“Vanaja will be fifteen next August. All her friends have seen periods. She isn’t getting any.” Ammu had closed all the windows that opened towards the main road. Buses exhale and belch a lot. They wouldn't have been able to speak quietly if the windows were open. May heat was highest in Bengaluru this year, the newspapers reported. “They say that every year!” Appa would say.
It was a prime location when Vanaja’s Grandpa had constructed this two storeyed home. Back then, Assaye Street had a boulevard along its side. “Ah, the fragrance of the tamarind buds in the air! In April, we would get intoxicated just inhaling it.” That was Grandpa’s catchphrase whenever anyone spoke about Bengaluru being one of the best hi-tech cities in the world. Vanaja was born inhaling the smoke and stench from around. She could never understand the old man’s lament.
Ammu sat next to Angela, a neighbour and a senior nurse at a nearby clinic. “Come tomorrow. I will tell the gynae to check. Don’t worry!”
Thus started Vanaja’s trips to the doctors, both medical and spin varieties. They asked Ammu to wait for some more time. A good student and the captain of her school volleyball team for girls, Vanaja couldn’t understand her mother’s woes.
“Go and play with the boys, Vanaja. Want to kill us or what?” the girls would say after bearing her smashes. Boys, of course, couldn’t be seen defeated by someone in a skirt and shunned her offer to practice together.
On the day of Varalakshmi Puja, her school was closed. Ammu was out with the neighbourhood wives to the temple. Appa was busy in his daily provisions shop on the ground floor. Vanaja stripped to her skin and checked herself as much as she could twist her torso and neck. Those twin braids, she never liked the way those serpents slowed her down during the field and track events. Otherwise, she found herself just fine.
“Aiyyo, what is this, Vanaja? First, you played like the boys, and now, you look like one!” Ammu had placed three and a half tight slaps on her face. The last one was reduced in its intensity as Appa had rushed upstairs from the shop on hearing Vanaja scream and slowed Ammu down. Ammu didn’t speak to her the whole day. The next day, she didn’t even make her Payasam. It was her birthday.
In the next few weeks, a few rulers were broken on Vanaja’s back. Ammu’s locking the bedroom door, threatening to kill herself if Vanaja wore those shorts again, became a regular tamasha. Soon, she understood that sulking and stopping food wouldn’t make Vanaja feel like a girl.
Ammu extended her circle of belief from the clinics to the temples. She circled the Om Shakti figurine at the crossing nine times every day, without fail, and fed the beggars every full moon. Reshma Apa from across the street suggested offering a chadar at the MM Road mosque. She obliged, Pa got no wiser. Angela swore that lighting candles every Sunday at the St. Rock’s Church had caused miracles. She perfected the art of crossing her chest. Amen!
It was a TV program that made Ammu doubt what Vanaja always knew. ‘Is your child trapped in someone else’s body?’ In contrast to the usual shouting bouts on the News channels that Appa loved to watch during dinner, this debate was with reasons, arguments and stories from the transcended persons.
Vanaja’s cycle just refused to set in. Her friends were growing heavier at the torso and some needed dupatta as well. She remained her waif-like self, growing muscular limbs powerful enough to outrun any boy at the school.
Dr Sheela Reddy was a senior gynaecologist at the Baptiste. “Unusual!” She nodded after the tests and the results, “highly unusual!” She looked up through her reading glasses, “I had read about this in the journals, but in reality? Wow!”
She recommended a consultation with the head of the department, Dr Shruthi. For the weird cases like Vanaja’s, she was an automatic choice in the hospital, across the departments. After all, she had done her doctorate in the United States and had practised for a decade there. If she didn’t know bizarre, then who would?
“Be seated, Mrs Hariharan.” Ammu took time to realise it was for her. “Vanaja, can you please wait outside?” The way Dr Shruthi looked at her past the top of her reading glass, Vanaja knew something was not right.
“You may tell in front of me.” Vanaja had her chin up. Ammu looked at her eyes. Vanaja’s eyes reflected the grilled window of the chamber. “Let her be.”
The doctor was hesitant, “Vanaja, the girls in your class, are you close with them?”
