Saturday, November 20, 2004


“Doctor,” he asks softly. “Her skin feels quite hot.”
He makes the observation tentatively and Dr. Shahani feels his heart melt at the paternal concern. The man’s concern for his child has almost made him a boy in his voice.
“It often happens,” Dr. Shahani says soothingly. “The body often reacts like this but there is no need to worry. This is purely temporary. The fever will soon subside and she will regain consciousness.”
“There was no complication or difficulty during the procedure, was there?” her father asks with anxiousness making his voice rasp.
Dr. Shahani looks carefully at the small-eyed face before him. The hair is neatly parted and the moustache is neatly trimmed. This is a man who is delicate and meticulous. He plans his life and makes sure his actions and their consequences fall into the design that he has carefully chalked out. Dr. Shahani watches the relief fill up the worry wrinkles on her father’s face, making him look younger and less strained within moments as he spins out the white truths that proclaim this man’s daughter’s health while shielding the father from the dirty, grey truth. The doctor uses for the father words like, “smooth” and “success” and “complete” and “recovery”. He does not mention the words “risk”, “infection”, “haemorrhage” and “uterine perforation”. He does not want to scare the father or the mother. They entrusted, knowingly and unknowingly, their child into his hands. It is not their concern how his surgical shift was wet with cold sweat when he emerged from the operation theatre because with every muscle that he moved he bore in mind only one thought: there should not be a single scratch inside this body to act as witness to what is happening. He cannot and will not tell the parents that for a moment, his hand had trembled when he saw the first small limb – perfectly formed, with five uncreased fingers at their end – come into his sight. He cannot explain how great a victory it is to know that the suction curette has not left a scar upon this girl who can be a mother again without any trouble. He will not tell the parents that each and every time that he has to do this, he does not go home.

Instead he crawls into the underbelly of the city to a girl who is a familiar now and the girl picks up a thick, leather belt and beats him with it. She is a woman now. The first time he had given her the belt and promised to pay her for hurting him she had been a girl. A scared girl who had been taken aback by the strange demands of the young man. Today she knows why he wants this pain. She also knows that he has done it so many times that the tag of ‘murderer’ does not haunt him anymore. She has known for a while that it gives him a secret pleasure to be a victim.

But all that is later. Right now, Dr. Shahani thinks of nothing other than the words that are calming down the girl’s father. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the mother biting her lip as she sits at the edge of the hospital bed, apparently watching her daughter’s feverish breathing although Dr. Shahani knows that she is actually watching him. There is taut concern lining her posture. Dr. Shahani remembers the paper spectacles he had got with a comic book when he had been young. It had been to watch a 3-D movie, the rage of the time. They were young then and he, with his friends, had ascribed to the glasses many superpowers, including being able to detect the invisible. If such glasses truly existed, Dr. Shahani knows for certain that he would have seen the enormous bundle of shame the mother bears upon her shoulders. He wants to go up to her and tell her that it is not her fault. Not just that, she is not as alone as she imagines. Forty percent of girls between the ages of fifteen and nineteen have undergone one abortion. There is no badge of shame she needs to carry. It is a frightening number and remembering the statistic always makes the skin of Dr. Shahani’s hands sting and burn. Perhaps that is where the shame comes from, Dr. Shahani thinks with a smile – the fact that she feels only relief that the ordeal is over. He wants to go and shake her and drag both father and mother out into the sunshine and laugh out loudly. It is for their sense of relief that he has spent all this time. It is their sense of relief that will give him a good night’s sleep tonight, after his back has been bloodied. They have no idea how they save his soul with each moment that they feel relieved. He told the girl with the belt once that it would probably take just one look into a post-op patient’s eyes, light with the calm of having weathered a storm with anaesthesia, to rid him of his guilt. The girl had looked at him for a moment and then laughed, “You’re such a fucking, self-centred prick! Maybe she would hate you for having killed a part of her without even talking to her. Do you ever talk to your patients? I bet you don’t. You just talk to your patients’ parents, don’t you? You don’t give a fuck who the person you’re going to work your scissors on is like –”
“Don’t be silly,” he had protested. “I don’t use scissors.”
“Whatever,” she had dismissed with careless harshness. “Do you ever talk to them? Are they anything to you but a gaping cunt?”
He had winced at her language and told her to shut up. Obediently, she followed his orders. When he was leaving that night, he tried to explain it to her.
“I wouldn’t be able to do it if they became people for me. Do you understand that? If I knew the person, then what is inside them is a person too. I can’t do that. For me, it’s a case. I take it and then I go on. It’s a –”
“I understand.”

Her father says the same words that girl with the belt had said to him that night. But one had truly understood. Dr. Shahani looks at the progress chart and signs at the bottom. His back twitches. For the first time in many years, Dr. Shahani allows himself the luxury of looking at the patient who is lying on the hospital bed wearing the pale green shift. Her hair is black and strands have come out of the ponytail. He is not surprised at the blackness but the fact that it is fine comes as a surprise to him because he can still see before him the thick, dark blue lines of hair waiting to come out from under the finer, stretched skin of her crotch. He had expected her hair to be thicker. Her skin is pale and her face is pinched. Her lips move from time to time and he finds himself stabbed with curiosity about what it is that she is mumbling wordlessly. He remembers her legs bent like those of a dead cockroach. There is a needle sending the healing fluids into her body from the inner elbow of her left arm. The skin there has purpled. It is fresh, soft, young skin. He wants to touch her. He wants to run the back of his fingers along the curving line of her cheek. He wants to cradle her lolling head against the crook of his shoulders and sing the old lullabies that his grandmother used to sing for him when he was a boy.
“Your daughter will be fine,” he says assuringly again to both mother and father.
There are questions in the mother’s eyes and he says again, “She will be absolutely fine, in every way.”
He makes to leave but her mother holds him back. “My daughter isn’t going to die, is she?”
“She just has fever,” Dr. Shahani says to her. “It is absolutely normal. Please, do not worry.” He is quite certain that the mother has not told the father exactly what was done upon his precious child which means he has to find a way to assuage her fears without using the dreaded word.
“You have been a good mother and your daughter will be a good mother like you,” he says quietly. “Have no fear.”
Her eyes fill with grateful tears. “Thank you so much, Doctor. I don’t know how to thank you, but please, you have no idea how much gratitude I bear you for my daughter’s health.”
He wonders if he should tell her the signs of force being used that he has seen upon the patient. Then he decides to forget. Her tears and her rushing words dam his own words. He cannot tell her because faced with this relief, he has not the heart to bring a pall of worry on her.
“Tell your daughter I will be here any time she needs me,” he says with emotion clutching his throat. “She can call me if she wants or just visit me. I will be here.”
He knows she will never return. He also knows this is just what her mother needed to hear. Dr. Shahani shakes her father’s hand and walks out. His back twitches.

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