Yang Sheng is a family doctor based in Montréal who cares for underserved communities in Québec, Ontario, and Nunavut. She has published in medical journals and anthologies. Besides writing, her passions include reading, social justice advocacy, guitar-playing, and hula-hooping.
It’s as close to a happy ending as he can imagine.
It’s the pink and violet melting in the sky, the last gold of the day adorning her hair. For once, he’s walking instead of running, towards her instead of running away. He opens his mouth, but there are no words that can touch this moment.
But it’s all right, because slowly, one hand lets go of the railing. And just as quietly, she turns around.
Years and an ocean away from this happy ending, Yagya sits up in the armchair of the hospital room. Harsh and white, the morning glaring through the windows blinds him for a moment. He turns away.
Instead, he watches his mother, sleeping on the bed. Her limbs are clasped tightly around his youngest brother Tejah, whose resting face is nothing but angelic.
It’s so different from his mother’s face, guarded even when asleep. Looking at her, a cocoon around his brother, who’s at last breathing calmly after being admitted to the hospital, eleven-year-old Yagya is suddenly cold.
Sleeping next to their mother is Jivesh, his other brother. Jivesh’s face looks exactly like hers, yet the lines around his eyes look much harsher on an eight year old.
Yagya hears footsteps then from the hall. Quietly, he goes to the bed and reaches for his mother.
“Please tell me a story, Ama.”
It comes out as a plea, with his hand grasping her sleeve. Yagya is where he always wants to be, sitting on his mother’s lap. Like always, she’s looking away from him.
Maybe a story would bring her back.
“You’re too old for stories,” his mother tells him when he tugs her sleeve again.
Still, she reaches for his favorite book on the nearby shelf, with him clinging to her like a baby koala.
“Too old,” she murmurs before starting to read:
“Once upon a time, in a far away land, there lived a little girl…”
Her voice carries his heart to the story.
Once upon a time, in a far away land, there lived a little girl.
She lived with her family: her mother, her father, and her big brother Arsh.
She loved playing in the fields and sewing clothes with her mother. Most of all, she loved helping her brother bring buckets of water from the village well.
But she would topple over when she tried to heave the bucket above her head, making her brother laugh and say:
“Srinidhi, that’s too much for you. You’ll never be able to carry all that.”
“I’m going to get stronger!” she told him. “And then I’m going to carry the bucket! No, two, three!”
That just made her brother smile. But everyday she worked hard. Finally, when she was older, she could carry three buckets. She became so strong that her brother let her carry all the buckets as they marched back home.
“See?” she laughed. “I told you I could do it! I’m strong enough to protect you!”
She never asked if he would do the same, because life then was still a fairy tale, and she believed.
Climbing wildly up the rusted fence, ignoring the cuts across his palm. Jumping into the neighbor’s yard and the overgrown weeds. Tripping over the trash scattered on the ground, then scrambling back up and dashing to the back door of his ratty apartment. They’re yelling obscenities behind him, there’s the bark of their dog biting at his back, they’re taunting that they’ll hang his dark skin on their living room wall.
He’s fumbling with his keys, his hands slick with sweat and blood. Yagya doesn’t want the dog to bite him again.
Finally the back door opens and he runs to the fourth floor. He can still hear their jeers behind him, and – fuck! – he forgot to close the building door. He knows they’re not afraid to chase him right into his room unless he locks the doors. Ama always warned him about how dangerous the neighborhood is.
Everything hurts. Somehow he makes to their door and stumbles inside. He slumps to the floor.
In front of him, his mother is cutting cucumbers, her eyes fixed on the chopping board.
It’s not only his hands shaking now. It’s his entire ten-year-old frame. He desperately wants to reach out and hold his mother. Be held. He knows better though. Instead he stands up.
“You need to learn how to protect yourself,” his mother says. “I can’t be there for you all the time. And how can you take care of your two little brothers like this? You’re all so sensitive. You need to protect yourself.”
Yes, he needs to protect himself. From them. From her. Without a word, Yagya leaves the kitchen so he can change his soiled clothes.
Tejah always believed in the good in people. It seemed that he was the last one in his family who still did so.
After all, how could Tejah wear his white coat and greet his patients everyday if he didn’t?
Well, he didn’t quite have his own patients yet.
“So, Celia is our five-year-old girl with right forearm cellulitis, healing well after antibiotics, recently afebrile, investigations normal so far,” the intern tells the team. “I think she can go home tomorrow.”
Tejah looks at the meticulous notes he prepared for the presentation on Celia for rounds. Another presentation he didn’t get to do. He suppresses a sigh as he follows the team into Celia’s hospital room.
“Hi Celia, you’re doing better today,” the staff pediatrician smiles at the patient’s mother before taking Celia’s arm. “Wow, your arm is looking great! Yes, she can get discharged tomorrow,” she then turns to the intern.
The team leaves the room. Celia waves them goodbye and only Tejah waves back.
“Hey,” the staff pediatrician looks at Tejah when rounds finally end. “I’m going to give you another patient, especially since you barely talked during rounds today. The new patient’s family is a little tough, but I think it’ll be a good learning experience.
“Besides,” she raises an eyebrow. “You want to be a pediatric neurosurgeon, right? I haven’t really seen a lot from you, so you need to step up.”
The five patient presentations he didn’t do because a resident doctor interrupted him. The thirty-minute case presentation he didn’t do because the team was too ‘busy.’ The seven times his questions were cut short this morning.
At least the disapproving glance that the staff doctor gives him is nothing compared to his mother’s eyes when he told her he’d be going into medicine.
How could you? They cried at him. How could you take their side? After everything I went through for you?
For the first time, she found someone who would protect her. And after everything Srinidhi went through, didn’t she deserve this?
They would watch silly Bollywood movies or just walk together, hand in hand. For the first time since running away from home, she didn’t feel lonely.
And he was so handsome. How many times did she see prettier girls with clean saris glance at him? (She wanted to forget the disdain curving their lips when they perused her thick, untamable hair and her gangly limbs.)
