Him asking me to tell him about Kolkata. Lying in a twin bed, his head on my chest, some Saturday night. The whole room lit gray, the only color his voice. Why did you want me to tell you about Kolkata if you’re never going to see it? I want to know this part of you. I want to know everything about you.
It’s monsoon season over there. The rain is drumming on cheap roofs, like thousands of pitched snares, a sound so dominating, so present. That is the silence of Kolkata. Only silent when something vast can cover the sound of everything else. Air waves vibrating the tympanic membrane. Signals traveling up the auditory nerves. Sensation muting sensation.
Me sitting on the red plastic stool in my mother’s kitchen. Wearing that blue and white dress I wore every weekend for years. Kicking my feet in the air as I read that old anatomy text book I found in the pile of books my grandpa left us. Finding the pictures fascinating. Humming a tune I don’t remember. Mother cooking next to me. The overwhelming din of sizzling oil and drumming rain finally allowing me to read. Come Geeti, it’s time to eat.
In Kolkata everything happening at once and nothing happening at all. Tell me more, he’s saying. I don’t understand. I know you don’t understand. Kolkata is chaos, my babe. That chaos birthed me. It’s loud all the time, even in the middle of the night. It’s more than you can handle.
Him scoffing at me in the darkness. Me closing my eyes in a city where I need no rain to sleep.
Me carrying around my anatomy book. Reading it between classes, between meals, between naps. Spending hours and hours of every day reading. Tracing pictures of sinews, muscle groups, and organs in my lined notebook. Showing my sister-in-law the pictures of naked bodies. How can Amma let you read this stuff? Her being grossed out by the pictures of the male reproductive system. Me not being grossed out. Proud that I’m ten years younger and not grossed out. It looks just like uncle’s.
Mother yelling at me, calling me a whore. Hitting me across the face. Pain receptors flaring. A thousand names for worthless. A thousand words for vile. Locked in a tiny room alone with all of Kolkata. Chickens bawking as they’re butchered in the streets. Cows groaning.
Mangy brown dogs yelping when they’re kicked and smashed. Spit in my hair and tears on my face. Come Geeti, it’s time to eat. I bought the phuchka just for you.
The red plastic stool in the kitchen, a hot Wednesday evening. Standing up and telling my mother I wanted to be a surgeon. That’s quite a goal for a child. Hoping for her to say more. Waiting for her to say more. A lifetime later finding someone who said more.
Him at Claire’s birthday party looking lost, the only one dressed in jeans. Gently touching the shoulder of everyone he’s talking to. Looking in their eyes intently. Listening. Me wondering where he came from, whose friend he was. Claire’s friend from back home. Asking Claire to introduce me. He’s just a baker. He didn’t graduate college. You aren’t actually interested in him?
Us being introduced. Konika this is Sal. Talking to him about baking bread. Insisting that he explain each step in detail. The flour, the yeast, the exact temperature for perfect sourdough. Probing. Probing again. His patience unending. You need to understand everything, Konika, don’t you? Telling him about my work. Telling him about the red plastic stool in my mother’s kitchen in Kolkata. I’m in thrall to his smile. The party fading into irrelevance. Leaving after everyone has long disappeared. Norepinephrine and epinephrine. Glucose pouring out from energy stores. Blood flowing to skeletal muscles. Heart rate increasing. Lateral orbitofrontal cortex shutting down.
Our mutual friends whispering in surprise. She’s too cold for him. She’s too serious. Too rational. Too intimidating.
My sister-in-law buying me small frogs to dissect. Me stealing sharp scissors from school. Opening up the frogs outside. Mother saying they’ll dirty the house. It’s okay, the chickens are opened up outside too. Finding the dead dog, still whole in the alley by the market. Taking the dog home. Opening up the dog. The smell overpowering. Kidneys. Liver. Bladder. Bones too thick to cut through. Mother screaming. Mother crying. I’m crying and covered in spit. Mother making sure I have enough to eat for the evening. Telling me to work hard in school so I can go abroad to study medicine.
Cutting open the brain of one of my first patients. 12 years old, messy blonde hair and pale blue eyes, cancerous tumor in occipital lobe. Thinking that the boy’s brain looks exactly like the diagrams I’d memorized. Operating on his brain like I do everyone else’s. Removing the part of him that’s distinctly different, the part that’s killing him.
