by Sita Bhaskar
A global pandemic, they say. The Leadership of your country, India, declares a curfew. Stay indoors from dawn to dusk this Sunday. Stand on your porches, balconies and terraces at five p.m. Clap and ring bells as a show of solidarity against the virus. You can’t do that. Not with your newly diagnosed bipolar son who cowers under the table when he hears loud noises.
At five minutes to five, you retreat with your son into the innermost bedroom that’s blanketed by the white noise of the air conditioner. Your husband, for fear of being accused of being anti-national by the lemmings in your country, spends five minutes on the balcony with an old aluminum pan and strikes it vigorously with a metal ladle as if trying to chase the crows away.
Even before the balconies in your neighborhood resound with the din of pots and pans, even before the gaumutra parties you watch while suppressing your gag reflex of people drinking cow urine, your son has been battling his demons. The diagnosis sweeps into your lives like the virus, hijacks the nerve pathways of his brain, and puts your well-oiled household on a ventilator, gasping for time to understand this new invader in your midst.
The diagnosis drops between the third and fourth semester of engineering school that your son has been diligently attending. Until he does not. He drops out of college.
“What is this gap year you are discussing with him?” you argued with your husband. “Do we live in America? He has to learn to live with the disorder. It won’t go away in a year.”
Your husband, always one for collaborative decisions, sets up a meeting with the college principal.
“Will the principal even know anything?” you said. “He is an administrator, not a psychiatrist.”
But you went for the meeting. You were willing to go anywhere, do anything to help your son.
“I will hold his place,” the principal said. “Just contact me when he wants to enroll again.”
This crumb of understanding was so out of character from what you had heard about college administrators that you bawled right there; the framed photographs of stern and unforgiving past professors and principals looking down on you.
You are still a family learning to live with his disorder, when, like the tumbleweed shape it resembles, the virus gains momentum. Two days after the echoes from the pots and pans have died down, the Leadership announces a nationwide lockdown for three weeks—starting four hours from the announcement. Four hours! Three weeks! Your son has an appointment with his psychiatrist in a week. Do you have enough medication for your son? Will pharmacies be locked down? The Leadership does not have children, though the Leader treats the entire country like witless toddlers. As you set the table for dinner, you scramble and list your needs for the next three weeks. You remember your mother. And your husband’s father. They cannot be left alone for three weeks. You are distracted by your son shutting doors and drawing curtains across windows, saying, “We can’t let it come here. It will take you away. It’ll take you both away.”
After his diagnosis, your son does not like to be held or hugged. It has been hard adjusting to a life where you cannot ruffle his hair, adjust his shirt collar, or merely reach out and touch his arm in passing. Now you wrap your arms around yourself for comfort and say, “Nothing is taking me away. I’m still here, aren’t I?” and pat yourself on your shoulder in reassurance.
Though you stand only six feet apart, your husband sends you a text: “Can you manage him while I bring your mother and my father here? We cannot leave them in isolation for three weeks. Agree?”
“Agree. Leave now,” you text back.
You use Google maps to show your son where the virus originated, Wuhan, and how far it is from Bangalore, the city you live in. Remember what you learned in school: In the north, the snow-capped Himalayas stand as sentinels to protect our motherland from foreign invasion. And even if it infiltrates our border with China—like the Chinese do from time to time—do you think this feeble flimsy tumbleweed will make it past all the polluted rivers and pockmarked, garbage-filled roads and enter Bangalore? You behave like the Leadership, treating your son like a three-year-old. Your scientific mind berates you: your thinking belongs in the gutter with the goons who chant “Go Corona Go.”
With one minute until curfew, your husband returns with his father and your mother. Your son is solemn. He helps them carry their hurriedly packed belongings. He wants to shut and lock the gates before midnight.
Everyone in the house pitches in: to protect the country, to protect ourselves. Your son cleans and sanitizes all the rooms. Your father-in-law professes to be a good cook and takes over the kitchen. Your husband winks at you over his morning coffee and you know that you are not the only one ignorant of his father’s culinary skills. Your mother, not to be outdone, does the dishes. You roll your eyes at your husband. Your mother has not so much as washed a teaspoon in her cossetted life. In this uneasy alliance, you and your husband navigate the challenges of working from home. You merely transition to working from home five days a week instead of three.
