by Aditya Gautam
It’s 2 a.m.
Only drunkards, ghosts, and thieves stay up late in the night, Mother used to say while putting us to bed. Maybe parenthood had made her forget all about lovesick people, college students, and people with thoughts so heavy that sleep slips away the moment their head touches the pillow.
I wouldn’t be surprised either by such a lapse of memory—I never did see her do anything other than take care of her four children, of whom I was the youngest. Father was no different. He woke up at 6, went to the office, sat with his children to help them with their homework after returning from the office, and went to bed at 9.
When one of the other kids in our neighborhood failed his exams, or got caught kissing the tuition-teacher, Mother would smile with satisfaction and say, this is what happens to children whose parents go for matinee shows instead of staying home with them. Father would nod his head in proud agreement.
To this day, since the day they first became parents, Mother and Father have never watched a movie at the cinema hall. But, they are respectable people and they have raised their children to be respectable people.
They are not so different, I think than any other respectable people who decide for one reason or another, and mostly for no reason whatsoever, to have children. They stop being real people the moment they become parents—little bundles of mildly sentient flesh and bones take over their lives and never give up the driver’s seat.
In any case, I am not going to talk too much about my parents—that’s not what you do when you are up at 2 a.m and wondering listlessly if you should jump off the balcony. Not unless your parents did something that scarred you for life, like run away with one of your friends from high school, maybe, or successfully convinced you for life that masturbation will blind you.
My parents tried and failed to achieve the latter, but the former really did happen to a girl I knew at school. Her father, the town postmaster, eloped with her best friend during our board exams. No one got their letters on time for almost a month afterward. No one cared much about that, however, because he had left ample gossip in his wake to make up for the lack of letters.
The postmaster—now that was a man whom having children had not changed all that much. Or maybe it had. We might find the truth about that in a story someone writes about him. This is not that story.
You don’t tell stories about small-town postmasters when you are wondering whether you will hit the ground head-first if you step off the ledge or whether you will split down the spine like a fat book bound in flesh, written in blood.
But stories about the father of gynecology—a certain Dr. Sims—now that’s a different matter altogether. You can tell such stories while contemplating going gentle into the good night, especially if your pregnant wife is sleeping in the bedroom like mine is right now.
Dr. J. Marion Sims was an American, for one thing, which makes his story more important than the story of any third-worlder, let alone an anonymous postmaster or a retired old couple. For another thing, if you were born at a hospital anytime in the last couple of centuries, you owe some credit to the good doctor.
Credit, or blame, depending on how much you have seen of the world, and how far up the food chain you have lived in it.
From where I am sitting right now, which is to say from the ledge of my balcony, I can see the inflated belly of my wife rise and fall calmly in the blue-green glow of the nightlight if I bend over backwards. She woke me up about half an hour ago when she tried to turn on her side and hit me in my groin. Not the best way to wake up, I can tell you that, but we can’t really blame her. There are very few positions she can comfortably sleep in these days.
She is looking forward to getting her body in its usual shape and nature, she told me before going to bed tonight, almost as much as she is looking forward to the baby. I nodded my head and thought about how in less than a month we will depend on the work of Dr. Sims for the safe delivery of our child.
He developed most of the surgical instruments which are used in gynecology today, you see, working out of a barn, back in the 19th century. That’s why they call him the father of surgical gynecology. His wife and kids must have been so proud of him. As are the rest of Americans evidently, if his statues in eminent universities are anything to go by.
I often find my thoughts turning to him on sleepless nights lately. It has been happening ever since I read an article about how he came about his discoveries. It was through a rigorous and painful process of trial-and-error, it seems. Rigorous for him, painful for others.
Dear old Dr. Sims, it appears, had Black slave women sit on his table and bend over on their knees while he poked around in their lady-parts with his tools to see what worked and what did not. The slaves were not given any anesthesia, of course, because Mr. Sims believed that Black people did not feel pain.
I can imagine Dr. Sims now, his head held high, walking down to the church with his wife and children on Sundays. He was a respectable man, and I’m sure he raised his children to be respectable people too. I can’t help but picture him in my head as my father— monochrome version, no mustache.
When my parents visited us at this new house they were put off by the balcony because whoever built the house did not think it necessary to install a railing or a banister here. They have been outspoken about the need for high railings ever since my classmate, the postmaster’s embarrassed daughter, attempted suicide by jumping from her terrace.
