Pain (a short-fiction piece)

"Shalu, open the door. For god's sake, let me see you. Please, can we talk?”

She can hear the desperation in Ajith's voice. In the background, a child is crying loudly, their son. He is scared something is wrong with amma and appa. His hands, feet and neck are red and slightly swollen. The mark of an angry hand is clearly visible. Her hand.
She cannot open the door. cannot move, the pain inside her so full to bursting that only a greater pain can make it bearable. This hand I used to hit him, she mumbles to herself, this hand, I wish I could cut it off, if will break, crumble into nothingness. Just like me, just like me....

She stops, body bruised and aching. Throwing herself against the wall again and again, to dull the pain inside, has left her knuckles grazed, but the bones are not broken. No, not so easy to break, she thinks. Not so easy to erase what I have done to the one being who is solely dependent on me. I am a monster.

Outside the locked door, Ajith listens to Shalu's broken whispers. Helplessly he has heard the fierceness of the muffled sounds. What is she doing to herself? Ajith holds their baby close. He murmurs words of reassurance but there is dread in his heart. How had their life come to this? He doesn't know.

Was that the problem? She had changed and he had not noticed.

This is their seventh year together. Shalini and Ajith.

“He's not my husband, he's my best friend, my soul mate,” she used to say. But that was before. There were both working then, he a senior architect at one of Bangalore's biggest firms, she as a journalist for a national newspaper. They had married young, by today's standards. She had been 25, he 28. But marriage had not degenerated into routine for them. Of course, they had spectacular rows, and often went days without talking to each other. But then they made up. And through it all, they had their sense of humour, they had each other. “I am a terrible cook, my mother pities Ajith. Actually my entire family thinks he is mad to have married me!” she would laugh.

She was deeply interested in unearthing the story behind Bangalore's old buildings, his area of expertise was in restoring them. She loved to recapture all that was charming about her city—from hidden oases of oldworldness like Myrtle lane and Serpentine Street to the city's fast-disappearing bungalows, endangered slices of Colonial history. Sometimes, she and Ajith would do projects together. He would work to restore a derelict piece of Bangalore history, for instance, Richmond Institute on Wellington Street in Richmond Town. And she would document it all, in her articles. They even thought they should do a book—capture those parts of Bangalore that were under threat from developers. Not that it was easy to work together. Methodical Ajith tried to plan every second of the day. That drove her nuts. She liked to seize the moment, go with the flow. “Working with her is frustrating and exhilarating in equal measure,” Ajith confessed wryly to a colleague. Not that he would ever have it any other way.

Six years after their marriage, Shalini conceived. They had been trying for a baby and she had already been through bouts of depression. Seeing college mates beaming with their newborns, with proud husbands beside them, she had develped a new obsession. A baby.

“Are you sure we are ready for this,” Ajith would ask her, every time he found her scrolling furiously through baby websites. Instead of her brainstorming sessions with him (she talked, he listened) bouncing off story ideas, she now consumed articles on easy conception, increasing fertility, the best positions to make a baby. He found her single-minded focus unnerving. Thank god she had not quit her job. Their marriage came close to breaking point.

Then a home-pregnancy test changed their lives forever.

“I have something to tell you,” Ajith sounded uncharacteristically nervous. Shalini, wrapped up in the haze of her pregnancy, looked up. At four months, she was just beginning to show.

“What is it,” she asked.

“They've asked me if I would like to go to Oslo, on a special two year project on conserving private-public spaces and how we can replicate that here in Bangalore. But if you do not want to move right now, I totally understand,” Ajith tried to hide the hope in his eyes. She knew how much he loved his job. This was a chance he would probably not be offered again. How could she hold him back?

A month later, they had taken a leap into an unknown future. Ajith's sponsor had found them a small apartment in the heart of Oslo. From there, he had to commute to Drammen, a small city 40 kms away. So he left early in the morning, came back late. Shalini didn't mind. Of course she missed her life, her friends in Bangalore but she was happy. She got used to buying herself fårikål (lamb and cabbage stew), a local delicacy for lunch. Though, unlike Ajith, she could not, would not, try standard Norwegian specialities such as reindeer or moose meat. He laughed at her, but she did not want her growing baby to taste exotic food, just yet.

