This is darkness, and it is pain.
I think I moaned just now. I can’t be sure, because this throbbing in my head is so awful I don’t think I’ve ever had this bad a headache, not even when I had migraine. What on earth happened?
Is it a hangover? I don’t think I’ve ever had this bad a hangover. Besides, I don’t remember drinking.
I don’t remember anything.
The darkness fades to reddish brown. How did that happen? I can’t think how it happened.
I hear a voice, faintly through the pain. It seems to be a very long way away. “She’s awake,” it says.
The reddish brown goes redder, brighter. “Can you hear me?” someone says, closer than the other voice. I think I just moaned again.
“Open your eyes if you can hear me,” the voice says.
My eyes? Of course. That reddish glow must be a light, shining on my eyelids.
“Open your eyes,” the voice repeats, insistent.
I try. My eyelids won’t open. They either weigh a ton, or else someone’s kept them tied down with hooks.
“Her lashes moved,” the first voice says. It’s lighter than the second. Female? Who is she?
Where am I?
Who am I?
I can’t remember.
“She probably has some pain,” the second voice says. It’s heavier, more formal-sounding, probably male. “That’s why she’s whimpering.”
Some pain? That’s a laugh.
“Monica,” the second voice says. “Monica, can you try and open your eyes please? Just for a while?”
Monica? Is that who I am? He wants this Monica person to open her eyes, and if I’m Monica, then I ought to try and open my eyes. I make a superhuman effort.
The dull red glow is split in two by a dazzle of yellow. It sears through to the back of my head, turning the throb into white-hot agony.
This time I do scream. I can hear it, echoing in my head. But nobody else seems to hear me.
“That’s very good,” the male voice says. “Now open just a little wider.”
Wider? Dear gawd. I can barely make it this far.
“I don’t think she can, Doctor,” the female voice says.
What’s happened to me?
I have no time to ponder this question. “She’ll just have to do it next time then,” the male voice says. I feel a touch – a very slight one, filtered through the pain – on my eyelid and the band of dazzling light banishes the red glow completely.
“Pupillary reflexes normal,” the male voice says, letting go of my eyelid, and the red glow returns immediately again. It’s a familiar friend by now, as is the throbbing pain. Both are preferable to the agony that comes with the blinding yellow light. “It must have integrated, then.” There’s a lot of satisfaction in his voice.
“You’re a lucky young woman, Monica,” a third voice says, of gender undeterminable.”If it hadn’t been for these...”
But the darkness is creeping back again, like an old friend, and I don’t want to listen. Letting myself go, I sink away.
This time the pain is much less, down to a dull ache around the circumference of my head. And the weights are gone from my eyelids. Opening them isn’t easy, but the white-hot agony doesn’t burn me like last time.
At first I can’t see. Everything is blurred, wavering, as though I’m under a waterfall looking out. I can make out something off-white, looking very far away, and a couple of dark masses closer to me. Then, like a camera focussing, my eyes suddenly adapt, and my vision clears.
I’m in a bed, on my back, looking up. The off-white thing is the ceiling, featureless white concrete. The two dark masses resolve into people. They’re nobody I’ve ever seen before, two women, one in a white coat, the other in a nurse’s uniform. They both have surgical masks on, and are both looking at me with peculiar attention.
“She’s coming out of the medication, Doctor,” the nurse says.
The white-coated woman – the doctor – nods. “How are you feeling?”
I try to open my mouth, and after a couple of attempts part my lips. My tongue is an unfamiliar heavy log, which doesn’t want to move at first.
“Give her some water,” the doctor says. The nurse nods, leans over with a dropper. Cool moisture seeps into my mouth.
“Where...” I manage. “Where am I?”
“You’re in hospital, of course,” the doctor says. “Can’t you remember, Monica?”
“Can’t remember...anything.” My tongue is moving more freely now, but I can’t recognise my voice. It’s not just because of the hoarse whisper that crawls up my throat. It is not my voice. I know that much. “What...happened?”
“Your car was in an accident.” The doctor looks at a clipboard she’s carrying and back at me. “It was pretty bad, your body was just about broken into pieces. You don’t recall anything at all about it?”
“No.” How can I explain that I don’t even know if I am this Monica person? “Did – did you save me?”
“In a manner of speaking.” The doctor’s air gets suddenly brisk, businesslike. “You’re to try and rest now. I’ll be back later.” She looks at something out of my field of vision, writes on the clipboard, and leaves. The nurse goes with her.
I lie on my back and stare at the ceiling, trying to remember something, anything. The pain in my head washes back and forth in slow waves, but not so badly that I can’t bear it. The rest of my body has no pain at all. This is strange, if I’ve been so badly hurt that everything was broken.
Or maybe I’m paralysed, and that’s why it doesn’t hurt. The possibility is terrifying. I try to move my fingers, my toes. I can’t feel anything at all.
I’d better think about something else.
