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The Origin of Jaanvi

by Mahak Jain

edited by Kathryn Mockler

As I usually do on the weekends, I went shopping at Costco after lunchtime, packing the trolley with diapers for newborns, though I had bought three packs last weekend. I read on a parenting website that newborns need a change twelve times a day, and one pack contains two hundred. So a pack would last us only two weeks, and we might be too busy then to buy more. I also found a yellow pillow for feeding that I thought Sapna might find useful. I grabbed it, then I wheeled back the cart to pick up a pink-colored spare for when the first became soiled.

After lunchtime was the most crowded time of day to shop. Every other aisle, there were sampling stations and crowds in semi-circles around them. I had a quarter slice of white bread spread with hazelnut chocolate, some coconut water, and a couple of cheeses.

Near the checkout, a woman was roasting coffee for sampling, but it wasn’t ready yet. I lingered in the area, but then I saw a sign for pajamas for women. Sapna had mentioned needing some more for after the baby was born, and I decided to pick two sets up for her.

By the time I remembered the coffee, a crowd had formed. I tried to reach for a sample, but it was impossible. An Indian woman positioned herself before the sample tray, passing the half-filled Styrofoam cups back to another Indian woman. I knew they were Indian because they were speaking Hindi to one another and when they did speak English I could hear a heavy accent. I started becoming annoyed. The quantity of cups passed back outnumbered the people the two women had with them.

The second Indian woman was taking the half-filled cups and repouring to fill each cup further. She threw away the empties and returned the full cups to her partner at the station, who then added milk and sugar and passed the cups back again. These were then distributed to the remaining members of their group—a man and three children.

The assembly line they had created had caused a jam at the station, and the woman serving was bristling—her cheeks red, her lips pressed—though she kept quiet. I was embarrassed and angry and felt the need to apologize. Then I realized that to the server I would appear to be with the Indian woman and her family, so I hurried to the checkout, my face hot.

On the ride home, I couldn’t stop thinking about the shame of it. The impression it must have left on that woman—greedy Indians, selfish Indians, uncouth Indians. And who was I to argue, to try and defend, with such evidence on display? At a store like Sabzi Mandi, in Brampton—Browntown, it was called—packed with goods imported from India and even more Indians, I could laugh at something like that, but the incident made me want to erase the color from my skin.

***

When I arrived home, the minivan I bought for Sapna was sitting in the garage. She never used it, though I bought it for her to get around while I was at the lab, which I was most days. I brought in the groceries, hoping she would come greet me in the kitchen. She was on the phone, and when I heard what she was saying, I realized she hadn’t heard me arrive.

I left the grocery bags on the counter. The rummaging would give away my presence, even though the garage door hadn’t. I could have used a bathroom break or even a glass of water, but I resisted both urges. From the security of the kitchen, I listened to the side of the conversation I could make out.

“Mumma,” Sapna was saying, “I know it is my duty. I am doing my duty. But they have kept this secret from us, it was as good as a lie ...

“I am happy, yes, it is fine being married to him, I don’t have much to complain about ...

“But if something happens to my child, your grandchild ... And the doctor says if my test results are not good, it could be so much worse, Mumma ...”

I couldn’t make out the rest because Sapna’s words disappeared behind tears.

I didn’t think that was true, the accusation that my family kept my disorder a secret. Thalassemia, that was what it was called, from the Greek thalassa for sea, haema for blood—in other words, a sea of blood, or blood infected by the salt of the sea.

The reality was that until the pregnancy, I had managed to dismiss from my mind that I was a carrier. I knew I was, of course, but the knowledge that had dogged me in Delhi had become dormant in Brampton. It was why I never insisted on prenatal testing; but then, I wasn’t even aware we were trying to get pregnant until I discovered we were.

If Sapna had asked me, before we married, do you have any defects our children could inherit, I would have answered her honestly. I would have informed her that, due to a history of near-incestuous breeding in India, she, too, could be harbouring defects that would pass on to our children.

