fiction

In The Habit Of Dying

By SASKYA JAIN | 1 September 2014

ABOUT THE STORY In a hospital room somewhere in Delhi, an old woman lies resentfully in her bed, stewing in both real and remembered time. For over a decade now, she has been contemplating a terrible conspiracy against her, beginning with what must have been a staged assassination. She is not sure if her family has any inkling of the truth, or whether it has remained in charge of Indian democracy since her incarceration. For years now, she has plotted one thing: escape. But her enemies have taken care to surround her only with their loyalists.

In Saskya Jain’s short story, we experience the excruciating world of a mainly horizontal protagonist fighting a work of fiction that others assure her is reality. One day, she wakes up to find a disoriented old man in the bed next to hers—a familiar face from her past. Is fate offering her a way back to her real life, with the help of her fiercest political rival? Saskya Jain presents a narrative that mingles paranoia, horror, decrepitude, determination, suspicion and black comedy. Somehow both familiar and strange, this is a fable about political power, history, memory and the human will.

Saskya Jain’s first novel, Fire Under Ash, will be published this month by Random House.

In the Habit of Dying

SASKYA JAIN

WHEN SHE AWOKE to the sound of shattering glass from a dream of riding a fully transparent horse, her first impulse was to feel for the ground beneath her feet. Then she thought that they had finally come. She traced the folds around her mouth up to her right eye and then her left, rubbing sticky sleep from the inner corner of each one. These days pillows propped up her back to ease her breath. She reached out and tapped her fingertips across the surface of the nightstand to find her spectacles. When after putting them on she twisted further to lift her dentures from their aquarium, the stab of pain in her back reminded her of the fact that she had officially died once before and mustn’t complain.

She looked up expecting to see black commandoes with machine guns followed into the room by her grandchildren, who were now adults. Instead, she found a man in the bed next to hers, his hand holding an invisible glass suspended over glistening shards in a puddle of water on the floor that separated them. Although he looked older and frailer than herself, she was struck by the stillness of his hand. Two competing expressions were drawn across his face—excitement and frustration. She knew immediately that it was him.

She rested her head against the metal frame of her bed for a moment, instinctively feeling the insides of both her elbows for the sting of a needle wound to make sure they had not secretly sedated her again, which always left her muddled afterwards. No sting. Was it a coincidence that for the past days she had been thinking of this man, who had been her biggest rival at one point in her career, and that he now occupied the neighbouring bed, which had been vacated only a few days earlier? It certainly confirmed her suspicions about the nature of this place, where she had been living for many years now. She knew, for example, that she spoke in her sleep and that there was always someone listening here. Leaning forward now to take another look she felt a prick on her scalp from the sticker of the Ashokan pillars pasted onto the uppermost rod. The lion’s heads were peeling off and rolling up on themselves, holding onto her silver hairs. She relaxed her head a little before jerking it forward to set herself free.

Carrying a broom and dustpan, Rakesh entered the room through the half-length curtain in the doorframe. “Good morning, ma’am.”

“Good morning, Rakesh,” she replied, as she did every morning, mumbling his name to make it sound like “Rakshasa” as a subtle reminder that she knew he was much more to this operation than just a cleaning boy. As he did every morning, he pretended not to hear it.

Rakesh knelt down to sweep up the wet pieces of glass, saying, “Good morning, Mister Garg. I see you’ve already made yourself at home.”

Garg! No surprises there. They used a fictional name for her, why wouldn’t they give him one, too? Over the years she had at least got them to call her “ma’am,” as befit her former position.

“I don’t drink water,” Garg said.

It would be safer to think of him as “Garg” as long as there were staff in the room. She pushed her spectacles up the ridge of her nose with her index finger and took a closer look. Yes, he was definitely older than her. Yes, he had big ears drooping under the weight of black, thick-rimmed spectacles. And yes, he had just admitted to not drinking water. She knew this about him, of course—the whole nation once did. But the fact that he was saying so now, his first words in this room, made her thoughts spin. He had arrived and been awake before her, so he must have recognised her. There was a message in his words, and this message was meant for her.

