. You don’t want them to know about your life, not more than they do anyway.’

Trying not to feel superstitious, I take my wedding ring off. I wrap it carefully in a handkerchief, switch off my phone and put both inside my bag. I hand it to the ward-boy who is standing silently by the door. I can never tell how much he knows because he never asks questions. While leaving, he looks at the computer screen and says, ‘Dr S, isn’t that your granddaughter’s photo?’ 

Dr Sarkar looks at the screen in horror and then at the ward-boy with gratitude. He fumbles as he changes the desktop background into a default waterfall scenery. He then pumps out hand sanitizer and rubbing his palms mutters, ‘Now, I think, we are clean.’ On cue, the lights in the cubicle flicker a little. Blinking gracelessly, the Snellen’s chart looks like a sign outside a squalid bar. Dr Sarkar parts the blinds and taps on the glass to scare away the pigeon resting on top of the AC. ‘They’re here,’ he says.

Nothing ever prepares you for their visit. Even after ten years of going through the procedure, ten years of the meticulous clean-up act, ten years of suspending disbelief, my heart still picks up its pace and my palms sweat as soon as I hear those words. Perhaps it’s the smell that triggers deep disgust and fear. The reek that wafts in before they do. The reek so hard to describe – a sickly-sweet kitchen waste odour mixed with something like damp metal, like blood. Already, I want to throw up, but then, the two stand before your eyes and that vision overtakes everything else.

As always, BB’s mother walks ahead of BB. She cannot see very well, not after her terrible self-inflicted injuries which she always talks about, but she doesn’t trip over or fumble. She glides in, holding the umbilical cord wrapped delicately around her wrist, like zamindars held their shawls or a string of jasmine in old Bengali movies. You can never see her face underneath the veil which has changed from lace to wool, from black to white over the years, and as always, she announces her entry with a cough. BB trails behind her, obedient like a dog, his pace and radius of movement determined by the length of the umbilical cord that is his mother’s to control. 

‘Welcome, welcome,’ Dr Sarkar says, getting up from his chair.

BB’s mother coughs again and on this cue, BB steps closer to the doctor. 

‘So, how are we? I was not expecting you back so soon,’ Dr Sarkar continues, trying to cover his nervousness with small talk. 

The first time I saw BB, my brain went into a delirium and I was reminded, of all things, of the old aquarium of my childhood and the little plastic boy that it housed, standing on pebbles, forever pissing to entertain our fishes. That description stayed. There’s something nostalgic about the way BB’s ever pre-pubescent body shimmers. Not skin, not plastic, not even membrane, as if that outer layer of his body has not caught up with the times. His limbs, his torso, his flabby neck, the big bald baby head, all out of proportion, rippling distortedly, as if seen through water and glass. 

As always, BB swivels his head to my direction, and stares. You feel naked under his gaze, but that’s not the worst you feel around him. I make eye contact as I have learnt that it’s the only way he may look away, but today, the leer in his look seems mild. Gone almost, replaced with a sad helplessness. Of the seven, four of his eyes bulge out of their sockets rather unpleasantly, more than their orbits should. The wires that emerge from around his ever-throbbing fontanelle and connect to his eyes seem more numerous than the last visit, they form a strange electric umbrella around his head. If there were an opposite word for halo, this would be it. 

What is the language of our thoughts? BB smirks as if I had uttered the last thought aloud. Can he read my mind? I have no idea. The doctor and I never discuss BB or his mother after they leave. We are bound by a contract which was never signed, but I know no paperwork will keep BB’s mother from destroying anyone who disobeys her. BB’s smirk turns into a sneer. His mouth is dribbling around the corners. You don’t need to read minds when you can see everything, I realise. One of the eyes suddenly fix on my hands and I can feel the searing gaze linger on my finger where the ring has left a tan mark. BB lets out a moan of surprise and his mother finally speaks, ‘A lot seems to have happened in the last six months, dear?’ 

I wring my hands foolishly, but Dr Sarkar is quick to react. ‘So tell me, are the tear plugs not working?’ he asks in a kindly clinical voice. 

BB’s mother cradles the umbilical cord close to her chest and stroking it says, ‘BB is not doing so well, Doctor.’ BB lets out a long groan to support his mother’s statement and moves his head close to the doctor’s face, looking at him unblinkingly. ‘The drops and plugs you prescribed aren’t very effective, we have to say. Always in such pain, my poor boy.’ 

Dr Sarkar looks at BB, gestures him to sit on the stool, and brings out his ophthalmoscope from the drawer. ‘A bit of focussed light, nothing to fear, we do this every time, don’t we?’ he says the gentle voice he uses with his child patients. 

‘Is he spending more time than usual with the screens?’ Dr Sarkar asks as he shifts his attention from one eye to another. 

‘Oh yes, screens, yes, he has to,’ BB’s mother says. She points at the wires around BB’s head and adds, ‘All the time, my poor boy. They’re making him, feeding him screens after screens constantly, you see. He works at least one million times harder these days. And then, on top of it all, BB has trouble sleeping. So, he puts something on to watch, you know, something soothing, after a hard day’s work.’ She laughs and turning to me, she says, in a voice so tender that it gives me goosebumps, ‘Do you know what his favourite bedtime watch is? Kittens! BB just watches them do such funny things, for hours and hours, till he falls asleep. My BB, such a softie at heart.’

‘Is blinking still painful?’ Dr Sarkar asks. Once he starts the examination, the nervousness disappears, it is like he is looking at any other patient on a regular OPD morning.