Monica. I think about that for a bit. Who is this Monica? If I’m she, then what do I have to rediscover about her – about myself? Who am I?
If I can’t remember anything about me, ever, what will I do?
I hear a sound of a door opening. People come into my field of vision, several of them. The woman doctor is one of them, and another one in a white coat, a thick-faced man with glasses and a moustache.
“I hear you’re awake and able to talk a little,” the man with the glasses says. I recognise the voice – it’s the one who’d been speaking the first time, when I’d been in such pain. “You’ve been through a lot, so don’t panic if things seem hard at first. It’s going to take time.”
“Who am I?” I ask. It’s not what I meant to ask, but the question pops out.
The two doctors exchange quick glances. “Don’t you know?” the woman asks.
I try to shake my head. Give up when I start feeling nauseous as soon as I try. “You’ve been calling me Monica. That’s all.”
“Well, yes,” the woman says. She looks slightly nonplussed. “You’re Monica Singh. I thought you’d remember that much –“
“It’s the medication,” the male doctor breaks in. He smiles at me, a tight-lipped twitch of the mouth which is not reassuring at all. “Give it time.”
The woman doctor bends down at the foot of the bed. I see a flash of white sheet.
“Can you feel this?” she says.
I have no idea what I’m supposed to feel. “Yes,” I lie.
“How about this?” I think she’s doing something to my feet, assuming I still have feet.
“Yes,” I lie again. “Faintly.” Actually, I think I can feel something now, like a line drawn down the sole of one foot, but it’s like feeling it from a light year away. The doctor gets her clipboard and begins scribbling.
“Can you move your arms and legs?” a third person in white interrupts, craning over the shoulders of the others. “Can you lift your head?”
“I don’t know,” I confess. “I haven’t tried.”
“Well, try now,” he says impatiently. I already know we’re going to get along wonderfully.
I try. I try my best to lift my left arm, the one without a forest of plastic tubes attached to it, as far as I can tell. At first I can’t even feel it exists. Then it begins to rise, slowly, slowly, like a pillar. I roll down my eyes as far as I can as it comes into view.
And I scream.
Whatever else I don’t remember, I do know this: the hand at the end of the rising left arm is not my own.
“I thought you knew,” the woman doctor says. “I thought someone would have told you by now.”
We’re in the room now, alone. She’s put down the clipboard and drawn up a stool to the side of my bed, and is watching me gravely with her large eyes. Her name, she’s said, is Radhika. Dr Radhika.
“Radhika what?” I’d asked.
“How should I know?” I answer now. “Who else has even talked to me but you?”
She has the grace to look embarrassed, and would probably have blushed if she’d been fairer. “We’d planned to break the news when we thought you could handle it,” she tells me. “But somehow it slipped everyone’s mind. I think each of us assumed someone else had done it.”
“So just let me go through this again.” I lift my hand again, study the unfamiliar long tapered fingers, darker and more delicate than mine had ever been. “This isn’t my body.”
“It is now,” Dr Radhika hastens to assure me. “It’s your body every bit as much as your old one was.”
“It isn’t my body,” I snap, suddenly angry. “It’s someone else’s body, and you’ve put me inside it.”
“All we’ve done is transplant your brain and upper spinal cord into this body,” she says. “The brain controls everything – it’s you – so this body is yours. This is you, now.”
“Is that so?” My anger is still simmering. “And why did you do it? To play at being gods?”
“We’ve been over this before,” she says patiently. “Your old body was too badly damaged to survive, and hers was brain dead but perfect in every other way.”
“So you did a swap. What would she have thought of it? That she was getting the bad end of the bargain?” It’s a ridiculous thing to say, and Radhika doesn’t try to reply to the question. Instead she puts a cool hand over mine.
“Try and rest,” she says. “I know it must be a shock. We’ll be bringing in a counsellor later on. She’ll talk to you and help you adjust.”
“And she’s got a lot of experience in this kind of thing, does she? She’s helped a lot of people who woke up in strangers’ bodies get used to their new situation?”
“Well,” Dr Radhika says, as she gathers up her clipboard and rises to her feet. “Not exactly.”
“What does that mean, not exactly?”
Radhika looks back at me from the door. “It means you’re the first.”
“The first? What, in India?”
“No.” Radhika’s little chin rises defiantly and proudly. “In the world.”
“Yes,” the psychiatrist says, smiling. Her name’s Prachi something, I didn’t get it all, and when she smiles she shows an enormous amount of gum and very small teeth. She’d begun by wearing a surgical mask too, but pulled it down. “This has never been done before. Isn’t it wonderful?”
“Wonderful?” I’m still agitated. “Not only am I stranded in someone else’s body with no memories of who I am, but this has never been done before, so nobody knows how to help me – and you call it wonderful?”
“There’s always got to be a first time, isn’t there?” Prachi leans over me and smiles again. She seems to like smiling. “And you were a perfect subject, my dear – you both were.”