It wasn’t as if I was debilitated. I had Thalassemia minor, which I hadn’t worried about since I moved to Canada, more than ten years ago now, when I was 21. Even the doctor agreed I was only a carrier. The anemia the disease resulted in hadn’t caused me to suffer much. As I get older, my health will probably become worse, but that’s true of everyone. Most of us don’t know what we’ll suffer from as we age.

I tried to explain this to Sapna, on the way home from the doctor’s, when we had first realized the risk to our baby. “You could say that I am more prepared than most,” I said. “Because I already know the ways I will suffer.”

“And the ways our child will suffer?” She kept her head leaning against the window. She had not looked at me since the doctor’s. “What about that?” The doctor had said that if Sapna was also a carrier of Thalassemia minor, our baby would have a “twenty-five percent chance of being born with Thalassemia major.” There would have to be tests and waiting, lots of waiting, which was the part Sapna found the most difficult.

I had thought about telling her what some researchers supposed: that the disorder had stuck around as an evolutionary necessity, to keep malaria at bay. The body has a way of fighting back, I wanted to tell her. But I didn’t think she would understand.

The phone call ended, and I started pulling out the groceries noisily.

“I didn’t hear you coming,” she said from behind.

“I just got here. I bought more diapers and some pajamas. I can return them if you don’t like them.”

“That’s fine.”

“Were you on the phone?”

“Mumma called.”

“Say hello to her from me next time.” I paused, considering a bag of milk. “Actually, maybe she wants to come visit. With the baby coming so soon.”

“To visit?”

“She could come on a visitor’s visa.” The idea had occurred to me just then. It was so obvious: Sapna’s distress must be amplified by her feelings of homesickness. “She could be here before the baby’s even born.”

“I’ll see if she wants to. My feet are hurting. Do you mind if I go lie down for a bit?”

“Of course not. You don’t have to ask.” When I turned around, she had already left.

***

I prepared a note for Sapna on the kitchen counter: “I need to go to the lab for a few hours,” I wrote. I considered adding, “Call if you need anything,” but that sounded odd. I wasn’t sure what kind of salutation I should end with either. I scrapped the note and started over. “I am going to the lab and will be back for dinner at 6:30 p.m.” This was better. It was more precise. “You can reach me at the work phone or on my cell.” My hand hovered above the words. I finished off the note with, “Be well. Santosh.”

The lab was a forty-minute drive from the house, attached to a research center based out of a university in Hamilton. The first time Sapna had seen it, she described it as a cross between an aquarium and a mental asylum. The shelves and tables were lined with tanks of striped fish, black-and-white like old-fashioned prison uniforms, green-and-yellow like winter squash, and many such combinations that Sapna had, after her initial reluctance, come to see the beauty of. The blue-lit water and the slowly rising bubbles made the lab peaceful and meditative.

When I arrived, I felt calm and sleepy, and it was difficult, more than usual, to concentrate on the data I still needed to pore through. We were approaching the experimental phase of our research, which was on filial cannibalism. The type of fish we had selected, different varieties of teleost fish, were known to eat some of the eggs they fertilized, a form of population control. The fish whose tanks were provided with more food, however, didn’t eat as many fertilized eggs. After all, there is no cost to reproducing when you are rich.

We were looking to see how the parent fish would react when we mixed in eggs fertilized by foreign fish. One would expect a poorer parent to cannibalize these before approaching its own offspring, but how would a richer parent behave? My team hypothesized that it would behave the same as an equally rich fish that had no foreign offspring in its brood. To my younger students I explained it as a question of economics versus romantic notions of paternity. Evolution didn’t hinge on or care for romance.

I had tried explaining the research I was doing to Sapna, but she was bothered that there were creatures in the world who would eat their children. “Even if it makes sense, rationally,” she said. “But at least they are fish. Not like us.”

“Actually, researchers are investigating similar behavior in mammals,” I had replied.

She didn’t answer. Instead, she asked what we would do with the fish once the research was completed. “And all those unhatched eggs,” she said. “The ones that ... survive.” I shouldn’t have hesitated, but I did, and before I could speak, she had concluded the worst. “That’s horrible. Even worse than what the parents do. At least they don’t know any better.”