Yagya’s father wanted her to spend money on nice saris and makeup. Sometimes, he would go out without telling her. She didn’t ask questions then.
It was only when he told her to walk a few feet behind him that she turned to him and asked.
Suddenly she got punished again, the sting matching the hurt from what her family hurled at her years ago. Everything that she tried escaping from.
In the bedroom, Yagya is meticulously adjusting his tie for his high school graduation when his mother enters.
By this time, all his wounds are out of sight.
Over the years, Yagya has mastered the precarious balance between flight and fight. No longer does he cower behind trees or his mother’s legs. Instead, in school, when someone stares at him with a jeer, he has learned to gaze back with sharp eyes. He learns from the best, after all.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s now much taller, stronger. It doesn’t hurt that even the white girls often take a few seconds to look him over.
Even his mother, who’s now staring at him with wide eyes.
Their gazes lock for a moment. Then he turns away.
When Yagya raises his head again, it’s to find his mother still watching him, although she’s looking afar.
Why aren’t you looking at me?
Even when her eyes are on his face, she sees something else. Or rather someone else, because there’s…
… There’s the glimpse of that stranger when he stares at his own sobbing reflection in the mirror years ago, his face drawn thin by nightmares, memories of those kids waving sticks, throwing stones, breaking bones…
“You look very handsome, Yagya,” she whispers, taking a few steps forward to touch him lightly on the shoulder.
They’re so close. Yet he knows that some part of her will never see him. Just as sure as the mountain ridge of scars on her back will never disappear, he will never cease to share his image, his existence with…
It’s the classic story then, as his brother Jivesh will scoff later (much, much later on, and from much, much farther away, his brother’s voice distorted from tens of thousands of miles of mountains and oceans). You get hurt, Jivesh will whisper, so you hurt other people.
Date after date, ghost after ghost. He loses track, they’re all the same, always the sliver of malicious pleasure of getting to let someone go in this place where he is expendable, where he is expended.
“You got your heart broken once so you want to just throw other people away too, don’t you?”
These are the word that Karin shouts when Yagya abruptly breaks off his relationship with her.
“Would it be different if we came from the same culture?” Karin starts crying. “If I wasn’t Japanese? Would I have had a chance to be taken seriously then?”
No, of course not, he thinks. They’re outside the coffee shop by now when he glances at the shop’s window. Instead of seeing content customers sipping their coffee, he sees something else. Something like him. A brown monster ripping a brown girl apart.
“No, of course not,” he replies.
And before Karin says anything else, he gets into his car. He never looks back.
What does Yagya see?
Not his memories but his mother’s story, shards of which have stung him throughout his childhood.
In a laughably organized world, the shards would piece themselves together into the window pane showing a handsome man in a cravat slapping his mother, who’s nothing to him but another overeager girlfriend.
Is it his father… or actually a man with white hairs and a bent back beating his daughter again and again for wasting her time trying to study? There’s another young man, just standing by the side and staring straight ahead, avoiding his sister’s eyes as she begs him to shield her.
Isn’t that why Srinidhi had run away from her home, letting the soles of her feet bleed until she reached the edge of the ocean and screamed? Screamed for a prince to save her, to carry her to a better life?
Yet it was the phone line cut dead by the love of her life (or so she thought) that finally did it. The phone connection severed the moment she uttered the world ‘pregnant’… it finally compelled her, while cradling Jivesh in her womb, to buy her ticket to leave the motherland that had battered her sore.
One day, she would think it strange that one conversation with Jivesh’s father that never happened carried her all the way to America. More powerful than the bruises and scars that Yagya’s father had branded on her.
Shrieking, the little girl runs away. With an apologetic smile to the other children in the playroom, Tejah follows his patient into her hospital room.
“You’re okay. I just need to listen to your lungs,” he whispers, crouching down and tapping his stethoscope.
“No! No!” Tricia cries, violently shakes her head.
Was he like this when he had been in the hospital two decades ago? Yagya, the realist, had told him that he had run away sobbing from anyone who hadn’t been his brother or his mother. Jivesh, the storyteller, had told him that he had been too trusting and had been almost childnapped.
Really, Tejah doesn’t remember much from his asthma admission, besides being suffocated by gloved hands and his mother’s warm embrace.
“Look,” he smiles at Tricia and takes out a llama toy from his white coat. “I’m just going to listen to your lungs. Just like what I’m doing with Jeannie here.”
Opening his eyes and mouth wide in a hopefully comedic effect, he puts the stethoscope’s bell on the llama’s chest and pretends to listen.
“What do I hear?” he raises an eyebrow. Slowly, Tricia comes closer and pets the toy as he makes exaggerated breathing noises. “I think her lungs are good! How about for you?”
He reaches out his stethoscope’s bell to her chest and she lets out another shriek. She’s shaking her head, so vigorously that Tejah’s wondering if her braids, brightly decorated with rainbow beads, sting her as they slap her cheeks.
“No, silly,” he grins. “Don’t you want to listen to Jeannie’s lungs too, Tricia?”
He hands her his stethoscope. Still sniffling, she takes it and places the bell on the llama’s head.
“Can you hear it?” he whispers and then makes the same loud breathing sounds. “How’s Jeannie doing, doctor?”
At last, Tricia gives him a trembling smile. She gives him back the stethoscope. As delicately as he would one day reach into the mind with his scalpel, Tejah reaches out the bell to her chest. Tricia’s silent, following his hand and the bell with wide eyes. Then it’s on her heart.
“Get AWAY from my baby!”
The stethoscope’s flung onto the floor, along with Tejah.
Looming over him, Tricia’s mother glares at him, lines of hate drawn on her face. The child starts crying again.
“How DARE you touch my child, you foreigner,” she spits out.
“I’m sorry for surprising you,” Tejah hastily says as he gets back up. “I think you remember me from pre-rounds – ”
“SHUT UP! And don’t tell me what I do and do not remember! God, doctors think they know everything, and they PUSH you aside… I’m not going to let that happen, I know how the stuck-up people in the hospital treat people like me.”