“Why can’t I remember?” I shoot back. “What if I can’t ever remember anything?”
“Well, part of it is because of the surgery – you can’t just do this kind of thing without side effects, can you? And also there are medicines we gave you.”
“To remove some memories – the ones of the accident and when you were brought in. We couldn’t anaesthetise you at first, and, well, you were awake and in some agony, I’m told. But the drugs had a greater effect than we thought, removing some long term memories as well.” She grins. “Never mind, the old memories will come back in time. I can assure you of that.”
“What was her name?” I ask.
For some reason this seems to disturb Prachi. “Whose name?” she asks back.
“You know who I’m talking about. The woman who had this body. What was her name?”
“Why do you want to know her name? It doesn’t matter. This is you, now.”
“Of course it matters. It matters to me. What was her name?”
She pauses a while. “Pooja,” she says at last. “Pooja Mehrotra.”
“Pooja.” I mouth the name to myself. Long ago, in primary school, I had a friend named Pooja. And I’ve met several more Poojas over the years. It’s a common name. Like Monica. “Could I have a mirror?”
“I wouldn’t advise it. Not yet, anyway. You haven’t recovered from the surgery, you know.”
“It would make me feel a lot better,” I say. Actually, I have no idea if it would, but I need to see what new face my new eyes are peering out of. “Could I have a mirror, please?”
Eventually she gets one. It’s a small mirror, and since I can’t yet grasp anything with my new hand she holds it for me. I look, wish I hadn’t, begin to close my eyes, and then force myself to look again, without flinching.
There’s a double line of heavy black stitches that goes around my shaven head, up over my brows, as though the top of my (new) skull was taken off and put back again. Well, I think, of course it was. I keep my gaze away from it and force my eyes down to my new face.
From the depths of the mirror a dark, pretty girl with an oval face looks out at me.
In the look in her eyes, I see the fear in my own.
“You’ll be getting famous, you know.” The physiotherapist, whose name is I think Vrushali, moves my legs up and down, up and down, while Radhika watches. “The rumours have already started on TV.”
I glance at Radhika. “Is that true?”
She nods. “Unfortunately, the news leaked out. It would’ve got out sooner or later anyway, but we were hoping to keep it quiet until we were ready to make an official statement. At least they don’t have any hard facts, or your name – and we aren’t giving that out until we’re ready.”
“Or my face,” I say.
“Or, as you said, your face. We aren’t eager for a media circus. Or at least most of us aren’t.” I can hear the inflection in her voice. I already know that she doesn’t see eye to eye with Hari, the male doctor who’d ordered me to try moving my arms. I know she won’t talk freely in front of the physiotherapist, though. “Prachi tells me you’re beginning to remember things.”
“A little,” I say. “Patchily.” Actually, I’m not sure if what I remember are actual memories or constructs of my imagination. I’m pumped so full of medicines that half the time I don’t know what’s going on anyway. “Doctor?”
“When can I stand up again?” What I really want to ask is “Will I ever be able to stand up again?”
Vrushali and Radhika exchange a look. “In a while,” the former says. “You’re coming along fine.”
“Sensation’s coming back, isn’t it?” Radhika asks. “You can feel when I do this, can’t you?”
“Yes.” Her touch on my arm is faint, but I can feel it. “It’s clearer than before.”
“That’s great. You know, we weren’t a hundred percent certain that you wouldn’t be paralysed. In fact, I thought you probably would be.”
“And you still went ahead and did the surgery?”
“It wasn’t my decision,” she says defensively. “The team took it. And in the experimental animals we’d succeeded most of the time.”
“And what about those which didn’t succeed?”
She clears her throat. “The experiments were...terminated.”
“Let me ask you something,” I say. I don’t want to look at her, so I watch Vrushali lift my legs – my new legs, Pooja’s legs, our legs – up towards the ceiling and bend and straighten them, as though she’s making me pedal a bicycle. Didn’t I use to have a bicycle once? “If I’d been paralysed, what would you have done?”
She doesn’t answer, so I ask again. “What would you have done – let me live, like that, or terminate the experiment?”
She still doesn’t answer, and when I force myself to look towards her, I see that she’s gone.
“You have visitors,” Prachi says. She grins at me, all gums and tiny teeth. “They’ve been waiting to meet you, all this time, but you weren’t fit enough. You couldn’t be exposed to the risk of infection.”
“Who?” I’m sitting up in bed, looking down at Pooja’s hands, which I’m clenching into fists and opening, over and over again, in obedience to Vrushali’s orders. “Who’d want to meet me?”
She beams at me as though she’s giving me the gift of a lifetime. “Who do you think? Your family!”
“My family,” I repeat. “Which family? Monica’s – or Pooja’s?”
“Yours, of course, Monica. It’s your parents and your brother. They’re waiting outside.”
