by Kaushik Viswanath
Dr Khanna’s left arm has its third involuntary spasm today in the evening. The mug flies out of his hand, bounces off the wall, and flies back at him. Dr Khanna shields his face with his arms and ducks while leaning backwards to avoid getting soaked.
Such complex manoeuvres tend to fail in such confined spaces. Not only does the water from the mug soak him accurately from head to toe, his right foot slips off the rim into the bowl.
The inside of the bowl is smooth, and his feces provide little grip. Dr Khanna topples over, face forward, his entire right leg now soiled with his own filth.
At that moment Dr Khanna is not panicked or disgusted; he is merely making a steely resolve to never use eastern-style toilets again.
Dr Khanna’s wife helps him get cleaned up, gives him a fresh set of clothes. She is a loyal, caring wife, but it is obvious that she is uncomfortable around him. Since the procedure, she hardly ever makes eye contact with him. Dr Khanna resents that. She was, after all, the person who made him go through with the procedure. He was not afraid to die, but his wife told him that he couldn’t leave her and their unborn child.
Dr Khanna is clean. He is no longer worried about the spasms in his left arm.
“Sanjana!” he calls from the living room.
A five-year old girl with pigtails comes bounding into the room. She steps on the mosaic floor tiles in a way that the tiles between her feet at any point form an L. She has been playing chess by herself again.
When she is in front of Dr Khanna, she brings her feet together, and with an expression of satisfaction, lifts her gaze from her feet to her father.
“Nothing. I just wanted to see where you were.” Dr Khanna smiles.
“I’m just standing in front of you,” she says matter-of-factly and chuckles.
Sanjana has always known her father to be like this. The procedure was completed before she was born. It was worth it, Dr Khanna always tells himself, it was worth it for this little girl.
His friends were supportive in the beginning, but one by one, in a matter of weeks, those friends he had known since childhood dropped out of touch. Patients who had been visiting him for decades left him to have their teeth extracted by other dentists. Sanjana is the only person who can look him in the eyes and see who he really is. She is the only thing that keeps him going. And then he slaps her, fast and hard, across her right cheek.
It takes Sanjana a full ten seconds to feel the sting and burst into tears. Until then she is numbed by the shock of what her father has just done. He has never hurt her before.
Dr Khanna stands up, trembling, and heads for the door. He opens it and pauses for a moment. Sanjana has gone to her mother, wailing. Dr Khanna steps out and slams the door behind him.
Downstairs, Dr Khanna ignores the “Rohan! Rohan!” that issues from his balcony. His wife is the last person he wants to see right now.
That was not a slap, Dr Khanna tells himself as he storms down the street, that was my arm twitching again, but it was not a slap. I would never slap my daughter.
As he turns the corner, he is finally out of earshot of Chandra’s continued yelling from the balcony. The last thing he hears her say is something about how she has made Mango Biriyani for dinner.
But Dr Khanna has no appetite. He has just involuntarily struck the one person he loves the most, and he is going to meet his doctor to find out why.
Dr Khanna reaches the main road, and standing to the side of the road, tries sticking out his left arm, but it refuses to move. He waves his right hand instead. A stray dog yelps and bolts out of the way as an autorickshaw sees Dr Khanna waving, and swerves towards him. The auto pulls up beside Dr Khanna, and the driver raises his eyebrows inquisitively.
“Hiranandani Hospital, Powai,” Dr Khanna says, and climbs into the auto.
The ride will take a while. Dr Khanna has time to simmer in his uneasiness and premonitions. He keeps telling himself that everything will be fine, that the doctors will give him a prescription that fixes his arm, that even if they can’t, he is right-handed, and a slightly disobedient left arm would not be the hardest thing to live with.
After all, Dr Khanna has lived with harder.
But he cannot put his fears aside. No matter what he tells himself, he is afraid that this has something to do with the procedure.
