the short story project


Nitisha Tomar

Ship of Theseus

She checked her fingernails under the neon light from the sign above. The red now looked orange.


Not bad. Quite chic. 


The corner of her eye caught a movement. It was Mira walking towards her. Dressed sharply in her consultant-befitting formals, she looked like a jagged rock protruding out of a torrent: the street was heaving with the smell of Indian-Chinese chowmein and steaming momos under neon lights in unrest with the gleaming topaz around a few rich necks.


As Mira came closer, the familiar Jovan Musk washed over the distance between them, bringing forth associated memories; like how while standing on the shore the ocean falls towards one and reveals a distant mast on the horizon.


However, Mira’s face resembled a house that had been devastated by a hurricane. The hollows below the eyes had deepened and shrunk within to reveal the furniture of veins. Either too much coffee or less sleep. Or both.


“Hey!” she stepped forward and hugged Mira. It felt like she was hugging a cadaver – oddly cold and evenly restrained.


“Shall we?” asked Mira.


“Yes, we have a reservation. Let’s go!” she said.


As they entered the restaurant, an over-enthusiastic receptionist greeted them and asked, “Reservation in the name of?”


“Anshu,” she responded.


She immediately stole a side-glance at Mira, who gritted her teeth at the mention of the name and looked away.


They took their seats at the table. “You look great!” Anshu half-lied.


Mira remained quiet. Anshu examined her – firm, unmoving with broken windows as eyes.


“Theseus’s paradox,” Mira muttered under her breath.


Anshu, mildly shocked, had to ask, “I’m sorry…what?”


“The Ship of Theseus…If an object’s components are replaced, would it fundamentally remain the same?…would the ship remain the same?” Mira asked.


Anshu stared at her quizzically. And slowly, that question dawned on her like an eagle diving to clutch his prey. She knew what that meant.


“I am fundamentally the same, Mira,” Anshu answered with a straight face.


“That’s what YOU think, Anshuman,” Mira replied.


“It is Anshu, by the way, and it is highly unfortunate and ridiculous that you question my identity because I still am the same person you loved and are married to! A sex reassignment surgery doesn’t fundamentally change a person. I’m sure there is much more to our relationship than carnality, dammit. Do you understand? What the hell, Mira!” Anshu shook uncontrollably.


“I am married to Anshuman. Not Anshu,” said Mira, the stony eyes glistening in the light of the chandelier.


They sat like that, dividing time and multiplying the distance that now gaped at them.


Anshu pleaded, “Come back, Mira. Please. For me, being a woman is as important as having you in my life. Let’s start anew.”


But Mira couldn’t control herself. She grabbed her phone and bag, stood up and said, “There’s nothing to start. I will be sending the divorce papers tomorrow. I loved you. I’m sorry…it’s not the same anymore at all…it isn’t the same ship, you…” and she left rather hurriedly.


Anshu sat there, staring at the empty chair. Mira’s outline still had its imprint in Anshu’s eyes. And she felt the emptiness crawling out from that outline, gnawing its way through her sinews and deflating the bunch of hope balloons that had soared when she stood waiting, under the neon light, for Mira.


There was not much she could do now. She had noticed the look on Mira’s face. It was the look of defeat and resignation. The same look that had uncovered itself from Mira’s everyday mirth after their dog had died. The look that had re-appeared when tsunami had wrecked the house Mira had spent her childhood in.


Anshu realized she had to get a drink. She moved on to the bar, a socially comfortable place to sit in when alone, and ordered a scotch. She gulped down two large in a span of 10 minutes and knew that tomorrow would be a struggle. Things slowly started losing their edges around and within her. The blaring music and boisterous people subsumed her.


Perhaps we go to loud places to numb the throbbing silence within us, she thought.


Anshu remembered the day she had come out to Mira. Somehow, Mira was oddly comfortable with it. She had empathized with Anshuman (given she was still Anshuman then) and had discussed how she adored the effeminate side of his but had no idea that there was a gender identity crisis brewing within. They had some mild pasta for dinner, watched TV and slept; the usual. But then, early next morning, she had stealthily packed her stuff and left. No note, no message. Just an empty spot on the bed with noticeable creases.


It wasn’t easy for Anshuman, of course. Had it ever been? Living the “man” figure in the social sphere while hiding a woman within – it had been traumatic! On days when he would come home earlier than Mira, he would wear her saris and apply some makeup. He adored what the mirror reflected and usually spoke to the image. The lines between soliloquy and conversation kept blurring and one day he just sat there, staring at his reflection. Gazing at a form, who had been trapped in a physical construct named Anshuman, he wondered – how long will this go on? And one day, he decided to take the plunge. To step over the abyss of disconnect. To jump from the land of contradiction to that of familiarity.


And the surgeries, hormone replacement therapy gradually built the foundations for Anshu. She slowly wriggled out from the interiors through slender hands, plump lips, fuller arms and a shapely chest. And to avoid the explanations, she chose to shift to a new city and start a new life, with a new name – Anshu.