“And you’re here to keep an eye on things?”
“Of course,” she agrees. “It’ll be a shock to them, too, you know, to see you like this.” Without waiting for my response, she signals the nurse at the door. “Let them in!”
They enter, uncertainly. I don’t remember any of them. A man with a pot belly and grey hair, a woman with a lined face, and a young man who glares at me as though I’m at fault somehow. We stare at each other.
“Hello,” I say at last.
“Monica,” the man who I suppose is my father – my brain’s father, I mean – says. “Is that you?”
“That’s what they say,” I agree. “I’m sorry, but I don’t yet remember very much.”
“She’s regaining her memory bit by bit,” Prachi says. “You know, we’re helping all we can, but it’s a long process.”
“It’s not her,” the boy bursts out. “This isn’t Mona, they’ve put in some other girl. They’re making fools of us!”
My mother holds up a hand. “Shush,” she says. “I’ve carried Mona in my womb for nine months, I should be able to recognise my daughter.” She steps forward, little steps, as though approaching a dangerous animal. “Mona?”
“Yes?” I feel nothing for this lady except a mild curiosity. So this is my mother? Well, she had nothing to do with the body in which I live, except the little bit in my jigsaw skull. “Can you recognise me?”
We stare at each other’s eyes, for a long time. Too long. Then she turns away. Her shoulders are shaking.
Her husband throws his arm around her shoulders, and the three of them leave the room. The boy throws one last glare at me over his shoulder before he goes.
I’m on the telly.
Or at least Pooja is. That’s her face on the TV set in my room, in the new room they’ve given me. Her face, my face, our face. I still can’t look at that face and imagine it’s mine.
Actually, at least in the photos they’re showing, it isn’t. These are the photos of the old Pooja, before she went brain-dead, smiling and perhaps – who knows? – happy. I don’t know where they got the photos.
The BREAKING NEWS banner at the bottom screams out in red letters: Rumours Confirmed – Woman given brain transplant in India. The anchors are excited, or do a very good job of pretending to be. Dr Hariharan – that would be Hari - and his team are, they say, assured of a Nobel Prize for Medicine, or something.
I’m using a walker to slowly make my way back and forth in the room, as ordered. Fifty times, Vrushali has told me, and then I can rest. I’m already streaming with sweat, and I don’t think I can manage even thirty. So I’m glad of the chance to stand awhile and watch.
The face on the screen changes. The woman in this photo is fairer than Pooja, with a broad face and dimpled cheeks. Her eyes are small and mischievous, or at least they look like it to me.
The room fades, the voices on the TV becoming a low murmur, unheard. So this is Monica. This is who I was. I know it without reading the lettering on the screen. There’s even the small scar dividing the right eyebrow, legacy of a fall at school. It had bled very badly and had required a stitch, but healed up just fine.
I can’t remember my father’s or brother’s name, but I can remember that scar.
Monica, I say to the face on the screen, as I pause in front of the TV, holding on to my walker. So this is you, Monica. I want to reach out and touch those lines, run my finger down that jaw.
Where is that body now? Ashes, I suppose. Perhaps I should ask.
The photo disappears, and there’s someone being interviewed. I recognise him – the last time I’d seen him he was angrily glaring at me as he left my old room. He shakes his head at the camera and holds up a hand.
“She’s not my sister,” he’s saying. “I don’t know what kind of fraud this is. She’s not my sister. My mother didn’t even recognise her.” The interviewer says something as the boy begins to turn away.
“We don’t want anything to do with her,” he says.
It’s now Hari on the TV, explaining, I suppose, exactly how he and his team went about creating me. That’s the word he uses – “creating” – as though I were a manufactured product. But he’s right, of course.
“We didn’t transplant the whole head,” he says, as a graphic appears on the screen, “even though it would have been easier, because of the problem of rejection. As it is we have to give her high doses of immunosuppressive drugs, and that’s after transplanting only the brain and the brainstem. If we’d transplanted the whole thing –“
I resume my slow perambulation. The arches of my new feet are aching, my calves are trembling. But I’d better do this, if I’m ever to be able to be normal again.
Normal? That’s a laugh. If there’s a word that describes me, “normal” isn’t it.
I’ve got another couple of circuits made when I notice that there are some other people on the screen. Nobody I’ve ever seen before. They’ve just finished being interviewed, and I’ve no idea what they said, but the bottom strip says they’re Pooja’s family. Well.
The news changes to something about West Asia. Smoke rises above a city on the horizon, and there are explosions. I turn away as the door opens.
It’s Prachi, who’s become a several-times-daily visitor. “Hi!” she says brightly. “How’s it going?”
“All right,” I mutter. “Why are you looking so happy?”
“You’ve watched the news?” she grins. “You’re a celebrity, my girl.”
“So you made the official announcement at last,” I reply. “Radhika said you weren’t ready to make it a media circus.”
