I’m not human. So I’m told. I don’t know much about it, but my mother told me that I spoke while I was in her womb. She heard a muffled baby voice that said, “Fool. A damn fool,” when my father confessed the murder he had committed. My father used to work for Vandin, a local gangster, involved in drugs, extortion, and robbery. By stealing rich people of Mahanagar, Vandin had gathered enormous wealth. When Vandin refused to share his wealth with my father, my father stole his money and killed Vandin’s guard. To avenge his loss, Vandin chained a rock to my father’s legs and threw him into a nearby lake. I was born on the same day they found my father’s body.
I was five years old, when I developed high fever with burning eyes and unbearable coughs. When I fainted with foam in my mouth, my mother took me to a local hospital. I woke up three days later. My first memory was the fire in my body. I remember crying in pain. It was so bad that I could hardly move. Medicine wasn’t working on me. The fever did not subside, and the burning became unbearable. My joints bent awkwardly, hurting me as I tried to walk straight. The doctors called it a rare disease; they could do nothing.
A green-skinned man with buffalo-horns stood next to my bed, watching me, smiling at me as if he knew me well. He mumbled strange words in my ears, calling me a Rat. I wasn’t sure why he called me a rat. Sometimes, he called me Mahanagar as if I was the incarnation of The Great City. I didn’t know who the man was. That was fifteen years back.
“Such a beautiful little girl you were,” the doctor, who visited our slum told me. She was talking about the past. “When you were a baby, you had huge eyes – curious and bright, thick black hair on your head and a lovely smile on your face. First time, when you stood up, your body was straight, normal.” Why would she lie? But her words didn’t comfort me. It was like reminding a blind girl that she could once see. I forgive the doctor; she is a kind woman and never takes money from us.
When I asked her why I became deformed, the doctor had a different story to tell. “Some grey particles from the toxic air had settled in your mother’s womb, damaging you before you were born.”
“How many deformities do I have,” was my next question to her.
“Eight,” was her answer. Although I believe I have more than eight defects.
During my schooldays, our teacher, Vyasa, told us an old story of Sage Ashtavakra, the legend of a wise man. Ashtavakra in Sanskrit means eight bends. Did our teacher choose the story to tease me? His intentions might have been a noble one, but my classmates mocked me, called me Sage Ashtavakra. I was a good student; I stood first in my class.
“Don’t get disturbed by your classmates,” my teacher told me. “Did you know that Sage Ashtavakra was a great author? Be a writer like him.”
“I’m not sure what I should write.”
“Write what you see, what you feel. Write your own story,” he advised me.
“What difference does it make whether I write my story or not? Who’s going to read it anyway?”
“Start writing and you will see the difference.”
“I have read stories written by deformed people, not one has changed anything for better, how will mine be different?”
“I’m sure your world is going to change when you write.”
At school, when I watched my classmates play sports, I felt like a prisoner in my twisted body. I played board games and I always won. My schoolmates tortured me showing me the mirror. My own reflection mocked me. Even my own shadow, especially the one in front of me, revealed my identity and never left me alone.
My mind clogs with vulgar words when people stare at me on the street, their eyes full of pity. “Are you looking at my twisted bends?” I asked one of them. “Do you think I’m ill? Do you suspect that I have a disease and it’s contagious? You don’t want to be like me?” When I utter words like these, people move away. I want them to leave me alone. Unbearable thoughts run in my mind, non-stop. I must control these thoughts popping up in my head.
The local weekly had published my photo as The Ugliest Girl ever born in the history of humanity. In the history of humanity? I asked myself. How could the author of the article be so sure that I was the Ugliest? I see people uglier than me on the street every day. This is how it is in Mahanagar; newspapers are full of exaggerated stories.
I told my mother when I saw the green-skinned man with buffalo horns yet again. She didn’t believe me, instead, laughed at me. My mother couldn’t see that man at all, she thought I was talking to myself. My teacher Vyasa and my neighbours couldn’t see him either.
I work in a second-hand bookshop that belongs to my teacher, Vyasa. Cheap Books as he calls it, has a board hung outside the wall. I manage the only bookshop in our slum. My teacher visits once in the morning to open the door and in the evening to lock it. He is a kind old man who has given me this job after I finished my school.
Every time I walk into the bookshop, it lifts my spirits. I feel like a child entering an ice-cream shop. When I touch the books arranged on the shelves with my fingers, I think of the authors who have spent years refining their words, which has made those books to the shelves. New books, old volumes, weighty books, old manuscripts, hardcover bounds, paperbacks editions, you name it. It’s not a busy job, other than waiting for customers, who are rare. To kill my time, I read books. Technical and medical books are boring for me. Mythology is my favourite; I like classic fiction as well. I have read from Vedas to modern literature. Books are my world and I forget everything when I read them. I feel distracted from my reading when someone enters the shop to buy books or to ask me about a publication.