She turned towards the window on the other side of her bed. So much of her time went into looking inconspicuous that it was no surprise she hadn’t been able to make contact with her family yet. But the staff here was relentless—some of the best agents in the country, she was sure of it—and she had to be careful. She knew that they did not believe her when she told them her real name, and after all these years she still wasn’t sure if they were briefed to act as they did or whether some of them were being kept in the dark. Her comatose years had changed her, after all. She wore her undyed hair in a bun now.

Over time she changed her strategy from trying to convince them of her real identity to reminding them of it only on occasions when the humiliation of having to deny the truth became unbearable. This was the case whenever one of the staff members telephoned her “nephew,” for example, who insisted on calling her “Aunty” in a nasal voice that she found rather distasteful. But there were advantages to having them believe she no longer remembered her true self, and she hoped that soon they would deem her harmless and so give her a chance to escape back to Safdarjung Road.

But that Rakesh was always around. Rakesh knew more than he let on, of that she was sure. He often came into her room on one excuse or another and used every opportunity to confuse her. Like the other day, when she had been looking out through her top-floor window at the mall beyond the road, and watching as he wiped the pane with newspaper and bright-blue cleaning spray. She had tried to sound casual when she asked him what the mall’s “footfall” was (a word she had heard often on the television), hoping to gauge whether it might be a good place to lose any pursuers—she would be safe in large crowds—but he had sniffed her out immediately and replied that there was sufficient footfall in malls all over India now, only that not all feet were equal and sweepers were not allowed inside except as sweepers, no matter whether in Allahabad, Amritsar or Delhi. The message could not have been clearer: Allahabad was the city of her birth, Amritsar where her “death” was decided and Delhi where it was executed. It was a threat that meant “You might know who you really are but so do I, and you won’t get far.” As an additional warning, Rakesh left the window streaky and covered with tiny shreds of newspaper, so that she could no longer see clearly the squat building. She pondered the possibility that they were somewhere outside the capital, even though the nurses had told her from the day she came to that she was at the Second Childhood Assisted Living Home in Vasant Kunj, which, if that was really where she was, looked nowhere near as swampy as she remembered it from the time her father acquired land there on behalf of the Indian government.

Rakesh dumped the broken glass into a black garbage bag and mopped the floor with a wet cloth before stealing away without another word. She glanced again at her new neighbour. Until this morning, she had firmly believed that this operation was aimed solely at her, that Rakesh was assigned especially to her, and that the news programmes she had stopped watching on the television recently were doctored entirely with her in mind. She sensed that something had changed. And if they were keeping him alive here under a false name when the nation assumed he too was dead (she had inquired about the fate of several of her contemporaries soon after waking up, always aware, however, that her sources were compromised), who else was to be found in this building? A thought lit up her mind: maybe there were others. Maybe among those others were her sons. She imagined bounding out of bed to question the new arrival but forced herself to remain composed and counted a full minute in her head to make sure Rakesh was not coming back before turning towards him.

Their relationship had been fraught from the beginning, and she would have to be careful with him. It would be ill-advised to give him the feeling that the intelligence she had gathered over time was obsolete or fragmentary. Perhaps it had been a mistake to get rid of the television. Perhaps they did throw in some morsels of truth for her to decode. But the other evening she simply could not bear it any longer. Everyone on the news was equally incompetent. She knew, of course, that it was all fake and that they did it only to torture her. She had meant to withstand the pressure and play along, but the debate between the prime ministerial candidates had caused her mind to short-circuit. Later she realised that she had yelled at the television (“Propaganda! Dirty propaganda! I’m not falling for it anymore!”), clearly forgetting all about Sister Manju and Second Childhood for a few liberating seconds.

She felt the rustle of her rough heels against the smooth sheet as she moved her feet towards the edge of the bed, making a mental note to tell Sister Manju that it was time for her pedicure. She let her feet dangle as she pulled on the morning robe that she had rolled into a bundle next to her pillow the night before. Since it was now missing all of its buttons, she invested the extra effort to wrap the folded brown shawl around her shoulders before sliding off the bed and into the red slippers placed within the cavity of the walking frame parked by its side.

He did not turn his head until she was standing next to him and leaning into his field of vision, her own emptied water glass weighing down the front pocket of her robe. He peered at her and, before she could stop him, his hand was on her cheek, crawling across her spectacles and into her hair. From his incessant blinking, which she did not attribute to pretence, she gathered that he had grown extremely myopic in old age. She trapped his wandering hand in both of hers and placed it back on his blanketed thigh.