She cocks her head slightly, like an inquisitive sparrow. “It is a great achievement, you know. And we couldn’t be expected to keep it a secret forever and ever, amen. Someone else would be bound to try, soon, and could steal our thunder.”
“So it’s all about taking credit?” I’m not even angry, just faintly amused. “That’s all you care about?”
“It helps with the funding.” Prachi waves, a gesture which takes in the whole room and everything it contains, including herself and me. “All this doesn’t come cheap, as you may be aware.”
“Umph.” To hell with the remaining circuits of the room. I drop to the bed, lay my tired corpse back down –
Wait a moment, did I say corpse?
I mention this to Prachi. “You’re no corpse,” she says, and slaps the bottom of my foot for emphasis. “This is all a living, breathing human woman. A very brave woman.”
“Yeah?” I shoot back. “It’s not as though I actually have any choice, do I? What’s bravery when you don’t have a choice but to do whatever you’re told?”
“You haven’t collapsed,” she says seriously. “Most people in your situation would have. Hell, I’m pretty sure I would have. You underestimate yourself badly, young lady.”
I’m still thinking about that when she says, casually, “So, are you ready for your media conference tomorrow?”
“My ears can’t be right,” I say. “It sounded to me as though you asked me if I were ready for my media conference tomorrow.”
“Well, you heard me, actually, yes. You’re going to have your big media debut tomorrow, right in this hospital’s conference hall. What do you think about that?”
I don’t know what I think about it.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“But you aren’t shrinking back in horror at the thought. That’s fine.” She turns to the TV and then back to me. “We’ll be all there, you know, keeping an eye on things. If it gets too much, don’t worry. We’ll be there.”
I can picture them. Hari, especially, leaning forwards with a hungry look in his eyes, drinking in the publicity. “Yeah.”
“You’ll be on TV all over the world. We’ve got media crew from everywhere waiting already – Americans, Argentineans, Germans, Russians, New Zealanders, Chinese, you name it, they’re there. Great, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I repeat. She seems to expect something more, so I nod. “Great,” I say.
It’s two days after the media conference. I’m sitting on my bed watching TV. I’m not watching myself - ourselves – whatever I ought to call it. I’ve already watched myself so many times these last two days that I’m tired of it.
Not that I did much talking. The questions were simple ones and I’d replied as best I could. Yes, I was Monica Singh. No, I wasn’t feeling very well yet. Yes, I could walk a little, and, yes, I expected to make a full recovery, thank you very much.
At that point Hari had taken over, and the camera’s merely looked at me while I sat looking determined and uncomfortable.
They did make me look good, though, I’ll admit. They’d brought in a beautician who spent several hours getting me ready. She even had a selection of wigs to cover the stitches running across my scalp.
I’d refused. “No wig,” I’d said, not knowing before the words were out of my mouth what I was going to say. But once I’d spoken I’d known that this was what I’d been thinking of all along.
The beautician – the tag on her chest read Kalpana – had been astonished. “You can’t mean it.”
“I do mean it. They want to see what I’ve been through? Let them see me, scars and all.”
Even Prachi and Hari had been unable to change my mind on that. Later, after it was over, though, Prachi had admitted I was right.
“You created a far stronger impression,” she’d said.
“But you know some people will still claim it’s faked.” I hadn’t been joking.
She’d shrugged. “Of course. But there are people who still can’t bring themselves to believe the earth revolves round the sun, so what can you do about that?”
Now, though, the people I’m watching aren’t saying it’s been faked. They’ve got angry eyes and saffron headbands.
“It’s all in the ancient scriptures,” one yells, pointing at the camera. “These people are just copying what the ancient sages did already, thousands of years ago.”
“They should at least admit that,” another says.
Team under attack from right and left, the bottom strip reads.
The screen cuts to another scene, a small group of earnest young people holding up placards. “When there’s so much poverty and the condition of basic hospitals is so bad,” a girl says to the camera, “we think the money spent on this surgery could have been much better spent on other things.” Writing on the screen identifies her as Sneha. She’s secretary of some left-wing students’ association I don’t remember hearing about.
The interviewer says something. Sneha nods. “I’m certainly not suggesting that Ms Singh should have been better dead...” She seems to struggle to find words, and I watch with detached amusement as she digs herself in deeper. “...but we feel that hundreds of other lives could have been saved with what’s been spent on this one case.”
“And you think the money would have been spent on saving other lives?” the interviewer asks. “The team says a government research grant has paid for the programme.”
“The team can say whatever it wants,” she says.
“Is she right?” Dr Radhika asks. “What do you think?”
“What do I think?” I shrug. “Given that I wasn’t consulted on this at any point, does it matter what I think now?”
“You’re going to be fit enough to be released soon, you know,” Radhika says.
“What am I going to do then?”
“Not too much, I admit, to start off with. You aren’t planning to go back to your family?”
