The Menace at the Gate – by Janet H. Swinney

by TBLM

Her period refused to come. She lay in turmoil beneath the ineffectual ceiling fan. No position brought relief from the heat. After days of tossing and turning and lying in limp sheets, her shoulders and her buttocks were disfigured by the blemishes served up by prickly heat, and the monsoon was still an age away.

Clans of mosquitoes infested the room, convening under the bed, as well as in the adjoining bathroom, where you took your pants down at your peril. Every night, before coming to bed, she fumigated the entire place with Deet, and plastered herself with Odomos. It made no difference. The evil empire persisted in rude good health, while she lay upon the bed like a living sacrifice. Despite a monstrous nightgown and cotton socks that came up almost to her knees, her ankles, wrists and toes were swollen with multiple bites, the flesh ripped raw with scratching.

Her mind was in no better state. Her head was filled with equations that she could not solve. The reek of formaldehyde from the lab was still in her nostrils. She had never guessed when she chose her subjects for Ten Plus, that even Biology, which was her favourite subject, would involve so much chemistry. She thrashed about the bed, struggling with valencies that were at odds with one another, and the chemical description of photosynthesis that she could not complete. At the same time, fragments of the argument her parents had had that morning rattled in her head. They were covering the same old ground. Her mother wanted a beauty parlour, and was asking for a down payment for land. Her father was adamant that no wife of his was going out to work. Over the months that war had been waged across this terrain, the arguments had got worse: her mother more abusive, her father bitterer and meaner. This morning’s argument had been conducted with such vitriol that even her brother had been shocked. Not to mention the relatives from the UK who were staying with them.

Anju gathered that business in the state was going down. Everyone was jittery because of the Sikh separatist hostilities that showed no sign of abating. Only last week, people had been dragged off a bus from Chandigarh and shot for no obvious reason. So, of course, her father was right to be cautious. On the other hand, she thought her mother would make a good businesswoman who would have her wits about her, so why hold back? Her father was willing to pay for his daughters’ education in the hope that they would become career women, so why not make some investment in his wife? In the meantime, while the matter remained unresolved, the entire household operated in an oppressive atmosphere of unspoken thoughts; unfocused gazes, and evasive action when they encountered each other in the living room. She had no idea how things would end.

The words ‘xylem’ and ‘phloem’ drifted through her head tangled up with elements from the periodic table. Then came ‘cranial enlargement’, ‘thermodynamic equilibrium’ and ‘infantile dementia’. A cow sauntered past to buy beauty products at her mother’s three-legged market stall. Her father sawed down trees at the corner of the garden to make way for a shamiana. A dog was found to share its genetic origins with a banana. The banana sought an audience with the queen of Punjabi film, Amrita Singh. A balloon drifted off in the direction of Khalistan, taking the film star with it, and leaving her fans behind. No matter how Anju tried, nothing would compute.

She threw herself to the other end of the bed in the hope of finding a breath of air. Now the rattle of water in the cooler was next to her ears, along with the demented roar of its fan. It was like life as she imagined it in an aircraft hangar. She got up and switched the thing off – it served no useful purpose – and launched herself on to her back again. She had begged and pleaded with her parents for a grown-up ‘pad’ away from her obnoxious brother and her feather-brained sister, a place where she could do grown-up things like read novels and listen to film songs. Now that she had it, she could hardly complain about the disadvantages, especially as the room had its own outer door, almost like an apartment. With the cooler off, she heard the motor of the refrigerator kick into action several rooms away, the bottles of water shuddering in the drinks rack. The external screen door banged softly for no apparent reason. And in the back bedroom, her new uncle began to snore like a rutting buffalo.

Things were no better at school, either. In fact, they were worse. She was at that age when she was trying to distance herself from her parents. It was clear they didn’t know her any more: they frowned at things she thought were hilarious and read doom, disaster and shortcoming into her every move. Her friends, on the other hand, shared her sense of humour; they took pleasure in the same things as her, whether movies or music; they knew exactly what talents she had and appreciated them. Or that’s the way it had been. But, by now, many of her friends had already left school, some for early marriages and some for secretarial training. Meenakshi was even expecting her first child, the gaudiness of her marriage equalled only by her ignorance of matters reproductive. Anju didn’t want any of that. She wanted a career she was genuinely interested in, one she could pursue for many years to come, depending on how marriage turned out, and so she’d decided on Immunology , something that would be socially useful. This was what had made her put up so far with the homework, the absolute crate loads of it that she had to drag around every day. This, and having friends to lighten the load.