The ship had been rebuilt.


The fourth swig of scotch was done with. A bit of apprehension clouded her mind. She looked around and saw a man three stools away, ogling at her. She didn’t take her eyes off him, unaccustomed as she was towards these subtle social aspects that take years and multiple experiences like these to get ingrained in a woman’s psyche. Ever since she started appearing as a woman to others, this had become a thing. Like a shift in the tide, it took her a body of a woman to understand this particular aspect of men. How they just look and stare! It was different to know about it as a man before. Now, it was happening to her. And it had been happening to women for quite some time now. She felt betrayed by the Anshuman that she was before for not doing much about this. Most men became a thing to avoid now. Earlier, they had been just overlooked.


She looked away, believing it the right thing to do. Her head felt heavy and knew that she was vulnerable. But perhaps it was too late because she had stared long enough for him to take that as a signal of mutual interest. He got up and walked towards her. Taking his seat beside her, he asked, “Hi. Mind if I give you company?”


“Go away,” she said.


“Wow! Good manners ain’t welcome huh?” He got up and walked away towards the other end of the bar.


She felt disgusted. What a horrible night! The dinner with Mira was to ease the tension between them and ask her to come back. They had been staying apart for 7 months starting from the very morning she had left her. Nevertheless, no love had been lost from Anshu’s side towards Mira. But tonight, she realized that Mira’s love for her had faded into evanescence.


Disconcerted by the man’s advances, Anshu decided to leave. She paid, tipped and composed herself to get up and walk. She glanced at her watch. 10.57pm.


Dodging drunken dancers like bullets shot from tables, she made her way out. She lit a cigarette below the very same neon light and puffed away. The days weren’t getting easier and the nights seemed darker than before. The smoke came out with all the angst within her. The thick tobacco stain substituted the smell of the scotch. And things felt alright for just a moment. For a moment. At least till the cigarette lasts, she thought.


She saw him come out of the door. He looked at her briefly and lit a cigarette. Taking the last drag, she flicked the butt and walked towards the edge of the pavement to call a cab. One turned around the corner and stopped. She got in.


She turned her head a little to look in the rearview mirror. He had boarded a cab too. She realized it really wasn’t going to be an easy night and led her cab through multiple turns to just check. Yes, he was following her. She asked the driver to take the high-traffic route. At the signal where they stopped, she could see him, two cars behind hers. He was peeking out of the window to confirm whether she was still in the cab.


As the signal turned green, she told the driver to take the wrong exit that was basically a one-way for the oncoming traffic. The driver protested but she told him to do it saying somebody was following her. He relented. She turned around to check.


Yes! He was gone.


With relief refreshing her head, she gave directions to the driver. Home was just two blocks away. So she decided to walk instead of asking the driver to reverse and take a longer route.


The air was thin but felt good. It was the summer after all. The adrenaline rush out of this peek-a-boo chase had pretty much taken the heaviness off her head. It was a quiet neighborhood, even on a Saturday night, and there was not much to check out except for lovely porches and curtains shimmering with the glow from fairy lights.


She heard footsteps fast approaching her from behind. She turned around. It was the same man. He must have taken a cut by the road, got off and run towards her, she thought. He was approaching a halt, two feet away from her. It was too late for Anshu to run away.


He stopped and tried catching his breath. She stood right there, facing him.


“So, madam,” he said, “I really did want to give you company. How sad that you shooed me away. Is this is how nice, beautiful girls like you should behave, huh? Tch, tch. Come here, come here, I know how much you drank, you must be drunk, come…” His arms reached out for her body.


She resisted and hit him in the face with all the strength that she had and made a dash for home. He writhed in agony but immediately sprang and lunged at her. Anshu fell on her face under his weight. She thrust her elbow into his ribs and he recoiled in pain. She got up, tasted blood in her mouth and ran.


Running up the stairs, she turned the keys with shaky hands that had been smeared with her own blood and got in. Safely locking all doors in the flat, she rushed to the washroom even as Tigger, her cat, stood transfixed in the corridor after scampering across the hall.


As she made her way to the bed, Tigger followed her as quietly as possible. He must have felt something was wrong, thought Anshu. She dropped herself on the bed, thoroughly fatigued. The night seemed surreal as she found her limbs dissolving in the sheets.


The ship had hoisted a white flag and surrendered itself to a deep slumber.


She opened her bleary eyes when the cat, all seven pounds of squirming flesh, climbed onto her belly. Squinting into the sunlight streaming in from the open window, she discovered that she was now the weary possessor of a pounding headache, and at some point, had managed to lose both a tooth and a spouse.


She thought about last night’s events and they seemed straight out of a Hitchcock movie.


She staggered across the room and looked out of the window. Somewhere down the street was the stain of her blood.


Yes, she had managed to lose both a tooth and a spouse.


A tooth for resisting as a woman. And a spouse for being one.


She realized it is going to be a tough ride.


The ship had set sail.

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