Vanaja didn’t know whether ‘yes’ or ‘no’ was a correct answer to avoid wasting more time in the hospital. She didn’t like the smell of phenyl a bit. “It’s ok.”
“Ok? You are not close to any of them?” The days she couldn’t attend school, the days she felt giddy, Sreejitha helped her copy the class notes. In the last period one day, Vanaja was late, still in the field practising to basket well. Julia kept telling the geography teacher that Vanaja was in the loo.
“Not really.” The boys had laughed at her suggestion to let her practice with them. They had called the other kids from the higher classes, and all of them kept teasing her for the next few weeks, till she stopped playing volleyball altogether. No one stood beside her, no one.
“Boys? Do you have any close friend among them?”
“What has happened, doctor?” Ammu was sweating. “Is she…?”
“No, for God’s sake! She is a good girl.” Dr Shruthi realised it was time for her to tell them her findings on the report. “The reports indicate an increase in testosterone, er… male hormones, umm… something that’s found more in the body of the boys.”
Ammu looked befuddled. She missed her husband at that point, but then when was he ever any smarter than her? “So, what will happen now?” She leaned forward towards the doctor and whispered, “She can’t have babies?”
“That’s a long way to go. She is just fifteen, isn’t it?” The doc looked at the printout again. “We will give her some medicines and observe. It may be temporary due to some changes at her age.”
It was not. The hospital made a small multi-disciplinarian committee to try to understand the strange results that Vanaja’s pathological reports divulged. She was not losing on her female hormones yet gaining on the male ones. During her spit test, some microbes were found. The medical college and hospital didn’t have any match for that in their database.
Vanaja had stopped worrying much. She was okay either way, male or female. Her Ammu was worried sick, Pa was stealing glances. Grandma would try to lap her up and tell the tales of Harihara. How the mighty Shiva chased Vishnu, then as Mohini, and both merged into one divine form. “Don’t spoil her young mind.” Ammu would shoo Vanaja away, “Go and study. You want to pass tenth or not?” Aiyappan, Hariharaputra, was their family God. He couldn’t abet Ammu’s fears much.
That Sunday, she was muted. Sitting on a bench, munching on the boiled peanuts that Dadu brought for her, the words of Dr Shruthi from the last meeting won’t leave her alone.
“Good evening, Vanaja. Feeling better today?” Vanaja felt no different from the first time she visited the doc. She said so. “No improvement?” What was supposed to improve? She never felt anything wrong, to begin with. Ammu dragged her here and there. Periods are messy; all the girls in her class could vouch for that. She didn’t bleed, good, no?
“Can you take her to this clinic?” Dr Shruthi scribbled. Her handwriting belied her being a doctor. “Where is it?” “J P Nagar, I sit there twice a week. It’s a speciality clinic for Dermatology, er… for skin. We would like to do a few more advanced tests. There we have bought some new machines. Our test kits are the latest.”
“But that will be quite costly, no?” Ammu had not bought anyone a new dress for the past six months.
“Don’t worry. Can you submit the income certificate of her father? I can recommend a partial waiver.” She paused, “It’s a unique case, can’t leave it like that.” She measured up Vanaja, “Come there next Saturday, at about ten. I will catch up with my mentor, eh, my teacher from Philadelphia, means, from the USA, America. We will speak to him about your case.”
Her last report showed the presence of mesophilic bacteria in her blood. Vanaja, of course, didn’t understand head or tail. It was not one of the things she had read yet in her bio textbook.
“These bacteria are used to filter polluted gas. How did it land up in human blood?” Head of the department, pathology, Dr Krishnappa had scored a centum in Biology at High School. His parents couldn’t afford to send him abroad for higher studies. He didn’t have much ambition and settled for Baptiste. He checked with his friends in the USA, the UK and Australia. No one knew any reference. A friend’s friend working in Shenzen had heard one such case in the frozen interiors of North China, but it was unfounded. In her email, she had asked, “Has it affected her skin cells?”
Sitting in Bengaluru, Dr Krishnappa couldn’t figure why she would ask that. Appa was accompanying her that day, as Ammu was unwell. Dr Krishnappa informed him about this, Vanaja overheard.