But now, her best friend, Gurdeep, had discarded her. It would have been better if they had had an argument. An argument is about something, often a misunderstanding, and there’s a good chance it can be patched up. But Gurdeep had simply said to her one day, ‘Nah, you’re just too boring these days. Always self-absorbed; always complaining about things that don’t interest anyone else. I want some fun.’ And she had turned her attention to a group of Arts students in their year, notably one Dhirendra, a boy with very tight trousers and a quiff of oily hair whom they had both despised when they were a year younger. Anju was devastated. It was humiliating. The contagion of rejection spread, and soon she spent her days ploughing a solitary furrow, shunned by the last of her remaining friends. It made break times difficult and it made her school bag twice as heavy.

Her nightdress was stifling Its gathers added unflattering volume to her body, enlarging her aching breasts, and turning her bloated abdomen into a mound the size of a village pathi. Ribbons of perspiration threaded their way across every surface of her body and collected in its folds.

Suddenly, she leaped up and ripped the nightdress off. And with it, the socks. ‘Come, mosquitoes, come!’ she cried out silently, as she flung herself across the bed, naked and cruciform. ‘What more harm can you do?’

But no: no matter how hard she tried to will herself into oblivion, a constant flurry of unrelated items filled her head, like debris caught up in a dust storm, while a peculiar orange glow filled her cranium and pressed at the back of her eyeballs. She felt that at any moment her head might explode. She flailed about desperately in hope of some small respite. Her hips were bruised with twisting and turning on the thin, unforgiving mattress, and mosquitoes screamed shrill descants by her ears. When she had visited a particular chemical equation pointlessly for what seemed like the umpteenth time, ‘Enough!’ she said, and got up. She wrenched the sheet from the bed and wound it around herself sari-style. She shuffled softly to the door, slid the bolt back gently and stepped out into the garden. Ironic that when her parents had debated giving her the room, they considered how easily someone might get in. It had never occurred to them to think about how readily their daughter might get out.

She stood on the lawn. The grass was oily underfoot. The sunflowers in the borders hung their heads with exhaustion. Nothing stirred. Not even the cicadas that normally hung about in the creeper on the wall. The moon was high and bloated, with a feverish orange stain around it. The pill-box that the Armed Police had constructed on the wall of the Shri Lakshmi Narayan mission, after the separatists had attacked a number of Hindu temples, was deserted. However, further along, at the sentry post next to the gate, a single guard stood on duty. After a while, he gave a muffled cough, and she heard his boots crunch on gravel as he adjusted his weight.

She stood as still as a statue in her makeshift sari. Then, far away, she heard the whistle of the chowkidar on his rounds. Gradually, he came closer, trailing his lathi along a fence. Finally, by the time he got to the end of their lane, she could make out each concussive rattle of the pea in his whistle. The guard shifted his ground, preparing for a diversion. But the chowkidar passed on, intent on his own thoughts, oblivious to the ghost-like figure standing on the lawn. Stick and whistle turned a corner and faded into the distance.

Anju laughed to herself. What kind of a chowkidar was that? He wouldn’t see a burglary if it was committed under his nose. She had not been afraid that he might see her, though. She had not been afraid at all. She took a few paces further on to the lawn, and adjusted her sagging ‘sari’ in a way she thought might be more becoming. The guard might, or might not, have been watching her.

A few lanes away, fractious dogs began to squabble, their yelping reverberating from the vast geometry of the blue-black sky. Suddenly the night seemed full of possibilities, offering something very different from the mental drudgery Anju faced on a daily basis; something far away from mind-numbing routine; something exhilarating. She moved as smoothly across the lawn as if she were on castors. Carefully, she lifted the latch on the garden gate and stepped out into the lane. The gravel bit into her feet, sharpening her senses, and she felt a certain thrill at being ‘out of bounds’. She nursed her heavy breasts on her forearm as she held the ‘sari’ close, the nipples standing stiffly to attention. Suddenly, she felt differently about herself: a sense of expansiveness that sat low within her offered itself for fulfilment. This was a far remove from the dead weight she had got used to dragging around.

