Short story

Short-term memory loss

Print edition : February 28, 2020

“Mirror in the Hall & Other Stories” by Prakash Bal Joshi. Translated from Marathi by Smita Karandikar, Ratna Books, 2015.

Prakash Bal Joshi is a multifaceted personality with four decades of journalism, creative writing and international recognition as an artist. He has four books to his credit and several solo and group shows of his paintings in India and France.

She crossed the road in a hurry, weaving through vehicles that slowed as the signal turned red, and reached the opposite side. Stepping on to the tiled footpath, she hesitated, not knowing whether to turn right or left. Looming over her was a huge cut-out of Salman Khan, winking and pointing a finger at her. Her attention swivelled from his bare chest to the earring on his left ear till she was abruptly shoved ahead by an impatient crowd as the signal turned green.

Aimlessly, she walked towards a huge window, trying to recollect why she had, in the first place, crossed the road away from the footpath leading to Churchgate railway station.

Preoccupied with her own thoughts, she walked carelessly towards “Talk of the Town”, an open-air restaurant frequented by foreigners, crossed the Marine Drive and sat on the wall overlooking the Arabian Sea. It was hot and sultry, but she was overwhelmed by the sea breeze carrying the odour of rotten seaweed. She felt frightened of the waves breaking on the breakers below the wall. She wanted to run back home and hug Deepak.

She was confused and did not know why he was talking incessantly about his childhood days. And amazed at the way he could recollect minute details of his early years. Was he still obsessed with his childhood? Maybe, but she was not interested. The only early childhood memory she could recall was her mother’s strident admonitions. She would lift the edge of her lace frock waist-high with her right hand and put it in her mouth while reciting poems to strangers gathered in a dimly lit dining room. She would often do this when singing “Baa baa black sheep... have you any wool?”

She could still sense the stern look on her father’s face as she lifted up her frock. She would freeze and forget the next lines of the poem. With the upraised frock in her hand, her father’s stern look and her mother’s shrill shouts to put her frock down, she could hardly go beyond “Baa baa black sheep...”

Visitors would sympathise with her plight. She could clearly recall how she hated her parents and liked the visitors’ sympathy and their comforting pats on her back.

She had some hazy memories of going to school, but there was nothing very distinct or special about her early days. She would often wonder why Deepak talked about his childhood so much. Was he showing off or was he still a growing child?

Perhaps showing off was a sign of not growing up? Not that she could ever recall what he said, but his lip movements were etched in her mind. And when he edged closer in a romantic mood, she would stare at his lips, hoping that they would keep moving; instead, they would move closer to her lips. Looking at her watch, she grew anxious. It was almost 12:30 p.m. and Deepak had not returned. She put the book on a side table, switched off the reading light and gazed out of the small window. She was trying to recollect the last time his lips had come close, but she could not—she felt frightened.

The early morning rush renders her immobile as commuters from behind push her sideways and march ahead. Making a mental check of what she had to do today, she peers at the thronging crowd—a huge millipede moving in one direction with its numerous feet.... Caught a glimpse of a familiar face, but she is not sure whether she knows him, so she turns away. The commuter notices her and smiles warmly. She smiles back hesitantly, but keeps moving ahead as she does not want to miss her regular train. The face, caught in the maze of moving heads, moves towards her from the opposite direction, blocks her path and says “hello”. She has to move aside so that other commuters can pass by her.

“How is Deepak? Do you recognise me?” he asks, noticing her uncertain expression. Her “yes” is so feeble and inaudible that it actually means no, but he ignores her response. “Sorry to disturb you like this, but did you get the number I wanted?” he asks. The question, coming out of the blue, flabbergasts her. She just does not know what he is talking about. Now she starts perspiring. It is not embarrassment but the realisation that some unknown monster was eating her up.

Seeing a question mark, he tries to explain, “Remember we met last week and Deepak was saying you know some family doctor who is good and reliable...” he continues talking.

She knows the doctor in the locality who she thinks is good, but she does not remember meeting this guy with Deepak last week. She is about to say, “Where did we meet?” but she hesitates and swallows her words. She fumbles for her telephone diary and gives up.

“Sorry, I don’t have it right now. I’ll give it to you later. Will that do? And I’ve to rush now, is it okay?”

“Okay, see you some time. I stay a little way off from your building. We will catch up with each other later. Bye.” He vanishes in the crowd.

She closes her purse lest something fall out of it as she is being jostled around. She joins the stream of commuters flowing towards platform number two for the train taking her to CST, the last suburban station in the central business district of Mumbai.

She clambers onto the train. It is almost full, and she gets the fourth seat, very uncomfortable. She squeezes in somehow. She soon forgets about the unknown face and the fact that she had forgotten meeting him with Deepak last week.

She sees Rosy jumping in just before the train starts moving. She is such an exuberant person. “Hi Rosy! Nice dress. New one?” she asks, waving at her. Rosy comes near her, “Are you kidding? It is new but you commented on it the day before yesterday.” Rosy starts rambling about other topics, but her remark pierces through her head like a hot iron pin.

