Gargi Mehra is a software professional by day, a writer by night and a mother at all times. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous literary magazines. She blogs at http://gargimehra.wordpress.com/ and tweets as @gargimehra.
The Secrets of Men
The young princess lay on her vast bed, her hair unfurled, spreading over the sheets like petals emerging from the nucleus of a sunflower. She ran her fingers through her hair as she stared up at the ceiling, smiling shyly to herself. The bangles on her wrist tinkled.
The Sun God had granted her a boon. She marvelled at the thought that she had been found deserving of such a grand favour. Now if only she could make it work. Could she really invoke it by just chanting a mantra?
Perhaps she shouldn’t try it – she was too young. And youth, as her father said, was particularly prone to grievous errors.
But then, what harm could it do?
She sat up from her delicious daydream, and took a kneeling position facing the wall. The words of the mantra flashed across in her mind’s eye, and she recited them, each syllable throbbing with devotion. In a flash of light, the Sun God appeared before her.
“My Lord, can you grant me a child?”
“My dear princess, I am sure that can be arranged.”
The Sun God smiled down upon her. The princess blushed.
Dr. Rastogi wiped his hand on a tissue before picking up the buzzing landline.
“Hello?” he barked at the receiver while sinking his teeth into his vada pav.
“Great news, doctor!”
Rastogi recognized the voice immediately, and sank back into his chair. Only one person could sound so effervescent in the mornings.
“Good morning, Hiralal. Did your wife deliver already?”
Nurse Kamala shuffled into his room and set down a tray bearing tea and cream rolls.
Hiralal’s voice boomed down the phone. “Oh yes! We’re blessed with a baby girl.”
“My heartiest congratulations to you, Hiralal.” Rastogi winked at Kamala. Her full lips parted in a smile, and his heart lurched a little.
“But that’s not what I was calling you about, Doctor.”
“Then what?” Rastogi asked. Hiralal never failed to annoy him, even when he called with supposedly good news. “Don’t tell me you’ve grown a new wart!”
“Quite the opposite, Doctor. My wart has fallen off, just this morning!”
The doctor fell silent for a moment. This was not unusual, but not expected either. He didn’t want to give Hiralal the satisfaction of gloating. “That’s great news. So the medicine I prescribed worked well after all.”
A full-throated laugh echoed down the line. Rastogi frowned. He preferred not to waste time talking to any of his wife’s relatives, and he barely put up with Hiralal, but that didn’t mean he would stick around to get insulted by them.
“Good one, doctor. I’ll talk to you later.”
Rastogi replaced the receiver, his brows knitted.
Nurse Kamala sat opposite him and sipped her tea. “Who was that?”
“Oh, nothing, just a patient. Filiform wart on the zygomatic bone. The zygomatic bone is the…”
“…the medical term for the cheekbone. Yes, I know.” She handed him a file. “Here are the notes you were asking for.”
Rastogi absently leafed through the pages tucked in the file. A cloud of suspicion had crept on him since talking to Hiralal. One of the friendlier cousins his wife chose to nurture, Hiralal was the only one who didn’t demand money upfront, but stayed happy with whatever hand-outs Rastogi felt obliged to give him.
He shook off the uneasy feeling and forced his attention back to the case file.
The princess found herself with child barely a few months after her encounter with the Sun God.
But, she was so young. What would her father say? What would she tell him? Where would she start? A sage had granted her a boon and she had been foolish enough to use it – even the words sounded inane to her. Her father would turn her out of the house. He might disown her, and her hopes of marrying a prince would never come to pass.
When the baby heaved out, slick in her fluid, she cleaned him with her finest towels, and wrapped him in a sheet of cloth. She carried him to the river in a wicker basket. At the banks, she kneeled, sobbing, cursing her misfortune. Her first-born son would never suckle at her breast, never call her ma, and never bear her name.
The infant cooed at her. He was born with armour clinging to his skin. It glinted under the rays that his father shone upon the earth. When the time came, the armour would protect him. It worried her still, but she knew not why.
She set him adrift in the river.
Over lunch with Dr. Patel, Rastogi narrated the case of Hiralal.
“What did he do with the wart once it fell off?” Dr. Patel dipped his sweet bun into his even sweeter tea.
