Winter 2004
An Issue of Blood

by Mita Ghose

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“Come, Bugloo shona…chweetie pie.… Come, Buglai.… Come, come, darling....” 

Drawn by the sound of voices, he pauses in the doorway, a miniature Tintin haloed in gold by the early morning light. My baby. Beautiful as an angel, but all too human. Rocking on his feet, poised to turn away from the threshold at the first hint of turmoil. Sound instincts in one so young. 

“For pity's sake! Don't call him by those sickening names. This is one very bright kid, in case you haven't noticed, not some retard.” 

“I'll call my son what I damn well please.” 

“Yours? Really? Since when? Since some slut decided to dump her 'mistake' on a garbage heap and give you the only chance you'll probably ever have of playing mother?” 

That beautiful baritone knows exactly how to cut. As finely as a surgeon's scalpel. In thin slivers, so you don't even notice when you begin to bleed. And yet, this is a voice made for seduction, for insidiously destroying all defences. I should know. It's a voice that stirs up memories, some deceptively sweet, others putrefying silently in the dark recesses of my mind. Swallow. Breathe. Count ten. The time is now. A sunny Sunday morning. Like the one before it. Safely predictable. Predictably unsafe. 

“Lovely! Blame the woman as usual, the universal scapegoat. You, of course, have nothing to do with it.” 

“I'm not the one, damn you, who bleeds torrents at the very suggestion of sex. Actually, I'm bloody relieved he's not your biological brat. Don't have to worry wondering whether he's going to turn out like his drooling idiot of a Dadu!” 

It must be an irresistible temptation for him to delve deeply into wounds he has already opened so many times. My brat. Yet, he loves this child. By default? Drooling idiot... my father... bound to me in sickness, health, love and conflict, together always, till marriage we did part. Marriage, I mean, to the man I had tried so hard to resist. Terrifying, because he was so alien to my sphere of experience… Picture-perfect…so beautiful to look at, so charming, so influential, so wealthy. So persuasive. So everything I was not. And obsessed, unbelievably, with me. Why, God, didn't I ask myself why? What had stilled my instincts and numbed my brain, preventing me from questioning his reasons for hankering after little me, a social nonentity, a complete misfit in his world? Without the recognition then that my name calls up today, a notoriety that makes him hate me and try to conceal the grudging respect he can't help feeling. Why didn't I ask myself what it was that drove him towards me, this man who could have had any woman? Would it have helped even to have asked, when even now I can't find an answer that makes any sense? 

Could it have been an Eliza Doolittle fetish, I often wonder, the excitement of social slumming? Surely a novelty for this man, cloistered within the insularity of his class. Or was it the fascination of homing in on a difficult target, a prey in flight, the thrill of the chase, that inspired him who had always been himself the object of pursuit? A man whose seductive marksmanship was Olympic class, who never knew the meaning of the word failure. Points I might have pondered back then. Pointless now to ponder. And yet I cannot help turning them over in my mind…. If only I had known, had recognised the true nature of the secret compulsions that masquerade as love. 

Too late for us now, locked as we are in immortal matrimony, mortal combat. Me versus him. Both irrevocably committed to the common goal of keeping the skeleton hidden in the closet, as secret as a cache of contraband ivory. One odd couple among many such, but unique, nonetheless, in the details of our private anger and hidden grief.

The same feelings that burn my insides obscure my vision and blur the sharpness of his beautiful profile. Panic overwhelms me because I know I cannot afford that response. I. Will. Not. Lose. Control. Imagine the mayhem, if I do. The blood, even. My private nightmare. His as well. 

“Eliminate stress from your life,” says Dr. Bose, M.O., F.R.C.O.G., D.Sc., A.B.C.D.X.Y.Z. (Edinburgh? London? Timbuctoo?). Why not cut off my head? Take out my heart too, along with my uterus and ovaries. Neuter me clean. No malfunctioning womb at all to curse or worry into fruitfulness. 
“You probably don't have much to do with yourself,” the doctor says.