Sapna and I often reached an impasse on such matters. Early in our marriage, I had tried to get her to watch documentaries with me, mostly stuff on animals and ecology. A break from the Bollywood “masala” films she usually watched. Then we saw a documentary about dolphin poaching, and since then she had become resistant to attempts to get her to watch anything educational.

“I don’t need to see how sad the world is,” she explained. It was a difference between us that didn’t take long to become noticeable. The fact I wanted to see things for what they were, while she wanted to pretend they were something else.

***

I was walking around the tanks, holding the plans of the experiment, checking again the procedural details, when the phone rang. “Dr. Santosh Mistry speaking,” I said.

I received in reply a rush of wind. I glanced at the lawn through the window: the leaves on the trees were stiff and rested. “Hello?” I repeated.

“It’s Sapna!”

I was frightened by the excitement in her voice. “What’s wrong? What’s that noise?”

“Nothing’s wrong. The doctor just called—my test results are clear.

I was too surprised to answer immediately. Not by the news, but by her calling to share it and the giddiness in her voice. It was a tone she used with her friends, when they visited, or with her brothers, whom she video-chatted with every few weeks, not a voice I was used to her directing at me.

“But that is very good news,” I said. The wind whistled louder—maybe she was in traffic, maybe she was even in the minivan, finally making use of it. I pressed the receiver hard against my ear.

“We can talk about it more later,” she said. The giddiness was beginning to recede, as if she had remembered I was on the other end of the line.

“More?”

“Yes. I have to go now. The light’s changed.” The phone call ended. I wondered where she was going.

***

That night, before we went to sleep, Sapna brought up the “more” that she wanted to talk about. She wanted me to join her at the temple on Saturday morning. Even though the baby would not be born with a major disorder, the doctor said there was still a fifty percent chance he or she would be a carrier, like me.

Praying was a habit of Sapna’s, but not mine. After we married and she moved in, she set up a small shrine in the kitchen. She said she was used to waking up to the smell of sandalwood and the music of religious song, a claim I found dubious. “You did this at university?” I asked, but she didn’t like that I pressed. It was a fair question: it was hard to imagine her praying in her dorm room at Queen’s, which had a reputation as the biggest party school in Canada. Her experience at a university with a more relaxed culture was something Sapna and I shared in common: we had both grown up in Delhi but completed our schooling here, which was why our parents thought we would be a good match.

When she brought up the subject of the temple, I tried to formulate the kind of calm, reasoned argument that could rid Sapna of the notions of auspiciousness and inauspiciousness that she had inherited from her mother. The trouble was seeming sympathetic at the same time, which I always meant to be, but she never believed it to be true. Whatever came to mind had upset her in one way or another in the past, and after assessing the situation, I decided the best thing to do was to go along with her request as an exception.

“I’ll go to temple if that’s what you want,” I said. The effect was immediate. She closed the physical distance between us, tucking her rounded belly into my side. She fell asleep quickly, but I stayed awake, so unusual was the feeling of her body touching mine.

***

There were many temples to choose from in Brampton, but the one Sapna attended was thankfully the most discreet, a low building that could be mistaken for an event hall. Sapna led me to the room that was used as the main prayer space. The men and women were not separated, as it was done in some temples, but sitting together in families. The room was more packed than I expected or hoped. Sapna made a path for us among the worshipers who were seated cross-legged on a large rug. A young mother was forced to lift her toddler to her lap so we could get around. “Shouldn’t we just sit down?” I whispered.

We sat down at the front edge of the rug, just slightly to the right of a low stage, so that we had a clear view. The platform was about a foot off the ground: low enough for us to gaze upwards respectfully but not painfully. At the back of the platform, sitting in an arc, was a family of gold-colored statues that included Lord Krishna and Maa Saraswati. Did religion appeal to Sapna because of her education in marketing? It was, I suppose, an example of successful advertising.

The pundit arrived shortly after us, dressed in a simple yellow tunic and white pants made of cotton. He was less flashy than I had expected. He settled himself at the edge of the stage, so that his toes stuck out—if I stretched my arm forward, I would be able to touch them with my hands. An attendant leaned down to speak to him.

During that time, I surveyed the room and realized I recognized one of the men seated near the middle of the group. I couldn’t remember his name, but I knew he worked at the university as well, in another department—the arts, I thought. I returned my attention to the pundit. He had started to speak.