That Saturday, when they travelled 18 kilometres across the city in an auto and reached the clinic that Dr Shruthi had advised, their heart sank on seeing the pretty doctor’s ashen face. She had more frowns on her forehead than the creases on her apron. “I did a conference call with Dr Anderson. He will check among his peers, I mean, friends and come back.”
“What has happened to Vanaja?” It had been a month that they had first met Dr Shruthi. Vanaja’s family had been patient with her, despite Vanaja missing school schedules, her father having to keep the shop closed on occasions, and her grandparents waiting to hear after every visit that she would be alright again. Ammu’s blood pressure had dipped. She complained of giddiness, Dr Shruthi had said, “Vertigo,” and given her medicine.
One and a half hour of auto rickshaw ride through the peak, office-bound traffic drew the last straw. “We are just making trips after trips. Is she… becoming a boy?” Ammu grew breathless during the last sentence. “Will she again be normal?” Appa was more practical of the two, always.
Vanaja felt the same way as she always did. The hormonal medicines had made her bowel movements inconsistent. Rest, she felt fine. Her mind was under stress though. She knew that Appa was losing money due to her. His shop was a popular one, yet when a company launched its new juice range and offered him a shelf, he didn’t go for it. She felt bad for everyone.
So what if she might become a boy? She had always wanted to play football in the rains. Then, she could. She didn’t much care if she became a boy, or an air filter, or any other thing for that matter, till her family was there with her and she could think and act like she was doing now.
With overcast sky and a fading sun, it was getting cooler inside Cubbon Park.
“You don’t want to run a few laps today?” Grandpa looked her through the corners of his eyes. “Not in this dress.” Ammu had forced her to wear a churidar, “I won’t take a sip of water otherwise,” she had roared, tears tampering her anguish.
“Why? You know Seethamma in our village had run so fast behind her calf one day, in saree, I tell you! You should have seen.” He chuckled.
“How could I? I wasn’t born then, no?” she smiled, after a good, full month.
Through the leafy shades over their bench, golden drops began to pour. Sun was shining from the South-Western corner, but the clouds just above decided to play some tricks. It was a quiet drizzle, drops diffused into sprays by mischievous winds before touching Vanaja. "The fox and the crow/raven are getting married", Grandma would’ve said seeing the sunshine and raindrops together.
Vanaja raised her face towards the Sun. Grandpa saw a faint trace of fur above her lips. She raised her two hands to brace the blessings and began to swirl as if she were five, or six. Grandpa saw the hair on her arms had a greenish tinge.
“Impossible!” Dr Shruthi had to sit down to avoid looking unprofessional and gasped at the reports from the diagnosis of Vanaja’s skin cells. “I will request Dr Anderson for a second opinion. We may need to take a bit more of her skin from the forearm. This time, we shall take it from the right hand.”
The doctor finished the glass of water, always kept on her right side, in one breath. Her body language, expressions and tension were visible to Ammu. Appa had gone with Vanaja to give routine blood samples to the lab. Vanaja’s case was now known among the doctors and a few other staffs. “See her?” Someone would nudge a colleague, “Going to be a ‘him’ soon!” Giggles were contained, but scoffs could be heard.
“Is it true that her blood can clean the Bengaluru air?” A young girl with large, round spectacles and a mobile phone aimed at Vanaja asked Appa. They had finished giving her blood for the sample. He gave Vanaja a handkerchief and asked her to cover her face from the citizen journo.
“Listen, what she is saying now! Aiyyo, why all the miseries have to strike us at once?” Ammu broke down on seeing Pa and sobbed hysterically.
“Will I die?” was all Vanaja could ask Dr Shruthi. “No!” The doc was emphatic. “Your body vitals are fine, in fact, better than the average people.” Both her parents looked up to the doctor. “It is just that the phenomenon we are seeing here is unique.”
“What?” Pa’s calm façade showed fissures. “What have you found?
“Her skin cells are hosting some algae, harmless ones though, and they seem to have chlorophyll”. Vanaja had already covered algae and chlorophyll in her course. “Aren’t algae bad?” She looked at Dr Shruthi first and then at Ammu, “Same thing that causes a green layer on Ulsoor Lake,” she mimicked her biology teacher for a better understanding of her mother. “And aren’t they plants? How can they come inside my body?”