Rastogi watched his friend. Dr. Patel was starting to resemble a sweet bun himself. “The imbecile says he wrapped it in a tissue and threw it in the dustbin. He has an appointment today. You can join me if you like.”
“What’s he taken an appointment for?” Dr. Patel asked, waving to the waiter for a refill of buns. If he didn’t watch his weight, he would balloon up and need bariatric surgery himself, Rastogi thought.
“He says the wart left a mark on his cheek, and it’s worrying him.”
As they trooped back to Rastogi’s chambers, Dr. Patel flicked peanuts into his mouth with a deft hand. In between bites, he said, “How is Lakshmi bhabi? Is she back from her trip?”
Rastogi said, “Yes, she liked KL. She says next time we should try for a trip together to Thailand.”
Dr. Patel elbowed his friend in the ribs. “Ah! You would like that, wouldn’t you?”
Rastogi rolled his eyes. “Don’t be absurd. At our age… ”
“What’s age got to do with it, Doctor? The kids have flown the nest. You deserve your privacy now.”
Rastogi harrumphed. “You are being ridiculous.”
When Hiralal arrived, Rastogi sat him down on the steel stool, and much to his discomfort, shone a bright light on his face. A round welt blazed crimson on Hiralal’s cheek. The mark resembled those left by fungal infections, and Rastogi was inclined to treat it as such.
“But warts don’t leave such marks.” Dr. Patel wasn’t ready to drop the matter.
“It usually reduces in size with the regular application of a cream containing salicylic acid. That’s what I prescribed and that’s what he used.”
Hiralal directed worried glances at them.
“Did you pry it off yourself? Did you fiddle with it or try to apply something else on it?”
He grinned. “I didn’t do anything, Doctor! It just fell off by itself!”
Rastogi leaned back on the edge of his steel desk, his arms folded across his chest, staring at Hiralal oddly. Something about it was off, and he couldn’t put his finger on it.
“OK, Hiralal. I’m glad you’ve got rid of it. Call me if anything else develops on this spot.”
He stood in the field, his head hung almost as if in shame. She sighted the kavach and the kundal and her heart lurched. The little boy she had set afloat in the water had found his way to her.
She watched him across the field. The little child she had cast adrift in the Ganga had now grown into a strapping young man, equally sharp with a sword and a bow-and-arrow, just like her youngest son. She raised a hand and made to call out to him. The words died in her throat. Her beloved son – she recognized him from the ornaments that clung to his body, granted to him by his own father for his protection. With a sinking heart, she looked on helplessly as the laws of the land humiliated him. He held no rank, no kingdom, a drifter in a sea of kings. She saw him cross over to the wrong side, the side against his own brothers. A mother’s joy turned to pain and back to joy again as he was crowned king of a small province, which enabled him to continue in the battle, not knowing that it was against his own brothers.
Rastogi and Nurse Kamala lay entwined on the single bed. His long legs dangled off the foot of the bed. At four in the afternoon, only the sound of their deep breathing could be heard in the room. From outside, the blare of the train’s whistle broke the silence. The nasal-voice of an announcer informed that a train on the western line had been delayed and would arrive three hours later than expected.
The east wing of the hospital had recently undergone renovations. Under the skilful workmanship of labourers guided by a popular architect’s vision, the wing had transformed from the “swine flu” area to a hotel-like structure with private rooms. But no one had access yet, except Rastogi. A long-standing arrangement with the night watchman had proved profitable. The watchman stood guard outside the old elevator while Rastogi grabbed Nurse Kamala’s hand and strolled into the newly finished rooms on the fifth floor.
Nurse Kamala detangled herself from him and stood up to smooth the creases in her pristine white uniform.
“Time to return to duty, Doctor.”
Rastogi leaned further back on his pillow, resting his cheek on one hand. “What’s the hurry? We have plenty of time.”
“You have a surgery scheduled in an hour.” She moved to the bathroom and left the door open as she glanced at the mirror to adjust her cap in position. He admired the way she placed it firmly so it didn’t shift as she scurried about her duties.
“It’s a minor procedure. It won’t require as much prep time as you think.”
She turned away from her reflection and flashed her eyes at him. The doctor smiled. Her kohl-lined eyes set against a chocolate-coloured complexion excited him, as did the nose-ring, for a reason he couldn’t quite fathom.
“I hope you are taking the pill regularly, Kamala.”