Standing in the hallway holding the boy’s crying mother. Explaining that I didn’t cure him, that we needed to wait and see. The tumor returning. Cancer metastasizing. The look on his mother’s face haunting the hospital lobby. Telling her it was worth the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Telling her we had to take the chance. Telling her to check if her insurance provided counseling options. Going back to work without pause. Realizing at 3am on a rainless night that I was 12 when I found the anatomy textbook.
Him asking about my work. Calling me a healer. The body heals itself, babe. I can’t be both a healer and a surgeon. My job is to cut and slice objects that resemble the ones in my textbooks. Not to heal. If I had to heal people, I would’ve collapsed long ago. You wouldn’t understand. You’re a baker.
Him always smelling like fresh baked bread. Tall with curly hair. Skin brown like mine, but the wrong type of brown. Mediterranean brown. Me watching him knead dough with delicate force. Watching him measure each drop of oil, each grain of flour, each degree on the oven. The frustration on his face when he’s thinking deeply. The shape of his mouth when he whispers.
Him pushing me hard against the wall as he places his hand behind my head.
I’m your first? You’re almost 30! No, not exactly the first. But the only one that matters. Too busy in medical school, babe. Too focused. Always focused.
Going to college. Studying pre-medicine. Attending an elite university overseas in the land of bland tea, mild food, and rude hosts. My brain becoming fascinated with itself. Finding satisfaction in learning that my invisible thoughts are nothing more than electrical signals traveling down axons and chemical neurotransmitters released into synapses. Residency at a prestigious hospital. Position on the surgical team. Calls home every night. Mother beckoning me home. Geeti, I haven’t seen you in years.
Sunday afternoons in my bed. Him talking about our souls. Gentle, soothing ignorance painted in his eyes. We’re more than our bodies, my love. Really, babe? You should’ve read more science and less philosophy. That’s why you’re a baker. Of course babe, I’m teasing. Don’t be so sensitive. But babe, if I hit you hard on the forehead with this book, you would change. Who you are would change because I bashed your brain. Prefrontal cortex damage means a loss of impulse control, a loss of tact, not that you have any anyway. Prove it? I’ll fuck up your soul now. Him grabbing my arms. Us wrestling in the sheets. Laughing. Kissing. Whoring.
Konika, but even the most scientific among us live as if we have some sort of unique essence, as if we have a soul. Humanity insists on it, don’t we? Lumps of fatty tissues and proteins screaming for divinity.
Him overhearing me talking to my mother. Noticing that she called me Geeti instead of Konika. What does that mean? Honey? Sweetie? It’s my house name, babe. Geeti, because I always sung as a child. I’d sing while getting dressed and sing while studying. I didn’t even notice when I was singing. Sing for me, Geeti. No, I don’t sing. I’m not going to sing for you. Yes, babe you can call me Geeti. But only you. Only you.
Sitting around the harmonium singing Tagore’s songs with my family. Uncle sitting there with me. Next to me. We’re all happy he’s come to visit for the month. I’m happy he’s here. We all cry when has to leave. I’m sad that he leaves. I cry as he leaves. I wear my blue and white dress.
My babe asking me to heal him. To make the nights of anxiety melt away. To not freak out every time rent was due. To tell him I’ll always be there. Me holding him, his head warm on my chest. But I’m a surgeon, babe. I don’t heal, I operate. Telling him over and over again that this can only be temporary. You live in fantasy, in passion. You’re always this way. You’re consistent. You’re a rock. But the universe is not consistent.
The first time he came over. Take off your shoes before coming into my apartment. Sit down, you must have tea. Have you had proper chai before? You must eat too. You can’t be in my home without eating something. You say this isn’t India? Fine, eat me then. Don’t stop. Don’t ever stop.
Chilies for sale by the basket. Ripe mangos far better than you get here. Bright orange mishti doi served in small clay bowls. The taste of mishti doi. Texture thick like soft crayon. Buds on the tongue bonding to sugars and fats. Electrical signals. Dopamine. Memories of a childhood in Kolkata. What do you miss most? Phuchka dipped in tamarind juice by dirty hands. The Kolkata dust adds flavor. It’s what makes it nourishing. It’s what makes me. His surprise that I would eat such dirty food from street vendors. Everything about you is clean. You’re sanitary all the time. Of course I am, I’m a surgeon. But I’m only that way here, not there. Tell me, Geeti. When will you take me there?