Rosy’s bright blue dress with a yellow design remained imprinted on her mind even when she was immersed in the daily grind of office work. She, however, has no time to brood on the puzzling question as to how she could forget about the new dress about which she had already commented. How could she?

There is no time to think about such trivia. When had she met that man she had bumped into at the railway station this morning? Okay, cool down, it does not matter. People keep forgetting things and there is nothing to worry about, she keeps telling herself as she quickly swallows her lunch at the office canteen with her regular office group. They are discussing the merits and demerits of the latest Bollywood movie.

As she leaves the office and starts walking towards Churchgate, she clutches her purse as she feels the sea wind blowing past. She has forgotten about the unknown face she had encountered and Rosy and her frock, but she is gripped by a new worry—the man at the station had reminded her of a more important thing which she had forgotten over the last couple of days. Or was she trying to avoid the matter?

Her family doctor. She must go and meet him immediately. She just cannot afford to delay anymore. This time she has not mentioned it to Deepak.

He was always angry and irritable. She decided not to confide in him as he would again lose his temper. She is not sure whether she took the pill last night. Yes or no, maybe yes or maybe no...“You cannot be so unsure, he barks at her.

All the romance and pleasure snatched out of a hectic weekly schedule has gone out of his as well as her consciousness. “You bloody well fuck the shit out of me every time you use the excuse of forgetfulness. You do not know whether you took the fucking pill or not. You are not sure. What do we do now?” he ranted.

She clutches her head every time he starts shouting. “Do you think we can afford a kid at this time? You and I both have to work. How else can we pay for this fucking flat? Do I have to repeat myself again and again? How can you not remember if you took the pill or forgot to take it... tomorrow you will forget who I am...?”

“Stop it, for god’s sake. Stop it. I wish I had not told you about it.” Her head reeling, she rushed to the washbasin to vomit.

This has been happening on and off. They tried using some other form of contraception and gave up as both found them unacceptable.

“How can you forget about pills?” asked her mother in disbelief when she confided in her. “Don’t blame him. It is your mistake. How can you forget, or forget to remember?”

“It’s not only the pill, mom, to tell you the truth; I keep forgetting almost everything... I’m afraid.” Almost in tears, she tries to hide her face from her mother.

She hurries towards the station. She must call on the doctor and tell him. Actually, she has forgotten when they had sex the last time and she is not sure whether she had taken the pill or not. She cannot afford to ignore or delay seeing the doctor. And Deepak is also not aware that he is complicating things. While walking, she takes out a water bottle from her carry bag and keeps gulping till the last drop, closes the lid and shoves the bottle back into the bag.

With drops of water still lingering on her face, she feels the cool breeze brushing her face and running through the thick hair falling across her eyes. She pushes the hair back behind her ears. Her uncle used to smile at her large, flat ears and compliment her for being intelligent, like an elephant. She smiles nostalgically.

Instead of crossing the road to enter the station and take the train back home, she starts walking towards the seashore. As she comes near a signal, it turns green and she is pushed by the homeward-bound crowd into walking towards the station and she keeps on walking, forgetting her earlier desire to spend some time at the seashore.

All along her return journey from her workplace, she broods over her memory loss. It is not that she does not remember things. She does remember complicated things, projects, deadlines and telephone numbers, but trivial matters bother her the most... she does not know what she will suddenly forget. And it really scares her. It is turning dark and as she gets out of the train, she walks first to her flat to change and then she will go to the clinic, a small visiting room where the doctor is visible, waiting for patients.

She turns on the lights as she enters the flat on the tenth floor. It is turning dark and sultry. She takes out a glass of chilled water from the fridge and gulps it down. Before taking a shower and changing, she takes a look at the PC. It is sitting dead on the desk in the corner. While taking a shower, she takes a look at her tummy—is it looking bloated? Suddenly, she remembers to check a mail from the company where she had applied for a better job providing better terms. She turns on the PC, looks into the mirror and hastily clambers into her clothes. By then, the PC is fully booted.... She types in her login name, Priya.patelxyz@gmail.com, enters her password and waits for the page to come alive. It returns, saying that either the log-in name or the password was wrong, and that she should check her log-in name or password. She does it again and the same page returns without taking much time, asking her once again to check her log-in name and password. Now she is scared. Have I forgotten the log-in name or the password? I have been using this email day in and out; how can I forget my log-in name or password? Next, it says that the password is case-sensitive.

Even though she had bathed and was seated beneath a fan, beads of sweat collected on her forehead. She was terrified. No longer did she think of unknown or strange faces, Rosy’s frock, the seashore and the family doctor, or for that matter, Deepak. She no longer felt the urge to go back into Deepak’s arms seeking comfort.

She becomes uneasy as even her mother’s features turn hazy as she mentally chants “baby don’t worry, everything will be all right”. As she looks down from the window at the traffic below, forgetting that she was on the tenth floor, she feels attracted to the moving lights below, drawing a sort of fading red line on a wet tar road...

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Reprinted courtesy of Ratna Books

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