The noise and smoke of the Mumbai roads only make him squirm in his seat with greater unease. He looks down at his left arm. For now it is still and silent. Dr Khanna tries wiggling his fingers, and he is able to do that easily. This calms him down a little bit. Hopefully he won’t be bothered by it until he reaches the hospital; hopefully he won’t be bothered by it ever again.
No sooner has Dr Khanna thought this when his right leg jerks out as it would in a knee reflex test, his foot forcefully kicking the panel behind the auto driver’s seat. The driver jumps up in shock and looks over his shoulder to see what is going on. Dr Khanna’s right leg is now jumping about in what seems to be a horrific merry abandon.
The driver swerves to the side of the road and stops the auto.
“Get out,” he tells Dr Khanna, looking at his face in the rearview mirror. He is too scared to continue watching the antics of Dr Khanna’s emancipated leg.
Dr Khanna struggles to control his leg as he gets off the auto. Standing on the side of the road, Dr Khanna holds his leg with his hands and quickly surveys his surroundings.
“But this is not Hiranandani...” a very bewildered Dr Khanna tries to tell the auto driver, but the driver twists the throttle and the auto speeds away.
* * *
Dr Muthu is awake. He is not a dentist like Dr Khanna, he just has a PhD in English Literature from Madras University. His thesis was titled, “Comparative Marxist Readings of Kumbhakarna and Rip Van Winkle.”. He has been asleep for five years now, thanks to a freak academic accident that put him in a coma.
The doctors said he was mind-dead, which was something like brain-dead, but with some medical and philosophical differences. The point was, they said, that Dr Muthu was gone; only his body remained. Through a new experimental procedure, they transferred the mind of a 45-year-old dentist dying from multiple organ failure into Dr Muthu’s brain.
The doctors said Dr Muthu was gone forever. How wrong they were. Mind-death, unlike regular death, isn’t always permanent.
Now Dr Muthu is awake, mind-alive, and curiously unable to control his own body, except for — with considerable difficulty — one limb at a time. So far he has tried controlling the left arm, which unfortunately led to the slapping of a little girl, which he is truly very sorry about.
In order to prevent any more accidental slappings, he is instead trying to regain control of his right leg and has so far been successful, although the control of only a leg and not the rest of the body is admittedly not very useful.
Despite the hands’ trying to hold the right leg in place, Dr Muthu is now reasonably confident that he is in control of that leg. Now focus, Dr Muthu tells himself, focus on the left leg without letting go of the right.
It takes a lot of concentration, but Dr Muthu is used to concentrating. He has a PhD. Soon, the left leg is his. Control of two of his legs means he can decide where to go. Yes, movement will be awkward if the rest of the body is resisting it, but it shouldn’t be impossible, thinks Dr Muthu.
He tries to figure out where he is and where he wants to go. He has always been a loner and doesn’t have any friends to go to, and the poor man’s family was swallowed up by a tsunami years ago.
Dr Muthu decides that the first thing he needs is a drink. Something stiff: a glass of whiskey ought to do it. He also hopes a little liquor might make his body easier to control.
He can’t control the movement of his head yet, but right across the road from where he stands, he sees the word “DEBASEMENT” in large purple neon letters. It is a nightclub, and Dr Muthu praises his luck.
The road is packed with traffic, but like on all Mumbai roads during rush hour, the traffic is standing still. Dr Muthu moves his legs forward carefully, one at a time. At first the rest of his body resists, but as if realising that fighting his legs while crossing a road might not be a bright idea, they begin to cooperate. Dr Muthu reaches the other side of the road, and walks through a doorway, down a flight of stairs to the basement where the DEBASEMENT nightclub is.
“Whiskey. Large. Neat,” Dr Muthu says to the bartender, after having walked through the flashing strobe lights and dik-chik club music and having seated himself at the bar. He is suddenly surprised to realise he has control over his entire body now. It is not complete control; there is still some amount of resistance, but whatever was resisting him is exhausted, and no longer putting up much of a fight.