The onslaught of her words are familiar, the wrath on the mother’s face, the derision she has of him, of the sterile walls surrounding them… It’s more than just Tuskegee studies he learned about, it’s something closer, the same line of hate drawn on another all-too-familiar dark face…
“You’re not even a doctor,” the mother sneers. “You might wear that damn white coat, but you’re NOTHING. Don’t you dare touch my child again.”
It might be worse though, Tejah thinks dully as the footsteps of his team come closer and he hears the staff pediatrician mutter, ‘What did that medical student do this time….’
In his mind, he sees his own mother looking at him, through him.
What can I do, Ama? What can I do to make you happy?
One day, maybe, Srinidhi would look back and think it funny.
One day, when she’s not crumpled on the floor, she’d think that it was strange and even perversely funny how the countless beatings from long ago had never pushed her to leave India.
But one mistake, one slap, was enough to push Jivesh to return to India.
“What does he expect to find there?” she spits out a few days later, when Yagya brings her a pot of dal.
“Belonging. Unconditional love. His father. The usual mundane dreams,” her eldest answers, shrugging as he heats her some soup.
“I don’t understand,” she says dully.
“You wouldn’t, would you.” He’s looking at the microwave, his tone bland the way she hates it, the way she brought him up to be.
She remembers Jivesh’s face after she put a hand on him, the first and last time she would act anything like her sons’ detestable fathers. Those eyes… They were so familiar, as if they were her own from a world away, hoping for everything despite everything.
“That’s the problem,” she hisses. “That child is too much like me. I’m helping him.”
“How is that going,” Yagya replies.
He turns to her, exposing her.
How could she protect her sons when she hadn’t been able to guard herself from them?
After all, she knows who their fathers are.
Jivesh is going to find out.
As he bikes through the streets of Gandhinagar, he lets the harsh wind cool his face. He lets himself be distracted by the music of his mother tongue, so strange to hear everywhere instead of just in the intimacy of his home. For a moment, it helps him forget the burn on his cheek. The bruise has faded long ago but the pain remains.
Instead, he turns to the wind and admires the tall proud trees beckoning the laughing crowds with its sun-kissed leaves. He looks up to the cerulean sky, clear in the early morning before the smog catches up.
Of course, Jivesh has to weave through laughing families and fly past scooters and cars, with people yelling out “You stupid American!” in two or three languages.
It’s different. Maybe a little cleaner, definitely a lot greener, vastly bigger than he had imagined. This is not the India where his mother grew up. What else has changed then… or never had been what his mother had told them?
Tales of a family who hates her. Tales of men who hit, steal, and cheat on a pregnant woman. Tales of sons who grow up only to become their fathers.
“I’m not going to have you define me, Ama!” he shouts up angrily; in only a few days he has reached the countryside road, with his outburst startling the few walking travelers in this parched heat.
Look what it did to Yagya, to Tejah, he had shouted at her the last time they had been together. This is what you get when you look at us with those eyes! Are you happy now? All Yagya does is make a fool of the people around him because he could never please you! At least he learned though, because Tejah would still kill to make you happy… like an idiot!
He’s going to break the cycle, though. Going back to the place his mother vowed to never return to find some answers, a home… a version of himself untainted by his mother’s scorn.
And after weeks of biking, sleeping on buses with vomit on the floor, hitchhiking to scramble onto wagons and once even into a Jaguar, and staring at the mountains from the train….
There it is.
As Jivesh gazes at his mother’s childhood home, the India that his mother remembers stares at him back.
Surrounded by a brittle field, scorched by the waning heat, a bare-bones concrete hut stands.
Jivesh imagines his mother, just a young and naïve girl then, running out of the door with her arms outstretched. Then he remembers her the day she had cut all her long, unruly, ebony hair with their kitchen scissors.
She hadn’t known then, but her three sons had been hiding behind the pantry door, mesmerized. Even eleven-year-old Jivesh knew then that this was the first time that he saw an Indian girl, woman, with short hair. The only time.
Jivesh’s knocks reverberate across the walls of the village house. Some heavy footsteps, some mumbling in Gujurati, and a short old man opens the door.
“Let me get it, Father!” Then a middle-aged woman with a tightly woven braid and a magenta sari appears.
They look at Jivesh, quizzically by the woman and already with a scowl by the older man.
“Is this… is this… the home of Arsh Sundaresh?” he says in Gujurati, asking for his uncle.
After a pause, the woman nods and calls out for her husband. A few minutes later, a lanky man with shoulder-length hair joins them.
“Yes, can I help you?” he says politely in English to Jivesh.
“Do you know Srinidhi Sundaresh?” Both men stiffen but Jivesh forces the key question out: “She’s my mother.”
He’s known his stoic mother all his life, so he didn’t expect tears of joy or hugs from her family. Still, when his grandfather, snarling, slams the door in his face, Jivesh is ashamed to find that he is more surprised than he should be.
The force of the slam blows dust in his eyes, in his throat. As he bends over to cough it all out, he can hear his mother’s biting voice: See, what did I tell you, there is no reason to go back… and you doubt me…
… Slowly, he straightens his back up just as the bride and the groom kiss. A long time ago, he watched a Bollywood movie with Yagya and Ama, admiring an extravagantly bright wedding scene. Did you have a wedding like that? Yagya and he asked.
Their mother’s eyes flickered to them once, before returning to the calculations she was doing for the store where she worked. Staring at the screen (the shouts of delight, the vows of eternal love, the elaborate dances), Jivesh just assumed it was make-believe. The colorful scenes, though, would stay with him, reappearing after every blow and every biting remark delivered to him.
This is real though. In front of him is a real celebration that shows what happens when a man and a woman come together like they should, instead of hanging up when they find out they will have an illegitimate child.
The good thing about Indian weddings is that they are as huge as they appeared in the movies. So it wasn’t too hard for Jivesh to slip into the lavish outdoor event and watch his father kiss his bride.
There are confetti and flower petals in the air, festive music from his childhood blaring from every corner imaginable as the crowd stands and screams. Ribbons of pink, mauve, and baby blue twirling in the breeze, with the scent of lavender, the rustle of fancy saris, the powdered sugar taste of coconut ladoo.
