Saturday 17 January 2015

Ten Things I Have Not Done (But You Quite Possibly Have)

Today, in pursuit of my ongoing programme of masochistic self-flagellation, here’s a list of Ten Things (Among Many Others) I Have Not Done.

Please note that these aren’t things that are really esoteric. You won’t find “Going to space in a Soyuz” or “Racing Formula One” on here. No, these are things I probably could do if I wanted, but I haven’t done; and since bucket lists are kind of stupid as far as I’m concerned, these are things I probably won’t do.

In any case, you probably did some or most of them already.

1. I have never driven a left-hand-drive vehicle.

In this country we drive on the left, and our steering wheels are on the right in consequence, at least in most cars. It would be kind of odd – against the ruddy natural order of things –  to have to change gears with one’s right hand while clutching with one's left foot, huh? Coming to which:

2. I have never driven any vehicle with an automatic gearshift.

In fact, until quite recently there were no automatic gearshift vehicles in this country and even today only the most high-end models have them. As someone who lives in a mountainous area, an automatic gearshift would’ve been extremely useful, but I’ve just had to learn to switch gears manually every few metres like anyone else.

3. I have never baked a cake.

Or even ever wanted to, as a matter of fact. I have my grandmother’s electric oven somewhere but never used it.

4. I have never cross-dressed.

Not even for a play, in case you were wondering. Not that I’ve anything in particular against cross-dressing. I just never have.

5. I’ve never owned a gun...

In this state it’s all but impossible to get a firearms permit, and even if I could, buying a gun legally in India is an incredibly convoluted process. But even if I lived in a state where the gun permit rules are less restrictive, I doubt if I’d ever want to buy a gun. The experience of seeing one kid with a shotgunned face was enough to last me for a lifetime.

...or gone hunting.

The only hunters I approve of are the ones who accidentally shoot themselves or each other.

6. I’ve never been anywhere in the western hemisphere.

And probably never will be, even assuming I ever travel abroad again anyway. In any case, if I’m not on the watch-lists of most Western countries I ought to be ashamed of myself.

7. I’ve never been to a nudist beach or resort, or a strip show, come to that.

‘Nuff said.

8. I’ve never eaten escargots, or oysters.

As I get older, in fact, I find myself steadily reducing the variety of my diet, so I doubt I’d ever want to dine on snails even if I got the chance.

9. I have never taught a class.

This is somewhat odd, since most people who have read me will have gathered that I probably love teaching. I do. But somehow I've never been assigned to teach a class, even as an intern in dental college where a lot of my classmates were deputed to teach the first-year students some of the basics. It's a pity, but there it is.

And, as a final believe-it-or-not:

10. I’ve never owned a bicycle, even as a kid.

Since my parents never saw fit to buy me one, and since I got no pocket money at all. ever, I could never buy one of my own. I only rode borrowed ones, and seldom at that. It’s been something like twenty years since I was last on a bicycle and I don’t even know if I can remember how to ride one. I could buy one now, of course, but what would be the point? Revenge against my parents?

I suppose that’s enough self-degradation for today. I mean I didn’t even talk about how I’ve never had any threesomes, etc, so you got off lucky.

This time.

Nor have I done this, come to think of it. [Image Source]

Stream of Consciousness, River of Night

Listen, and I will tell you a tale, every word of which is true:

One night, not so long ago, I woke up in a strange mental state.

The darkness was absolute. Not the kind of darkness one usually sees in the night, but total, liquid dark, dark so absolute that one felt one could reach out and touch it, a velvety liquid darkness that would have entered my lungs at every breath, if only I were breathing.

But if I were breathing, I could not feel myself breathe. I could not feel my chest, my arms, my legs. I could not will myself to move.

If I were living, I was not aware of it.

And I thought, this is Death; I am dying, or I am dead.

And I was not afraid, for what is death, if it is only the dark?

(But I wished I could have talked to you, once more, to have heard your voice, if only for a moment, to say goodbye.)

And I lay there in the darkness, and it came to me that death was even less than what I had thought a moment before –

For what are we, but sparsely-furred apes crawling over a skin of mud on the surface of a small planet on an outer rim of an undistinguished galaxy, revolving around a small, middle-aged star? What are all the achievements we boast of, our wars and conquests, our civilisations and culture, compared with that? And since we exist but a moment, not even a blink in the history of time, of what importance is it when we are all gone?

