Friday, Sep 17, 2021

The Other Side

Food, sex, death: yes, but also stories, cricket, love and living. All of these things, and more. The short-listed entry in the third Outlook-Picador Non-Fiction Contest.

The Other Side
The Other Side

Food, sex, death: that's what it's all about, say the writers, at the end. And we are closer to the end now, with my mother getting her second series of chemotherapy within the space of one year, her head a bright silvery mass of curls and her arms still red from all the vein-flows No sex, I suppose, since years; and little food, with whatever she manages to eat, forcing itself out again within hours Hovering at the foot of the bed, like Arjuna waiting restlessly at Krishna's feet, is Death.

There is a blue hospital chart kept in the room to record everything that my mother consumes. Since morning, this has consisted of: two half-glasses of water; a half-glass of Ensure; a cup of tea, no sugar, an orange, or at least most of it, and a slice of toast, minus the crusts.

Who knows how much of it all she has vomited out? Another chart, a white one, is meant to record everything she brings out. Three episodes of dry retching, when her face was blotched with red; in two separate episodes, she vomited out her breakfast.

Focus now, on getting her to eat what doesn't make her nauseous. Another orange. A slice of lemon.


Sunlight threads into the room. I look at my mother. I see a sunny northern garden thirty years ago, in Delhi, the jacaranda in bloom, the grass still dewy under our feet, and my sister and I running barefoot in the lawn as my mother sits in her sun-chair, her hair wet and sleek on her shoulders, her hands sticky brown with the chocolate that she has been shaping into suns and moons and stars for us.

The home-made chocolate comes to us from Bombay where our uncle, Raja Mama, makes it from a recipe that is as mysterious and perfect as Coca Cola. As my mother presses the small brown shapes in her palm, she makes up stories for us.

In every story, there is a bright little girl who has an adventure. Why can't there be two girls in the story? I don't remember who asks: me, or my sister.

And if she is feeling unhappy, my mother will agree, and there will be two little girls who go into the forest and over the hills to look for adventure. They meet all sorts of magical creatures -- talking parrots, walking cupboards, smiling trees -- and every adventure takes them to the other side of the rainbow. And they are always brave.


The memory dissolves. I am back in the Tata Memorial hospital room, watching the clear platinum drip slowly, a drop at a time, into the tube that will take it down in my mother's arm, to her heart and lungs, and then to the tumours that they have been charged to destroy.

I am careful to watch for any bubbles in the infusion tube, for they could be fatal. If a stray bubble tries to travel down towards the point where the needle gently enters my mother's skin, I catch it long before that, and, tapping my finger gently at the tube, push the bubble back up and up, until it rises all the way to the surface and disappears with a plop in the air.

The Pantry Bai brings in yet another tray laden with food. Four white rotis, a cup of dal, a heap of chana, some wet sabzi, and a bowl of wrinkled dahi. Food that mother will not eat.

Behind the Bai comes a nurse, swinging the door open as she presses in clipboard in hand, pulling a thermometer from her pocket, asking her questions with practiced ease: How many times has she passed urine? How much urine? What did she eat? How much water? How many times vomiting?


And then there are the other things that we look to for hope. Alternate foods, that are believed to have mystical healing properties. Wheat grass, says someone. Green tea offers another. Black tulsi. It is all here, arrayed on the medicine shelf.


When we were children, my mother would talk down to Lake Market every morning and get two fresh white shondesh, shaped like shonkhs, and a cup of mishti doi. For my sister.

Why didn't she even get me any?

I feel embarrassed to ask her now: Petty, at a time like this.

Perhaps I am not remembering the thing as it actually happened, but merely as I remember it, flushed with the anger and resentment of being the healthier child, the stronger one, the one without the threat of TB looming over her. The one less attended to.

Life has led me on to other things since then: slices of Casa Piccola pizza choked with cheese and tomato slices; my first bite into a burger at Indiana's; the first sip of beer; cheap wine in plastic cups; rum and water in steel tumblers. As a struggling student, learning to skip a meal to buy a tape, skip another meal to see a movie; living on fresh air and dreams; sharing a by-three coffee and wondering if I will ever fall in love. And falling in love.

And, growing up, the complicated requirements of stocking up for friends: two-litre bottles of Pepsi, 7-Up, Sprite. Bulky cartons of Fosters; bottles of Chateau Indage. Nachos and tortilla chips, with salsa sauce. Hara-bhara kebabs and microwave popcorn. Sausages, if I'm feeling generous.