BB lets out a long moan and his mother translates, ‘A terrible dryness. Like a stone being pulverised inside his eyes, Doctor.’

Dr Sarkar nods and says, ‘Has to cut down on screen time. The eyes need rest, lots of it.’

BB’s mother laughs and repeats the doctor’s words with a malignant mockery, ‘The eyes need rest.’ Her laughter turns into a violent cough and she untucks a handkerchief from the waist and with her right hand probably dabs at her mouth inside the veil. I can’t help notice that the white of the cloth is now stained with spots of red. 

‘It is possible that this blue light is interfering with his sleep cycle, it’s all connected,’ Dr Sarkar says. 

‘All connected,’ BB’s mother repeats, but without the tartness this time. ‘Of course, it’s connected, don’t we know that. But it’s not our fault that BB must work more. There’s just so much more to watch over, just so many more trying to escape and do nasty things if BB looks away. And who do you think gets blamed when one of these punks manages to jump over the wall? What do you think happens to us when they chip a stone off the tower BB has built over time?’

The doctor knows these are questions he cannot answer. So, he asks, ‘Your child’s wrist, may I take a look?’ 

‘Oh yes, doctor, his wrists do seem swollen. He doesn’t tell, my BB, trying to hide his pain, but that’s why we come to you, dear Doctor, you seem to see things even a mother sometimes doesn’t. You seem to know, Doctor...’

BB holds out his webbed-finger hands out to the doctor and shuts his eyes in pain or the anticipation of it. I pass on a pair of gloves to Dr Sarkar and as he puts them on, BB’s mother asks, ‘Don’t mind me saying so, you seem to be under much stress, these days, Doctor. Have you been well?’

‘No, no, I’m fine,’ Dr Sarkar says, as he gingerly holds BB’s wrists and turns them over. I can tell that he is trying to wrap up the check-up before BB’s mother plunges into unsolicited conversation but she is already there… 

‘And how are your children? I always want to know about the children, you know. Gives me much joy to see the little ones flourish...’

‘Fine, all fine. Now as the symptoms have aggravated more than I expected, I would suggest a different lubricating…’

‘My BB tells me all, of course, your son has just moved to a different country, hasn’t he? I hear his paintings are getting all kinds of praise, although he doesn’t seem too happy with his wife, they did have a heated exchange – when was it again, BB, last night? Yes, last night. Your son, your son has a dirty mouth, Doctor, don’t mind me saying so, but I’m a mother, after all, I can’t stand children misbehaving…’

‘Of course. But if we focus here, I would suggest increasing the frequency of the gel-based…’ 

‘Noted, Doctor. I’m so grateful to you and your family for taking care of BB for all this time. You are just a splitting image of your great-grandfather, Doctor. Did I ask you about your children, Doctor? Your son, ah yes, that dirty mouth. His hands aren’t very clean either, Doctor, needs a good scrubbing, if you don’t mind me saying so. And your daughter? Such a lovely one. But … what is it BB, what! Oh my! You didn’t tell me, Doctor, your daughter just gave birth to a little girl? A little girl! I had a little girl once, Doctor … but BB, such softie at heart, but that day, I don’t know what came over him that day, my little flower…’

BB’s mother lets out a sob and then pinches the umbilical cord right in the middle. Like a cartoon garden hose, the fluid accumulates on her side and BB closes all his eyes in agony. He lets out a terrible moan and perhaps it is my imagination because I have never seen anything like this happen before, the fontanelle throbs violently. The sobbing continues and the lights in the room flicker. Then finally, BB’s mother lets go, and a strange muffled sigh emerges from BB. His mouth is dribbling at the corners again. His mother uses her handkerchief to wipe her child’s face and mutters, ‘You didn’t know … hush, little BB, don’t say a word…’

BB still has his eyes closed and his mother continues, ‘Always watch over your little ones, Doctor. That’s a lesson I learnt the hard way, Doctor, you know the details, I can’t bear to tell…. Your grandfather must have told you, passed on to him by his grandfather. So many years ago ... and we were so poor then, I had nothing to offer to him, so I gave him my gold pins, the very things I used to stop myself from seeing more. My little girl, my little flower. And I didn’t have to know, Doctor, I didn’t have to see … the horror, the shame that I still must carry. Why did you do it to your little sister, BB, why…’

She places her hand on the throbbing fontanelle and rubs it gently. I want to look away, there’s something vulgar about the way her fingers prod and stroke the wires around the head, but I can’t. A faint strip of sunlight steals into the room. Late afternoon light that stains the floor dirty.  

A spasm ripples across BB’s aquarium skin and you can see the compound eyes move rapidly under their translucent lids. BB lets out his long moan again, but it sounds less painful this time. He then slowly opens his eyes and his mother peers into them.

‘Oh, they’re wet now, Doctor, look. Don’t I always say, nothing that a mother can’t do for her child. It’s in our bones, you see, our children are in our bones. You must watch over them to protect them, Doctor. You see, we don’t come alone into this world, we come connected,’ she says as she strokes the umbilical cord and then the wires around BB’s head again, ‘always connected. Simple as that.’


Sohini Basak’s debut poetry collection We Live in the Newness of Small Differences received the Beverly series manuscript prize and will be out in early 2018 from Eyewear Publishing. She occasionally writes fiction, some of which has appeared in journals such as 3: A.M. MagazineLitro, AmbitAainanagar and Out of Print. Most recently, she is the recipient of a Toto Funds the Arts writing award (2017), and a Malcolm Bradbury continuation grant for poetry from the University of East Anglia (2015). Currently, she works as an editor in a publishing house in New Delhi.

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