A week later, the Leadership announces a nine-at-nine. Dispel the darkness for nine minutes at nine p.m. Your mother unearths all the lamps in the house. Grandmother and grandson spend the day washing and polishing lamps and soaking cotton wicks in oil. You don your rose-colored glasses; all that is missing is the music. As you run through an assortment of tunes in your head, your husband rushes out of the study, trips over your son’s outstretched legs and shouts, “Appa!” Your son races behind him. You jump up to see your father-in-law standing on a wobbling stool at the edge of the balcony and stringing up your Diwali lights, even though Diwali is months away.
“I was hanging up the lighting for tonight,” your father-in-law says, holding on to your husband’s shoulder and stepping down to the tiled balcony floor.
“You know you shouldn’t shout,” you tell your husband. “What if Appa had pitched forward when you startled him and fallen off the balcony?”
“That is all okay in theory,” your husband says. “Let me see you keep your cool in the same situation.”
“Thatha, were you trying to jump from the balcony?” your son asks.
“Chii, don’t talk like that. All these bad thoughts. Where do you get them?” your mother says.
“No, my child. I was trying to help with lights for this evening,” your father-in-law says. “Sometimes we old people cause more confusion instead of helping.”
Later, when you are alone you tell your mother about your son. “Don’t stop him from saying what he thinks. If you call them bad thoughts, he will clam up and we will be left in the dark.”
Your mother waves your concern away with a flick of her hand as if it were a pesky mosquito. “No, you have to force these bad thoughts out of his mind. Look at all the trouble people are going through now. He has everything. Others have nothing. You have to show him that.”
Was she always like this, your mother? Your childhood seems so long ago. You don’t remember it anymore. Motherhood has made you think all mothers are like you.
The nine-at-nine does not dispel loneliness, as intended. The outside world gets uglier. The Leadership refuses to acknowledge another India: an urban India that lives in shanties around work sites. Bewildered, abandoned, homeless and starving, this bedraggled population traipses across thousands of miles under the blazing heat of the unforgiving summer sun, dragging their infants, their aged, and their meager belongings, packed in discarded suitcases without wheels, cast off backpacks with broken zippers and bulging PP rice bags tied with pieces of fabric. Berated by the upper classes for not following the lockdown. Forced to forage for food. Forced by khaki clad police, lathi sticks in hand, to frog hop on tar baked roads.
“We have to limit television usage,” you whisper to your husband in bed, after an evening of trying to corral the family to play board games. It seems like every time you turn around, the television is on again.
“How? They are our parents,” your husband says. “You think they will listen to us?”
“I don’t care. We have to think of our son.”
“I know. Who would have thought…” his voice dies down. “After all this is over, we can get him into regular sessions with his psychiatrist.”
“The pandemic should have given us a few more months. Just a couple of months to learn how to deal with it,” you say. Even with your husband’s gentle breathing on your neck, you are not able to sleep. When your son has restless nights and shouts and thrashes in his sleep, one of you drags the couch in the living room across the front door and sleeps on it, so that your son does not walk out of the house and harm himself. You should go out and be the sentry tonight. But your son’s childhood runs as a silent motion picture before your eyes, and you sink into these memories. Is there anything you could have done? Was any of this your fault?
The next morning, your husband is waiting for you outside the bathroom when you emerge smelling of toothpaste and mouthwash. He leans forward and puts his head on your shoulder. “The news today is even worse, my heart,” he says.
His words caress your neck.
You don’t want to know more. How can the news be worse? You step away from your husband and enter the kitchen, drawn by the whiff of fresh brewed coffee.
“But who asked them to sleep on the railway tracks? Don’t they know trains will be coming?” Your mother’s voice intrudes, ushering the outside world into your home and you know why things are worse today.
The exhausted workers, walking home to their villages hundreds of miles away, were sleeping on the railway tracks.
“How can they sleep so sound that they can’t hear trains coming?” your mother says. “Are they deaf?”
Your husband pries the coffee mug from your clenched fingers.