Mother on the phone asking when I’m going to get married. Mother screaming at me. A thousand ways to fail. A thousand debts to pay. I’m the reason she’s sick. I’m the reason she can no longer get out of bed. I’m the reason she’s going to die soon. My sister-in-law crying on the phone. Bearing everything I should bear.
Him in confusion. Always confused about home. Your mother’s crazy, Geeti. Just ignore her. No dear. She’s not. She’s saner than you. I can’t believe you’d tell me to ignore my own mother.
Kolkata covered in decaying graffiti of hammers and sickles. Orange and blue and green sarees. Bicycles with squeaking gears and cars with cracked windshields. Cow shit. Life. The British, they’re still in Kolkata, did you know that babe? They’re still present in the old colonial buildings and in the way the Brahmins carry themselves.
Fresh baked bread he brought to me every Sunday. Strawberry jam, butter, and tea. My babe, no one made bread for me here before. Years I’ve gone without fresh bread. The olfactory bulb is located close to the hippocampus. Smell triggers memory more than any other sense. The fresh chapatti my mother bakes for me every day. Chapatti and dal and rice and fish. I’ll take the bones out of your fish for you, babe. You aren’t used to eating fish with your hands.
Phone calls every night. Him telling me not to pick up. Mother insisting I come home. Me insisting she treat my sister-in-law better. Why do you torture her so? Why do you make her wash your feet and change your sheets and clean up your shit as you spit on her? I know you can walk. Because my daughter left me. Does uncle still come to visit? Her not answering. Never answering. Norepinephrine and epinephrine. Glucose pouring out from energy stores. Blood flowing to skeletal muscles. Heart rate increasing. Lateral orbitofrontal cortex wide awake.
Grass green pungent around us. Lying in the sun with him. Nourishing our brown. Worshiping our brown. Letting it engulf us. Babe, have you ever thought about the absurdity of what I do? The absurdity of scientists studying the brain? A cluster of neurons working to deny the supernatural significance it’s given itself. It’s a fundamental contradiction, a conflict of interest. Bad science. Yet we proceed. We probe and experiment and research on without hesitation. Don’t kiss me when you can’t follow the conversation.
My parents telling me about a family friend who has a son that studied in the UK.
Bengali boy. Brahmin. Lawyer. Handsome. Living in Kolkata now. He’s heard about me too.
How polite my babe is being to that demented old lady in the bakery. Brain full of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Long term confused with short term. She insisting that he’s her daughter’s husband and chiding him for not taking good care of her. Him apologizing and promising to be a better husband. I know he would’ve been a better husband. He is honest that way.
Me finally crying about my uncle to you. You making me weak. Making me soft.
Telling him I’m returning to help take care of my mother. Anger curled on his face. The pretty black curls in his hair. You don’t owe her anything. She never defended you. She treats your sister-in-law like shit. Just put her in a home. Put her in a home? You won’t ever understand will you? I need to return to Kolkata. That’s the right thing to do. The moral thing to do. But you’re a modern woman. Yes, I am. I am a modern woman.
A grown man crying. Don’t cry. That’s not fair. His eyes looking like my grandfather’s. Tired and aged. The burden of decades of things left unsaid. One day, scientists will describe the physiological process behind those eyes. Maybe it will be me.
Claire asking me what the fuck was I thinking. He’s sensitive. You knew that. Me having no answer.
Babe, my brain is a tangible mass of intangibles. It’s time for me to go home. And I will tell my parents that I’m excited to meet their friend’s son. And I will be excited. And I will miss you. Don’t be afraid of paradoxes my love. Just because they’re there doesn’t mean we don’t have an answer.
Tuesday afternoon. Dark clouds, the sky smothered. Me running late to meet him at the movies. My makeup smudged, my hair frizzed. A bit of flour on his cheek he hadn’t noticed. Not watching the show, but watching him. We both forget our umbrellas. The rain silk on my shoulders. His hands strong on my back. Quiet as the monsoons. Quiet enough to study on the red plastic stool in the kitchen.
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