“Hope it goes better the second time around,” he hears one of the uncles mutter.
And now Jivesh is supposed to push past his grand-aunts and grand-uncles clapping their hands to the tune of a deafening classic song, past the children chasing each other with their face smeared with sweets, and somehow make it far enough to grasp his father’s arm.
To tell him who he is so that he can finally exist in this vibrant crowd.
But as always, as always – and he curses himself, isn’t this why he left –he’s held back by his mother. Or rather the picture of her with the phone close to her ear after his father abandons her, while her other hand gently presses down on the slight bump of her belly.
She has always been the one holding him.
Hope it goes better the second time around… This was the third woman, though. Or maybe the fourth or the fifth… who knew.
The coughing fit starts as he nears the venue’s exit, so violent that he almost loses his footing. He hides his face in the crook of his elbow, and with a curse, he continues walking. He doesn’t look at the red dotting his sleeves.
Srinidhi can feel it, in the tightness of her lungs as she struggles to cough the phlegm out. The heat crashing into her, as unbearable as the smothering New Delhi air she passed by decades ago… followed by unshakeable chills crawling up her spine.
She hasn’t heard from Jivesh since their fight, she has no ideas if he has even kept in touch with his brothers. Yet she knows, she knows deep in her bones – from her bones and her flesh didher cursed darlings spring forward – that he’s not well.
Srinidhi needs to save him.
Abruptly, she stands up. And immediately has to grasp the kitchen counter to not crumble on the floor. Once her head stops spinning, she looks at the mug of tea she made for herself an hour ago, still untouched.
Is it her fault that she hasn’t had an appetite, not even for tea, since… A few days ago? Months ago, since Jivesh left?
She needs a computer to book the flight to India. But the laptop is nowhere in sight. She’s stranded on the kitchen island. Fortunately, her cell phone is on the counter. She unlocks it, ignores the missed calls, and fumbles with the screen until it’s dialing an airline company.
“Hello? How can I help you?” an agent comes to the line.
“Srinidhi Sundaresh, I need a ticket to New Delhi, as soon as possible, my credit card number is…”
“Ma’am, excuse me, I didn’t catch that, can you please repeat yourself?
“Ticket to India, one way, right away, my credit card number is…”
“Ma’am, I’m sorry, I can’t understand you, your name again?”
They’ve always wrinkled their nose at her accent, at her name, in this place that long ago she imagined as paradise next to her forsaken motherland. There they had turned away because of her coarse voice, her coarse hair, her coarse caste, here they turn her away because of her coarse voice, her coarse hair, her coarse accent, her home without a man…
It doesn’t matter though. No matter how they all turn their backs, she’ll shield her sons with their backs turned to her, save them even if it kills her.
“Ama?” A distant voice rings in her head. “Ama?”
There’s Yagya at the kitchen doorway, he’s glowing like his father used to, and Srinidhi is sure that he’s not actually here. Like Jivesh isn’t here.
“What are you doing?” he asks flatly.
“Going to India. Bring Jivesh back,” she tells the hallucination, her voice crisp even when everything else around her wavers.
“Why?” the vision comes closer. “You haven’t been answering your calls for the last few weeks, so I figured I’d stop by. You’re sick…” He frowns, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Sit down.”
The apparition lets out a startled sound when she collapses on the stool. For something that’s not there, he has his hands firmly on her shoulders.
“I’m going to India,” Srinidhi repeats sharply, struggling to stand again, but she’s no match for the hands holding her still.
“No, you’re not,” Arun counters just as sharply.
All of a sudden, she’s young again and he’s holding her down when she wants to stand up for herself. Yes, he’s the tall, handsome man, but does that mean that she’s nothing besides him?
Srinidhi is no longer the small stupid girl. No longer the weakling who’d just let Yagya’s father slap and kick her when she announced she was pregnant, just to walk away and leave her bleeding on the ground. It was a curse, a blessing, that there had been no miscarriage, because how could she ever prevent her son from following the same footsteps?
Srinidhi is no longer a weakling and she raises her hand to slap the ghost away. But then he puts a hand softly on her forehead and says:
“You’re burning up. I’ll take care of Jivesh. Don’t worry.”
Arun would never take care of her, so the hallucination shifts to become his son, or rather the idealized version of her son, the version who wouldn’t walk away.
“I’m calling Tejah. Then I’m putting you to bed,” the dream says, taking out his own phone.
She should protest, stand up, and redial the airline herself. But fighting against Arun has exhausted her. Srinidhi puts her head on the counter and closes her eyes. When she wakes up, Yagya won’t be there. And then she can head to India for Jivesh.
“Hello?” The voice on the other line is half tension, half exhaustion.
“Tejah, I need you to help me track down Jivesh,” Yagya says.
“What?” The tone shifts to incredulous. “I thought you told me he was still talking to you!”
Yagya sighs. Next to him, his mother sleeps, her head buried in her arms. He pats his hand softly on her hair. He never wanted to ask such a thing from his little brother.
“I lied,” he sighs. “Well, not completely. When you called me two months ago to tell me Jivesh stopped talking to you, I still got the occasional email. But I haven’t heard from him in six weeks.
“And Ama was minutes away from getting a flight back to India but she’s really sick. I need to take care of her here. I need you to find Jivesh.”
There’s silence on the phone.
“I’m sorry,” Yagya says. “I didn’t want you to worry and I know you’re going through a lot with medical school and your licensing exam. That’s why I didn’t tell you about Jivesh. But we’re at this point now.
“Ama’s bad enough that I think she’s hallucinating. I think she was about to hit me because she thought I was my dad. She has a fever and she’s coughing pretty bad.”
As the silence stretches, Yagya wonders whether Tejah would refuse. He knows better, though.
“I haven’t heard you talk so much for a long time,” Tejah finally says, with dry amusement. “Jivesh was in Mumbai last time you talked to him, right? I’ll be in India in a few days. Take care of Ama.”
