Megha Nayar

A meal for one

I say to my mother this morning that I have come down with the coronavirus.

It isn't easy. At first, the guilt of lying to her feels like a road-roller flattening my heart. Twenty- seven years of painful coexistence and innumerable moments of casual violence, I realise, haven't done much to alter my good-girl constitution. A simple lie — even one abetted by the opacity that telephonic conversation affords — makes me so jittery I can't stop shaking. I speak at a higher pitch and sound more earnest than usual. It prompts Amma to ask, "Aaru, are you feeling okay?"

Usually, when Amma asks if I'm feeling okay, it is to be understood within a specific context. My feeling okay is always relative to something else. For instance, am I feeling okay enough to make lunch? To massage her legs? To meet a suitor? To dress up for relatives she abhors? When Amma inquires if I'm okay, she generally means to ask if I'm okay enough for her.

But today, for a change, I'm not okay enough for her. I'm just about right for myself.

Today is Diwali — my first away from home. I have decided to spend the day in my little rental flat, sixty kilometres away from Amma's. This would normally be unimaginable but I've figured out how to make it happen. Anxious though I may be, I'm armed with a plan.

So, in the morning, I tell my mother that I've come down with the dreaded virus. It is quite the performance.

But first, I spend long hours in preparation. Symptoms? Testing? Result? Hospitalization? I speak with a colleague's cousin and a friend's friend who've recovered from the virus. Borrow the former's prescription and the latter's test report. Photoshop my name into both. Visit an online forum for COVID-19 survivors. Analyse and memorise the most common indicators. Even eat a handful of peanuts before making the big call, to provoke a bout of coughing that will lend credence to my claims of sickness.

All the ground work helps, because my mother is not an easy person to convince.

As the conversation progresses, I feel lighter. Amma asks eighteen questions, most of which I am able to answer well. I tell her I got the infection from a market visit. Describe my condition in vivid detail — a sandpaper cough that grates against my throat, a mild yet persistent fever, and a shocking loss of taste and odour. Food feels like bile, I complain. Water has lost its miracle. Head hurts, limbs hurt. Lungs seem fine though. No breathing complications so far.

That last bit has to be clearly stated and reiterated, because she demands to know why I'm not checking into a hospital. "Why take risks, Aaru?" she asks, her voice thick with doubt. I reply that I'm monitoring my oxygen levels at home. "Consistently around 98%," I assure her, having learnt from my research that blood oxygen is a cause for worry only when it dips below 90. "And hospitals have no room for stable patients anyway."

She isn't done. More details are sought. What did your office say? How did you procure medicines? Who will cook and clean for you? Has the municipal corporation sent a health team to visit you?

I answer patiently, like a student appearing for a viva. Office has sanctioned two weeks of leave. Medicines have been supplied by a kind neighbour. Food parcels will be delivered by a local tiffin service to my doorstep. Cleaning can wait till I feel better.

Alert as a hawk, she repeats her last question.

"What about the municipal corporation? Did they send a team?"

"Oh yes, they visited yesterday."

"So, they must have put up a sticker at your door, no?"

"What sticker?"

"They put up a warning sticker at the doorstep of every coronavirus patient, to keep visitors out."

"Yes, they've put one up here too."

"Send me a photo."

"Why, Amma?"

"Just. I want to see what it looks like."

For a few seconds, my mind goes numb. But then, I recover and do a quick Google search. I find a picture of the sticker from a COVID warrior's personal blog.

"Here you go, Amma. Happy?"

"What is there to be happy in my daughter falling sick?"

"I ... No, I mean I hope you're satisfied that I'm following due procedures."

"Yeah, yeah. You take rest. I must get going. I was counting on you to help me with the ceremonial lunch today, but well. These rickety legs will do a solo dance now."

She disconnects.

I sit by my bedside for a while, staring first at my phone screen, then at the creases on my palms.

This woman. My birth-giver. Carried me in her womb, as she likes to remind me often. Nourished me with her own flesh and blood. Struggled over fourteen hours to bring me into the world, the umbilical cord having entwined itself around my neck, making for a precarious delivery. It is a strange story, simultaneously poignant and unrelatable. I wonder sometimes if she is making it all up. Maybe I am not hers to begin with. Maybe I was adopted, on the premise that I would ignite motherly affection in her like babies are known to, but then I didn't, and maybe that is why her experience of motherhood has never been a boon, only a burden, but she isn't allowed to say that, because, after all, which woman can live with the aftermath of declaring that they don't love their child. Maybe I've been no more than dead weight to her all along; she just won't say it out loud.

I'm staring at the three primary lines on my left palm now. I'm told they represent life, health and family. Which one is the family line? It must be this one here, the one that trails off mid- way. It is the weakest of my fortunes. Quite apt.

A small, hot tear trails across my cheek and lands in my palm, at the intersection of health and family. More tears emerge, threatening to flow like a stream. I cannot allow this. If I am to enjoy the festival of lights, for the very first time on my own terms, I must distract myself from wreaking darkness. Crying does nothing but irrigate old wounds.

I go to the bathroom and wash my face, thrashing my eyes with so much water they dry up. Wiping off all traces of rumination, I walk up to the kitchen and put on my apron. Today, for a change, I'm going to treat myself.

At noon, I'm at the dining table — laid out for one, adorned with a vase of lilies and a new set of placemats, not to forget a brand-new set of Corelle crockery — with a heaped plateful of delights. I've made myself some carrot-and-green-pea dumplings, baby corn fritters, tamarind chutney, a platter of roasted vegetables, and my favourite, a bowl of fruit custard. There's also a hamper of Diwali treats I received from office: namkeens, dry-fruit cake, and chocolate chip muffins.

All these flavours for myself. A private paradise of my own, unblemished by Amma's presence. It makes me smile. How I have longed for this.

Half an hour later, I let out a hearty burp. It makes me giggle a bit. Back where I come from, only men belch at the table. Amma would have castigated me for this.

My stomach and soul have both had their fill. I continue to sit there nevertheless, staring at the feast of my making, grateful for my hard-earned solitude. This has been a memorable Diwali.

Somewhere, up in the skies, my old man must be twinkling.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Megha Nayar was longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2020. She spends half her time teaching French and English. The other half, she devotes to learning Spanish, writing prose, and pondering the purpose of human existence. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Variety Pack, Burnt Breakfast, Cauldron Anthology, Potato Soup Journal, Riot Act Mag and The Daily Drunk Mag, among others. She blogs at meghanayar.tumblr.com and tweets at @meghasnatter.