When I was a child, in my backyard, there grew a sapodilla tree. In the summer my parents would send me to collect the ripened chikoo fruit, or to drive away the monkeys who would try to steal them, with their long, curling tails and clever fingers. But now I live as far as possible from that house; the chikoos have become the strings of lights wrapped around my balcony and the monkeys replaced by young hooligans who, at this very moment, are tearing them down. I watch helplessly from the roof of my building as three of them disappear down an alley, leaving a river of coloured, broken glass.
My brother-in-law, Madhukar, tells me it is fruitless to compare these places, old country to new: “What is the point, brother, of thinking of ‘Here’ or ‘There’,” he says, “when you can only be where you are?” Then he raises his eyebrows and waves his hands, as if he were casting a spell over me, as if he were expecting I should be dazzled by his penny wisdom, and I tell him how he is full of shit.
But Madhukar is an optimist, and it is difficult to resist him for long. I too wish the world could be as he sees it: a bowl of fruit, ready to be eaten. When we came to this city he was the first to find a job, gluing cork heels onto sandals in Chinatown. Then he sent for his wife (my sister Vena), our mother, and our uncle, Prabhat. When Madhukar needed to he found a better job, working at a stable in the city, fixing shoes on police horses. He concocted a tale of how he once shod all the oxen in his village — and after taking one look at him, they believed it.
For the past few days, however, he has not been working, because of his bellyache. Vena blames it on the hay and the coats of the horses. Prabhat believes the horses have been kicking him because they sense his cluelessness. I am sure it is because Vena puts too many chilies in his lunches, and that now he is taking relief in the blandness of hospital food. For weeks I had watched him leave the bathroom with his stomach in his hands, trying to keep Vena from using the toilet, coaxing her into the bedroom or juggling fruit in the kitchen, just so she would not suspect how torturous he found her cooking.
Eventually I leave the roof and take the stuttering elevator down to our apartment, where the five of us live crammed into two rooms — though now, with only four of us here, it suddenly feels empty. I remember to pick up a deck of cards so Madhukar and I can play Bullshit on the small plastic table they lay across his lap at the hospital. Although he must share his room with another patient, Madhukar has somehow charmed this young man into giving up control of the television that hangs suspended from the ceiling.
“This is the life, brother,” Madhukar told me during my first visit. “This is what we came for. A better life.” And as he sat back, king-like on his reclining throne, shitting into a metal pan, I wondered if he might actually be right. We passed the rest of that afternoon watching men jump horses over fences and ride on bulls, trying not to be shaken off.
“Bhai,” my sister says, running from the kitchen, just as I am about to leave. “Will you take this to Madhu?” She hands me a round tin and I can feel the food, still warm, inside it.
Over Vena’s shoulder I see my mother in the kitchen, seated on a stool pounding atta with a stone, the flour leaping up in puffs. She looks up after a moment, not quite towards me, and shakes her head. When Vena finally turns away I slip my mother the dish and, in exchange, she gives me a tin of plain, cold rice from beneath her stool.
“Madhu needs a rest,” she says, squeezing my hand. For a woman who is eighty and nearly blind, I am often amazed at just how much she can see, but I forget too easily the entire life my mother lived before I was even born.
According to my uncle her first marriage was not to my father, as I had believed, but much earlier, when she was thirteen, to a piece of bel fruit. In their village where the trees grew rampant, Prabhat said, it was custom to marry young women to the woody, unripe fruit, to protect them from becoming widows, should their future husbands ever be killed. At the time, he said, my uncles managed to convince her that she would have to bed down with the fruit from then on, but luckily my grandmother put a stop to this before it happened, explaining that the ritual was only symbolic, a kind of blessing, and that she could save herself for her real husband.
Before Prabhat told me this story, during our long flight to Canada, I had never quite understood why my mother wept that day when, as a young boy, I happened to knock the ancient bel fruit from its shelf, breaking it over the red clay tiles. The smell, I remember, was like bitter ash rising up, and it lasted until my mother had scoured the floor on her knees. That much, at least, I cannot forget easily enough.
I leave our part of the city and walk towards the hospital, passing through Kensington Market where I must step off the sidewalk, over and over, as the fruit stands elbow out into the street. One stand in particular has a crate of chikoos on display — each one potato-brown, oval and small, face-up in its own tiny cradle. The label on the crate suggests they are the product of Mexico, and I picture the boat that must have brought them here, rolling over the ocean, filled to the brim with huddled, shivering fruits. What a great expense to bring them all this way, to a place that prides itself on its diversity of exotic fruit — though I have never seen anyone here who had not grown up with them actually eat one.
“Brother, how would you like some spicy, grilled corn?” someone asks. I turn around, like a lighthouse searching for a ship, but cannot find the voice. Finally, standing inside a small hut I had thought empty before, I notice a shrivelled man tending to his barbecue.
“No thank you,” I say.
“I can tell what you want: you want some tea. Lucky, I have just boiled some milk! And it’s sweet, exactly as you like. Come, brother, have some tea. What is the price of one cup?”
“It’s too hot for tea,” I say. I detest this man immediately; the way he sings his offers as if he were trying to court me, making his words bend to touch my feet. My brother-in-law could look at a man once and know exactly what he wanted — a heel for his shoe, a drop of oil for his scalp, the love of a woman for a night — and he would never prod him for more.
“Playing hard to get?” the man says. “Okay, I know your type.” He looks me over. “You want a kulfi. Am I right?”
I shake my head.
I hold up my container. He strokes his chin.
“I can guess: you want a mango nectar. Come try this — you’ll swear it is the sweetest you ever tasted.”