The line goes dead. His mother is still asleep, her shoulder length hair completely covering her face, maybe seeing ghosts in her dreams. Funny how she thinks so constantly about the past, Yagya muses, looking around the kitchen. After all, there are no almost mementos of India in their home. The few they have are kept hidden.
Yet who needs mementos when their memories are already powerful enough?
What stays so clearly in Yagya’s mind is the memory of her mother gripping her waist length hair with one hand, as if choking it. The other hand held a huge pair of kitchen scissors. That day after school, all three of them had been supposed to go to a library, but it had been unexpectedly closed.
So they trekked home, for once unscathed. The three of them looked for Ama and found her in her bedroom. But they kept hidden behind the slightly open door, staring. Because they had peeked into her room and saw her squeeze the life out of her beautiful hair.
Slowly, elegantly, their mother raised the scissors. Then she sheared her hair off as close to her head as possible.
She seemed so cool, so strong, then, when she cut all her hair off. Like a warrior. Wasn’t that why Yagya and he learned some fighting skills? So that they could become warriors like her to keep Tejah safe, so that they could make it back home at least once without bruises and tears? So that they could be as tough as she was, as tough as she wanted them to be?
Jivesh wished he had his camera then. So he could have captured that moment with her mother and the scissors held proud above her head like a sword.
Then Jivesh sees himself back in the hospital, eight years old and flinging himself in front of little Tejah to defend him from the scary grownup with the metal necklace, with her white coat so sharp against her black skin. So like theirs but so different.
“Don’t touch him!” he shouts at her. “Only Ama can touch him!”
“It’s okay,” she tries to be soothing, but she’s pretending. Tejah before was smiling, but now he’s shaking.
“I just want to listen to his lungs to make sure he’s okay,” she taps her metal necklace. “We just want to cure him so he can go home,” she says in a singsong voice.
“Only Ama can cure him!” he shouts. “Get away from my brother!”
There’s so many people poking Tejah and making him cry. Jivesh is sick of it. All of a sudden there is a crowd of people around them. They’re all in white coats with metal necklaces and they’re whispering around him.
There’s a frowning old lady with a pearl necklace as pale as her face, a pair of shiny black shoes, the grownup girl surrounded by an army of white soldiers while Tejah just has Jivesh…
“Now, now,” it’s a tall, scary monster doctor, so much worse than the singsong girl. “You behave there, young man.”
He’s smiling but his eyes are angry. He puts two hands on his shoulders. When Jivesh doesn’t budge, the smile thins. The man shoves him aside.
Tejah is defenseless, with his helpless and wide eyes. Jivesh has failed, he’s failed, where’s Yagya, where’s…
All of a sudden, she’s there.
She’s shouting, “Don’t touch him!” In a flash, she has both of them scooped in her thin arms, glaring at the mob with white coats.
“How dare you,” his mother hisses.
The white mob’s not scared, instead shaking their heads, narrowing their eyes, and preparing to fight. But it’s okay because his mother is there.
And she is there again with him, protecting him. Yet now why isn’t he happy, why is he glaring at her as savagely as the bullies are staring at her? In this memory or dream, Jivesh is an adult. He can take care of himself.
It’s been raining. A downpour blinding him when the local gang abruptly cornered him. They pulled out their knives and spread gashes everywhere, with red mixing with the rain on the concrete ground.
And now there’s his mother, screaming and kicking with a huge stick in her hands. Embarrassing him. The bullies around mother and son sneer at them and wave their knives threateningly. Fear slides down his stomach as he thinks of his mother cut open. I can’t protect Tejah, I can’t…
Finally the monsters leave. Then it’s Jivesh screaming at his mother, what the fuck do you think I’m a baby I can handle this myself what the fuck. His mother just shrugs, lets go of her stick, and turns away muttering about how their block’s overrun by these kids and how they need to protect themselves better.
But in a flash, she turns around, his head whips back, and his cheek burns. They’re in the kitchen somehow, he can’t handle it anymore, he’s leaving, he needs to escape her, because here he only disappoints and disappoints…
After all, Ama is crying, looking at her stomach with the most contorted expression because this third child is going to be a boy again. There’s a black and white fuzzy photo of his little brother inside his mother in his hand and he just lets it go…
Jivesh is only three and he can still see his mother crying with the picture on the floor. And now, in this delirium, so hot and confused but much older than three years old, Jivesh can only fathom how disappointed, how disgusted his mother was when she found out her second child was a boy.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he’s babbling.
Jivesh opens his watery eyes. He expects his mother’s face to turn from her swollen belly to skewer him with angry eyes. Yes, there are eyes glaring at him, but they’re so much softer, who is she? The mask covering the stranger’s mouth makes them even harder to recognize.
“You better be sorry,” the person hisses. “What the fuck, Jivesh?”
It’s not a stranger, not quite his mother. Jivesh knows.
“What the fuck… little brother?”
“It took me forever to find you,” Tejah snaps, wringing out a towel already soaked with Jivesh’s sweat. “Thanks a lot for ghosting both of us so we had no idea where you were. I thought you were in Mumbai, but NO, you’re in the outskirts of Bangalore.
“I had to track down every stupid hostel you were in… It took me weeks!”
“I hate it when you rant,” Jivesh mumbles, closing his eyes again.
Is Jivesh even awake? Tejah hasn’t been sure that his brother has been lucid once since he found Jivesh yesterday, slumped against the wall.
Of course Tejah panicked then, dropping to his knees and shaking Jivesh to within an inch of his life. It was a small neighborhood, but even then, bystanders stared and shook their heads. No one offered to help as Tejah staggered with almost all of Jivesh’s weight on him. And once Jivesh coughed a smattering of blood on his shirt, the N-95 mask was secured snugly on Tejah’s face.
Unfortunately, the blood meant that none of the nicer hotels would give them a place to stay, forcing them both into a ‘hotel’ room the size of a walk-in closet.
“I can’t believe no one helped you. Here, drink this.” After wiping Jivesh’s face and neck for the fourth time, he lifts his brother’s head and pours lukewarm lemon water in his throat.
“So many people here, they can afford to lose one or two, or a million,” Jivesh mutters.