“No, I don't.” 

“Too much time on your hands for brooding and worrying about the state of the world, hmmm? Have you tried yoga? Meditation? You need to be out and about. Vigorous physical activity. A brisk walk in the morning to start with, hmmm?” 

I have walked mile after mile, you patronising overqualified know-it-all, from the crack of dawn till God knows when, trying to drain my body of its energy and exorcise my demons. Day after day. And lain awake at night exhausted, speechless, empty, so devoid of feeling that I couldn't even bring myself to shed a tear. Not if someone had wrung me out like a rag. And yet, the blood still oozes forth, drop by relentless drop. 

“You just aren't motivated enough for exercise, are you? Now, if you were overweight... I'm prescribing iron tablets again. They should take care of the anaemia.... You're an intelligent woman, aren't you? What stops you from taking better care of yourself? Meanwhile, these tests... Get them done at Glamorgan Medical Centre, please. Nowhere else. We're not going for a biopsy right away. We'll see how it goes, shall we? A little spotting isn't such a big deal, hmmm?” 

A little spotting. Haemorrhage after haemorrhage. All that blood wasted. Not even a respectable miscarriage to stem the flood of silent accusation: sterile, sterile, sterile. Not even an immaculate conception. Just to prove a point. 

My little one's tentative steps propel him towards me, and he anchors his fingers into the folds of my negligée. Unsettled by the crosscurrents of rage and despair? Seeking safety, hope? From me? That's a laugh. All he's doing is trying to master the art of balance, or get a hug. Can I, the ersatz mother, even tell which it is? I place my hands gently on the silken down of his fragile skull. A strange sensation surges through me: reassurance that here is a creature more helpless than I. Can this be the source of the courage that gives me the nerve to strike back? 

“That drooling idiot,” I hear myself say with biting precision, “gave me love. Recognise the word? No. It doesn't feature in your vocabulary. He's the man you went out of your way to cultivate when you set your sights on me. And then treated with contempt once you had what you wanted. Now that he's ill, unable to defend himself, you insult him day in and day out. Bravo! If that isn't just like a gentleman, a true product of your class. Didn't your expensive public school teach you that Alzheimer's isn't a hereditary disease? Or did it leave you as ignorant as your high-and-mighty parents who never felt the need to educate themselves about what lay beyond their long noses?” 

What use are words that can hurt me as much as the person they're intended for? And yet I engage in these futile exchanges that can only increase the animosity between us. Back and forth they go, the wounding words, across the jagged line that divides us. But the image such dialogue conjures up--the sagging puppet in a wheelchair…my father, the centre of my little world, the parent who played a dual rôle in the absence of the other parent long dead and gone. Tough and tender, with laughs to spare for the world's absurdities until they caught up with him. All that frustration and sadness contained beyond the bursting point. Now he inexorably self-destructs, a sharp decline followed by a plateau, then another decline. Further and further from reality, sliding into dementia, drooling, dribbling, soiling himself, shedding all recognizable signs of what goes into making a human being human. Oblivious, thank God, to his own indignity. But look, Baba, no tears. No wobble in my voice. Dignity is all, as you taught me so well but can no longer practise yourself.

“Really?” retorts my husband. “Not hereditary? How, then, do you explain yourself? Weird as can be--scribbling those pieces of gloom and doom, shut off from the world, locked up in your precious self. You're a pain, you know--a royal embarrassment. And look at your sister. Everybody who's anybody in this city knows she's successfully running not only her own life but a thriving business as well.” 

“Off again on a tangent! As if you didn't know what the whole world knows: The firm is Mehta's. And the money. And the brains behind it. When was my sister ever anything other than window dressing? Mehta's little toy?” 

“You're eaten up with envy,” he shouts back. “Sticks in your craw, doesn't it, that someone without your looks or education could do better than you? Someone without your trump card--a husband to hoist her, at one shot, several rungs up the social ladder. Someone with the guts to achieve what she has without her rightful share of anything--including love from Daddy dearest who never noticed her because he was so besotted with his first-born, the spitting bloody image of his dear departed wife. What did that father of yours ever do for your sister before he started gibbering and soiling his pants? Yet look where she is! And look at you, his pet!” 