“You mean the Singh family?” I gesture at the TV. “Didn’t you see them refusing to have anything to do with me?”
“They may change their minds.”
“Well, I won’t. Not now, after what they’ve said.” I look at her. “What job did I have?”
“You don’t remember? You used to be a lawyer.”
“A lawyer.” I don’t recall the first thing about being a lawyer and say so. “What can I do if I’ve forgotten everything?”
“Don’t worry.” Radhika puts her hand on my shoulder. “You won’t actually have to earn your living – at least not until you’re good and ready. The government will pay your expenses.”
“You’re a national point of honour now, Monica. The team’s been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Medicine, and everyone’s determined it gets it. The government cares what happens to you.”
“And after the team gets the Nobel?” I ask. “What happens then?”
“We’ll see you’re all right,” Radhika says.
“You whore,” the voice on the phone says. “You filthy whore.”
It’s the second night in my new flat, the one that’s supposed to be a temporary arrangement till I find somewhere else to stay. The government’s paying the rent. For now. And it’s the second night with my new mobile, on which there are only four numbers – Hari’s, which I will not be calling except in an emergency, Vrushali’s, Prachi’s and Radhika’s. I haven’t made a single call so far.
And now this.
I blink in surprise. “Who’s this? And how did you get my number?”
“Never mind how I got your number.” The man is practically screaming, his words merging into each other. I can picture him, foam flying from his lips. “You’d have been nothing but for me. I’ve been in jail for six months while you’ve been getting rich and famous. Whore.”
“Who are you?”
“Who do you think? If I hadn’t hit your car, none of this would’ve happened. And it isn’t even my fault. You drove right into my path. Bitch.”
“Listen, I’m going to hang up now.”
He doesn’t even pause. “And the government is giving you all that money. It should give it to me.”
“What money?” I wonder, as I end the call and block his number. I’ll hand it over to Hari and he’ll do something about it. Nobody’s giving me any money.
“The rumours are flying,” Prachi says when I call her. “You haven’t heard? Some say you’ll be given ten million, some say fifty. But they’re all convinced you’re being given enough to make you rich for life.”
“That’s crazy,” I say.
I can feel her shrug over the phone. “Better get used to the craziness,” she says.
I’ve just stopped talking to her when the phone rings again. Another number I don’t know. I take the call with trepidation.
“Ms Monica Singh?” It’s a voice that sounds vaguely familiar from somewhere. “I’m calling from NDTV seven-twenty-four, ma’am.”
“We’d like to hold a special interactive programme with you next week, ma’am. Will you come?”
“I don’t think so,” I say.
Of course Prachi insists I go. “It’s essential that everyone sees you’re back to normal,” she says. “It’s also essential for your self-worth. It’s when you can engage with the world properly that you can see yourself as you truly are.”
So I agree. And a week later I’m sitting in an NDTV 7x24 studio, opposite the man whose voice I’d found vaguely familiar.
Arindam Goswami has a fleshy, self-satisfied face and wire rimmed spectacles the lenses of which are so small I think they’re only for decoration. His hair is swept back and so shiny it glimmers under the floodlights.
There is an audience, sitting across from the lights, and I’ve been given to understand they’ll be invited to participate. I don’t look at them. Let them look at me if they want.
“So, Ms Singh,” Goswami says. “What does it feel like, being world-famous?”
“If it had been for something I did,” I respond, “it would have meant something. As things stand, it’s for something that happened to me, and I had no control over it, so it feels like nothing.”
“You had no control over it?” Goswami raises a well-practiced eyebrow.
“I wasn’t asked for my consent, was I? So how was any of it under my control?”
“But they saved your life.” Goswami smiles at me as though I’m a child. “If it had not been for them you’d have been dead.”
“True enough,” I acknowledge. “And most of me is very dead. What’s your point?”
He blinks and rears his head back slightly, like a snake sizing up prey. “But your, uh, brain and your new, um, body are one now – fully integrated. So you’ve got a full new life.”
I laugh aloud, surprising myself. I have never heard Pooja’s body laugh before, and I didn’t know this laugh was coming. “Mr Goswami,” I say, “every day, every single day, I fill myself with a combination of medicines to prevent this body from rejecting this brain. I spend an hour or two in the bathroom vomiting out my guts as a side effect. For the rest of my life, I can never be certain when the drug regimen will no longer be enough – or some other random infection will take advantage of my damaged immune system to kill me. Do you call that a full new life?”
I don’t want to give him a chance to interrupt. I’ve been watching him on TV to prepare for this, and I know that he bullies his interview subjects into silence if given the opportunity. “I have almost no memory of my past, no skills I can use, nothing. I can’t even remember how to drive a car any longer, and that’s how my Monica body got killed, you remember, in a car crash. Perhaps some people may say that it’s a good thing I don’t remember how to drive.”
Good god, he smiles as though I’d made a joke. “Well, but you do agree that it’s a moment of great pride for our country that this technique was developed here.”
