My shoulder was at it again, swivelling and turning like a mechanism lubricated with a heavy machine oil. I tried to pretend it wasn’t happening, that my body wasn’t giving in to the mobility, and I continued walking under the orange-red of the gulmohar trees. Just as I was losing myself in the brilliance of their elaborately bracted flowers, a man on a scooter veered towards me and snatched my bag, which yanked my arm right out of its socket. He must have been startled by how easily it dropped out, for I caught a split-second sight of his face – it seemed to widen grotesquely before he skidded and fell. But he was quick to recover. By the time I caught my breath, he had sped past the corner kiosk, leaving a crushed scarlet trail in the fallen flowers. My bag, with my medicines, was gone, and my arm was swinging about wildly.
I must start carrying my pills in my pocket, one part of my brain said, while another recalled techniques for getting out of panic mode – like counting to ten thousand three hundred and thirty-three, or breathing with my diaphragm. But such tricks, I was finding, are only useful well into the aftermath of an emergency, not during.
Like an injured homing pigeon, I fled erratically back towards the house. When I managed, finally, to crash through the front door and collapse, out of breath, on the cold tiles of the entrance hall, I could barely see from the headache and the pain. The lingering smell of the masala I had used in the brinjal fry that afternoon induced such a wave of nausea, it felt as if my head would burst, along with my gut.
There was a complex series of sounds upstairs – chair pushed back, feet landing on the floor – each of which felt as if it were driving a hammer into my skull. As if to protect me, my auditory system seemed to sink into a fog as my son leapt down the stairs; everything sounded like it was travelling through some dense, absorbent substance and emerging muffled and warped.
‘Come on, Ma,’ he said, his voice gurgly as though he were under water. ‘Let me take you to your room.’ He lifted me up and staggered towards my bedroom that lay off the entrance hall. I could sense the warmth of his rangy young body as he held me, then settled me into bed. The pain began to dissipate and the sponginess in my ears began to clear somewhat.
Manu gave me my pills and within minutes I felt relieved. My body was tightening and loosening in the right places, my shoulder was easing back, my tongue was under control. I was becoming human again.
He sat on the chair near my bed and watched me. The minute I could blink without my eyelids going into high-frequency mode, he said, ‘How could you allow this to happen to you, Ma? Didn’t you feel the symptoms? Your shoulder spinning? Faces melting? You didn’t take your pill, did you?’
I explained to him about the man on the scooter who’d snatched my bag. He was horrified. I didn’t want him to begin to worry every time I went out, so I said, ‘My shoulder had started to give way by then, or I would have been able to snatch my purse back from the man. Or knock him off his bike.’
‘You were that far gone? Before he attacked? You have to take the pill immediately, as soon as it shows itself. Why the fuck didn’t you?’
‘Don’t swear,’ I responded while I thought about what to say. How could I explain to him that I hadn’t taken my pill because I wanted to savour my independence a little longer, wanted the freedom of walking without the oppressive thickening of the medication for just a few more steps?
But there was another reason why I wanted to delay my medication. One I couldn’t share with anyone, least of all him. I could never admit to being tempted, every time, to give in, to relinquish control and allow my body to go where it would, where it could, and to take my mind with it. I had been close to the edge so often, had begun to sense the enticement of transformation so many times. But I had held back, terrified. For myself, for my children, my dear, sweet children …
Now, however, it was almost irresistible drawing – me, pushing me to an extreme where every neuron was extended, maximally alive.
I lay back, silent, as Manu talked about managing my illness, and I felt sorry I had to impose so much on him. Each thread on my bedspread – a beautiful blue and pale-green printed cotton with a curiously European pattern of thistles and stalks, rather more widely spread than the fine Sanganeri flowers usually were – stood out, distinct and visible. The woody resinous aroma of eucalyptus mingled with the scent of jasmine and travelled in through the window, carrying colours with it – the waxy ivory and pink of frangipani and the ambers and ochres of the crotons. I was filled with a kind of hyper excitement, my chest quivering from having gone as far as I had, and I stretched up to hold the volatiles, elongating my extremities to immerse myself in them, allowing them to attach to me. Ecstasy. I could fly.
‘Ma, Ma!’ Manu’s voice was loud. Loud and intrusive, taking me deeper into myself to try to escape it. ‘Charu!’ He was sobbing now, and I could feel him shaking.
‘Please go, Mr Narasimhan.’
‘You are not needing some help? I will stay, or bring the doctor.’
‘Thank you, thank you, no, we don’t need anything, please …’
The front door banged and Charu, my beautiful Charu, came in on a cloud, no harsh sounds accompanying her. She lay her cool hand on my skin, which was brave of her, I know, because she had always been horrified, even as a little girl, when my skin began to mottle with the strange mobilities.
‘Why, why?’ Manu was saying. ‘I was just here, watching her. Why did she let this happen; why didn’t she ask me for another pill?’
I drifted back towards my other existences where everything was intensely felt, every sensation magnified. I was a stretched, vibrating string, highly tuned, separated from the low noise of everyday. I could do anything; I was alight.
But Manu was loud, holding my arms, shouting at me, interfering. I began to hear the words he was saying and participate in the children’s emotions even as I strove to float above and shape my world in wild and wonderful ways. ‘The thing is, Man,’ I heard my daughter say gently, ‘I know why Ma’s done it. It’s happened to me too. Feels like magic.’
Manu’s breath turned to desperate, gasping sobs, full of loss and fear. Just as it did when his various cats died, and his father … Whenever it happened, he would collapse into me, clutching my shoulders, leaning into me. And even after I was weakened by the increasing frequency of the morphing, I always found the strength to bear his weight till he could breathe again.
‘Pull yourself together, Man. I am here. I won’t go away. I can come back from the other state whenever I want.’
‘I can come back too,’ I called out. ‘I can do anything, I can come back too.’
‘Watch out, she’s starting to vibrate, stay out of her way.’
‘She won’t hurt us, Manu. She knows us.’
But Manu wasn’t listening. He was backing into the wall and screaming, ‘Get out, lock the door.’
‘It’s her, Man, it’s Ma. Just stay quiet and nothing will happen.’
‘Yes, yes, listen to Charu, it’s me,’ I responded, but as my external vocal chords began to resonate, the words disappeared into the giant buzzing sound they made.
I had to stop or I would slice my children into bits. I tried to hold my abdomen tight so as to control it all, but I couldn’t any more. I was panicking. The sound reached a higher and higher pitch.
‘Manu, Manu!’ I could hear my daughter. But I couldn’t see anything any more as I started to rise and hit the walls and the ceiling. I could hear glass break, and the fragrance of the perfume my daughter had given me pervaded the air and entered the pores of my underbelly, oversweet and strong. I bent down to look.
‘Now!’ I heard them shout. I felt Charu’s cool hand on my tight, tense body, reaching to still the viciously sharp chord. I could feel Manu’s firm, warm grasp. I had to stop from moving or their fine young skin would be cut, their flesh lacerated. I tried to breathe and count to three thousand six hundred and seventy-three, even as I tasted their blood.
Excerpted from the title story in Polymorphism, HarperCollins, 2017
Reprinted with permission
Elsewhere in the issue: An interview with Indira Chandrasekhar
Indira Chandrasekhar started writing fiction with an increasing focus on the short story upon returning to India after more than seventeen years abroad. She has a PhD in Biophysics and, prior to committing to fiction writing, studied the dynamics of biological membranes at research institutes in India, the United States and Switzerland. Links to her published work are available on her blog. She co-edited the anthology Pangea, Thames River Press, 2012. A collection of her short stories Polymorphism was published by HarperCollins in 2017.