“We are proof that God is inside each of us. And the light of God, the goodness of God, has brought us here today. Together, we will draw upon the God that is within each of us, even those who are not yet born.” Sapna rested a hand on her belly.

“Together, with the combined power of our voices, we will pray for the health of the Mistry family. Their child, like all children, is a blessing that will soon be a part of us. Let us pray for the health of this child and let us give his parents strength through our prayer.”

To my credit, I did consider the possibility that the pundit did not mean us, and that there could be other Mistrys present who were also expecting a child. The pundit had said “his” when speaking of the baby, and we didn’t know the sex of our child, so I had more than one reason to believe this. But when I saw the soft way Sapna’s hand rested on her belly and the shine in her eyes, I knew I was wrong.

Two men and a woman joined the pundit on the stage, sitting behind him with instruments. Their voices light, they began chanting, and the rest of the room joined them, hesitantly at first, but then surely. The hall began to sway with singing and with bodies rocking side to side in rhythmic motions. A long time had passed since I had been inside a temple and since I had heard such collective prayers. It conjured a memory not from more recent years but from childhood: the many religious processions that had blocked my way home from school. I passed through them while afraid I would be trampled in the fervor.

The chanting and then more prayers and then some words from the pundit lasted two hours. The crowd dispersed from the rug and began to mingle. The adults stretched their legs and backs, rubbing their various limbs for circulation, while the children escaped to the foyer outside, from where every now and then came a delighted scream and the skidding of running feet.

I was proud of the control I managed. I forced myself to move as slowly as I could. I brought out the car keys from my pocket without jangling them and signaled to Sapna that it was time to leave, but she placed a hand on my forearm. She was smiling, but for the audience, not me. I found her smile nothing but cruel toward me. The pundit approached us, along with an attendant carrying a tray of prashad, food blessed by the gods.

A line began to form. I intended to move out of the way, but Sapna wrapped her hand around my elbow and held me fast. The line of congregants began to offer us their good wishes and blessings while the pundit, next to us, distributed the prashad.

The academic I had recognized from earlier approached. “Wishing you the best, Mistry,” he said. I still couldn’t remember his name. “I didn’t know you were dealing with ... but I hope the worst will come to pass without much ado.” I nodded in thanks, as I did with the others.

When the crowd had cleared, the pundit led us through a door at the back. “It is very nice to see you with us finally, Santosh,” he said. “Sapna has been keeping us updated on your situation. You are always in our prayers.”

I nodded again. Both Sapna and the pundit—whose name I realized I had never learned—stared at me, and I knew I was expected to speak. I nodded again.

“Swami-ji,” Sapna said, “everything you have done for us, you don’t know how much it has meant, how much more peacefully I am able to sleep at night. Shukriya. And please, accept this for the temple, as thanks from us.” She handed him a thick envelope.

***

On the drive home, I fixed my thoughts on the traffic lights and turn signals and road signs. The roadways here were better controlled than they had been in Delhi. The rules were accessible and easy to learn, and drivers followed them for the most part. The system worked because of a combination of cooperation and accountability. That was what allowed all of us to make our way to various destinations safely. Evidence of clear thinking and reliable procedures: this is what I was after, too, in the work I did.

I had managed to forget Sapna was even present, sitting beside me in silence, when my mind alighted on how Sapna had thanked the pundit—shukriya. Shukriya was not shuddha Hindi, a pure form of the language. Shukriya was an Urdu word, of Arabic and Persian origin. The two languages had muddied together and nowadays the words were used interchangeably.

“You should have said dhanyavad,” I said.

“What?”

Shukriya is Arabic. Dhanyavad is Hindi.”

I looked over and saw that she was puzzled but still smiling.

“I would think that would matter with things like these. Isn’t that what these rituals are all about? Being as pure as possible, connecting to your so-called Bhagvan?”

“I know dhanyavad is Hindi,” she said, then paused. “Why do you talk about God like you have all the answers?”

“It doesn’t take much to accept God, it seems. It’s harder to speak in your mother tongue.”