“You couldn’t guess the hairs on a bald man’s head,” I say. “Perhaps you should stick to selling things, brother.”
He appears put off by this, though it is dark in his hut and I cannot be sure. Still, I do not go on to tell him how if Madhukar were to put a hut next door, this man would be sold out of house and home; how my brother-in-law, principled as he is, could sell a mirror to a blind man.
I continue on the last few blocks to the hospital, where the doors whisk themselves open as I approach. At the information desk, a West Indian woman sits looking bored inside her glass-walled cube, and I stop to ask her which room I can find Madhukar Bhati in, although I already know the answer.
Here, people are either startled when I speak English or else they assume I learned it from the radio at home, by listening to the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. If that were true, I think I would only speak gibberish: Ob-la-di Ob-la-da, Ms. Prudence! Goo goo ga joob, ma Michelle! Woe woe woe, Mrs. Robinson. I should be amazed that anyone here can speak English.
After a moment, as the woman continues trying to spell Madhukar’s name, I leave and go up to the fourth floor, crossing through the shadow of a smokestack outside, which casts a finger over the hallway. The smokestack looks out of place, as if it should belong to a factory or a coal plant rather than a hospital — a factory like the one I remember, where the scalding dyes from the textiles we mixed were let out onto the floor, to slosh through the gutters, creating a hot black swill that made people gag just to smell it. Later, after the factory was shut down, the bodies of those who had been sickened were taken away and burned, like piles of dead leaves, before we threw their ashes together into the river.
In the cancer ward on the fourth floor, the halls are so immaculate and drained of colour, so dust-free that I wonder if this might be what the smokestack is for. As I pass the waiting area I see a woman laid out over three chairs, sobbing, while a doctor stands over her, patting her back. The woman keeps her hands cupped around her face, as if she were closely inspecting the seat of the chair, although she is obviously trembling. I can imagine what she feels like under the doctor’s hand; like an egg about to hatch, as if someone had just broken her bel fruit. If I had more time I would stop to tell this woman how my mother lost her vision, in a botched operation that was not even necessary, to comfort her with the fact that the doctors do not always get it right.
Instead I walk past, pushing open the door to Madhukar’s room, Room 423, where I find the television off and the bed empty, the sheets remade, crisp and untouched. Smiling, I think of Madhukar’s honey tongue — the monkey must have talked himself into a private room!
It takes several minutes at the nurse’s station before a woman, wearing a brass tag that says M. Ramirez, finally asks if I want something. Her scrubs smell of coconut and spearmint, though not quite enough to cover the tobacco.
“Could you tell me, please, which room Madhukar Bhati is in?” I ask. “I believe he has been moved.”
“How do you spell that?”
“Oh, yes. Here.”
She hums, running her finger over the clipboard, and then she stops humming. “Okay. Right. Well... it says you never gave us a phone number.”
“Do you think you could hang on here a moment?” She picks up her clipboard. “I just need to get one of the doctors.”
And then she is gone. Hang on, she says, hang on. I know what she means when she says it, but I also know what she really means, the part she will not expect me to understand, the part she thinks she will need the doctor to explain. But what is there to hang on to? Time refuses to slow down or stop long enough for me to grab hold. My hands twitch and I want to tell this nurse that I cannot possibly hang on, because my fingers feel as if they will dance from their sockets, but she never returns.
I float through the hallway instead, adrift, bumping into the desk, into a man in a wheelchair, into a stack of bedpans, knocking everything over. I stop a patient being rolled in on a stretcher. “Clear the way!” someone shouts, but I shrug, pretending I cannot understand. Eventually someone takes me by the shoulders and moves me to the wall, as if I were a jar to be put back on a shelf.
I wander into Room 423 to see if, by some miracle, he is there. Perhaps he has been released? Perhaps he became a nurse while I was gone? But his bed is still empty, and now the privacy curtain is open and the other patient has taken control of the television.
“Excuse me, do you know where I might find my brother-in-law?” I ask him. He turns to look at me but the eyes below his bare head are empty, and he silently turns away.
The machinery standing behind Madhukar’s bed is equally hushed, the small monitor ghostly and grey, the wires dangling or tucked neatly aside. Even the surface of the bed has nothing to say, not a crease to suggest that someone was once here. Brother, I think to myself, when you eat a bowl full of fruit, all you end up with is a belly full of shit.
Too bad I think of this now, too late to offer it to Madhukar — my own piece of meaningless wisdom. Now I am beginning to understand the need for the smokestack outside, to blow the dust of my brother-in-law into the sky.
Reaching over the railing I pull a fistful of wires from the wall, but this is not enough. I turn the bed over on its side and lift the monitor from its cradle, trying to toss it onto the floor. Instead, the monitor swings back — still attached by one cable — and smashes into the wall, leaving a large, gaping hole.
I cough through the cloud of dust rising from the plaster, as the young man turns the volume up on the TV. At least now, if they send a bill to my family, we will refuse to pay and the hole will just have to remain. Our hole.
But as I leave, pushing the button for the elevator, I see two nurses rush into 423, and I know this will not happen. They are going to patch the blemish on the wall — cover it, as if it were never there — just as they’ve erased Madhukar, lifting him up the smokestack and dispersing him into the sky.
I look behind me to check, but the woman from the waiting area is gone. I almost expect to see a small pile of ashes in her place, scattered over the chairs, spilling onto the floor, but there is nothing. No doctor, no sweaty imprint from her bare arm, not even a pile of tissues. No trace at all. Only the faintest whiff of smoke, and the huddled family of chairs, waiting for the next visitors to arrive.