It’s a small comfort that Jivesh can still deliver some dark humor, but the blood in his cough, the high fever…
“Do you have a TB?”
“The hell would I know, brother.”
“Didn’t you get a chest x-ray? Any kind of medical attention?”
What if Tejah gets tuberculosis too? He’s in his fourth year of medical school, so close to graduating, he can’t afford to let anything slip, he has to be perfect. Medicine and his mother have made that all too clear.
Jivesh isn’t answering, he’s probably asleep. His sheets are soaked again. Night sweats, classic TB symptom, his mind offers (un)helpfully. As gently as possible, he rolls Jivesh over to replace the sheets.
“You really think I could get any x-ray here? Find any doctors here?”
Jivesh has his forearm on his face to hide his eyes. Tejah sees tears rolling on his cheeks. Then it hits Tejah: it’s been more than a year since Jivesh has been in India. It’s where their blood comes from. Yet is there anyone here for them, for Jivesh… all this time he’s been away?
“I’m sorry, it’ll be okay.” He takes a tissue. “Here. You can wipe your face a little. Or I can do it for you.”
“No,” Jivesh says tersely. “I don’t want you to see me like this.”
“You’re already half-dead,” Tejah hopes he’s joking. “I think I can see your face and a few tears too.”
“Why? Your face is covered, isn’t it?” Jivesh is still hiding his face, but the contempt slashes through Tejah. “God, you look just like them.”
It’s never enough, is it?
He’s holding Jivesh’s hand, his own hand now ungloved. He’s shaking, taking heavy breaths.
“It’s okay, I was just…”
For the first time, Jivesh sits himself up: it’s a struggle, but it’s done. He’s looking at Tejah with wide eyes, his concern for him laid bare. Tejah hasn’t seen such wide eyes on Jivesh since he was in preschool.
“You should put your mask back on,” Jivesh says.
Tejah distantly remembers having ripped off his mask and thrown it on the stained floor. He remembers that he’s sobbing, gripping Jivesh’s hand with both his own.
“You shouldn’t get too close, Tejah. I might have TB,” he half-smiles.
Jivesh’s arms give way and he’s about to fall back down on the bed, but Tejah catches him in an embrace, tight and desperate.
“I don’t care, I don’t care anymore,” he babbles, and Jivesh gently puts a hand on his hair, a familiar comforting gesture.
It’s strange how familiar the photos are, snapshots of a place that has so defined Yagya even if he has never stepped foot there himself.
They are the first things he notices when he steps into Jivesh’s hospital room.
His brother’s eyes are closed, his breathing finally calm. Without his unkempt beard (his mother – having overcome her own flu long ago – had stormed in and shaved it all off a few days before), Jivesh looks like how Yagya always remembers him: young and unshielded.
It’s a miracle that Tejah was able to stuff enough antibiotics in Jivesh so that they could make the flight back to the States without having the authorities ground them for major public health concerns. (Tejah had muttered: ‘I swear I checked,’ ‘ethical, ‘no TB’… not that Yagya much understood or cared.)
It turned out to be a hefty case of pneumonia, dormant on the plane but then striking Jivesh again once he stepped out of the airport.
There are two clean IV lines hooked to his brother’s arms and a warm unsoiled bed. Jivesh can finally rest. With his brother asleep, Yagya only has Jivesh’s photos for company.
Pictures and pictures of fields. A group of children chasing a soccer ball. Ama looking out the window from their kitchen. The Taj Mahal. Some slums. Ama working in the store. The stars crisp against the black sky. Gargantuan skyscrapers, their facades alight by the Diwali festival.
There are also a few pictures of Tejah and him. There’s four-year-old Tejah lying asleep with the same IV line running in his arm and the same oxygen nasal thing in his nose. Tejah, ten years old and kicking the soccer ball to Yagya. There’s Yagya in his graduation suit, when Ama couldn’t look at him.
“You could have picked a better picture of me,” Yagya says to Jivesh.
“I’m sorry,” he then sighs. “After Tejah being here so many years ago, I never wanted to see anyone in the hospital again. I was careless.
“You did a better job caring for Tejah from those doctors even then, and you’d probably do a better job now too, he might need it.”
Yagya remembers his youngest brother’s drawn eyes, how he quickly returned to his medical school after he left the airport, his tone clipped when Yagya tried to persuade him to rest.
“I don’t know if I can do better,” Yagya admits.
Jivesh sleeps on. It’s best this way. Tejah’s right: Yagya doesn’t speak much. Long ago, he tried telling his story, sitting on his mother’s bed when she was asleep. He wanted to see how it was to open your heart without being stopped.
His mother, he found out, was a light sleeper. So it had been only one attempt. Only years later did he find out that his mother had made herself a light sleeper ever since their apartment had once been broken into at night. He suspected that was not only the change she had made.
He himself hasn’t changed much, he fears.
“You’ve hated a lot of things about me,” he says quietly. “About how I just keep leading people on. There’s no girl who’s ever kept my attention…” And there was always one who took up all the space in our lives. “Dima was really fun, Apurna always said that things will be okay, Karin did so much for me…
“It could be worse. I don’t think I’ve ever hurt anyone the way that my dad hurt Ama. I don’t even know how he looks like, but every time I see myself in the mirror… I see less of myself.
“But you and Tejah, you guys are better,” Yagya smiles slightly.
“You are a lot better at keeping Tejah safe.”
Yagya stops. His brother’s eyes are open.
There are bags under Jivesh’s eyes and his voice is scratchy and quiet. But it’s the same vulnerable, earnest face looking up to him.
“You made the right call back then when you stopped Ama from going to India,” Jivesh continues. “You protected her.”
“She would have saved you, even with her own raging fever. She would die trying,” Yagya says quietly.
“But she doesn’t have to anymore.” His brother turns to the window.
Yagya stays quiet, watching the tension slowly leave Jivesh’s shoulders.
“Yeah, it was the right call sending Tejah to India instead of going yourself,” Jivesh turns to him again. “You would have had no idea how to handle India or a sick person.”
“How long were you awake?” Yagya asks.