“It’s me,” she whispered. “I got your message, and I’m here to help.” She could not stop her heart from beating so hard that she heard every thump. Perhaps there were others! Soon she would escape to her real family—not the fake television one—and find out everything. He had still not replied, so she took a deep breath and added, “I know who you are. I recognised you!”

He turned his searching gaze at her and began rubbing his lips against each other as if crushing ants between them. “Myself Garg!”

She tried to sigh silently so that he would notice only her friendly smile, which she stretched to its limit so that he would see it. He had always been a difficult one, and she could understand if he was still angry with her. They had been through a lot together, but clearly he, too, seemed aware of the fact that they could—needed to—help each other in this place. She sensed that he would test her patience once again after all this time, but she conceded that a man of almost 120 years of age could be granted some eccentricities.

“Don’t worry, I’ll call you Garg in front of the staff, though some of them, especially that Rakesh, have probably seen the files and know who you really are. But we all have to fight our own battles here, and—”, pride seeping into her voice, “I was never one to hide my name.” She held his gaze while he continued working his lips. “Let me say that I really do regret that whole jail business in ’75. There were circumstances that we don’t need to dig up now. But please do consider this: I can—and will—help you if you help me in return.”

“I don’t drink water!”

“I know, Morarji sahab, that was brilliant code. But now that we’ve met, it’s of utmost importance that we stay focused. May I?” She manoeuvred the walking frame to the side and lifted herself onto the edge of his bed. He had stopped rubbing his lips together and was peering at her through his spectacles, which she noticed were covered in greasy smudges.

“Pinky?” he now said, releasing a drop of clear saliva from the corner of his mouth. She caught his hand in mid-air as it floated towards her face again and placed it firmly on his thigh, this time resting her own hand on top of it. “No need for the charade right now. There are no cameras in this room, only in the hallway, and I searched for bugs only yesterday, so we can really talk in peace.” Her heart sank for a moment as she considered the possibility that he was not being excessively careful but had simply grown senile. With urgency, she added, “Private time is precious here and should not be wasted.”

She adjusted her posture, which sent a lash of pain through the side of her back and made her right leg twitch, causing the slipper to slide off her foot and onto the floor. She curled her toes to ward off the cold but decided against ringing the bell for Sister Manju until she had made her proposal.

She removed her hand from his and pulled out the handkerchief folded into a long rectangle underneath the band of her wristwatch, wiping away the drop of snot that was travelling from her nostril towards her lips. She hesitated for a moment, then removed the saliva from his mouth, folding the handkerchief over to contain the wet stain before returning it to her wrist. If he agreed to the deal she was about to offer him, she would have to overcome much greater hesitation. She glanced at the doorframe. The curtain was still.

“There was something in the air these last days, so when I saw you this morning, I wasn’t at all surprised,” she said, whispering again. “Elections are coming up, and they’re probably nervous. I wonder why you’re here, though. I always thought that they faked my death because of unfortunate circumstances, but you?” She sighed, audibly this time. “I, too, am getting old in this place. I find it hard to make sense of it all. And they are all so terribly alert, especially that Rakesh. Just last week they wheeled a woman in here who said she knew my family. I put a tracking device on her, but they took her beyond its range and never brought her back. They tried to lay the blame on me, but I suspect she said some things she shouldn’t have, even though I barely had time to question her.”

She straightened the folds in her lap and looked down at her dangling feet.

“God knows for how many years I was in a coma. You can imagine how confused I was when I first woke up. I thought it was 1984! I demanded to be taken to my office, I implored them to call my son, until they told me that we were well into the new millennium and that he, too, was—No!” She knew that there was some kind of spirit—of her husband, she suspected—looking out for her in moments such as these. One more second of inspecting the bullet-shaped scar on her left upper-arm and the silly old dog would have pressed the switch above the nightstand with the little bell engraved on it. His elongated finger hovered obediently now, waiting to be transported back to his thigh by her hand, which she once again rested on top of his. She would not make the mistake of turning away from him again. She glanced back, but the curtain was still.

“Why would you ring the bell when I’ve come over to help you? You don’t trust me.”

