A brilliant, precocious girl, deemed accursed by her father, grows up to become a celebrated writer and creates a life with everything to live for. Jain gives us plenty to be optimistic about with his heroine until she is struck by a debilitating illness that renders her paralyzed. A rags-to-riches-to-death story crafted with subtlety and perfect pace, Jain’s handiwork leaves us all with a lump in our throats that will not disappear for days. – Shreya, The Bombay Review.
Aral is born with nine toes instead of ten. The odd number displeases her father. In the village, nine is the number of the witch, the demon, the cursed. From the day she is born, her father distances himself from her. Nothing good can come of nine toes, he grumbles. The girl is marked, he says. Ill fate will follow her like a shadow, he rages. His wife listens quietly and tends to Aral in her lap. She isn’t that concerned about the nine toes. She worries more that Aral is dark like her father. Darker. A groom will be hard to find.
Aral is three when her brother pushes her off a cot on the terrace of their small house. Her head finds the floor before her hands can. By the time her panicked mother picks the wailing child off the ground, she knows the wound will scar. In the evening, when Aral’s father returns home, he doesn’t react much to the bandaged head of his young daughter. He looks at the child coiled up next to her mother, glances briefly at her feet, and then, walks into the bedroom.
Aral’s mother worries. What is wrong with this child? She catches her six year old daughter staring at a wall for hours. The bare, tattered wall holds the girl in thrall. She’s seen Aral look at everything so wondrously that it’s worried her out of sleep. What’s so spectacular about a mynah? A mirror? Is the child dull? Aral looks at a wildflower and laughs. She talks to her shadow. She catches and releases butterflies over and over. Smiles at the puddles of color in their wings.
When Aral comes home with a letter from the school, her mother grows anxious. Aral’s brother has never come home with one. What has this nine year old troublemaker done? When she pulls Aral’s ear, the girl begins to cry her innocence. I’ve done nothing, she shrieks. To settle the matter, to end the suspense that has begun to press against her chest, Aral’s mother hurries to her neighbor. Gangalata may be a nag and reek of fish but she can read.
The letter is brief. Aral’s mother has been called to the school for a meeting, Gangalata says ominously. Called for a ‘meeting’? repeats Aral’s mother, dabbing at her perspiring brow with her chunni. She returns home and tries to harry the truth out of the child. I’ve done nothing, Aral insists again.
The next day, Aral’s mother arrives at the school after hours. She’s dressed in her best suit, but is a bundle of nerves sitting across the much younger, sprightly, slim-waisted teacher. Aral’s teacher, Miss Nathmohan, smiles warmly and asks Aral to leave the room while she talks to her mother. Aral glares at everything in her way as she stalks out.
So many words assault Aral’s mother. Brilliant. Precocious. Gifted. Prodigy. Aral’s mother makes little sense of what is said. Pieces of paper are pushed in front of her to survey. Though she cannot make out what’s written there, she recognizes the precise, natty script of her daughter’s handwriting. The teacher is babbling, gushing. She finishes, dramatically, in a word in which she appears to lose her breath. Extraordinary, the teacher says, curling both her hands into fists. By now, Aral’s mother knows her daughter isn’t in trouble. And that is enough.
Rumors rustle amongst the young of the village. All the twelve-year-olds know. On Sunday nights, the teenagers gather at the dilapidated shack next to the peepul. There, they do things. What things they do, Aral doesn’t know. But she does know that all her friends have been to the notorious shack at one time or the other. They have done these things. Every time Aral thinks of the shack, she feels a smile come on. And something turns, flops, jumps inside her belly.
One Sunday night, Aral tiptoes out of her house. As she’s closing the door, her father groans from his bed. She pauses. When no other sound follows, she closes the door gently.
The streets are lit by the smolder of the newly installed street lights. Aral hurries to the shack, wondering all the while if she’s perhaps too early or too late. When she reaches, she realizes she’s neither.
The shack is indeed old and ruined. Though Aral never heard of a fire, the place looks burnt from the inside. Plus, it carries a scent. Murmurs cluster all over the place. There are more people in here than she could’ve guessed. Eyes blink at her from the darkness. Ignoring the stares and the sounds, full of scandal, Aral slinks over to the staircase and sits down. There, she waits for something to happen.
Almost fifteen minutes pass before she feels the warmth of another body next to her. She glances to her left to see it’s a boy. Unlike her, he is definitely not twelve. Moonlight is all that illuminates the inside of this ravaged place. And in the silver of the light, she can see his whiskery cheeks. Eighteen. The boy must be at least eighteen.
The boy stares at Aral unabashedly. After a moment, awkwardly, she stares back at him. Aral wonders if he can see how dark she is. A thing of bones wrapped in more night. Or if he notices the small, disfiguring scar at the side of her head. Before she can speak, say anything, he presses his lips to hers.