You grab the remote from your mother and fling it at the television.
“What are you doing?” Her voice drowns out the voice of the overexcited news anchor.
“Enough! It is what you are not doing. It is what you are blind to.”
“I didn’t say anything,” she says.
“You say enough. You sit here, within the comfort of these four walls and pass a running commentary without understanding the deep agony people are going through.”
“Comfort? I am more comfortable in my own house. If you don’t want me here, I’ll go back.” She heaves herself off the couch and lumbers to her room, muttering about her bad knees.
You follow her. “Go. Go like those people on television. When you feel tired, sleep on the footpath, sleep on the railway tracks. If a cop catches you, do frog jumps as a punishment.” This is not your voice. This is not what you want to say.
You walk into your room and slam the door shut. You don’t fall on the bed and huddle under the bedcovers. You open your wardrobe and sweep everything to the floor. You step over your clothes and go into the bathroom. You allow the scalding hot water to pound on your body, allow your warm tears to slide down and play among the soap suds streaming to the drain.
When you come out of the bathroom, your son and his grandfather are arranging your clothes back in the wardrobe. Disapproval fills the room. Is it from your son or your father-in-law?
“You really need to get a grip, Mom,” your son says. “Otherwise, everyone will think you are bipolar.” He shakes out your dress and holds it as if measuring if it would fit him. He drops it on the floor and leaves the room.
You close your eyes. The tears have not disappeared even after a hot shower. Your father-in-law pulls a chair next to yours and pats the back of your palm gently, while you cry loud snotty sobs. He calls you kanamma, precious child.
By the peak of summer, every day is a working day for you and your husband. The work-from-home romanticism has worn off; the corporate beasts demand quarterly results. Engrossed in work at your desk, a high-pitched howl reaches you. Even stray dogs have become needy during this lockdown and their territorial fights fill the neighborhood with constant barking and howling. You look out the window, but you don’t see the dogs. Is it a baby or a toddler throwing a tantrum? An entire population held indoors in this sweltering heat. How long is the lockdown going to last? You shake your head in irritation. When the sound continues and grows louder, you realize it’s coming from inside the apartment. You follow the howl into the living room, where your son is cowering behind the couch, his body hunched like an animal that has just been kicked, his arms held above his head, his hands clenched. Your scream brings your husband out of the study. You both crouch close to him.
“What happened, baba? Are you hurt?” You know he doesn’t like to be touched, but it takes all your control not to cradle him in your arms.
“Can’t you see? Can’t you see what he’s done?” your son says, loud enough to jolt you upright. He is pointing to the television. You look at the screen. And you rub your eyes. Television is always crammed with several things zooming across the screen. It is like watching six bad movies at the same time. It takes you a while to read all the flashing, streaming news.
It seems an actor from a movie your son liked—one you saw with him and your husband last year—has just committed suicide. The news blares on the screen in a continuous loop. You try to grab the remote and switch off the television.
But your son keeps hitting his head with the remote. “Why did he commit suicide? How did he commit suicide? Tell me, tell me.”
“It doesn’t matter how,” you say.
For the rest of the evening, your son refuses to switch off the television.
The suicide takes over your son’s life. He has an obsessive need to draw a road map from how a successful actor was led to the end of a rope that eventually tightened around his neck.
During the initial outpouring of public sympathy on television and social media, you lean back into the luxury of optimism. You are no longer alone. With such a high-profile suicide, there will be other parents, mental health experts and social workers talking about depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety and panic attacks to list a few. Amidst family and community support, awareness, understanding and empathy will spread.
People who earlier said: “Have you tried yoga? Believe me, go to this yoga teacher. He/she will make your son mentally strong. All this unipolar-bipolar-tripolar is modern nonsense. Meditation is best.”
Who said: “Go to this temple. Pray to these gods. Do this puja.”
Who said: “These modern doctors will keep pumping drugs into his body. They get a kick-back for every prescription they write. They will say anything to make money.”
You hope and believe that these people will now educate themselves.
You wait for television and social media to show the young lady, who left the actor, and his grieving family come together in sorrow, to memorialize a short-lived life, to celebrate the successes, to remember the joyful moments, to reach out to other friends. You wait and wait and wait. And wait some more.
