Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Phobia (Published in eFiction India September 2013)

The Radiology Department of the hospital was crowded. People were waiting on different chairs across the room in twos and threes and sometimes alone, with one of them drinking water every two minutes. Administrative staff in impeccably draped sarees and nurses in pale blues hurtled around with a definite sense of purpose. Occasionally, someone’s name was called, and that person would walk into one of the “secret” rooms accompanied by a pale blue dress. Their kin would give them reassuring nods or a pat on their back or arm, and the patients seem to gather courage from it to enter the chamber. A faint smell of medical spirits hung in the air, mixed with that of phenyl, and strangely, menthol.

Aleena strummed her fingers nervously on her vanity bag, clutching it close to her chest, looking around with a vague sense of panic. She was observing and thinking at the same time, leaving a misty look in her eyes. She did not smile at the pleasant burqa-clad woman to her right but noticed that she was clutching one infant and carrying another in her belly. She did not listen to what the fashionable couple on her left was talking about, though she heard the word ‘bladder’ more than once. She was lost in her own thoughts, as she anxiously waited for one of the pale blues to call her name, dreading what she would discover behind the doors.

It had been fifty days since her last period and she hadn’t had the next one yet. This was unusually late for her. Suhaan, her husband, could not accompany her to the hospital as he had an important meeting to attend to. But he was texting her every five minutes enquiring about the progress of the diagnosis. Is the blood test done? Did it hurt when they inserted a syringe into your veins? Is the urine test done? What is happening at the scanning centre? Why are the doctors so slow with examination? He was impatient. But unlike Aleena, who was hoping the tests would show a negative on pregnancy and instead blame the delayed periods on a cyst or a fibroid, he wanted it to be pregnancy. He actually wanted to be a father.

Aleena couldn’t believe it. It was a rare crop of men who wanted to be fathers at a young age, and boy, wasn’t it fortunate that she was married to one? No. Aleena was not quite looking forward to motherhood. It seemed quite terrorising to her, to be fully accountable for another human being. She couldn’t imagine how she could own a baby, a child, a teenager, an adult, one after the other, for the rest of her life. Her entire life would change, and Aleena was very averse to change. Even when she got married and came to Suhaan’s home, she refused to change for the sake of his parents. If there were things about her that annoyed his parents – she merely did them when they did not notice. Well, you could argue that was ‘change’ too, but it was of a lesser intensity and Aleena could live with that.

Suhaan said she was merely stubborn; she knew she was not just stubborn but selfish too. Suhaan was a go-with-the-flow man, taking everything in its stride, always ready to take up responsibilities and ownership of solutions. Aleena was quite the opposite – she was mortified at having to let go of herself.

In her darkest thoughts, she wondered if she could divorce Suhaan and go away, but then her better sense prevailed and brought her back to the reality of the institution of marriage and the feelings of her own parents.

One of the grey doors opened and a nurse called out, “Aleena Roy!” She stirred jerkily and approached the door. The nurse smiled gently, asking, “Pregnancy check-up?” She nodded, trying to curve her lips into a smile. The nurse waved her into the ante-chamber, separated by a blue curtain. She was directed to lie on the bed as a bespectacled doctor washed his hands at the sink next to the bed and offered her a benign smile. She tried to relax; muttering inside her head, “Relax, babes, it’s nothing to panic about…”

The nurse asked her to bare her tummy, and started applying a gel on her lower abdomen. A shudder ran down her spine. No, I don’t want to be pregnant, she panicked. She felt as if she should get off the bed and run while she had the chance. Scoot, her brain told her. Her thoughts ran wild in negation, and she felt as if she was in labour, or that her body was rejecting her personality, or like someone was about to give her an electric shock and she was protesting against it – the nurse gave her a sharp look, and she realised that her body had tightened into a knot. She exhaled deeply and relaxed her muscles a bit. She gave the nurse a faint smile. The nurse returned the smile pleasantly.

“Don’t worry, it’s going to be all right. What, you have bleeding or something?”

Aleena shook her head in negation. She could not bring herself to talk lest her fear come pouring out in torrents. It wasn’t just her own selfishness or loss of freedom or accountability that worried her in the pregnancy scenario. She wasn’t sure if she and Suhaan were financially prepared for it. Both of them had EMIs on loans in their name, those taken for their wedding two years ago and the purchase of a car recently.

Suhaan was also taking care of his younger brother’s studies – he was in his third year of engineering school – and Aleena had her mother to provide for. As it was, saving anything from their salaries was a rare luxury. Club a baby’s expenses – from pregnancy to delivery to school in the next six years – and they would be stretched tight. Even if she did take up a few of the freelance offers she received regularly, they would not be able to make ends meet. It was a scary thought, too scary to pursue. And then there was the case of how to look after the baby for the first two years while both Suhaan and Aleena had to work from 9am to 5pm – at the least. Aleena had been a student of psychology and she knew that the first six years of a baby’s life were the most formative ones.

In spite of having lived with Suhaan’s family for two years, she had neither got used to nor grown fond of his parents. They were ill-tempered and rustic. Their ideas were lagging behind by a century (that could be an exaggeration, but then, that’s the way she felt) and the only reason she and they lived in the same house was that apart from huge egos, they also shared an almost-vengeful hatred towards confrontation. She was positive that she would NOT leave the baby under their care – she did not trust them enough to hand over the nurturing of her formative baby. And if she had to get her own mother home to look after the baby (mom would be delighted about the baby, of course), it would mean shifting to another house, as the in-laws did not get along well enough. After all it was Aleena’s mom, would she be any less stubborn and proud?

That would mean more money being spent.

Aleena’s head ached with thoughts, and she could feel her temple vein pulsating. Meanwhile, the gel was applied, and she noticed that the doctor was readying the ultrasound machine. A tube with the transducer probe at its tip was in his hands, ready to be placed on her slimy belly, ready to find out whether her uterus held a living, growing organism or a simple cyst blocking the ovary or some other fancy stuff that female reproductive anatomies tend to harbour.

“When was your LMD?” The doctor asked as he drew her salwar further down and brought the cold device onto her lower abdomen.

“Last menstrual date? January eighteenth…”

“That means around fifty days? Have you completed the urine test?”

“I just gave a sample to the lab. Expecting results in an hour.”

“Hmmmm,” he peered into the screen, rubbing the probe across the abdomen in smooth twists of his wrist. “I can see some growth in the uterus.”

Aleena’s pulse quickened. Damn, she thought. When did we NOT use condoms, she tried to remember. Wasn’t she safe the last time they did it?

“This doesn’t seem normal,” the doctor said with furrowed brows. “Your uterus is very swollen. Have you had stomach pains of late?”

“Yes. I get piercing pains in the lower abdomen quite often. But… I think that’s just gas. Acidity. I have terrible gas trouble. From childhood.” A wave of fear was rising in her voice.

The doctor continued to gaze at the black and white readings on the screen. “What’s your name?”

The question surprised Aleena. He is just trying to make me comfortable, she told herself. “Aleena.”

“Aleena, I’m going to refer you to the oncology department. That one there is no foetus. It’s a 9-10mm tumour. Are you alone or did someone come with you?” His voice was cold and measured, but a bit sympathetic nevertheless.

Aleena gulped a mouthful of air. Her phone started ringing at the same time, blaring Sajna ji vaari vaari jaunji main, proclaiming it to be Suhaan’s call. Suddenly, she wished it was a foetus. 
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