The kiss isn’t intimate or tender. It’s hungry. After a few seconds of this, Aral pulls away and leaves the staircase, the place in a rush. On her way back, she stops under a street light. She touches her lips, smiles. There’s warmth there. She hurries home, something in her pleased. As she gets in bed, Aral believes that she has a secret. That she’s no more a child.
The scholarship comes as no surprise to Aral’s mother. After all the prizes, accolades and beautifully inked certificates her seventeen year old daughter has collected over the years, this is something she expects. The discussion for Aral to attend college in the city is a brief one with her beleaguered father. Aral’s father has had misfortunes pile up one after the other in the recent years. Among other things, he’s wracked with a rare neurological disease that has pain throb like a heart in his ribs constantly. Though he hasn’t mentioned it in years, Aral’s mother knows that he silently blames their ill-fated daughter. So, when she proposes to send the girl away, he sighs, momentarily claws his aching, pulsing chest, and agrees.
Fleet-footed, a few months march on. Aral is in love with Bombay. It is unlike anywhere she’s been. The hubbub excites her. It’s a city in a hurry. Everyone needs to be places. Aral watches a flurry of people climb buses, crowd beaches, unfold out of autos and fold into tall buildings. She wears jeans, shredded at the knees, everywhere. She wouldn’t have dared wear these back home.
Back home, Aral read about college in smudged, tattered books she borrowed from friends. In movies, she saw it as a mad place, a frenetic world full of song, color, and manic energy. While her college in Bombay cannot match all this expectation, it does take her breath away. There are all kinds of people. She’s seen a boy with all his hair clumped and spiked in the middle of his head. She’s seen two girls kiss outside the canteen openly. She’s heard rumors about her professors hooking up. At times, to her shock, with students.
Aral is in her final year when she meets Dbek. Dbek has long hair, can quote Sufi poets from memory and has a slight stutter that you miss until you don’t. He is also a year younger to Aral. They meet, bizarrely, in the comment section of a blog. Their disagreements are so strong that they’re forced to meet, to confront. Later that week, Aral experiences her second ever kiss.
A year later, Aral moves in with Dbek. They rent a small, compact flat that is somewhat luxurious by Bombay standards. Dbek writes copy and Aral teaches; there’s enough to make do. Aral also begins work on a heartsong of a book, a pearl of an idea that has taken shape in the back of her mind over the years.
News of the move-in somehow reaches home. When Aral calls, her mother talks in a strained voice while her father yells in the background. Obscene words fall from his mouth more than Aral has ever known or imagined. Her mother abruptly cuts the call or perhaps her father snatches the receiver and slams it down. Later in the day, Aral weeps into Dbek’s shoulder. Nothing he says, nor his usual daffy humor, is enough to calm her.
At a friend’s behest, Aral publishes an excerpt of the novel she’s working on in a literary journal of some reputation. The next week, to her surprise, she’s flooded with calls from agents and publishers. She has no idea how they even got hold of her number. And surely each call surprises her more than the last. Everyone seems to want a piece of her. They call the almost ten thousand word excerpt ‘sublime’, ‘heart-rending’, ‘exceptional’ and more. They call Aral ‘a star’ and that loaded word again, ‘genius’. Aral is overjoyed but also, a smidge overwhelmed. In the end, she makes Dbek take the calls. In the end, she agrees to share the novel, when it’s finished, with quite a few very insistent people.
Aral is in the second year of writing her novel when something happens. The work is only two-thirds of the way done when a strange stiffness takes hold of her hand. On an afternoon when sunlight coats her windows and sears the tulsi in her balcony, crouched on her writing desk, Aral finds it impossible to unclench her left hand. Aral struggles until she lets out a shrill cry. But her hand refuses to unlock.
Had it not been for their insurance, Dbek and Aral couldn’t have possibly afforded all the tests that follow. In order for the medical insurance to cover the bourgeoning charge, Aral is admitted in Breach Candy hospital for a day. Though young and healthful, Aral is taken around for comprehensive tests in a wheelchair. She’s backed up against X-ray machines and swallowed up by CT scanners. They drain bottles of blood out of the wrecked hand with syringes that remind Aral of pictures of needle-nosed mosquitoes from her school books.
After all this, when they approach the doctor, they are startled by his solemn expression. This will grow, he says without waiting for them to sit down. This is just the beginning, he says without waiting for them to ask.