She did not die, but she broke the bones in her left hip and right wrist. She works at the post-office now and I met her last year when I went home for Diwali. She was shopping with her daughter at the market and she made the little girl touch my feet and say namaste with folded hands.
A well-mannered girl, I thought, a girl being raised to be a respectable person.
I remembered that her grandfather, the postmaster, was a man who cared very much about good manners. If we ever passed him by on the street without pausing to touch his feet he would make it a point to send a complaint-note along with the next letter to our homes. He also had a peculiar habit of spanking their bottoms when girls bent down to reach his toes. Sometimes he did it to us boys too.
SWAT! his hand would come on our behinds, as if to kill some invisible mosquito, and he would give a dry chuckle by way of blessings. There were rumors about some other things he liked doing to children, but no one ever complained—it would have been too embarrassing to go up to your respectable parents and tell them that the postmaster touched you in strange ways.
Anyway, like I was saying, for the duration of their stay at our house my parents made sure they reminded us every day what absolute idiots we had been to buy a house that did not have high railings on the balcony. I thought about that a minute ago, as I walked back and forth on the ledge where the railing should have been and where instead is only a railing-shaped, risky nothingness. I looked again through the bedroom door at my peacefully sleeping wife.
If I had slipped, just as I turned away from her and sighed meaningfully, this would have become a perfect late-night story. Idiot husband contemplates suicide, looks at his beloved wife, changes his mind about dying, and then dies all the same—a perfect ending if you have a taste for cynicism and irony.
But I did not slip.
I faced forward and looked at the world sprawled out in front of me. A tree that used to obstruct some of the view was chopped down last week. The world may have suffered a slight loss of oxygen but I am more far-sighted now. I could see some people dancing away the night on their roof in the distance. Sleepless, hormone-addled college students maybe.
Looking at them I felt like if I took a step, and then one more, I might be able to walk through the air and join them, shed away the cobwebs of my slumber-years on the way. Or, maybe it would be better to take a mad leap and fly away into the open sky? Aren’t people always extolling the benefits of taking a leap of faith?
But I chose neither of the two ways. My cinema-abstaining parents did not raise us to be dreamy fools. I stepped down from the ledge and looked down at Mr. Rao’s terrace on which my head would have spilled out my brains if I had indeed taken a leap of faith.
Mr. Rao, our 60-something next-door neighbor, served in the army once upon a time and won two medals for showing extraordinary courage. He showed them to us proudly after inviting us for tea, the day we moved in. Mrs. Rao made and served the tea—a grey-haired, round-faced, 5-feet-high lady clad from head to toe in a fluffy cotton saree; she encouraged us to keep coming over, considering they don’t see as much of young people as they want to. Both of their boys are settled in the USA and are able to visit them only during the Christmas holidays.
We promised we would not let them want for company.
A genial old couple, our Mr. and Mrs. Rao, quietly living out their silver years with each other. The pinnacle of marriage’s success as an institution. Except for their bathroom, maybe.
For you see, Mrs. Rao slips in the bathroom all too frequently, and then makes a point of telling everyone she meets the next day that that’s how she got the bruises. If anyone wonders why such accidents happen only at night and why she keeps screaming and crying for hours at a time, that’s not Mrs. Rao’s problem. In any case, no one has voiced such questions to her; no respectable person wants to meddle in other people’s domestic affairs.
In any case, I don’t think Mr. Rao really hates his wife or would ever cause her any lasting harm. She is just like the cotton mattress on his bed to him—from time to time he brings up this mattress to the terrace and beats it senseless with a stick. Then he hangs it on the wall to dry.
Turns the mattress good as new, this treatment does, he tells me conspiratorially each time I see him going at it, and keeps one comfortable at night.
Mr. Sims, our surgical pioneer, must have thought the same way about the black women he was experimenting on. A few black eggs broken to make nice, fluffy white omelets—what could be the harm in that?
It’s close to 3 o’clock now and the thought has crossed my mind that I should perhaps retire back to bed and put off this—whatever this is—for another sleepless night. But, something keeps stopping me. There’s something inescapable about climbing back into one’s bed late at night; you know you won’t be able to escape it again until the next morning, and then it will be the same day all over again.