“Whiskey. Large. Neat,” the bartender echoes unenthusiastically, and pours him a glass of dark brown liquid.
Dr Muthu picks up the glass.
Dr Khanna is a teetotaler. He always has been, and he always will be. There is no way he is going to swallow that. He sharply yanks back control of his arms and sets the glass down, firmly. He has had enough of this. He is going home.
Dr Khanna gets off the bar stool and determinedly fights his body’s resistance to do so. He walks away from the bar, ignoring the bartender who wants to know if he is going to drink that or what, and heads for the door.
Dr Muthu wants that whiskey. He was so close to drinking it when he suddenly lost all control of his body again. He has not had a drink in over five years. He is going back to the bar.
Dr Khanna is not.
Dr Muthu starts in the right leg, where he feels he has the maximum control, and tries to quickly stand on the toes of that leg and spin his body around so he faces the bar again. He manages to do it.
Dr Khanna takes control of the left leg and slides it backwards, pulling the whole body back, away from the bar.
Dr Muthu pushes the right leg further forward, and before he knows it, he is on the floor doing a split.
Dr Khanna lets go of the left leg and takes control of the arms, places his palms on the floor, and spins himself around while pushing himself up, so he stands facing the door.
Angrily, Dr Muthu grabs both legs and spins himself around again, so he faces the bar. He then aggressively begins to run, and folds his legs at the knees, so he slides across the floor towards the bar.
Around Dr Khanna and Dr Muthu, a wide circle has formed. In the middle of the dance floor, amidst the flashing strobe lights and dik-chik music, is a wild man break-dancing as if his life depends on it. No one else is dancing. They just watch in silent amazement. This man’s arms and legs are flying all over the place, while he does splits, slides across the dance floor on his knees, spins, does backflips, and all sorts of other crazy things. Nobody’s seen moves like that before.
The DJ recognises this man. Could that... could that really be her neighbour, Khanna-uncle? Dancing at a nightclub? It can’t be. She steps over to the light controls and immerses the dancing man in bright white lights. There’s no doubt about it: Khanna-uncle has got moves. She reaches for her cell phone and dials home.
“Ma?” She presses the phone to her ear and covers the mouthpiece to block out the dik-chik. “Ma! Can you go over next door and tell Chandra-aunty that Khanna-uncle is here?... Yes. Rohan. Khanna-uncle... Here means what? Here, at DEBASEMENT. Ma... Maaaa!... Don’t start. I’m a DJ, learn to live with it, okay?... NO-I-DON’T-WANT-TO-DO-AN-MBA! Will you just ask Chandra-aunty if she knows that uncle is here?
“What? Uh... you probably won’t believe this. He’s dancing... No, not with some woman, by himself... Ma, don’t ask questions, if you want to know so badly you can come see for yourself. Just tell Chandra-aunty. Okay? Bye.”
She hangs up, puts the strobe lights back on, and turns the volume up.
The circle around the dancing man is no longer staring silently. Now they’re going wild, clapping and cheering him on.
When Chandra arrives, her husband is still dancing. She can’t believe it’s him. Sanjana, who insisted on coming along, also watches in awe.
Dr Khanna and Dr Muthu finally collapse on the floor, too exhausted to struggle any more. Chandra and Sanjana run towards him. Chandra picks him up.
“Rohan, I didn’t know you could dance like this!” she says. Dr Khanna smiles weakly at her. For the first time in years, she is looking into his eyes and smiling at him.
“Papa! Papa! How did you do that... that... first you were moving like a bishop, then like a knight, then like a rook, then like...” Dr Khanna can see Sanjana has forgiven him and forgotten about the slap.
“Excuse me sir,” a voice booms behind them. They turn to see a large, muscular man in a t-shirt. He points at Sanjana, and sternly says, “No minors allowed.” Suddenly he softens his voice and adds, “But you were terrific, sir, what dancing!”
Dr Muthu clears his throat.
Copyright © 2010 by Kaushik Viswanath