And eating out, in multicultural Mumbai: Pomegranate margaritas at Tres Botas. Long Island iced teas at Not Just Jazz By The Bay. Buddha's Delight and pot rice at Ming's. Chola batura at Cream Centre. Ice-cold kheer at Crystals. Fresh Alphonso ice cream at Naturals.

And inside me, still, a gnawing emptiness that wants more.

Childhood hungers for love, and, growing up, feeds on its absence.


The first time we invited people over after our marriage, I made a seven-course dinner. I don't even remember all the things I made, but I recall there was a biryani, a bhindi raita, and a Kerala chicken stew. As well as a heavily spiked Brandy Chocolate Mousse, set separately in twenty-five glass bowls. I broke a dozen eggs carefully for the mousse, learning to separate the white and the yolk by letting the white out through the cracked shell, while the yellow yolk rolled fatly from side to side. For the stew, I washed the chicken in a huge aluminum bowl, over and over, my hands squeezing the meat -- I did not call it flesh -- and turning my face away slightly as I poured out the pinkish water.

Passing the meat market, I avoid looking at the long pink shanks of mutton hung as the butchers' shop. I remember them from childhood. They are pink, red, long, the ribs bare in ultimate nakedness. I remember them, and I remember the small children outside Kamakhya and outside Kali Ghat, holding on to ropes that are tied around the necks of little black goats that nibble eagerly at the grass that grows between the stone steps.

I still occasionally cook chicken for our friends. They can't believe that I don't eat meat. I recently made a chicken dish from a Madhur Jaffrey recipe for a potluck, a farewell for friends who were moving to Bangalore. The recipe is from the Cochin Jews, and has an interesting sauce made of tamarind, green chillies and sugar; besides, it can be cooked a day ahead.

My dog waits expectantly as the cook washes the chicken, for he knows there will be some pieces for him. Bruno eats his dog food for lunch and dinner, but he loves the food that we eat, rotis and dal dahi. Meat, from an old instinct, is what he loves best.

We bathe and spray him often, this golden animal, but every now and then a tick will squat on the pink skin, hide within the coarse golden hair, and grow fat with his blood. We take it out as soon as we see it, taking care to crush it meticulously between the folds of a newspaper, ensuring, from the tiny Rorschach blob, that the creature is really dead.

We feed on others, and others feed on us. And that is the way of the world.


Look after your sister. The doctors said she had only six months. She hated to eat; we had to make her eat. Look after your father. He won't know how to tell you, but he will be alone.

When we were children, my mother took us to a rescue centre to see a group of leopards. The sleek cats curled and stretched in the sunlight. They were gentle: my mother put out her hand, laughing softly, and one of the leopards, whose name was Bala, licked her hand with his pink tongue. It feels like sandpaper, whispered my mother with a giggle.

The leopards had been found near a suburban housing complex. The local residents had clubbed the mother to death, and were preparing to kill the cubs when a local animal lover rescued them. The cubs were brought to the rescue centre, and had been there ever since. They would not now know how to survive in the wild. The attendant told us that once, when they put a live rabbit inside the cage the leopards played with it all day. They had forgotten how to kill.


My mother has to come to the hospital for two days at a time for the chemotherapy. My father sits with her in the daytime; my husband and I come straight here from work in the evenings, and I sleep over, because she sometimes needs help at night.

I should be doing this for you, she says. You should be having a child, and I should be cleaning you.

I don't know what to say.

The television set is kept switched on for the India-Australia test match. Once all the platinum has been sent into her bloodstream they will let us take her home, back where the sea rolls outside her window and the parrots shriek and squawk for the guavas that she will cut for them.

At home, the mask that she must wear at all times is the only thing that reminds her of the disease. We live as we always have, in cheerful chaos, with laughter and background noise: Malishka on FM, the pressure cooker whistling, the phones ringing, friends dropping in, someone reading the day's Snoopy cartoon from the newspaper, the dog barking at visitors, the cat mewing hopelessly for a moth on the wall.

Food, sex, death: yes, but also stories, cricket, love and living. All of these things, and more.

Where do they go, I ask silently in the darkness, at night. Where do people go at the end? Where will we go; where will I go; and will we meet again; what continues, and what comes to an end?

Meanwhile, my mother is preparing to go inside her own story, to embark on an adventure of her own. Into the mysterious forest: onward. I think of old Bilbo Baggins, faded grey, writing his book, waiting for his time to come.

She has told her stories; she has no more to tell. Still, I wait for a message, for meaning -- Look after the parrots, she smiles.

My mother, heroic, waiting to go to the golden forest of the elves, preparing to set sail on the river.

Previous Contests:

Outlook Picador Non-Fiction Contest - 2001
Outlook Picador Non-Fiction Contest - 2000


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