“You never could abide my relationship with Baba because your own parents never shared anything with you except their wealth and privilege. And you talk about envy. You pretend you don't understand why Baba's pension was never enough to send Lichu abroad for college. And would it have been worth it even if he could? For someone whose scholastic aptitude was less than nil? As for your great regard for her, I wonder where that stems from. Merely, I suspect, from the fact that we're so different. 'My enemy's enemy…' Oh, I agree she's way ahead of me. She could teach me a few tricks about selling myself. But then, my readers don't have to be wined, dined or serviced before they buy my novels. Lichu only knows how to promote one thing, but she does it par excellence. How the world loves her! And, boy, does she love the world back! Well, good for her. That was always her forte. Even when she was still in her teens--modelling 'special' lingerie, if you please!” 

“Shut up!” 

“She's a stupendous success. Especially now that she's turned exclusive… available no longer to all and sundry but only to the heads of multinationals. Prostitution, they called it in the good old days.” 

His smile is insidiously sweet. If I hadn’t known its true meaning I might even have smiled back--the usual response of anyone who didn’t know him as well as I did. 

“Spare me your nun's story,” he says. “You can't bear it that Lichu is bright and smart and sexy. That she's jolly good company. And obviously great in bed, or men who could afford any woman they wanted wouldn't be chasing after her. Not a great beauty, but a real woman. Not a fraud like you--all the curves and contours of a corpse!” 

Back to square one, where it hurts most. 

“That shouldn't surprise you of all people, should it, considering what a man you are.”

Nothing like hitting below the belt. The thrill of being right on target. So gratifying. But it never lasts long and doesn't come cheap. The pain is blinding. And then…the taste of blood in my mouth. Did he break my cheekbone this time? I can feel the flesh swelling up. It will turn blue in a couple of hours, shading off into yellow by cocktail time. Thank God we're not going out this evening. Why does he do it? Why do I goad him into doing it? 

Buglai Baba, aaja... aaja, beta....” Malini, dark and desiccated, in widow's white, appears in the doorway. How long has she been standing there? It's the ayah's job to eavesdrop and clear the field for battle. Her gaze, before she lowers it, is inquisitive, watchful. Was there a glint of malice too? Does it please her to know that beneath the varnish of affluence gutter instincts still prevail? 

“Go on, Bugs,” he says, smiling his dazzling smile. “Mashi's calling you. Time for chow. Smart boy, go on now.” 

My baby turns towards him and grins delightedly. “Ba-ba?”  How they betray you, the ones you love the most!

“I'll feed him, Malini,” I manage, keeping the hurt and resentment out of my voice. “You go have your tea. Come, Bugloo shona.” 

Tiny fingers wrap themselves tight around my finger. My son. Still mine. I stand up, careful to hold myself erect, the way drunks compensate by becoming over-precise in movement and speech. The child teeters precariously, then rights himself, astonished by his newfound agility. He gazes up at me as though to say, “Did you see that?” 

I smile for his sake, though my cheek is throbbing. Uncertain at first, his mouth responds with a wide grin. Two teeth on top, two on the bottom, not quite aligned. My insides melt. How brutal it can be, the expression of love. As devastating as a cruel word that cuts the ground from beneath your feet. Is this beautiful child just another emotional trap in the making? Please, God, not him too. 

He spent almost a year in an orphanage, a golden child, standing out from the others but just as devoid of an identity and just as unwanted. What does such a life do to a child? Then manna from heaven: a set of parents, no longer young, but desperate for a child to serve as a buffer between them. And an elegant home, clothes and toys, as much food as he can eat and waste, lawns to crawl over, cars to ride in, holidays on sand and snow and cruise liners, more friends than he could know what to do with. 