“Long enough.” There’s Jivesh’s trademark cheeky smile that he hasn’t seen in years. “I’m a pretty light sleeper.”
Yagya should have known. Then again…
“But you apparently didn’t wake up when Ama destroyed your face?”
For a minute, Jivesh looks at him blankly. He gingerly touches his cheek, then gasps. The next moment he’s clawing at his face.
“What the f – “
“You don’t like it?”
As stealthy as always, their mother makes her presence known on her own terms. She’s leaning on the doorframe, and who knows how long she’s been there.
The moment Jivesh hears her, his arms drop to his sides. It’s been more than a year since the two talked.
“It’s not bad,” Jivesh at last says evenly.
Slowly, their mother makes it to the bedside. She puts a hand gently on the back of Yagya’s chair, just as Jivesh glances at him. Yagya stands up to give his place to their mother.
He leaves the room quickly enough. Still, he catches a glimpse of his mother softly putting a hand on Jivesh’s cheek before the door is closed.
He didn’t match.
He’s not going to be a surgeon.
Tejah stumbles out of the car like a drunk man. Reaches the apartment building, races up the stairs, trips, swears, and wrenches the door wide open.
Anything to escape the pity in his friends’ eyes searing into his a few hours ago, when they all found out if they matched, if they had a future as doctors next year. On that day, he opened his letter and felt the last drop of energy drain away from him. No hospital had accepted him.
Oh god he didn’t match.
“Ama!” he screams as he runs into the kitchen, his eyes darting everywhere.
He can’t stop fidgeting, his eyes can’t stop searching, he can’t keep still. Get out of my OR and go hang yourself! the surgeon shouted at him last year when he couldn’t stop his fingers from shaking when he was suturing the incision. Tejah fixed that afterwards though.
(His hands were so much steadier last month when he stitched the lady’s scalp together, although of course nobody noticed… they were unshakable when he took Jivesh’s clammy hand and injected the antibiotic directly into the vein.)
But maybe some things couldn’t be fixed, no matter how many hours he worked, no matter how he struggled to finish all his rotations on time despite the month he spent hauling Jivesh back home in one piece. No wonder he didn’t match in neurosurgery.
No one answers. The apartment is empty. Thank god. What was he thinking? His instinct was – has always been – to go running into his mother’s arms. Why does he think he can still trust himself given where it has led him to? Did his mother ever hug him back when he came running?
He can imagine his mother’s face twisted in disgust if she finds out about his failure. This is what you get for trying to be one of them. For being such a fool.
Just those imagined words strike him hard enough for him to cry out. It’s too much, he needs to go, Ama can’t find him like this.
His hands have never stopped moving. Now they’re scrambling to open every drawer, he doesn’t know what he’s doing, he finds knives, a pair of scissors, plastic bags, a gun, an elastic band, a broken plate…
Thank god it’s loaded already, Tejah’s not even surprised, he’s never known before but all of a sudden it’s as if he’s known all along that his mother had bought a weapon after Jivesh was stabbed by those kids a long while ago… Thank god thank god thank god…
He’s never touched a gun before, yet his hands (never going to be a surgeon’s hands, never going to be anything) grip the gun, unhook the safety pin, adjust the parts as precisely as his mother has learned to do since Jivesh ran away.
Every moment has to be smooth, decisive, don’t think, don’t hesitate.
At least his OR training comes in handy for the last time.
He puts the gun to his temple.
“Don’t make me shoot.”
Their mother, in all her endless love, has hurt them all so much. Yet even Tejah has never imagined that his mother would point a gun at him.
She didn’t raise her voice, but her sharp Gujurati surprised him, almost enough to press the trigger.
Her hands are steady, her eyes are dry.
“Do it, yes, please do it,” he babbles.
He’s disappointed her, he deserves this, yes, this is the best way. He keeps his own gun to his head. Two guns pointed at him are better than one. In medicine and in life, one needs a contingency plan.
“I don’t want you to lose a hand, Tejah,” Ama says calmly. “Put down the gun.”
So what? So that she would inevitably discover how low he’s fallen, so low that he put the gun to his head in the first place? It’s too late to turn back.
“I will shoot your hand!” she shouts.
She’s never been this harsh. Her shot won’t miss.
A wave of nausea hits. He throws down the gun and vomits all over his crisp white shirt, the stained kitchen tiles. He slumps to the floor. He’s retching, he’s throwing up, he coughs and coughs and coughs until there’s mixture of wheezes and blood clogging his airway and god he hopes he chokes, he hopes his esophagus just ruptures and he can be done with it.
None too gently, his mother gets him up to his feet and pushes him onto a chair.
He’s finally stopped vomiting. He’s still wheezing though, his breathing becoming more and more labored.
Srinidhi distantly remembers where she put away his pump when Tejah left for college. It’s on the top shelf in the kitchen. Her eyes never leave him as she grabs the blue pump.
Gently, she removes the saliva and vomit from his face and puts the inhaler to his mouth.
“Open,” she whispers.
He does and reflexively he starts taking a few puffs. In a few minutes, the wheezes quiet down, although he’s still breathing faster than she’d like. His eyes are glassy, dry. Srinidhi wonders if her son’s in shock. She can’t quite remember the definition of ‘shock’ from when Tejah was studying for his exams by reciting his notes to her a while ago.
She surveys the kitchen and puts the knives, scissors, gun, random utensils… she puts it all in a bag. She then takes it out of the kitchen.
When she comes back, she has a whole set of clean clothes. Slowly, she takes off Tejah’s dress shirt, drenched in vomit and sweat, and the shirt underneath. She takes off his pants and socks. Once she wipes away every speck of dirt from his chest and legs, Srinidhi puts on a tee shirt, a pair of sweat pants, and Jivesh’s socks on him.
He hasn’t stopped shaking. He goes back to wrapping his arms around himself.
What happened? Srinidhi has spent the last thirty years guarding her sons with every fiber of her being, while trying – almost offhandedly, definitely futilely – to shield herself as well.
She has never been so naïve to think that she would raise sons who wouldn’t turn into men who’d hurt her. That became all too clear when Jivesh left for India. Although hadn’t she deserved it then?