Groundhogs Day. Dr. Sims Day. Mr. Rao Day. Mrs. Rao Day. So it goes. So it goes, as Vonnegut said. But what if you cannot take it going on so anymore?
To tell you the truth, these systemic uglinesses—against women, or Blacks, or trees, or Muslims—don’t really keep me up at night. They don’t make me look again and again at my peacefully sleeping wife and her rising-falling-rising belly before turning back to the balcony’s ledge.
No, the thing that kills me, really kills me, is the sameness of opposing sides, you know? If you don’t then I envy you.
A minute ago, my bladder needed urgently to be relieved of its contents so I got up and tiptoed into the house so as to not wake up my wife because she finds it very difficult to go back to sleep these days. Watching my piss splash on the commode’s white porcelain had a sobering effect on me. Who am I to be worrying about the larger problems of this world, using words like 'systemic'? I am just a respectable, domesticated, brown man who’ll soon be stepping into the non-being existence of a parent.
I could hear my wife’s breaths when I bent down to pour myself a glass of water from the bedside and I avoided looking at her belly. I came out on the balcony again.
The shadow of a Tulsi plant sways sleepily on Mr. Rao’s terrace.
Mrs. Rao comes up here every morning at 7 like clockwork. Even when she has had one of her bathroom-accidents the night before. She faces the sun and pours water out of a metal mug into the tulsi plant while murmuring her prayers. Once finished, she scrubs clean the pot in which the holy plant sits, and also sweeps the terrace for good measure.
But, last week Mrs. Rao, the woman who loves her potted plant so dearly, had the tree in our street chopped down to a stump because the tree made it difficult for her to keep the house and the terrace clean, what with all the fallen leaves and rotting fruits it shed everywhere. There was a nest in the branches and when it fell down the yellow egg-yolk splattered on the hot pavement and sizzled like an omelet of sorts.
Two birds and a tree less in the world because Mrs. Rao worries about cleanliness. The oppressed at one place, the oppressor at another. The sameness of opposites.
Like Dr. Sims’s work, which will continue to aid women even as it destroyed women, women separated only by a couple hundred years, and a couple centimeters of skin.
Like the granddaughter of my hometown’s ex-postmaster will continue to touch the feet of elders who may be pedophiles like her grandfather, even as she is accompanied by her mother who limps on her left leg and cannot pick up things with her right hand.
There’s no way out, you see?
When you go into the minutiae of things, you see that there isn’t really any right or wrong here; just a bunch of microbes fighting it out amongst themselves before fading out into nothingness or being gobbled up by slightly larger microbes.
Take children, for instance. People keep inflicting their progeny upon this poor world as a way of rebelling against death—in some wooly corner of our heads we think that by birthing children we are creating carbon copies of ourselves which will continue to live on after us exactly the way we did.
Each generation commits this folly, conveniently forgetting how much it prided itself on being so different from its previous generation, its Mothers and Fathers.
The sameness of opposing sides.
No matter what I do with my kid there is no way I won’t fuck it up, no way I won’t make some version of the same mistakes that my parents made.
My wife and I will either leave our child home to go watch the cinema, or we will stay home and count the sacrifices we are making for her sake.
I will either raise her to be a respectable person and then spend the rest of my life trying not to look at her too hard, or I’ll raise her to be an individualist and watch the world slowly dismantle her every which way.
She will either spend her nights sleepless on the balcony of an as-yet unconstructed house, or she will sleep peacefully and never be able to know what’s that nagging anxiety in the pit of her stomach.
Once again, I step on the ledge, once again I step back. My wife tries to turn in her sleep and fails.
I step down five stairs from the balcony and face the elevator’s doors.
There’s only the down-arrow button on the panel beside the doors and it looks lonely without the upper-arrow button to accompany it. You cannot go further up from the top floor, I guess. I walk into the elevator and the years shed themselves one by one on each floor until we touch the ground. The doors open and I breathe in the freedom of not going around in circles anymore, the freedom of walking into the night and disappearing forever.
At 5, just as dawn is about to break, I toss the leftover whiskey from my glass into Mrs. Rao’s tulsi plant. I lock the door to the balcony and I climb slowly into the warm bed to catch a few hours’ sleep beside my wife and unborn child.