“God brought us together today. Everyone came out to support us. That’s what God does. Thanks to their prayers, everything will turn out all right. Without God, how could we believe that?”

I was careful to keep my tone even. “It worries me that you believe this. That you think like this. It worries me that you will be passing on this kind of nonsense to our baby.”

She answered just as calmly. “It worries me that my daughter’s father is the kind of man who has no culture, no belief, no principles to live by. You might be a big scientist type, but as a man, you are empty.”

I gripped the steering wheel, rubbing the soft insides of my hand into it. I lowered my voice. “Next time you take out that much money, you ask me first.”

“This from the man who says I don’t have to ask him for anything."

We didn’t speak again until I pulled the car into the garage. “I am going to the lab,” I said. For the first time in our marriage, I was the one who was refusing to speak to her.

***

I spent most of my hours in the months before I became a father in the laboratory. I watched the fish devour their unborn, and I wondered why I had married Sapna. I wondered what mistake in thinking led me to trust that our families would know that we would be a good match. It was true that the sense behind the arrangement of marriages had appealed to me, but if I had thought about it carefully, I would have discovered the bedrock of ignorance it was built on.

I first met Sapna in the lobby of a hotel, selected by her parents for its neutrality. She entered through the doors like Parvati dancing for Vishnu, rolling her hips and breasts, trying to stoke fire. It wouldn’t have mattered if it had been her, or another woman my parents had selected. All I cared about was the permission that marriage would give me: to touch her, to witness her nudity, to insert myself inside her. And now, what it had left me with: to endure her. In the end, my own bestiality was to blame.

I often worked alone at the lab, the only sound the gurgling tanks. My research team, composed of graduate and postdoctoral students and peers, was in and out, and though we exchanged notes and ideas, I perceived that, to them, my presence was strictly ornamental. I didn’t know how many had knowledge of what had transpired at the temple, of my medical condition, or that I had relied on prayer to defeat genetics. That was how it would seem to them, no matter the truth. I knew what I would be thinking, were it someone else: typical Indian. I began to wonder if my team’s reticence with me had always been present, or if it was something I was just becoming aware of. It was hard to be sure if my inability to form a relationship with them was a result of their suspicions about my scientific integrity or if it was simply my failure as a team leader to integrate us. It had never bothered me before, but now I felt outcast when the members of the team went to lunch together and no one asked me to join.

In my isolation, I prepared what I would say if someone brought up my status as a carrier, so that I would not be caught by surprise. It would be my opportunity to educate,demonstrate my knowledge, and remove any suspicions about the soundness of my science. It was possible, I would inform them, to prevent the spread of Thalassemia. If two carriers did not reproduce, then Thalassemia major would not occur; if a carrier did reproduce with a non-carrier, which is what had happened to me and what might happen to an offspring of mine, then the likelihood of Thalassemia minor would continue to exist, but the risk would be decreased.

I would cite the authors Verma et al, who said it well in their 2011 study: “If the policy of premarital screening were to be successful, control of thalassaemia in India should have been achieved a long time ago, because this course of action has been available for decades. For the reasons given above the policy of identifying carriers and advising carriers not to marry carriers is not likely to be successful, given the current state of knowledge of the general public about science and genetics.”

The reality is that India is a country that manages marriages with an eye toward economic and social shrewdness, not medical common sense. Ergo, my wife knew more about the affairs of imaginary gods than she did about blood, and the way blood keeps us chained from one generation to the next. This was why, after I moved to this country, I did an inventory of all religious iconography I possessed and threw it away. My disease was not a matter of chance, god’s will, or karma, whatever Sapna might think. It was the result of poorly made decisions, specifically my grandfather refusing to have my mother tested as a carrier, despite obvious indicators, because he was afraid the knowledge would make her undesirable as a marital partner. The unfortunate situation was that this was true. Even without an official assessment from a doctor, my grandfather had to increase the dowry for my mother, to compensate for her tendency toward illness.

Armed with these facts, I felt ready for any confrontation. Even so, sometimes I had thoughts that were not suitable for a scientific mind. Sometimes I wished to return to the time when the gene first appeared. I longed to snatch it from history like snatching a pearl from an oyster, killing the host and crushing the stone into sand.