Three weeks. Just three run-of-the-mill weeks. That’s how long it takes for the whole of Aral’s left arm to stiffen. Aral is grinding chickpeas into a paste in the kitchen at the time when it happens. Her arm freezes at the shoulder, bent at the elbow. And nothing she does makes the slightest difference. Though the doctor had warned that the best medication would only delay it, Aral had imagined having much more time. That night, Aral is inconsolable. Dbek calls her home to inform her parents of their ill luck. It is Aral’s father who picks up the phone. He listens silently and hangs up the receiver when Dbek pauses for breath.
The next time it happens, it is all-consuming; it resembles a thunderbolt out to raze a city. Aral is keying passages into her novel with her right hand when the doorbell rings. A glance at the digital table clock reveals that it could only be Dbek. Aral is excited; she cannot wait to show him a sentence of hers she’s grown attached to in the last hour. She leaves the desk and makes a run for the door. And on the way there, she freezes.
She cannot move a muscle. She cannot produce a sound. She looks like something stopped in time, someone who’d forever be on her way to the door. The doorbell rings again. And again. After about ten minutes of this, when the ringing has grown worried, Aral hears footsteps recede from the door. She imagines Dbek rushing to the Katyals, their neighbors, to ask for the spare key they keep with them. When Dbek manages to finally open the door and enter, the sight stuns him.
Aral’s eyes move in their sockets. She hears all the sounds Dbek makes. There are gasps, then a strangled cry, then more noises. In the end, there’s crying. Aral watches him frantically bring out his phone. He scrolls through his contacts with trembling fingers. In seconds, he’s on call with their doctor. And from where she stands immobile, Aral can hear the doctor comfort a raving, stuttering Dbek. The doctor sounds patient and kind. But, to a terrified Aral, he does not sound surprised.
After that, as they would, things change. In the beginning, whenever Dbek returns from work, he makes an effort to talk to Aral. He asks questions and answers them himself. Where do we keep the salt-shaker we bought last Diwali? My bad. It must be in the cupboard. Have you seen the remote? Wait, it’s right here. Shall I try and cook something for us tonight? No, too much hassle and I’ll probably burn the place down. And, then, for no reason whatsoever, in the middle of a question, he dissolves into tears.
As months go by, Dbek forgets, more and more, to change her clothes. To clean her unmoving limbs with a damp cloth. To comb her swirl of hair back in place, out of her eyes. On occasion, he forgets to slip water and food between Aral’s still lips. Moreover, slowly, the one-sided conversations ebb away, too, like morning light withdrawing its shapes with the coming of the dark. And now, almost every day, Aral sees Dbek come home drunk. More often than not, to senselessness.
One of such days, he stumbles towards her stilled form in a haze. He stands there awhile, reeking of rum, gazing into her eyes. Then, with the immediacy of the starving, he begins to paw at her body. At her breasts and her thinning waist and her bony behind. He tries to pull her to him but is unable to shake her. He comes to her instead. He nibbles her collar bones, bites tenderly here and there. He presses his mouth against hers. And when, for the first time ever, Aral doesn’t respond, he stops. No, he says, taking a step back. No, no, no. He repeats. No, no, no, no, no. He goes on incessantly, until he staggers out of their home.
It is the last time Aral sees Dbek.
As more days pass, Aral’s stomach finds an emptiness that cries out to the silent room. It growls its lonely appeal. Her bones creak in the dead of night. Her sore muscles have been lulled to sleep. Soon, a quickness, a suddenness grips the way Aral sheds weight, the way her arms grow lean or her face sinks and pales.
A new season breaks. Autumn mats everything in leaves. And in her apartment, over and over, Aral stares at the same things. The door, the couch, the T.V., the stained rug where she or someone else spilled their drink, old newspapers – Pioneer, Statesman – gathering dust on the coffee table, the cordless telephone that has rung all of once since Dbek left. Aral, patiently, lengthily, imagines the rest of the house. Her cherished balcony with its moldering black and green lawn chairs. The kitchen, spare and unpretentious, that has always had room for everything she’s ever needed. The bedroom where, time and again, Aral and Dbek have desired each other both timidly and fiercely like something much younger. Lastly, her study. Where sentences, paragraphs, a world sits, waiting to be touched by senses other than hers.
Aral thinks of all this. She lets her thin breath slip in. Slip out.
Slip in. Slip out.
Tushar Jain is an Indian poet and writer. He is the winner of the Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize, the Raed Leaf India Poetry Award, the Poetry with Prakriti Prize, the DWL Short Story Prize, the Toto Funds the Arts Award for Creative Writing and has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. His first play ‘Reading Kafka in Verona’ was long-listed for the Hindu Metroplus Playwright Award. His work has appeared in various literary magazines and journals such as Aaduna, Papercuts, The Madras Mag, Vayavya, and others. His debut collection of poetry, Shakespeare in the Parka, was published in 2018.