It was as though the guard had been expecting her. He was young, his facial expression not yet hardened into that of a seasoned officer, but not so young that he didn’t know what was required of him. He was eager; brusque but not brutal. She pushed him back against the wall. His uniform was coarse and full of hindrances. Her fast and furtive fingers made short work of them. She waited while he undid his trouser buckle, then she dropped the sheet. His body was narrow, his hips hard. The sex was what they both needed: harsh and hasty. He thrust deep inside her, and she drew hard on him. Her body gave commands she was not familiar with and responded to its own orders. Her mind was nowhere. She clutched him by the shoulders, and raised a knee against the wall to get a better purchase. At her ear she could feel his breath and the softness of a young moustache. When it was over, she hung on to his collar gratefully, and rested her head briefly on his shoulder, but she could not look him in the eye.

Wordlessly, she dragged the sheet back into the garden, and somehow got back into her room without disturbing the household. Now as she lay on the bed, she felt she had already left home. She fell asleep uncovered by the sheet and with no thought for mosquitoes.

The following morning was a strange business. She put on her school uniform – it looked ridiculous – and took it off again. Instead, she put on a modest salwar kameez and went into the dining room. Her parents were busy pretending they weren’t rowing, for the benefit of the visitors from the UK, but were clearly on a collision course. Anju couldn’t be bothered to try and decipher exactly what was going on. Her mother frowned at her briefly, something about her daughter’s appearance catching her attention, but then got distracted by the cold war. Anju buttered herself a piece of toast, smothered it with jam, smiled at her new auntie and uncle and hefted her bag of books out to the school bus.

No-one wanted to sit next to her. She didn’t care. As the vehicle wove between the military check-points that had been set up all across town, she looked around benignly at her fellow passengers. Too much gossiping! What was there that required so much yakkety-yak? Latest hits and such, she supposed. Whatever it was, it no longer mattered to her. She was in a class of her own now. She smiled inwardly. As the bus trundled along, she opened her bag and slid her text books out through the window bars, one by one. She watched small children and dogs run out from ditches and drains to see what gift had been left for them. She felt totally liberated. They, on the other hand, were going to be really disappointed.

She lied her way through the first half of the day: ‘Sorry, miss, I think my brother’s taken it by mistake’, ‘Sorry sir, I couldn’t finish it: my tooth was paining.’ All through some ineffably boring Physics demonstration that involved the use of vernier calipers, she sat looking out through a gap between the buildings at a smudge in the distance where the foothills started up from the plains. One day soon, perhaps, she could be wandering there in the clear mountain air, serenaded by music and caressed by blossom as in the best romantic film scenes. When it came to the practical, she didn’t even try to complete it.

In the early afternoon, her euphoria started to dispel. She could hear the thump of munitions and the occasional crack of small arms fire out in the direction of the cantonment. The day was turning muggy again. Even minus the school uniform, she felt hot and bothered. Slowly, it dawned on her that without money she was going nowhere; without passing her exams, she would be unable to go to college, and if she did not graduate and become a professional lady who earned money, then she would be parcelled off to some local buddhu whom, knowing her father, she might have very little say in choosing.

And what if her period never came? What if, after nine months, her body exploded and gave forth a baby? She, better than anyone, should have been able to guard against this possibility. The ins and outs of the human reproductive system were on their curriculum. How could she have been so stupid?

She sat up late that night, listening to old film songs on her radio. Or rather, not listening, but gripped by terror as plaintive melodies lilted by, one after another. She didn’t know the first thing about having a baby. She didn’t want a baby. She couldn’t imagine herself in such a situation. The whole business of garnering another being from within yourself and pushing it out into the world was too grotesque. But before she even got to that, there was the matter of how she would break the shameful truth to her parents. They would be appalled, and their fury would be boundless. She would have ruined things for them. They would become social outcasts, unwelcome in every outpost of their family, and she would be some ugly pariah, hated by herself as well as by everyone else. The truth was unspeakable. She couldn’t do it: she couldn’t tell her parents. She would rather die.

There was nothing to do but wait, and that meant strapping on the uniform again; figuring out how to catch up with her homework and trying to get hold of the textbooks she had discarded at a point in the school year when they couldn’t easily be replaced.

The days passed wretchedly, and the nights too, with the fan battering against the ceiling and the cooler keeping up its incessant din. Her body was not complying with the laws of nature. It did nothing. Except, perhaps, inflate: the waistband of her school skirt got so tight, she felt faint when she bent over, and her bra bit into her flesh like the rope on a cotton bale. Her ankles had lost their definition, and her toes were like little loqats . As the days ticked by, her sense of dread increased.