He said, “You always talk too much, Pinky.” The sternness in his voice took her aback, but she was more relieved than offended. He was not senile, he was just being cautious and telling her to be so too, and she wondered again whether he had any information that she didn’t, though she did not trust him to give it to her. Patience, she told herself. This was a god-sent opportunity and soon she would be free. He leaned forward slowly, grasped the plastic sac suspended from a metal holder that was half-full of a pale golden fluid, and squeezed. The liquid swirled inside the sac. “So thirsty,” he muttered before his gaze collapsed onto his lap.

“Yes, of course! Our deal. You’re right, I was talking too much and promptly forgot. As I said—I, too, am getting old here.”

She held onto the edge of the mattress, pointed her feet and let her buttocks slide off the bed. “Ouch!” she cried as something pricked the flesh of her naked big toe. “That Rakshasa!” She found her other slipper and glanced back at the doorway. If only she were already done, she would have rung the bell herself to give him a good scolding. She hissed, “He left that splinter there on purpose. These people are ruthless! They knew I would come over to talk to you.” She lowered her voice. “But what they have yet to realise is that I am unstoppable. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, every drop of my blood will invigorate whatever I touch. I’m not scared of a piece of glass!” But the warm, wet stab in her toe remained—the blood-thinning pills made her bleed profusely even from the smallest wound. She tried to keep her weight off it as she stood next to his bed and placed the glass from her pocket on his nightstand.

“Here’s what I propose: I will get you your drink at great personal risk. Please understand that if they find out what I am about to do they will punish me severely and put me in solitary confinement. However, if I succeed, in return, I ask that you help me lift my walking frame at the appropriate time to aid my escape.” She pointed at the threshold where, beneath the curtain, there was a pristine white beam the thickness of a Rubik’s cube. She had appreciated the cleverness on their part after her first attempt at escape in trapping her while still maintaining the illusion of freedom. She had tried and failed repeatedly to roll or lift her walking frame over the beam by herself. Slowly, his eyes followed her fingertip. “Do you agree to those terms?”

He peered at her and said, “Yes.”

“Good. Just remember, not a word to the nurses—they will lock me away if you tell them what I gave you to drink and won’t believe me that you asked me to do so yourself. Even if they really know who you are, they will still have to punish me just to keep up appearances. I will help you first and then you will help me, so I hope you won’t misuse my trust.” 

Keeping an eye on his hands, she reached up to unhook the plastic sac, which was connected to a tube that disappeared beneath his blanket. She pulled her handkerchief out from under her wristwatch once again and with it unscrewed the tube from the sac’s top. She brought the cloth to her nose, careful to avoid all wet spots, and pressed her lips together in disgust. She held her breath and picked the sac up by one corner with her other hand, and began to pour its contents into the glass. All this she did standing in the gap between his bed and his nightstand with her back to him so that he would not see how this action turned her stomach.

To distract herself from the task, she said through the fabric, “Did I tell you that my hundredth birthday is coming up?” Almost inaudibly, she added, “And I don’t intend to celebrate it here.” She wondered how long it would take her family to come looking for her, how long before one of the letters—some abusive, some pleading—that she regularly smuggled into Sister Manju’s apron pocket finally reached one of them, by chance or design.

The thought, which always crept into her mind at this point of planning an escape, was closely followed by the familiar grip of dread in her gut, which became a vague nausea now that it mixed with the smell rising from yellow splashes inside the glass. Someone had publicly cremated her body—which had not been hers—unsure, probably, about what to do with the politically unproductive situation of a pretty dead Prime Minister without a pretty dead prime minister’s body. Since her family must have been present at the cremation, it was possible that they knew she was still alive. Were they staying away out of ignorance or guilt? Could it be that they were the ones who had put her here? As usual, she dismissed the thought with a quiver of her head. She could not get herself to believe that her daughter-in-law—not this one, in any case—or her angelic grandchildren could conceive such an evil plan. She suspected that this “nephew” was behind it all. Who was this man? Some distant relative she had overlooked in the past? Someone from the Intelligence Bureau?