Listen, listen to what I am telling you, of what I thought when I lay dead, or dreaming.

And then I remembered that even that is giving us too much credit, for we are not even just apes; for each of us is a metropolis, a trillion bacteria and protozoans, mites and viruses, all going up to make the uncertain biological machine that is us – and even that is not who we are;

For all those are made up of chemicals, uncertain sloshing tubs that go to make us who we are; and those chemicals, in turn, are made up of atoms, and those atoms are made up of mostly electrical charges and  furthermore: quarks and gluons, held together to form the wisp-thin shells of electrons and the infinitesimal dots of the nucleus,

Electric charges and empty space, that is what we are, that is what it all is.

No wonder, I thought, that people need to believe that there is something greater, no wonder they need faith in religion and spirituality, because the truth is too pure and bleak to handle. The truth is the ultimate in nihilism, because no effort is ultimately worthwhile, no glory even fleeting. The stories I write, the paintings I pour out, are as futile as the Pyramids, as evanescent as the sands of time.

Oh, listen, and I will tell you a little more.

And yet, that empty space and those electric charges that make up my body, they also create the emotions that go into making me who I am. They colour the grey grief in which I pass my days, they dig wells for the tears that nightly soak my pillow. They make the pain in which I cry out when I dream of you.

What happens to emotions when we die? Do they return to the universe, as our own energies and material will, one day, when the sun burns this planet to rock and blasted ash?

And yet, in this instant in which I exist, this fragile organism composed mostly of empty space, I would want to pass it with you.

I thought this, all of this, as I lay in the liquid dark;

And in the end, it was another day.


Friday 16 January 2015

The Rising Tide of Freedom

You know what? I used to be worried that my painting, unlike my writing, which is pretty much a mix, is too political. And then tonight I had an epiphany.

All painting is political. Even if you're painting, say, a flower or a river or a nude (and don't for a moment imagine I'm incapable of those) you're being political, simply because you're choosing not to paint things which might be of more immediate importance in the world around you. So you're political either way, by omission if not by commission.

Anyway, here's The Rising Tide of Freedom, watercolour and acrylic on paper. Copyright, as usual, B Purkayastha, 2015.

You're welcome.

Islamophobia Isn't Racism

So you say Islamophobia isn’t racism.
I’m sure that’s true
Since Richard Dawkins said so
And he's infallible, as we all know.
But I’d like to ask you to do a couple of things

Little things, which should be easy for you.

Here, go and tell this Sikh woman
Whose house was firebombed, her husband shot in the night
Because someone thought anyone wearing a turban and a beard
Must be a Muslim – go ahead,

Tell her that Islamophobia isn’t racism.

Here, tell this Arab Christian from Gaza
Whose children were hit by a Zionist shell, torn and buried
Even his whole street, all buildings buried –
And who’s jeered online for being a Muslim, go ahead

Tell him that Islamophobia isn’t racism.

Here, tell this Afghan kid, tattered and alone
Mother killed at a checkpoint, father bombed by a drone
Show him how it’s all justified, because 11/9, because Taliban
And while he’s hunting for a little food and warmth

Tell him that Islamophobia isn’t racism.

Here, tell this French woman, dark-eyed and demure
How she can’t wear a veil – which is not Islamic and never was –
But her Christian friend can wear a crucifix round her neck.
Tell her, when her mosque’s vandalised, her holy book mocked

Tell her that Islamophobia isn’t racism.

Here, tell this Iraqi resistance fighter, secular, socialist too
Whose land was invaded and destroyed, ripped apart
And who picked up the gun to fight back, who gave his all to fight back
And who was told that he must be a jihadist Islamist, because
He must be fighting for religion, not for freedom and liberty
Whose comrades’ corpses were posed like hunting trophies, go ahead –

Tell him that Islamophobia isn’t racism.

Here, tell this Indian college student here, the one in the jeans
Who spends her days studying mathematics, her nights out with friends
That she must be oppressed, because she’s a Muslim
That she must be an Arab, because she’s a Muslim
That she must have been cut about, because she’s a Muslim, and then

Tell her that Islamophobia isn’t racism.

Here, tell this boy, who plays football at school
And who plays rock in his spare time, because that’s the cool thing to do
That he must apologise, because, some Muslim, somewhere
Blew up something he’s never heard of, for reasons unknown –

Tell him that Islamophobia isn’t racism.