The young actor was killed. He did not commit suicide.
The young lady partner had stashes of prescriptions.
She gave him drugs.
She performed black magic on him.
She operated a drug ring.
She should be arrested and charged with his death.
Why did she say, “I’m sorry, babu” when she saw his body? Was she apologizing for killing him?
You grieve. You grieve for this young man whose demons got the better of him. You grieve for a young lady who dared to help her partner with his medications. You manage your son’s medications. You do it because you must. Would you be accused of drugging him?
You try to prevent your son from watching when smirking news anchors show close-ups of the body and other toxic sons-of-bitches spew venomous filth over three simple words, “I’m sorry, babu.” It is what you would say if your son did something like this. I’m sorry, my heart, that your pain and suffering were so unbearable that you decided to take this final step.
And the virus is still here.
Your son now ventures out on walks on his own. You are still under relaxed lockdown, whatever that means. You warn him about coming home before the sun sets, even though the curfew starts after dark, at nine. You don’t want policemen working out their frustrations on your son’s body like they did with the migrant workers.
“Where is he?” your husband asks one day while he’s out.
You look up from the document you are working on. You had drawn the curtains in your room to block the glare on your laptop screen. You roll your chair to the window and look out. There is no glare. Day has handed over the baton to night.
You jump up and the chair rolls back on its well-oiled wheels and hits the wall.
“I’ll take a stroll and look for him,” your husband says. “You stay here in case he comes home before me.”
Your husband sprints down the road as you watch from the balcony. You look up at the sky as if willing the moon to give more light in the absence of streetlights.
A shadow from your terrace above you is reflected on your favorite tree. The branches sway gently in the breeze and the shadow sways from side to side. Did you forget to bring the clothes down from your clothesline today? Or was it yesterday? Your days and nights blur into each other and you can’t even remember when you did the wash. You freeze. You are not able to turn your head, not able to raise your eyes, do not, will not see from where that shadow is thrown. You don’t know how long you stand, feet glued to the balcony floor, throat constricted, heart in your mouth.
Suddenly, as if a switch goes on, you unfreeze. You race up the stairs to the terrace, but when you reach the last step, you slow down. You do not want to go out there. You do not want to see what cast the shadow. You step carefully on the terrace. On the cement-concrete floor of the terrace, your footsteps make no sound. Your son has climbed on to the ledge and is swaying. You do not want to be the one looking down on your son’s body splattered on the ground below and whispering, “I’m sorry, baba.”
If he jumps, you jump. It is as simple as that.
Who will reach the ground first?
You have never been a gymnast. You will never climb on tables to clean the ceiling fan. You will never climb on the kitchen counter to reach the cabinet where you hide chocolate from yourself.
By some impossible feat you race to the ledge, jump on it and land next to your son. And with your elbow, you push. Hard. Which one of you has screamed? The pressure of the push makes you both fall. Back. On the terrace floor. You roll and jump on your son’s body pinning him down. When the scream reaches you again, it is your husband. He has jumped on both of you. For several minutes, hearts beat, legs and hands shake. Slowly the three of you fall away and stand up. You huddle in a tight circle as if planning your next play.
“You saved him. You saved him,” your husband keeps whispering. “You brought him back from the brink.”
Finally, you break away from the circle. There are no half-measures. No brinks. You are either dead or you are not. Your son is not. For now.
Sita Bhaskar is the author of two books: Flirting With Trouble, a novella and interlaced short stories (Rookwood Press, VA), and Shielding Her Modesty, a cross-cultural short story collection (Frog Books, India). While her short stories have been published in several literary magazines, her short story, “Swayamvaram,” published in Crab Orchard Review, was listed among “100 Other Distinguished Stories of 2007” in Best American Short Stories (BASS) for 2008. Her epistolary novel, Tara and Sandy: Slow Dance of Infinite Stars, co-authored with Sabarna Roy, is scheduled for publication in Fall 2022. A resident of Madison, WI, Sita Bhaskar also spends her time in Mysuru, India, though the pandemic has played havoc with her migratory patterns.