And, of course, his parents' endless bickering. Followed by sudden lulls. A short reprieve earned by a lightning-swift blow, a swollen jaw, a bruised eyelid, a cut lip. No fractures so far, but the fridge is always stocked with ice cubes and the medicine cabinet with salves, lotions and painkillers. The dressing-table drawers spill over with make-up sticks in different shades to match summer and winter complexions. Estée Lauder, Christian Dior, Shiseido. And the tears, meanwhile, kept on hold. Life must go on. No matter how lonesome one is this night and every night. What does life in such a house do to a child? 

Why can't this man find someone else? I often think. Someone bright and sexy. He says I've made him unfit for any woman, his rage disguising the tears no real man can shed. I've destroyed him with my frozen-fish stare, my cutting words, my frigid limbs, my teeth-gritting endurance. And all that blood, discharged, one would think, in a fury of resistance. 

Divorce? How dare I even suggest it after the damage I've done? I am his private tragedy and doormat. His victim and his nemesis. His partner in misery. 

But why can't I let go? Because I'll lose my trophy husband, my identity as the wife of the great man? Because alimony in this country amounts to a pittance? Better to think about it later on, after Bugloo has grown up. After I stop “spotting.” 

“My trophy wife,” he murmurs at the next do we attend, his voice soft as velvet, his arm clinching my waist. High on the success of a new business venture, he is smiling his gorgeous smile. Trophy wife and showpiece husband. Made for each other. My new book is out. A bestseller. Success breeds success breeds wonder breeds reluctant respect. Money is one thing, but recognition you haven't had to pay for in cash or in kind is something else altogether. If you have one, you pine for the other.

“I'm terrified she'll go and win the Nobel Prize. Asian writers seem to be the 'in' thing these days.” The perfect blend of off-hand affection and disdain for the absurdity of the idea. Polite laughter follows. “Don't laugh, my friends! She's very good. But when she's bad, she's horrid…. And I don't just mean the prose.” More laughter. The whole world laughs with you if you're wealthy enough to queer its pitch how you choose. 

“Hi, there! How was Sardinia? You S.O.B., you never told us where you were off to! Adventure sport again? Scared we'd turn up at the wrong time?” 

“How's the tyke? Teething with a vengeance, I heard. My twins are going through the same misery. Nina's at the end of her tether.” 

The stream of words flows past as if at a great distance. The only certainty is his arm like a clamp around my middle. Holding and suffocating me. What if I pry it loose? Will I be swept away? What if I scream HELP?” 

Did I actually scream? Why are they staring at me? Is it pity or is it admiration of lucky Mrs. So-and-so in her salmon-pink paithani shot with gold, her cabochon ruby earrings from Yangon chosen by her charming, devoted husband who never strays despite the not-so-subtle overtures from other women and his wife's inability to conceive? The treachery of fate. Naseeb. God knows what stock that adopted child of theirs springs from. What a tragedy for a man who deserves half a dozen legitimate heirs of his own. 

My child's face swims up to me through the haze, his eyes bright with trust and intelligence, his mouth aquiver with uncertainty verging on hope. Look, Mamma, no hands. I concentrate on my mouth, my best feature, he once said, and the memory of that compliment perversely triggers feelings of tenderness and even arousal, breaking through the wall I have built up over the years to protect myself. Amazing, how my body can still betray me. My muscles relax despite the vise around my middle. My lips curve upwards. My dimples deepen, though my cheeks feel dry and fragile as paper. I smile, and the world smiles back at the famous Ranjan Sen’s wife. I give in. I surrender. And just then feel a spurt of blood issue forth. Just a little spotting… Nothing unusual. 

(Mita Ghose completed her academic career at the Sorbonne in Paris and then went on to work as a teacher of French and as a translator. Personal circumstances, emotional and otherwise, eventually led her to writing, and the result has been a stream of articles, short stories, travel pieces and book reviews, published in some of India’s leading news- papers, including The Statesman, The Telegraph and The Times of India. )