Her newspaper had asked her to do a series on living in Oslo. She wrote about the abundance of seafood, the coffee culture (which she was dying to sample as soon as baby was born!). She wrote about the streeet musicians, the walking trails into the forested hills surrounding Oslo. Everything interested her. And she talked to her baby. She sang as she walked to the local cafe every day; as she picked up fresh vegetables and flowers from the market. She was happy.

Knowing Shalini was content, Ajith threw himself into his work. Life was good.

The baby was born at midnight, October 10. Neither of their parents, the new grandparents, could make it. His father had broken a hip bone. Her parents were simply too old to travel, and they couldn't have survived the cold, anyway. For it was slowly becoming cold, bone-chillingly, bitingly cold.

Coming home from the hospital, with their little boy wrapped up snug as a bug, Shalini hugged Ajith. “I am a mother, another living, breathing being grew inside me,” she told him. He looked at her, too moved to speak, The love he felt for this woman and their baby threatened to cleave his heart into two.

As winter increased it's hold on the country, the days became darker. Most days, the sun set around 3 pm. A gray dullness enveloped the town. It was so cold their breath frosted in the air. Every morning, Ajith would prepare breakast, scrambled eggs and toast, and place it by her side as she slept. Often, she was too exhausted to even sense him leaving the apartment. The baby was colicky, he screwed up his tiny face and bawled, often for hours at a time. Nothing helped. Rocking him till her arms ached, walking up and down till she was ready to collapse. Nothing seemed to work.

The ice outside made everything slippery and she didn't want to risk falling, while holding the baby. But it meant she was inside all the time. The lack of sleep, the enforced isolation was never-ending. She craved sunshine, as if it was a physical ache. The sun, she began to believe, signfied life and hope. Without that familiar warmth enveloping them, she felt even more lost and alone. Ajith slept in the guest bedroom now. She had insisted. “You still have to go into work, you need your sleep,” she told him when he tried to protest.

The days merged into each other. Apart from the healthworker who came to check on the baby, there were no visitors. Before, she had been so blissfully caught up with the newness of their life in Oslo, she had not really bothered to look up or speak with her neighbours. Now she realised the locals were not exactly brimming with friendliness. They were naturally guarded and taciturn. So there were no friends or family to support her, to tell her things will get easier. And every day, it seemed she had neither the inclination nor the energy to get back to writing. She felt like a machine, a milk-producing machine.

Their parents called of course, every week. His mother in particular, kept asking her if she was okay. But it seemed too much of an effort to explain how things really were, how she felt. It would worry them needlessly. So she simply said yes, every single time. Did Ajith know what was happening? Why can't he see what I'm feeling, why can't he help, she would ask herself, resentment brewing deep within. Ajith often had to keep working from home too. And to concentrate, he would shut himself up in his room. Leaving her alone with the baby.

One evening, at the end of her tether, she snapped. “Why can't you spend some time with me, with your son,” she pounded on the door. Furious, Ajith shouted back. “My first year's appraisal is near, I have to do this to keep my job. I am the one working now. Besides, you wanted this baby remember, not me. You look after him”, he told her. Tears streaming, Shalini looked at him. She felt as if the cold had settled inside her heart.

The baby sensing the tension in the atmosphere started to wail. The noise pierced the stillness. She felt it would drive her mad. A wildness seized her. She picked up her son. “Stop it, stop it. Damn you, stop bawling. You don't let me sleep, you don't let me do anything. Please, I need some peace,” she cried hysterically, shaking the five month-old. Ajith, hearing the baby's cry intensify, came running out.

“What the hell are you doing, Shalu!! You'll hurt him,” he shouted grabbing the baby. He carefully checked the little boy. Miraculously he was alright. Shalu stood by herself looking at her hands. “It's not the first time I've done this. When he cries and cries, I feel as if my head is going to explode. Then I am ready to do anything to make him stop,” she said, in a dazed voice.

Ajith looked at Shalu, really look at her. In a sense, he saw her properly, for the first time in many months. She has changed, he realised. His fun-loving, exasperating, loving parnter was utterly worn down, her swollen breasts painfully sore. Lack of sleep had etched deep lines on her face, there were dark shadows surrounding her eyes. And worse of all, when she looked at him, there was only numbness, no smile for the man she used to love.

With fear in his heart, Ajith listened to what she was saying. “I could have killed him, you know. I really could have,” she repeated in that dead voice.

Then she walked into the bedroom and locked the door.

(This short fiction piece deals with a new mom and her struggle with post partum depression)

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