Here, tell the family of Jean Charles de Menezes
Shot eight times on the London Underground
For the crime of being brown
And hence automatically a Muslim terrorist - come on

Tell them that Islamophobia isn't racism.

And tell the old mullah in the local mosque, the one who never hurt a fly
The one who’s never spoken a word against anyone
Tell him how he’s guilty of what some Saudi preacher said
Because there’s no difference between them in your outraged head –

Tell him that Islamophobia isn’t racism.

Or, you know what, take a little drive to your airport
But tan your skin brown first.
If you don’t have a beard, grow one.
Or if you’re a woman, put on a veil
And then go to the airport.
And there,
Get yourself searched, your bags gone through
Your documents checked, back and forth
Questioned over and over, when all you asked
Was the way to the loo –

(Which is something that has happened to the author of this poem
Who isn’t Muslim, Arab, Afghan, Chechen, or even
Religious in any sense of the word)

When you’ve done all that, go ahead, tell me, tell us
That since Islam is something one can convert to
Tell us that Islamophobia isn’t racism.

Go right ahead
We’ll wait.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2015

Click to enlarge [Image Source]

Wednesday 14 January 2015

The Tale Of Terrorist Abdul

Once upon a time, in a nondescript little town somewhere in West Asia, there was a terrorist named Abdul.

He was a fairly average little terrorist, was Abdul, with a steady job as a truck driver, a wife who worked part time as a tailor, and a son and a daughter who were at school. He paid his taxes regularly, watched TV in the evenings and thought about religion only when he had to.

One time Abdul managed to save up enough to go abroad to attend a relative’s wedding. When he arrived, he was taken aside at the airport, strip-searched, questioned for hours before being finally released. While abroad, he was also abused in the street by a group of young people and almost beaten up. But it was all right, because he was a terrorist.

Now one day it so happened that there was a bomb blast somewhere else in the world, and in revenge a powerful nation, claiming Abdul’s country was responsible, attacked it, destroyed its government, privatised its economy by selling off its oil wells to multinational corporations,, and occupied it with a complex of military bases. Abdul tried to carry on as best he could, but while he was at work one day, a drone flew over and bombed his truck. Abdul lost a leg and couldn’t drive a truck any longer, so his wife had to work full time and his children had to leave school, which was no longer free as it had been under the wicked old government.

Little by little, owing to a shift in geopolitics and a rising insurgent movement, which despite savage reprisals the occupation forces could not defeat, they reluctantly left the bases and withdrew. But before leaving they installed a new government of warlords supported by a private army of mercenaries. Abdul’s wife was coming back from work one evening when a group of these mercenaries shot up the car she was in, killing her and wounding her daughter, who was with her. But that was all right because they were terrorists, and no action was taken.

Some months later, Abdul’s neighbour Omar, who had never been quite right in the head, took a butcher knife and murdered his own wife, accusing her of infidelity and worse. Abdul was one of those who – hobbling on his crutches – went to restrain Omar, turn him over to the authorities, and attempt to help the couple’s infant daughter as best he could. That evening, when he turned on the TV, he saw that the news was all over the Western media, and that respected commentators in the West – professors and such – were saying that this was inevitable because Omar was a terrorist, and that Abdul’s and Omar’s religion was one of terrorists.

A few weeks after that, a couple of terrorists in a nation far, far away went on a shooting spree which killed a few people. Abdul and his fellow terrorists, who had nothing to do with those two far and distant terrorists, and never had heard of them, watched  white men sitting in  TV studios far, far away demanded that all terrorists, everywhere, apologise for the actions of those two. So they got together a demonstration against the attack. A bomb blew up near the demonstration, killing several, including Abdul's cousin Hussain. The TV didn't mention either the demo or the bomb.

But that was OK, of course, because they were terrorists. And they totally deserved it.

And then, a few weeks after that, a group of satirical cartoonists decided that freedom of speech meant they could draw caricatures mocking Abdul's terrorist book and its terrorist Prophet. Which they did. But some terrorists took umbrage, issued death threats and attacked the cartoonists' office. This, of course, was an intolerant affront to free speech.

And the terrorists had to be destroyed, so the wars began anew.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2015

Now, seriously, I Google imaged "terrorist" and all the top results I got were of brown men. Why do you suppose that is? It couldn't possibly be racism, right? Right?

Tuesday 13 January 2015


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.

“Just Radhika.”

“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.”

“Will they?”

“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?”

“But –“

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.

It’s beautiful.

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