“Perhaps,” I agree. “But do you know that after my case became known, two more attempts have been made in the last months to do the same thing, once in the USA, the other time in France?”
He doesn’t know, and isn’t happy that he doesn’t know. “What happened to them?”
“One’s never recovered consciousness. The other, well, he’s alive but almost completely paralysed. He communicates by blinking his eyes.” I pause just long enough for him to register that. “Either of those could have been me. Am I supposed to be grateful that I don’t have to spend the rest of my existence like that?”
He fidgets uneasily in his chair. I’ve flustered him, and that’s good. “Well, our surgeons are the ones who invented the technique, so...”
“Or they had beginner’s luck,” I agree. “But I don’t see why I should be grateful for beginner’s luck.”
“How about god?” he breaks in. “Don’t you agree that god blessed you?”
Now I laugh again, as much at him as at what he’s just said. “Look at me, Mr Goswami.” The stitches have, of course, long since come out, but the ugly puckered scar is still livid around my head, and my hair is still far too short to cover it. “Does this look like a blessing?”
Oh, he’s angry, and his eyes are flashing daggers. “So you don’t agree that the surgery was worth doing?”
“You can take it how you like,” I say, as sweetly as I can manage. “You don’t have to live inside my skull. Our skull.”
He’s had enough, for the moment. I don’t know if he’s ever been beaten by an interviewee before, but the feeling is great. He glares at me and turns to the audience. “Anyone wants to say anything?”
“Yes.” A man of about thirty with a thick moustache stands up. “I want to ask Pooja why she isn’t coming back to us.”
I haven’t the faintest idea who he is. Goswami does, though, and I can see he isn’t happy. “And you are, sir?”
“Anil Mehrotra. I’m Pooja’s husband.”
“But this isn’t Pooja, sir,” Goswami says. “It’s Monica Singh. It’s her brain inside your late wife’s body.”
“Well, my parents and I...” He gestures towards a couple of elderly people, who nod vigorously. I vaguely recall seeing them on TV back in the hospital. “We gave consent to my wife’s body being used. If it hadn’t been used we wouldn’t have had this situation, right? So it seems to me –“
“To us,” his father says.
“To us, that she ought to come back to us. Pooja, Monica, whatever. It’s her duty.”
“We’ll ask the lady herself.” With evident relief, Goswami turns back to me. “What do you have to say?”
I stand up, with a little effort, and walk slowly down the stairs towards the audience, until I’m standing in front of Anil Mehrotra. “Why do you want Pooja back?”
He looks down at the floor. “Because I love her,” he mutters.
“Did you say you love her?”
“Yes,” the father says. “We all loved our daughter in law
“What was Pooja’s favourite colour?” I ask Anil Mehrotra.
“Blue? Orange? Green?” He doesn’t reply, so I push on. “What kind of food did she like? What clothes? Did she enjoy music? What sort?”
He’s blinking in confusion. “What on earth are you asking this for?”
“You claim to love her, don’t you? So much that you want her body back, even though it belongs to someone else now? So if you love her so much, shouldn’t you be able to answer these basic questions?”
There’s a lot of murmuring from the audience, some neutral, some plainly hostile. These are, I remind myself, people who mostly believe a woman doesn’t have the right to an opinion at all, about anything. Well, what do I have to lose?
“Why didn’t you say anything about all this earlier?” I press on. “Why is it only now, when these rumours about a government grant to me are flying around, that you suddenly realised you couldn’t live without Pooja?”
He turns red. “That has nothing to do with it.”
“Good,” I tell him. “I’m glad of that, because there’s absolutely no truth to this...gossip...that the government is paying me any money at all.”
There is a long silence.
“Are you still sure you want Pooja back?” I ask.
“You’ve made no friends at all,” Prachi tells me on the phone. Her voice is carefully neutral. “And you may have lost a great many.”
“Perhaps,” I agree. “Probably. But, you know what? I feel so much better for having said what I did.”
She laughs suddenly. “Totally off the record, I was proud of you. Did you see the expression on Goswami’s face? He won’t be inviting you back in a hurry.”
“Nobody will.” I’ve just watched the national minister of state for health deny that the government had any intention of paying me any money or subsidising me any further in any way. “They think I’m a traitor to the nation.”
“And to society,” Prachi adds. “Next thing you know, they’ll be calling you a lesbian.”
“There are no lesbians in India,” I tell her. “Indian women have no sexual desire, don’t you know?”
That makes us laugh a while. “Seriously, though,” Prachi asks. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. I’ll have to find something.”
“We’ll still get you the immunosuppressives,” Prachi says. “But after the repeated failures elsewhere it doesn’t look like the Nobel Prize is going to happen after all, and so...”
“...and so everyone wishes they’d never heard of me in the first place,” I finish. “Never mind, I get the idea.”