The green-skinned man with buffalo horns appeared again. This time I knew who he was; I had read about him in one of the books in my shop. I didn’t know his name, but I knew he was the Yamdoot, a messenger of death. He was immortal; he didn’t look any older since I had met him the first time in the hospital.
My mother was always worried about me for one reason or the other. Again, she took me to the doctor, who examined me and asked questions. The doctor tested a drop of my blood through a machine. “I see something different in your blood. Rather uncommon,” she said. I was not sure what she saw. “I must send your samples to the big hospital, the central laboratory in Mahanagar.” She cut strands of my hair and a tiny part of my skin. Was it a different problem this time?
When my mother told the doctor about the green-skinned man with buffalo horns, the doctor told me it was impossible that such a man existed. He wasn’t real, it was only my imagination. She recommended that we go to a mental doctor for further treatment. My mother couldn’t take me to the specialist, he was too expensive, and we couldn’t afford it.
I felt distressed when I saw the green-skinned man with buffalo horns yet again. He appeared far too real to me. I couldn’t distinguish between real and unreal people. I began to touch and feel the person I spoke to, just to make sure he or she was real. I held my mother’s hand to see if she was real. When I touched the green-skinned man with buffalo horns, he too was real. How could that be possible? Why could no one else see him? Slowly and over time, having him around didn’t bother me any longer. I spoke to him when I wanted to; otherwise, I simply ignored his presence. It worked. He disappeared when I ignored him and came back another day. I decided to run my life on my own, to embrace and accept it, the way it was. The green-skinned man with buffalo horns was harmless.
“Wash your hands and legs and join us for dinner,” my mother told Veera, who had come home after a week. “Veera, why don’t you work with Pinkie in the bookshop?” My mother began her usual way of talking to her son, to convince him to find a decent job. Veera didn’t reply. Neither did he tell her anything about his whereabouts or what he did all day long.
Veera looks like my father. I have seen my father’s photograph in my mother’s box. Veera has a small head, buck teeth, sloping forehead, and a narrow face, just like my father. To me, they both look like a rodent. Veera is showy, never home, an unreachable brother. Unlike me, he can walk straight with his two legs and his feet on the ground. He has no dents or bends on his body like I have. He is strong, aggressive and an angry man. Rarely I see him smile. My mother’s rotis are the best in the world. Veera comes home only when he misses my mother’s cooking. He left at once after dinner. I knew we would not see him again for days.
When I am not in the bookshop, I am in our tiny hut, where I feel like a prisoner locked up in a small room. This isn’t anything close to a home. My mother and I are never just the two of us; there are too many people in the neighbourhood, too many buzzing people around us. I sit in that noisy place, trying to figure out what exactly is wrong with Veera; for I know something is not all right with him.
Veera is six years older than me. Most people around here, in the slum, don’t know their age, but I do. I paid attention when I studied mathematics at school. My teacher Vyasa told me that without mathematics, without counting, one couldn’t survive in this world. But my mother has survived, I’m not sure how. That’s why we are poor and must live in the slum. She cleans others houses. I’m not sure if my father could count. They say, he couldn’t even sign his own name, he used his thumb impression instead. If he were still alive, I would have taught him to sign his name like I did to my mother. I wish I could teach Veera how to read.
The doctor visited us after Veera had left. Normally, she visits us home when she has sad news. My mother made tea for her, nervously.
“I’ve got the report from the big hospital,” the doctor said. “A thorough test on Pinkie’s blood has revealed something that I wanted to tell you personally. That’s why I’ve come here.”
I felt horrible and my heart began to beat faster as I prepared myself to listen to her.
“A genetical disorder,” she said. “A mutation… it runs in your family.”
“What is a mutation?” I asked her.
“A change in the structure of a gene, transmitted over generations. It is caused by alteration in the DNA.” The doctor didn’t know how better to explain to us.
“I don’t understand a word,” my mother said.
I knew words like gene, generation, and DNA. I had paid attention to biology lessons at school; I knew something was inherently wrong with me.
“Is Pinkie going to die?” my mother asked the doctor.
“No. She is not going to die.” The doctor pulled out a notebook and began drawing figures on it. “What I want to say, is that Pinkie’s brain is different. The neurons encoded by proteins to divide and prosper are inadequate in your brain,” The doctor looked at me. “One of these proteins and the neurons died when you were still a baby. I don’t know how to explain this to you.”
“What does it mean, doctor?” I asked.