Her eyes glinted again. “Why, are you worried I will show up at your doorstep with a crying baby in my arms?”
She clicked the door closed and approached him, her arms folded across her chest. He sat up, and took her hand in his own large ones. “Kamala, I want us to continue seeing each other. You know that won’t happen if you are with child.”
She fixed him with a hard long stare. She must’ve seen the wisdom of his words, for she sighed. “Yes. You are right.”
That’s better. Whatever happened, she mustn’t conceive. Rastogi would need to keep an eye on her.
In the thick of battle, the young man used all his resources and turned out a clever, ruthless warrior. He showed no mercy for his opponents, and certainly none for the people whom he didn’t know were his own.
His mother prevailed upon Lord Krishna to reveal the young man’s origins to him. The eldest son of the clan struggled with this new information, but when the time came, he returned to his friend; a friend who had laid a protective hand on his shoulder, and granted him a kingdom, honour and nobility.
The mother decided a meeting with her first-born was necessary. She could bring to bear upon him the consequences of his actions.
He fell to her feet. She begged him not to kill his brothers. Join them in the battle against evil, she told him.
He heeded none of her pleadings.
Promise me you won’t kill your brothers.
He granted her that much, with the exception of her youngest.
She returned to her life, her kingdom, forced to be content with his promise. But it meant that when the sun set on the battle, one of her sons would be lost to her – the eldest or the youngest.
Dr. Patel ordered the chicken burger with cheese and carried it to the table where his friend awaited him.
“I had a similar case the other day, Dr. Rastogi.”
“What case?” Rastogi picked at his salad.
“The magic wart.”
“Oh, that one.”
Rastogi seemed not to be listening.
“Is everything ok, friend? You look preoccupied.”
“Oh no, nothing.” He directed a glance at a corner table, where Nurse Kamala dug her fingers through the tamarind-rice laid out on her tray.
“Obese male, age 36, filiform wart on zygomatic bone for unknown number of months. The wart falls off one fine day leaving a round red mark, not unlike your Hiralal.”
“How come your guy doesn’t know how many months he had the wart?”
“Fool never thought to make a note of it. He only came to treat the mark left by the wart.”
Something churned in Rastogi’s mind.
“Could you find out if his wife had recently delivered a baby?”
Dr. Patel rested his burger back on the plate. “Why? What are you thinking?”
“Nothing, just trying to find points of similarity between the cases. How else would you arrive at a clinical diagnosis?”
Dr. Patel nodded. “Fair enough. I’ll try and find out.”
“Let’s go. My three o’clock is due.”
“Aren’t you going to finish your salad?”
“Let it be.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Nurse Kamala head for the wash-basin. She had polished off her mountain of rice, typical signs of an increased appetite.
Back in his chambers, when he had settled down, the attendant showed in the next patient. The young man was dressed in a manner that Rastogi had heard his teenage son describe as “funky”. A mop of curly hair covered his head, and Rastogi worried the fellow might burst into a Bob Marley song any minute. The stud in the boy’s ear was another matter altogether. He was, obviously, not married.
He said his name was Sid.
Rastogi couldn’t help himself. Surely the boy was more Sid the sloth from Ice Age than the prince who became Gautama Buddha. “Is that short for Siddharth?”
Sid didn’t wait for further questions. “Doc, you have to cure this zit I got. I cannot be seen in public like this.”
Once again, Rastogi switched on the lamp. It cast a bright light on the boy’s face. Like the others, he, too, had the filiform wart sprouting on the cheekbone.
“I have a performance on Saturday. What would the audience say if I turned up like this?”
Rastogi strung on his latex gloves and examined the ‘zit’. “What kind of performance?”
“Guitar. I am a songwriter and the lead bass guitarist in a rock band.”
This statement, stripped of the self-important tone that coloured the boy’s speech, surprised Rastogi. He could not think the boy capable of stringing together two notes, let alone composing and playing them.
Rastogi laid out an elaborate maze of questions. Like Hiralal, Sid supplied ordinary answers. His heart sunk a little. He had expected new clues to emerge, something that might link him to other patients.
He reverted to his old standby. “Apply 2% salicylic acid…”
He scribbled the name of the ointment on his prescription pad. On impulse, he dialled Dr. Patel’s extension.
“Dr. Patel, I was hoping you could help me with a patient. He is here right now.”
