You write a novel.
It won’t be hugely popular. You are a woman writer and, as much as women writers are “having a moment”, you know your moment is short lived. Your publisher went with a print run of three thousand copies and your advance was only enough to cover half of your credit card bill. You’re still job hunting in a market that doesn’t require your skills anymore and you are months behind on rent. But you have a published novel under your name, something you wanted for yourself for as long as you can remember and here it is - two hundred and eighty four pages, hardbound and retails at three hundred and fifty rupees. Book sales be damned, you only care about what the reviewers have to say. Some are too kind, some too hostile, but all-in-all, you’ve made a faint mark, a wine stain of sorts, in the literary world. You can live with that.
The book took a lot out of you. Mentally, emotionally and financially. Months of subsisting on ramen noodle dinners and rice. But that was nothing compared to the memories you had to confront on the page. Dig up the scabs, peel off the scar tissue, write from your calloused heart. It hurt. No one tells you how much it hurts when you have to put word after aching word, compelled by no other reason or incentive than to just get the story out of your system. But now that it’s all over and you are sitting before a small audience of thirty, waiting for the host to introduce you and your humble little novel, it feels anticlimactic. Like a chore you have to go through.
You spot him entering through the door. He hangs around the shadows of the bookshelves, wanting to go unnoticed but still present. It’s hard not to recognise a known face when the venue is a bookstore you go to every month. They graciously offered to host you when you went in there last month and you graciously accepted. You are always so touched by the slightest gesture of kindness.
You know why he’s here. He came looking for an answer to a question he wouldn’t ask. But, as with any book reading, he knows someone will inadvertently ask what he wants to know: how much of the story is true. He’s a writer of some repute now. Three books down, married and balding. He’s done well for himself, so you understand why he’s trying to keep a low profile. You understand why he won’t sit in the front row even as the lady who runs this place goes up to him and asks him to take a seat.
The last time you saw him, he had brighter eyes and more hair on his head. He took you back to his apartment and read a few pages from the draft that went on to become his first novel. He was drunk. You were drunk and smitten by his words. You were twenty four, easily smitten by words and bookshelves back then. A journalist living paycheck to paycheck and drinking with men in dive bars, discussing Kafka and Bolano over cheap whisky and masala peanuts. You were happy with that life, in a city that didn’t sleep. And you didn’t either. Those days are past perfect tense now, ink prints in the book you hold now.
It was a past perfect night, after which came the morning that flipped your days over like a pancake. As you read from your book you look at his eyes; they are wary now with age and the exhaustion of the craft. You can almost taste the muesli milk kiss you shared with him that night, seemingly innocent but damaging in hindsight. Stop glancing over, you need to remind yourself. Your audience is watching you and you need to respect his decision. Stay discreet.
You come to that part in the book where you describe the process. You thought you could just take lunch off that day. But they made you wait and under the unfeelingly cold florescent lights of the clinic, you had to text your editor saying you would not be coming back for the day. You had to wait your turn and were made to chug a litre of water before they called for you. You thought it was going to be an in-and-out thing, a quick examination, a hastily scribbled prescription and your life would snap back into its usual rhythm the next day. But that’s not what happened.
You avoid looking up as you read the part where your bladder is so full the band of your jeans is cutting through. They call for you eventually. You read the part where the queasily cold gloop hits your lower abdomen and you’re lying on your back, staring at the ceiling at the peeling plaster and a big brown splotch the shape of something you couldn’t quite recall the word for when they pulled back the screen and told you what you didn’t want to hear. And you realised that was the exact word you were trying to recall.
You went back to the reception and asked for an immediate consultation. The receptionist looked back, eyes narrowed with disdain and nodded towards the waiting area. This part is difficult, you tell your audience before you continue reading it, because this part is about waiting. Waiting is difficult to describe and even more difficult to endure. Your eyes briefly flit towards him before you look down to the page and start reading. You are waiting anxiously, rocking back and forth on the perforated steel chairs, biting the dried layer of skin off your lip. Around you are women in varying stages of bulges. Some ready to pop, others not quite there yet. They, unlike you, have claimed three or more chairs, some with their husbands, some with more kids. You are perched at the edge of your chair, your mind running a hundred thoughts a minute. You are an alien and yet you are here, on a planet you don’t belong but have crash landed on. You don’t want this. You know you don’t want this. You should be at your work desk, filing that story on underage workers in the sweatshops of Vile Parle where tiny hands stitch garments for a label three local stations down, with its glass panels, warm lighting and serif font tags. You shouldn’t be here, with these women. There has been a mistake. A big mistake and you need to make it right. As soon as possible.
An hour later the receptionist calls your name. You almost slip on the sterile slippery tiles as you hurry towards her desk. She points you towards the room you are meant to be in. White doors, frosted glass panes and silence. You push the handle and enter. The lady who looks at you seems reasonable, you think. You tell her this was a mistake. You tell her you shouldn’t be here. You tell her you have a deadline to meet at work and she hands you a tissue. That’s when you realise your cheeks are wet and your lower lip stings. You bit too hard and now it’s bleeding.
She tells you to lie down and unbutton your jeans. You realise how tight the waistband is now and angry angry welts appear when you pull it down. The queasy cold gloop is back but this time you feel a chill run through your spine as well. She asks who is with you and you tell her no one. You are alone. She asks who did this and you tell her that’s not important. It was no one important. You just need to get rid of it right now. Quick. Like popping a zit. She tells you to reconsider, you are in your twenties and it is an ideal situation No, you scream. Nothing about this is ideal. Not the night, not the bookshelf, not the first draft and not the timing. It’s not ideal at all. She hands you a glass of water and asks you to calm down. You only take a sip because you think you will throw up. You are sure you will throw up. She tells you again that she is advising against it. You are only getting older and considering all health factors, the time is right. It’s not, you try to tell her. This is not what you want. But at the end of the day, the doctor makes the decision. So you need her to be on your side, to sign off before you can rectify this mistake.
She tells you she won’t do it today. She thinks you’re not thinking clearly. You need to inform the partner, she says. Speak to them and get them here the next time. You try to tell her there is no partner, a night does not create a partnership. But your words are cracking and your eyes are welling up again. Please is all you can manage to say.
The next day you’re under the fluorescent lights at nine thirty in the morning. Normally you’d be on your way to work right now, checking your email or reading a book. Instead you’re back here, surrounded by various stages of bulges. Your head is blank today. No voices, no rushing thoughts. The receptionist calls your name and you head back into the room with the frosted glass. You’re back, she says, where’s your partner? There is no partner, you reply, there is a mistake that needs to be taken care of. She asks you to lie on the bed again. By now you know the drill, know exactly which crack on the ceiling you need to stare at. I’ll write you a prescription, she says while scribbling, you need to take one here, then one after seventy two hours. If you experience any pain, you can take the other pill. But first, you have to listen to the heartbeat.
You finish the sentence and look up at the audience. Soon there will be a volley of questions and comments. How could she, someone will ask. Why do you hate women, someone else will. How much of the story is autobiographical. You brace yourself, smile graciously and thank the audience for listening to you, all the while looking at his quizzical but wary eyes.
Dyuti Mishra is a writer and editor from Bangalore. She has been a journalist for over a decade and has been published by The Hindu, Vogue, GQ, Conde Nast Traveller, Femina etc. Her short fiction has appeared in Helter Skelter, The Bombay Review, Jotted and Juggernaut Books.
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