“You know, as far as I’m concerned you’re still a wonderful, brave woman,” Prachi says.
My laugh sticks in my throat. “That’s good to know,” I say, and know we’ll never talk like this again.
“Good evening,” the woman says. She’s young and slim, built like a greyhound, and she’s got a sharply pretty face. “I’m Lincia DeCosta.”
“Yes,” I say, shaking her hand. “Of course.” She’d telephoned me earlier in the evening, asking for a meeting. “What can I do for you?”
She doesn’t seem in a hurry to answer. We’re in a restaurant not far from the flat I’ll have to vacate within a day or two. The waiters look at us out of the corners of their eyes and try to eavesdrop on what we’re saying.
“I’ve got a lot of contacts,” she says at last. “You know, in the entertainment industry. I could act as your agent, introduce you to people.”
“And what could I do?”
“You’re still a celebrity,” she says. “You can give talks, appear in charity concerts, write a book...maybe a movie.”
“Yes?” I’m amused. “Can you see me acting in a movie?”
“You wouldn’t necessarily have to act,” she says. “Just sell the rights to the story.”
“I don’t know how much of it is mine to sell. It’s all part of a team effort, you know!”
She waves airily. “We’ll handle the problems when we come to them. Do you agree?”
“I’ll think about it,” I say. “I’ll let you know.”
“Of course.” She smiles, her sharp-featured face transformed. “Come on, you’ll be famous.”
“I’m already famous,” I remind her. “That’s why we’re here.”
“How could I forget,” she says, and waves at the waiters with a menu. “What would you like to eat?”
Afterwards, I go for a walk. It’s not too late, yet, and I need to stretch my legs. It feels good to walk, to feel the night air in my face, the breeze in what passes for my hair. I haven’t gone far, though, when a car suddenly pulls up beside me.
The man who leans through the window has a face like an angry cartoon bulldog. “Witch!” he hisses.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Ungrateful witch. Our scientists give you your life back, and you betray them. Traitor!”
“I didn’t betray anyone,” I begin, but he spits in my direction and accelerates away. I jump aside just in time to avoid the spittle from hitting my shoe.
It’s ironic. Just as things are falling apart, I regain my ability to jump. Vrushali would be pleased, but I have no intention of telling her – or anyone.
I’m still looking at his disappearing taillights when I feel a tugging at my sleeve. “Monica! Miss Monica! Please!”
There are five or six of them, all school age, some boys, some girls. “Miss Monica? We want your autograph, please.”
“My autograph?” I look at their eagerly proffered pens and notebooks. “You want my autograph?”
“Yes,” they clamour. “We’re all such fans of yours, Miss Monica. We’ve watched you on TV.”
“I wrote an essay on you for school,” one of the girls says. “Would you like to read it?”
“Another time, but thanks for writing it.” I scribble my name on their pads. As soon as I’m done, they race off, cheering.
I stand a while where I am, and then begin trudging homeward, sticking to side streets.
On the way back, it begins to rain.
I tug the cap a little down over my forehead before leaving the train.
Here in the south, it’s really too warm for the cap, but I need it. I don’t want anyone to see the scar. The cap gives me some anonymity, like a niqab covering only my scalp.
I don’t have much luggage. A small bag, that’s all. I don’t need much luggage anyway.
From the railway station I take a bus. I don’t really know where I’m going, so I pick a destination at random from the board. It’s as good a place as any.
Perhaps by now in Delhi they’ll have started looking for me. It doesn’t matter. I’m never going back there.
Down here, as long as I last, I will have things to do. I have enough of the immunosuppressive drugs with me to last a week or two. After that – why not? Perhaps I’ll manage to wean myself off them and last a good long time.
The bus stops and the conductor looks at me expectantly, so I get off. The place is a maze of high old brick buildings and narrow roads choked with bicycles, pavements crowded with stalls. The streets are muddy and uneven. The air smells of spice and sweat and incense.
I shoulder my little bag, knowing I make an incongruous figure in my slacks and patent leather shoes, and that I’ll have to find better clothes, as well as someplace to stay. But that’s for later.
For the moment, it’s enough that nobody gives me a second look. I’m nobody, and that is good.
My shoes are clogging with mud, so I take them off and drop them on top of a pile of rubbish on the pavement. Maybe I’ll buy a cheap pair of plastic flip flops later. Or maybe I’ll learn to go without. It doesn’t matter.
I pass a little grassy plot. A couple of kids are sitting there, street urchins, playing some kind of game with flattened cardboard boxes. They look up defensively as I approach. The touch of grass is scrubby and sharp under my bare feet.
But the grass is real, the smells are real, the voices I can hear are real. Pooja’s body, Monica’s brain, together we can do this. It will be something for both of us.
I smile, I sit down crosslegged near the kids and, opening my bag, I take out a couple of cheap notebooks and pencils.
“Would you two,” I say, “like to learn to read and write?”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015