It would have been inappropriate not to offer him lunch. The smart-looking doctor was at the door precisely at lunchtime. Besides, he was a doctor so skillful that for most in the town, he was the final consultant. Sethani herself was a regular at his clinic with her only son, Ravi, having suffered from diarrhea, and recurring stomach cramps in the past couple of months. She was busy giving him an eloquent dressing down when the doctor knocked at the door. In retaliation, Ravi was throwing his hands in the air and thumping his foot on the floor. Sethani went to the door.
She saw the doctor standing with a man in slovenly clothes. He seemed so feverish with loo that his body wafted heat. It was hot in the Ganj and one took precautions even while unboxing a match-stick in a kitchen.
With half a smile, she led them into the front room. The room had a large red sofa, two matching chairs and an old bentwood chair. The doctor sat on the sofa. The feverish man stood hunched over, and his eyes were on the floor. Sit down, said the doctor. The man did not look up and sat on the floor away from the furniture.
The doctor looked back and forth between the man and Sethani. He pointed to the sofa and ordered the man, this time with an elderly authority, to sit there.
The man sat on the bentwood chair.
If you want to be treated, you have to be touched. Is it not true?
The man nodded.
Yes, it is, I say.
The doctor looked at Sethani and said, A glass of water.
Sethani announced her exit and headed into the patio where Ravi was tracing ants about the foot of the Tulsi plant and gently killing them with his nails. Sethani asked him to bring a glass from their neighbor, Sheila.
Glass? He asked. Which glass?
She told him to get the glass they have for Muslims.
Who Muslim has come?
Not Muslim, a low caste man.
New glass for him?
These glasses are only for beef eaters and toilet cleaners. Why don’t you leave now? They are waiting.
Ravi was back soon. The wait was not unusually long, and Sethani pretended to the doctor that she had to go shut a backdoor lest it heat up the house.
Sethani served the man water in the glass and noticed the doctor peering through her copy of a women’s magazine Sarita. One of the two stories that came to her mind unsettled her but only a moment. One, a housewife’s review of homemade biscuits. Two, a wife embarking upon an affair with her son’s teacher. The latter one, she had once told her husband, was a disgrace to womanhood.
The doctor was laughing with the man when Sethani came in.
I was telling him a story. He pulled out a red capsule and bailed out ten ml of a red solution from a translucent plastic jar.
Sethani, he said endearingly. Have you seen a Brahman and a cleaner sleeping together?
Sethani looked with curiosity.
The man swigged the water in a second. The doctor must have guessed that the man was still thirsty but hesitant to ask for more water because he asked Sethani to fill the man’s glass once more.
I say yes, I have seen it. They were both corpses. The doctor repeated the same affectionate laughter.
Meanwhile, Sethani’s dilemma rose up. If she offered the doctor lunch, she would have to offer lunch to the feverish man too. Sheela did not have a plate. They had never had to serve more than a cup of tea to untouchables. If she were to offer them both meals, she may have to use her own steel plate and trash it or put in on sale later.
She phoned her husband, who told her not to offer them lunch in any circumstance. Of the doctor’s goodwill she reminded him in multiple ways. The doctor hobnobbed with the who’s who of the village.
I am astonished at the argument we are having. Have you forgotten that what our ancestors have said is fairly rational and reasonable? Some doctors are moronically atheists and have forgotten that the root stands below the earth. It’s your head that floats.
Although she was clueless why the doctor had to help an untouchable man who was not going to pay him for this service, she reiterated that he was one of those men with whom they needed to keep their relations cordial.
Careful, too cordial will make him your lover. Her husband said.
Sethani imagined what it would be like to have the doctor as her lover. At thirty-two, nine years into her marriage with Seth, she was finally knowing what it means to be attracted to a stranger. The first time it was to Seth, who, a stranger to her at the time of their marriage seemed even more of a stranger now that he always looked disillusioned and whined about his lackluster detergent agency.
The doctor, she had heard, had an uncanny aura, a freshness, in that fashionable and well-groomed women failed to impress him. He had once rebuked a female patient for wearing a bright red lipstick while showing up at the clinic. Although he was beaten up by the patient’s rogue husband later, Sethani and the women of her circle blushed at this incident, citing that he was after the ordinary. The women giggled greedily. Their spittle flying and eyes shutting to the world.
I’m not that kind of woman. She told herself.