His friend had just wrapped up a diagnostic. Within minutes, he knocked on the door.
Rastogi introduced his patient and briefed Dr. Patel, who subjected Sid to an intense round of questions, most of which mimicked Rastogi’s interrogation and none of which led anywhere.
Suddenly, as if inspiration had struck him, Dr. Patel asked, “When was the last time you engaged in intercourse?”
Sid laughed. “Doc, we don’t call it that nowadays, you know.”
A smile twitched at the corners of his lips but Rastogi kept a straight face. “Please think back and tell us. This is important.”
Sid threw his head back. “Let’s see, I think it was the day before yesterday.”
Rastogi turned to Dr. Patel and raised an eyebrow. Dr. Patel shook his head. “No, I meant… have you had sex about a month back?”
Sid snorted. “Yeah, I must have.”
“By any chance, did you use a condom? And did it tear?”
Sid’s mouth opened wide. “How did you know that?”
Rastogi turned to his friend. Dr. Patel shrugged. “Just a lucky guess.”
“What does that have to do with my cheek wart?”
Rastogi said, “We have to look into –“
Dr. Patel cut him short. “Nothing. You can start the treatment with the salicylic acid. Make sure to meet again in two weeks if it doesn’t reduce.”
Rastogi saw him out. He shut the door and turned around to face Dr. Patel.
Dr. Patel drummed his fingers on the table. “I think the rules of the universe are changing.”
In the battlefield strewn with bodies, the future king wandered, the hitherto unknown pain of loss pressing down on his chest. In the midst of his rambling, he came across his mother, who held an unknown warrior to her chest, tears streaming down her cheeks as she howled in grief.
The king-in-waiting knelt down beside her. “Who is this, mother? And why do you grieve for him?”
In between heaving gasps, she said “This is your brother Karna.”
The king jumped to his feet.
“How dare you shed precious tears for this man who caused us so much suffering?”
“He is your older brother. I gave birth to him before I even met your father.”
“How is that possible, mother?”
“I was given a boon by a sage. I invoked it, and conceived a son by the Sun God.”
“Did he know about this? How could he have inflicted so much pain on us if he knew who we were?”
Tears flowed down her cheeks. “He knew, but he was honour-bound to the side he had chosen.”
The king watched his mother cling to her first-born. The martyred warrior’s head rested on her neck, and his mother’s tears flowed freely down his armour to the wounds in his skin.
Rage burned within him.
“No, mother. This is not possible. You committed a sin. You should not have done this.”
She raised her grief-stricken face and met his eyes. “I was young, and innocent. My only sin has been to keep quiet while my poor boy suffered in silence.”
The king’s anger shook her. He rarely raised his voice more than a whisper.
“Mother, you know your mistake. But this cannot be something every woman should be allowed to do. Your sin affects so many people.”
He raised a menacing finger at her.
“From here on, I curse all women that they will never be able to keep secrets.”
“Yudishthira meant for it to affect all women, especially those who’re pregnant.”
“What do you mean?”
“The curse meant that whenever a woman became pregnant, it would show. In those times, the women’s bellies didn’t grow the way they did after this curse.”
“So, what does this mean for Sid? And indeed, for Hiralal?”
“Nowadays, if a woman conceives, within a few months, she starts to “show.” The whole world knows that she has had sex in the recent past, but no one knows, except she, who the father is.”
Rastogi’s thoughts briefly strayed to Nurse Kamala and the little white pills she was supposed to take every day.
His friend seemed not to notice the worried look on his face. “My theory is that, somehow, things have evolved to the point that when a man impregnates a woman, the wart develops on his face, as a mark to show that he too, is in a way, expecting.”
“So if you see a woman who’s expecting and her husband doesn’t sport a wart, then that means…”
“Her husband’s not the father, yes. And vice versa, too. If a married man has a wart, but his wife’s not expecting, it’s clear he has been with someone else.”
Then Dr. Patel sighed. “And I didn’t want to tell you this, but have you seen your face in the mirror lately?”
“There’s something brown forming on your cheek.”
Rastogi jumped to his feet. “What?”
He peered into the magnifying mirror. Dr. Patel was right. The mark felt rough to his fingers, like stubble growing in the wrong place.
“I had better go home. Lakshmi must be waiting for me.”