Still, she thought at least she could give them her life and happiness. Even if it meant having Jivesh rush back to the place that almost broke her… even if it meant that all three would grow up to break her heart.
Somehow Tejah… not the emotional one like Jivesh, not the smart one like Yagya… but the sweet one, the one who would always bundle himself in her arms until he was much too old to do so…
Somehow Tejah almost managed to do both: destroy her, and even worse, destroy himself.
“I need you to come over,” Srinidhi says over the phone and hangs up.
Tejah’s still shaking, his arms tight around himself. It’s spring though, and an uncommonly warm day. She puts a jacket around him but he only shakes harder.
Then it comes to her, a buried memory from right before she left Gujurat: she’s shaking uncontrollably after her father hit her, slumped behind the house… so hurt that her brother just stood and watched… her mother turned away when she saw the angry welt on her face… all she wants is to be held, and all she has are her own arms around her, gripping herself for dear life.
Srinidhi takes Tejah by the shoulders and envelops her in her small arms. Then the tears fall.
When Yagya comes into the kitchen, he’s expecting anything. Yet he’s still beyond words when he sees the vomit splattered on the floor and Tejah’s head buried in their mother’s chest. Already too thin after his trip back from India, Tejah’s now even gaunter.
Suddenly Yagya remembers the bulky bag besides the front door, slightly ripped where a knife pokes out.
“Yagya,” his mother says calmly. “I need to do a few things. Take care of Tejah.”
She slowly lets go of Tejah. Yagya sees that her shirt is wet and he gets a box of tissues. He and his mother change place so that he’s sitting in front of Tejah and she heads out of the kitchen. Tejah’s eyes are dry, unseeing. Yagya puts the box of tissues on the table.
“You want something to eat? To drink?”
His youngest brother doesn’t answer.
“Let’s get you to bed,” he says.
He makes a motion to pull Tejah to his feet, but Tejah does it himself, robotically but steadily. He follows Yagya to the bedroom.
The bed is much bigger than Yagya remembers it to be. It takes him too long to realize that this is their mother’s bedroom. Less long to decide that her bed would be best. He softly pushes Tejah until he sits on the bed.
“Lie down and sleep,” he says.
He’s about to adjust his catatonic brother into a sleeping position when Tejah suddenly grabs his arm. He’s muttering, he’s slurring his words, a mush of Gujurati and English that makes no sense.
“You’ll be okay,” Yagya tells him.
Always empty words, and he’s always amazed when they work, like when Apurna whispered them to him all those years ago. Like now, when Tejah lets go of his arm and lets Yagya guide him until he’s lying on his side.
When his brother’s breathing evens and the wheezes disappear, exhaustion slams into Yagya. He should drive back to his place. He wonders how dusty their old beds are.
When Srinidhi returns with full grocery bags of food, a lighter, and a potpourri of medicine, both of her boys are fast asleep in her bed.
There’s the fire she’s made outside and the last handful of mementos lying on the ground next to her.
She throws the saris in the fire first. Why did she even keep them? Did she think she would find a man and wear them again? Did she think she’d ever find her place in a scattered Indian community in North America that was as judgmental as her hometown?
Then there are the photos. Srinidhi always told herself they were a reminder of her mistakes. The photos of Arun blacken in the fire. But it’s been too easy to conflate her memories of them with her sons. She throws the pictures of Dhruv in as well.
She should have learned from Tejah, who is the only one who never wanted to find out more about his father. Because why would he want to know someone who cheated on his mother? Raghav’s smile disappears under the flames.
Finally, she takes out the last sibling bracelet she made for Arsh. Tears well up for a fleeting moment. Then she breathes deeply. She tosses them and sparks fly.
It’s summer already, but an unexpectedly cool day, so she sits on the ground and enjoys the warmth.
Something flies over Srinidhi’s head. There’s now a white coat burning in the fire.
Jivesh sits next to her.
“Tejah’s trip tomorrow is booked for 3 o’clock. So we should leave before noon?” Srinidhi gives a small nod.
“Can’t believe he’s going to keep his beard while volunteering in Central America,” Jivesh says. “It got so hot and scratchy when I had one in India! At least everyone thinks a beard looks way better on him than on me. We’ll see what he thinks after he flies down there.”
“He’s not flying,” she tells him, making him raise an eyebrow. “At least not to Guatemala. He’s flying to the coast and then he’s going to take a ship down there. So he can visit and volunteer on some islands on the way there.”
She imagines her youngest son on the ship, on the ocean to feel the salty breeze in his hair, to at last get some air.
“I got rid of all my old pictures,” Srinidhi tells him. “Not of you three, of course.”
“That was a mistake. You should have gotten rid of those too.” Jivesh retorts. “Okay, our baby pictures looked cute. But still. I’ll take new pictures. Starting tomorrow.”
Srinidhi looks at her son, his quirked lips, his dark eyes bright and not just from the fire reflected in them. For the first time in a long time, she just sees him.
“I will never hit you again,” she says.
He gazes at her, no longer a scared and angry child who runs away to fantasies.
“I know,” he replies, here with her. He puts his arm around her.
“So noon tomorrow?” Jivesh asks a few minutes later. “I’ll be driving. Yagya will meet us at the airport. By the way, he says he’ll take a little break after Tejah leaves. Maybe even a vacation.”
Srinidhi thinks of her eldest, asleep peacefully in the bed with Tejah, handsome and aloof and so fearfully awaiting permission to be himself.
“That sounds good,” she smiles.
It’s as close to a happy ending as he can imagine.
It’s the pink and violet melting in the Indian sky before the night, the last gold of the day adorning her hair. For once, they’re – he’s – walking instead of running, towards her instead of running away. Yagya opens his mouth, but there are no words. No words at all that can touch this moment.
But it’s all right, because slowly, one hand lets go of the railing. And just as quietly, she turns around.
His mother is smiling, fully, happily, at him. She’s the same girl with so much light and hope in her face years ago when she was last here, when the Arabian Sea breeze serenaded her. For the first time, she reaches out with her open hand.