A rush of blood, a gush of air in her gut had just passed. It swung like dust and died in a flash of a second. She was back from her thought and noticed that her husband had hung up already, whereupon she was taken aback by her son’s cries.
Mummy, please. He does not have pants to wear in the play.’ Ravi said, eyes bulging, head moving.
He’s playing a teacher in a play.
Should have thought of it before accepting the part. Now, stop it. You’re following me like a tail.
Do you have a slice of raw mango? The doctor asked her.
No. She said.
It works against the loo. The doctor had his hands on his thighs. He was wearing gold rings in two of his fingers on his right hand. His hands were slim unlike that of Sethani’s husband.
You sure have lemons, am I right?
Must not be- Sethani looked sideways when the doctor interrupted her.
I’d seen them in the garden the last time.
Yes. In the garden. I forgot. But I am wearing a saree. I can’t step into the muddy garden.
The doctor rolled his pants up and helped her pluck a lemon from the tree and then asked her to cut it. He then went back into the front room.
Sethani came back with a cut up lemon, the doctor asked her to hand it to the feverish man.
She went near him but tossed the lemon into his hand, so that she didn’t have to touch him.
Ravi was following his mother wherever she went.
I want the pants. Doctor, please tell mummy.
The doctor looked at his legs and said, you can wear only one at a time. The feverish man cracked up. His eyes closed like those of a child’s.
I’ll speak to your mummy, said the doctor. The man had by now squeezed the lemon into his glass and sipped it all.
Ravi stood in the kitchen and frowned, his furrows deepening with every frown. I want pants! I want pants! I w-a-n-t pants!
Sethani, in all her rage, said, Listen to me. I hear it again, and you are locked in the storage room.
Let me open up your ears and put it in your head that-’, She marched towards him and twisted his ears.
Ahn! Ravi cried.
We don’t lend our clothes to Muslims. She yelled fast. With Muslims we can’t share our personal things.
But he is my best friend. Ravi cried out loud.
I’ll buy the sturdiest baton and thrash you so many times, so many times that you will have red sores all over your body.
Ravi stood with his head hanging.
Get out of my sight.
He wagged his tongue and was about to run away when Sethani asked him, you’ve been eating their food?
No. We don’t share things with them.
Absolutely! Get me the magazine from the sofa.
In the evening, when Seth came home, she told him how sorry she felt for ill-treating the doctor. To which Seth replied that it’s only fair that all treatments are justified when God himself has been unkind enough to him by not making a sale of more than three soap bars.
The loo soared through the village like a monster. Howling through tree trunks, dust-coating shrubberies, garroting around snakes and lizards. Sethani ran after her son with gooseberries to feed him. He ran to unexplored nooks of the house and ended up with his hands on the dead lizards on the walls. Sethani, out of her belief that lizards were not only ugly looking but also ominous if they died in one’s house, made the boy bathe. She dragged the boy to the patio where she would sit him near a hand pump and start pouring water on him. But she was taken aback when she saw her husband barfing near the drainage.
What did you eat? Tell me what it was that was more enticing than the food I cook?
Ravi, as if betrayed by his father, asked, ‘When did you eat, papa? Sethani slapped him lightly.
Seth said that he had been at emptying his gut three times today. What followed was Sethani’s doctoral attempts at fixing his excretory system. She jumped into the mud to snitch lemons from the tree and made him eat yoghurt, followed by husk, and then lukewarm ginger water, and then carom seeds. After a point, Seth shirked off her offerings and preferred to die of hunger and water loss than eat the inedible ingredients of misery. Since money was short, they were avoiding a visit to the doctor, but Seth was growing finicky and they thought, perhaps, shelling out money was inevitable.
Seth, fraught with his health, complained of no strength even to change into fresh clothes. A clean kurta and a dhoti were all that he wanted his wife to bring him from their room. She went inside with a rather pleasant smile on her face, thinking of the doctor’s red brick bungalow, the garden where he sat examining his patients and in no time she darted back, as if on to a battle and shouted at Ravi, You took the pants out for that Muslim boy!
Ravi’s head was hanging once more. She noticed a keychain dangling from his thumb.
Upon hearing the story around pants, Seth, seemed now charged with energy. He accused his wife of callousness, and son with disobedience.
He said: There is one point I must not fail at making. And that is the audacity and the rebellion that the members of this house have been committing to God. Why should fate not punish us. It is only likely that the Muslim boy is going to use black magic on your pants. Things like these explain my downfall. Not to say my business and now health.