She gave in to the memory that inevitably arose now, of how she had awoken from her coma after the assassination. It was a sturdy and well-maintained memory. She went back to it frequently and revisited certain details like phrases in a speech remembered by heart. It was in this very room that she had snapped open her eyes—against all doctors’ predictions, Sister Manju later told her, and insisted that she had gone into the coma after an accident, not an assassination attempt. Pointing out her numerous scars, she had retorted that having one of your most trusted men turn his gun on you could hardly count as an accident, but Sister Manju went on telling her a tall tale of a car crash that had killed everyone involved except for her.

The day she had awoken her feet would not budge, but she managed to raise her hand up to her eyes and was surprised to find it so wrinkly, spotted and scarred. Her rings were missing, and so were the gold bangles her father had given her for her wedding. She began to suspect a fate worse than death: Sleeping Beauty awaking to old age, abandoned by history and, judging by the empty room, her family too. The absurd thought crossed her mind that the jewellery had been removed to be displayed in a shrine to her. She had taken a deep breath and willed herself back into the coma.

She returned to the present with an assertive sigh, forcing herself to remember that soon she would have all the answers that Rakesh, the nurses and the television had kept from her over the years. She stepped out of the gap and clasped the glass, noting the warmth of the liquid within. “Here you go,” she said. “It’s fresh.” But his eyes were trained on a distant spot on the horizon. She followed his gaze. The blandness of the wall did not betray any discernible link to the intensity of his stare. No, she would have to follow his gaze the other way, into the depths of his eyes, to know what he was really thinking. She raised the glass to interrupt the line of his vision. She would need his full attention for this to work out—she didn’t want it spilling on her hand. She brought the glass closer. His lips parted. A low groan emanated from his throat, which turned into an erratic hum as his mouth closed again. She let the glass linger beneath his nose. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes as if savouring the aroma. She was about to touch the rim to his lip and begin to tilt when his eyes opened with a start and he said, “But is it chilled?”

She straightened the glass a split second before its contents would have spilled. “What? No!” She lowered her voice. “It’s warm, because it’s fresh.”

“White wine should be served chilled, you can ask any Frenchman.”

“This is obviously not white wine.”

His demeanour became brooding. She put her hand on his shoulder and, once again bringing the glass closer to his lips, whispered, “I know you’re a teetotaller.”

“You take the first sip,” he said. “We’ll take turns.”

She bit her lip. He was testing her. As if she would sneak alcohol or poison into his drink! She worried that she had not made a convincing case about really needing his help to lift her walking frame across the threshold. “You’re the one who’s thirsty, so you take the first sip. I’m doing my part, and you’ll do yours later. We have a deal.”

To her surprise, he now nodded vigorously (as if remembering some larger scheme, she hoped), clasped the glass and her fingers tightly in his hand and brought it to his mouth, filling his cheeks up with a big gulp.

For a moment he seemed fine and she thought he would ask for another sip, but within an instant his face turned sour and he shrank into himself as his voice rose. “No, no, no, no, no, no! Vinegar, Pinky! No! Just get me my whiskey, then! Whiskey!” His screams were so insistent, she barely managed to hold onto the glass, and a substantial amount spilled onto her hand, his chin and his chest.

Sister Manju shot through the curtain, demanding to know what the shouting was about. She stopped short, clearly taking in the scene: the plastic sac on the nightstand disconnected from the tube that dangled from the metal frame like a lonely creeper, he wet in bed, she next to him holding a half-empty glass of yellow liquid.

“Is that—no! Is that really—?” Sister Manju came closer, taking the glass from her and sniffing it. “Did you just give Mister Garg his own urine to drink?!”

“He said he was thirsty!” she said. “He asked for it.”

Sister Manju frowned, “I will deal with you in a moment! Mister Garg—”

He started moaning again.

Sister Manju helped him out of his wet shirt and wiped his face and torso with a damp towel, then slipped a clean shirt over his head.

“Pinky tries but always gets it wrong,” he said.

“We’ll call your sister later, Mister Garg. Maybe we won’t tell her about this, though, yes? It’ll only upset her.”

Sister Manju was almost finished cleaning him up by the time she completed her ascent back into her bed. Sister Manju came over.

“This is really unacceptable, even for you—” Sister Manju began. “And why is there blood on your blanket?!”

“Rakesh left broken glass on the floor on purpose. I cut my toe.”