“You are quite a good student, Vanaja!” The doctor was surprised at her bearing, “Yes, they are plants. And no, they aren’t always bad. They are not showing any hostility to your cells, for example. They are just producing oxygen.”
“Photosynthesis?” It was now Vanaja’s turn to be surprised. She never told anyone, but biology always fascinated her. “You can be a doctor, Vanaja”, her teacher would say. “I have to live until that time,” she would say to herself and smile to the teacher.
Grandpa had taken grandma for a pilgrimage to Tiruvannamalai. He had made his own fortune. He had moved out of his hamlet near Palakkad at an early age. First at Coimbatore and then at Bangalore, he had done all hard working but honest jobs possible till he could buy the land for their house and the provisions store. However, whenever the times were uncertain, his wife of forty-five years trusted Gods more than him. At seventy-five, he had given up arguing his side. That evening, under the fading Sun at the Cubbon Park, he had seen Vanaja smiling and dancing under the golden sprays. He was not sure whether he could retain that all by himself.
’Freaks of Nature! 16-year-old boy can turn polluted air to food’, exclaimed the headlines of a popular English tabloid. The assistant at the pathology lab had a girlfriend interning at a webzine, who had a cousin at the tabloid mentoring her. The article went sci-fi and contained a picture of Vanaja pulling the handkerchief on her face. Her cropped hair and slim frame with jeans / T-shirt led the paparazzo to the conclusion about her gender. It was Appa’s brown checked shirt that confirmed Grandpa’s doubt about the identity of the ‘freak’.
The Internet made the article viral. Rationalists scoffed at it. Environmentalists pressed the ‘Like’ button. Believers set off on their desperate zeal. They were not sure of the religion of their new Messiah, so each one speculated in their own way.
At Tiruvannamalai, Grandpa saw that news in a Tamil newspaper after forty-eight hours of it going viral. He didn’t know that in virtual space, being viral for an hour was like being seen in a newspaper for a year. The related posts were nearing a million views and shares, TV debates on medical privacy had started, and a few international scientists were roped in by the media for expert comments. The scientific community was divided in its trust about the case.
The hospital had closed its gates. The lab assistant who had leaked was on contract. He was made to sign a bond of complete silence which was bargained with the hope to be on the permanent rolls. Dr Shruthi had to leave for a conference in the United States and was advised not to come back in a hurry.
Grandpa called home. The landline seemed disconnected. The mobile phone of Vanaja’s father was switched off. They cut short their pursuit of virtue, checked the cash balance in hand and decided to hire a car to take them to Bengaluru.
Their shop was closed. It was only four thirty in the evening, Grandpa was alarmed. The main gate of their home was locked from inside. Grandpa pressed the bell, it didn’t ring.
Sundar, a staff at their shop, was smoking on the road. Seeing them, he threw the bidi away and rushed to help them out with luggage.
“Where is everybody?” Grandma asked. Sundar hinted with his eyes, inside. He gestured them to wait and ran behind the house. There was a spiral staircase at the rear for the janitors. Sundar went up and knocked the window towards the Utility area thrice, as was advised by Appa.
Appa shushed his parents after opening the door. “Is everything alright with Vanaja?” Grandma couldn’t contain her worries. Appa led them to the room at the South-West corner of the first floor. This room received maximum daylight and was their bedroom, though after 1990’s, they couldn’t keep it open due to stench and smoke from the street.
“Three days now,” Amma sobbed, “Doctors wanted treatment at the hospital. They can clean everything, they said. Your grandchild is refusing, Ma, what do I do with her?”
The window was open. “No stench from the drain!” noticed Grandma. Near the window, with a strip of cloth covering a small portion below waist, laid the child with back towards them.
On hearing them come, Vanaja turned her head and smiled, “It’s nothing, tell her, no? They need soil. Do I have soil? They will all go away, soon.” Tears on her cheek radiated with the rainbows inside.
The crimson sun shone on her glistening skin. Tiny plants had sprouted from a few pores. Seeing the split seeds stuck at the neck of the leaves, Grandpa said, “Looks like Tamarind, might be a new variety.”