He said that it was more of a harm because it was Thursday. He heaped the whole cause of the slow decay of his business to Thursday and the pants.
He decided that it was of important to get the pants back from whatever that Muslim kid’s name was, at which Ravi started bickering with his father. To which his father did not relent and yelled back at him. Then he saw the boy crying and sat down and started crying himself. Ravi, upon seeing for the first time in his life his father cry, agreed to ask the pants back from his friend.
They were first to go for the pants and then to the doctor. But Sethani suggested that one ought to be alive in order to redeem his belongings. She nagged him about the loo and reminded him how he was the father of a very young boy and a husband and the only man in the house to look after them.
On the hand-rickshaw they’d hired, Seth told Ravi that he’d have to go to the Muslim boy’s home alone.
I’ll wait outside.
They both looked sideways without looking at anything in particular. Ravi stuck his palms to his cheeks, for the air burnt his skin. He did so until they reached a quiet street shaded by the presence of high walls and tall trees.
A restless queue of ten patients sat on a long, roofed bench in the garden. Seth looked here and there until he saw the compounder in a clean white shirt. Seth persuaded him to help him jump the queue citing that he was on the verge of barfing.
If you are about to barf, you must. Drain it in the roadside sewage. I will hold your place.
It’s not on its way yet. Seth swallowed the saliva in his mouth. You are not understanding. I am in a hurry. I have to urgently take my boy somewhere. I must get well quickly.
Seth called the compounder two more times, asking for a quick pass. To whatever the compounder said, Seth replied, understand this that I have to take my son somewhere.
When he waved at the compounder a fourth time, the compounder came scrambling towards him and said, again? Come! Come now! I will get you treated right now! Why treated, I will get you operated right now in the garden if need be.
Seth stood up, smoothing his Kurta over his dhoti. A smile brightened his red face and his ears twitched.
I am taking you not so much out of pity as out of irritation. The compounder said on his way. Because your sour throat is up my ass. And this heat!
The compounder spat on the wayside grass.
While walking towards the doctor, Seth noticed men in squalid clothing. Muddy and grimy kurtas.
After some greetings, the doctor asked, what is it that’s bothering you, Seth?
Seth described his pitiable health.
The doctor pulled out a thermometer from a ceramic pan. And asked Seth to put it into his mouth.
Mouth? Can I instead put it under my arm?
Yes, but you are wearing full sleeves. I thought it is more convenient in the mouth.
Oh, down with convenience, doctor Saab. Who knows how many untouchables has this thermometer touched?
My patients here?
Yes. I hope they pay you. You must have to bathe after treating them.
All right. Put that meter down.
The doctor asked the compounder to take Ravi to the back of the bungalow where he could sit in shade for a while and then come back with a long stick.
The compounder came with a stick in his hand. He held it as if he was carrying a flag. And the sun was burning in his red face.
Seth, you have trouble in your stomach?
Yes, doctor Saab.
You have to stand up. I suspect you with a very serious disease. Let us have a look.
Seth stood up.
Then he asked the compounder to check him.
How? Asked the compounder.
With the stick.
With the stick?
With the stick inside. Inside him.
The compounder looked bewildered. His facial muscles contorted, he carried the stick towards Seth and stood behind him while Seth looked at the queue behind him. With the long stick in his hand, the compounder had everyone’s attention.
Do as I say! Said the doctor.
The compounder still stood behind Seth., unsure how to hold the stick.
And listen. The stick must rotate inside.
Seth became feverish. And because he knew that the doctor never joked while examining, he asked, Doctor Saab?
Don’t worry, Seth. It won’t ache. Let us clear our doubts.
The compounder found an opening in the folds of Seth’s dhoti through which he passed the stick and then pushed it slowly, his facial muscles contorted still, through the next opening he came across.
Did you find anything? The doctor asked.
The compounder shrugged, eyes tearing.
Seth saw that the queue of patients and their faces suppressing their laughter.
It seems to me that the loo caught you, the doctor said. Let me give you some medicines. And your it should be all right. And the stick I got pushed into you was for the bug in your head.
Which bug? Seth murmured, too embarrassed to cry.
Seth, I didn’t think of you so dumb.
Ravi, when his father took him straight to home, failed to see why his father forgot to take him to his friend’s house for the pants.