Sister Manju’s expression softened a bit. She watched the nurse dig her hand into the pocket of her apron and pull out a ball of cotton wool and a pair of tweezers. She closed her eyes. She had to admit that his dreadful shouting had rattled her. Perhaps she would take a nap later. A pinch on her toe made her tear open her eyes. “Ow!”

“Got it,” Sister Manju, who was already wrapping a Band-Aid around her toe, said. She dug deeper into the pocket and pulled out a mobile phone. “And now we’re calling your nephew. This is your last chance.”

“I am an only child. I don’t have a nephew.”

Sister Manju dialled a number and brought the receiver to her ear. “He’s your older brother’s son and, need I remind you, the closest family you have left, and he’s pained by the fact that even though he keeps you here you refuse to speak to him and instead choose to cause so much—Yes, sir, Sister Manju this side … This is an emergency, sir … What did she do now? Let me update you on her latest mischief.”

With Sister Manju’s schoolteacher-like look trained directly at her, it was clear that the conversation was aimed as much at her as at the “nephew.” Sister Manju went on, “Not even two weeks ago she threw a whole jug of water at the flat-screen TV in her room, supposedly because she couldn’t find the off switch on her remote. The TV was ruined, of course, and your Aunty could have been electrocuted. Last week she put buttons in an empty can and tied it to the spokes of her roommate’s wheelch— No, nobody got hurt, but that is not all! You will be shocked to hear that today she tried to make her new roommate drink his own urine! … Yes, urine! … No … No, I’m afraid the fee does not cover this degree of attention. Hold on.” Sister Manju held the phone out to her. “Talk to him.”

“No.”

“Will you see him if I ask him to visit today? Let me warn you again, this is your last chance.”

“No. I will not see him and I will give Mo— Mister Garg another sip of his drink at the next chance I get.”

Sister Manju brought the phone back to her ear, breaking eye contact with her now. “You heard her, sir. She is a serious hazard to the other patients and to herself. Enough is enough! She needs to be watched constantly. And unfortunately this means that you have to arrange to upgrade her to a single room, or we won’t be able to keep her here.”

THE FIRST TIME she caught her sons smoking they were hiding behind the neem tree in their stately garden. The scent of ganja had floated from around the bark through the mosquito-netted window of her bedroom. She was usually in her study at this early hour of the evening but had gone back to retrieve her muffler as Diwali had just passed and the first chill had crept into the air. She stepped outside and found her two boys, one suppressing a cough and the other swatting the air in response to her call. “Some things,” she told them, putting an arm around each one, “are meant to be done once but only once. Some things you don’t make a habit of.” They had tried to catch each others’ eyes behind her back but she pressed them firmly to her sides. “Like what, Ma?” one of them said with practiced innocence, and the other giggled from the nervous uncertainty of whether or not they were in trouble.

She gazed at the leaves of the young neem tree that blocked the view in front of the window of her new—single—room. Everything had gone exactly according to plan, even though she had thought he would drink more before turning on her. Just as she had calculated, he would not pass up the chance to exact revenge on her, and she had been careful to tell him more than once that she would be “jailed” in solitary confinement if he complained to Sister Manju about this. He had been thirsty for his favoured drink, yes, but he had been even thirstier for revenge. He had thought he could outsmart her by getting what he wanted first and then using it against her, but she had been one step ahead of him.

Her goal had not been to recruit his help to cross the threshold but to be assigned this room. On her first escape, before the beam was installed, she barely got halfway to the elevator before Rakesh snuck up on her from behind. She had acted confused, saying “Jimmy Carter is expecting me downstairs,” or some similar nonsense, but eventually had no other choice than to allow Rakesh to escort her back to her bed, where she woke up the following morning with a tiny puncture in the fold of her elbow and a thumping headache. The single rooms for the “severe cases,” however, were all on the ground floor. She was close to the main exit now, amid enough hustle and bustle to finally carry out an escape with a good chance of success. The new room had a door that was too heavy for her to push open by herself, but she knew she would come up with a plan to get through it, even with the video camera watching her from a corner of the ceiling.

Presently, Sister Shampa, her new warden, appeared. “It’s time for your pills, ma’am.”

“Again?”

“Again.”