***

My daughter arrived in the world two weeks before her due date, but I didn’t know she existed outside her mother’s womb until it was already done. My lead assistant, Dr. Barry Leeds, was in my office with the initial results of the experiment. “I have unhappy news,” he said. Perhaps I misunderstood his expression, but he appeared satisfied, even smug. The results disproved the hypothesis: the fish, regardless of their social standing, targeted the foreign offspring first. It seemed the fish gave preferential treatment to their own genes.

The phone rang as I reviewed the data. I recognized the number and picked up the call after the first ring. “Dr. Santosh Mistry,” I said. Dr. Leeds mouthed, “I gotta go.” I nodded.

Sapna’s mother, Kalpana, didn’t bother with a greeting, her style with me in general. She had arrived a week ago and filled my absence at home completely. “Your daughter is born,” she said. “You might want to come.” She spoke as if I had refused to.

I asked her to tell me more, but she cut in. “Someone needs to be with Sapna,” she said. “She is alone.”

***

My daughter scrunched up her pink face in a bassinet in the third row of the hospital nursery. I recognized neither myself nor Sapna in her. She was small and delicate, too fantastic to be human. I had my first chance to hold her when she was brought out to feed, for only a moment, before the nurse passed her to Sapna.

“I am going to return to the house,” Kalpana said.

“But why?” Sapna asked. “Don’t leave me here alone.”

“I won’t be gone for long. We need to get things cleaned up before this one comes home, don’t we?” She screwed up her face for the baby, and then turned to me. “You will be here?” Her manner was suspicious. I nodded.

The hospital room was silent after Kalpana left, the only sound the soft sucking of the baby pulling milk. “She’s so strong,” Sapna said, finally. She even sounded friendly. “So healthy.”

We were waiting for the doctor, who would give us a final assessment. He arrived in a rush of energy, brandishing a smile like a clown’s. “Congratulations to your new family,” he said. “How are mother and child?”

Sapna pulled her sheet to cover her naked breast. I wanted to point out that a few hours ago she had her legs spread wide. I had fallen into a habit of cruelty with her, a habit I enjoyed because she no longer bothered to fight back, she simply ignored what I said. The presence of our daughter stopped me.

“And Dad, how are you doing? Any broken fingers?” I was confused until I realized the doctor had forgotten I was not present during the birth.

I laughed, though I wasn’t amused.

The doctor picked up the chart. “She was born a couple weeks early, and sometimes that can lead to problems. She’s a bit small, but she’ll catch up in no time, especially if she keeps at it like that.” He winked at Sapna, who frowned. He went through a list he must go through with all the parents, before arriving, finally, at the point that concerned us most.

“About the matter we discussed a few months ago. I had warned you that your daughter could still be born with Thalassemia minor. I am happy to tell you that your daughter did not inherit.”

“Hai Ram!” Sapna kissed the top of our baby’s head heavily and repeatedly.

The doctor replaced the chart. “You can speak to the nurses about the exit procedure. I’ll check in in the morning.”

“I knew she would be fine,” Sapna said. “And now you can stop fighting with me for no reason.”

“She is fine,” I said, puzzled. I seated myself in the armchair by the window.

“I will name her Jaanvi. As precious as life.” She kissed the top of the baby’s head. “Actually, go ahead and be angry if you like. My daughter is healthy and that’s all I care about.”

“She is my daughter, too,” I said, but I felt unconvinced. It occurred to me that if Jaanvi had inherited my disease, the connection between us would have been stronger. Father and daughter, bound by blood. It was an illogical thought.

Jaanvi’s lips unloosed from the nipple. Sapna repositioned so that the baby’s cheek remained against her breast. The baby’s eyes closed, and her breathing deepened and lengthened, then she fell asleep to her mother’s heartbeat. Soon, Sapna’s eyes began to droop.

I took Jaanvi from her mother’s arms and carried her to the window. The code my blood could have passed on to my child was lost in the gap between generations. A perfectly normal, even desirable event, and yet, I couldn’t make sense of my disappointment. I could think only of what Darwin had said, of evolution, that “non-inheritance was the anomaly.”