“You were born with insufficient proteins, the neuroblasts failed to divide. Or perhaps they divided slowly – the precise cellular deficiency is still unclear.”
“Will I be further deformed?”
“No. I don’t think so. What I want to say is, your brain, in certain condition, could behave in an unpredictable manner. It’s a recessive mutation.”
“I don’t understand, doctor,” I said.
“Did your ancestors marry members of their families? Like first cousins?”
“Disorders are many times caused by recessive mutations. This has resulted in genes to sweep through your family, other people in the slum also have similar problems. Your disorder can be mapped to deficiencies in genes.”
“What will happen to me then?” I asked, nervously.
“I don’t know.” She held my hand.
What the doctor told me shocked me. I thought of Veera, how he looked like a rat. My face looked similar. We were turning into rats.
“It may be possible that you slowly change as you grow older,” the doctor explained. “Your children and your grandchildren will look like you. No one knows precisely how common it is in Mahanagar, but it is familiar enough to attract medical attention. I have also sent your samples to another hospital. We have a famous geneticist study your sample. He has found out that your brain is evolving in an unpredictable manner. Not enough is known about the brain function in your case. You could be honest, generous, ambitious, quick-tempered, vicious, or any combination of these qualities. Some of you could be shy and keep hiding, or even stay undiscovered, some of you could be aggressive, opportunistic and fight for survival. It runs in your family, just like with many others in the slum.” I thought of rats, as these were also qualities attributed to rats.
“Are we turning into rats?” I could barely say those words. Tears rolled down my eyes.
My mother looked at me with a worry on her face.
“Many have similar symptoms in the slums.” The doctor tried to calm me by saying I was not the only one. Her consoling words didn’t have any effect on me.
“Veera also looks and behaves like a rat. Is there a cure for us, doctor?”
“I hope we find something soon.”
“We are turning into rats.” I repeated.
Later that day, I went to the bookshop. Threatened by my own condition, I looked up for a book on mutation. I read that it was a permanent biological alternation. It resulted from the errors during DNA replication such as caused by exposure to radiation or carcinogens. I looked up for carcinogen – any substance that promotes the formation of cancer. This may be due to the ability to damage the genome or the cellular metabolic processes. I did not understand everything I read, only a part of it. One study claimed that environmental conditions caused mutations. That was enough for me. It was a proof that what the doctor had said was correct. I began to believe that things like mutation did exist.
It was raining as I walked home. Walking was what normal people did. I wasn’t normal in any way. I limped like a crippled rat. Not sure for how long I would be like this – neither a rat nor a human. Soon, I thought, I would walk with four feet. The idea brought a shiver to my body.
On the street, I inhaled the lethal air that created havoc in my lungs, the venom spread slowly to other parts of my body, I could feel it. Women covered their noses with the end of their saris. Men tied scarves or handkerchiefs around their faces and wore eyeglasses to protect their eyes. The wheels moved on the road, and the tyres left their marks. Motorcycles, autorickshaws burnt more toxic particles, covering every object that existed. The blue sky turned pale and disappeared under the smog; the earth turned pale.
The rain stopped. The sewage gullies smelt, strong and unpleasant. With dry and weary eyes, I watched the pale light of dusk. In the dull sky, appeared a black sun with silvery rays that gave only a little light. I watched Mahanagar, a city with million-odd inhabitants, a ghastly maze of streets and slums. As the day advanced, the dusk slipped back to darkness. No stars could shine through the thick black air.
Thousands of years back, they say, Mahanagar smelt of jasmine, roses, lotuses, and lilies. Mangoes, oranges, bananas, coconuts used to grow here. But that was only in the past. Now, only waste grows here. In every corner of the city, lay waste in piles, taller than me. Decay, putrid, bad, rotten, whatever the smell, it makes the place unpleasant. Toxic air circles over the dying flora. By chance if a flower stays alive, it loses its fragrance. Nothing is under control. My brother Veera is a waste too. His life is a waste, he does nothing to make it better. I know he has become a thief like my father, snatching away things that belong to others, hurting them or killing them to satisfy his own needs.
Only the rich and the rats can survive in Mahanagar. The poor turn into rats, adapting tough survival tactics. They live in tiny houses or on the streets, hardly enough place for the number of people. The rich lives in air-conditioned villas. Even with the air purifier, they can’t escape the toxic air that creeps through the window, settling on their beds like dust. In the city that never sleeps, people cough all night long, suffer from chronic asthma and swallow a capsule to get sleep.
Every morning, the sun throws few silver lines of hope. Someone must do something to stop this pandemonium.
(Longlisted for The Best Asian Short Stories 2019)
Copyright © Anu Kay 2022