She laughed. “If bullets couldn’t kill me, how will eating pills save me now, hm?” Sister Shampa smiled. She was older and slimmer than the plump, fidgety Sister Manju, and there was something suspicious about the way she avoided eye contact.

After feeling various shapes go down her throat, she watched Sister Shampa push open the door to her room, which continued to close slowly long after she disappeared from sight. That was it: she would have to follow someone out during this closing period. She decided to rest for a couple of days to get her bearings and summon all her energy before making the first attempt.

She returned her gaze to her sons by the neem tree. “Like what, Ma?” The tone of his voice as he spoke each word was stored in her ear, as were the seconds she had paused before replying, “Like dying, beta.”

Carrying a broom and dustpan, Rakesh entered the room through the half-length curtain in the doorframe. “Good morning, ma’am.”

“Good morning, Rakesh,” she replied, as she did every morning, mumbling his name to make it sound like “Rakshasa” as a subtle reminder that she knew he was much more to this operation than just a cleaning boy. As he did every morning, he pretended not to hear it.

Rakesh knelt down to sweep up the wet pieces of glass, saying, “Good morning, Mister Garg. I see you’ve already made yourself at home.”

Garg! No surprises there. They used a fictional name for her, why wouldn’t they give him one, too? Over the years she had at least got them to call her “ma’am,” as befit her former position.

“I don’t drink water,” Garg said.

It would be safer to think of him as “Garg” as long as there were staff in the room. She pushed her spectacles up the ridge of her nose with her index finger and took a closer look. Yes, he was definitely older than her. Yes, he had big ears drooping under the weight of black, thick-rimmed spectacles. And yes, he had just admitted to not drinking water. She knew this about him, of course—the whole nation once did. But the fact that he was saying so now, his first words in this room, made her thoughts spin. He had arrived and been awake before her, so he must have recognised her. There was a message in his words, and this message was meant for her.

She turned towards the window on the other side of her bed. So much of her time went into looking inconspicuous that it was no surprise she hadn’t been able to make contact with her family yet. But the staff here was relentless—some of the best agents in the country, she was sure of it—and she had to be careful. She knew that they did not believe her when she told them her real name, and after all these years she still wasn’t sure if they were briefed to act as they did or whether some of them were being kept in the dark. Her comatose years had changed her, after all. She wore her undyed hair in a bun now.

Over time she changed her strategy from trying to convince them of her real identity to reminding them of it only on occasions when the humiliation of having to deny the truth became unbearable. This was the case whenever one of the staff members telephoned her “nephew,” for example, who insisted on calling her “Aunty” in a nasal voice that she found rather distasteful. But there were advantages to having them believe she no longer remembered her true self, and she hoped that soon they would deem her harmless and so give her a chance to escape back to Safdarjung Road.

But that Rakesh was always around. Rakesh knew more than he let on, of that she was sure. He often came into her room on one excuse or another and used every opportunity to confuse her. Like the other day, when she had been looking out through her top-floor window at the mall beyond the road, and watching as he wiped the pane with newspaper and bright-blue cleaning spray. She had tried to sound casual when she asked him what the mall’s “footfall” was (a word she had heard often on the television), hoping to gauge whether it might be a good place to lose any pursuers—she would be safe in large crowds—but he had sniffed her out immediately and replied that there was sufficient footfall in malls all over India now, only that not all feet were equal and sweepers were not allowed inside except as sweepers, no matter whether in Allahabad, Amritsar or Delhi. The message could not have been clearer: Allahabad was the city of her birth, Amritsar where her “death” was decided and Delhi where it was executed. It was a threat that meant “You might know who you really are but so do I, and you won’t get far.” As an additional warning, Rakesh left the window streaky and covered with tiny shreds of newspaper, so that she could no longer see clearly the squat building. She pondered the possibility that they were somewhere outside the capital, even though the nurses had told her from the day she came to that she was at the Second Childhood Assisted Living Home in Vasant Kunj, which, if that was really where she was, looked nowhere near as swampy as she remembered it from the time her father acquired land there on behalf of the Indian government.

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Saskya Jain is a writer whose work has featured in literary magazines including Intelligent Life, Hyphen and The Baffler. Her first novel, Fire Under Ash, is out this month from Random House, and she is currently working on her second.

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