Meanwhile, her mother had noticed the logjam in proceedings. She threatened Anju with a visit to the doctor’s.

‘I can’t go. I can’t miss school. We’re doing important stuff.’

‘This is important stuff. You can’t let matters like these drag on. They need to be sorted out. Otherwise, you don’t know what all problems you will have in the future.’

‘I hate it,’ said Anju. ‘You can’t see him in private. You have to sit there and tell him all personal stuff in front of half the town. Last time I heard a woman telling him all about her discharge. It was disgusting.’

‘Grow up!’ said her mother. ‘Everyone has such problems. You’re no different. He’s a good homoeopath. He cured you overnight when you were tiny and had whooping cough. And he treats the police horses for free.’

Anju snorted in disdain. ‘I’m not going!’

But finally, her mother did get her way. One morning Anju found her braced in the frame of the external door, barring her way.

‘Right, madam, you can put your school bag down. We’re not having this tamasha any longer. We’re going to the doctor’s.’

They set off across town in a rickshaw. Although she’d applied an avalanche of talcum powder to herself, Anju’s cleavage was already wet and her palms clammy. ‘Now,’ said her mother, ‘when we get there, speak out. Leave nothing out.’ Anju hung her head. She didn’t think so.

But when they arrived at the surgery, they found the whole place in turmoil. The yard that served as the waiting room was filled with a jostling throng of distraught people. Men were shouting and women wailing. Someone was waving a crutch over someone else’s head. A woman in a yellow sari was kneeling in the garden, tearing at her hair. The crooked plastic chairs normally used to seat the patients in orderly rows were in disarray, and some had been knocked to the ground. Patients were jammed in the doorway to the doctor’s consulting room trying to elbow their way in past each other. ‘What’s going on? asked Anju’s mother. Eventually, she had to grab the arm of an elderly mali in a dirty shirt. ‘What’s happened?’ She hung on to his arm, insisting on an answer.

But the cry went up from elsewhere: ‘They’ve killed him! The bastards have killed him! Straight through the head!’ The hubbub grew. Everyone wanted to see with their own eyes; to know for sure. What were the sick to do without their healer? How would the lame walk and the blind see?

And Anju and her mother were no different from the rest. But it was some time, in all the confusion, before they could fight their way to the consulting room door. And there the doctor lay behind his desk, his head protruding at one end, a sock and shoe at the other, the face that had been formed in friendly greeting now starting to look tired. An indecent orifice gaped at the centre of his forehead in the position of the third eye. Anju wiped her hand across her mouth, and felt her throat was dry. Her mother started to bleat.

That evening, the family abandoned their usual practice of sitting out on the porch after dinner, trying to catch the last breath of the day. It felt too dangerous. The servant had gone home early to avoid the curfew, and Anju’s brother had sent word to say he’d been kept late at college and would lie low with a friend. The three of them – mother, father, and daughter – huddled in the claustrophobic living room with their UK relatives, with the fan whirring and the curtains flapping, lamenting the death of the doctor.

‘So generous,’ sobbed Anju’s mother. ‘Always a kind word. So good with the little ones.’

‘What I don’t understand,’ said Anju’s English auntie, ‘is why anyone would want to kill a doctor.’

‘They’re saying in the market it was that business with the horses,’ said her father.

‘So now horses are their enemy?’ her mother wailed.

‘They said because he helped the Armed Police he was fraternising with the enemy.’

‘Ludicrous!’ declared Anju’s mother. ‘Have people no compassion?’

They sat together for some time pondering the whys and wherefores of the turmoil that was unfolding all around them. Anju wondered what her alien auntie made of it all. They had bribed government officials to get her a permit to enter the state. Anju wondered if she would have come at all, if she had known what she was letting herself in for. With her short hair and knee-length skirts, she looked lost and completely out of place.

Anju went to bed early in her separate apartment. It had been a narrow escape for her, but at what price? She lay on her back with the light on, watching the ceiling fan clank round. Where would it all end?

In fact, it was English Auntie’s alien qualities that meant that Anju felt some affinity with her. Just once or twice, in odd moments over the breakfast table, for example, she was tempted to turn to her for help. She would begin to form the words of some English sentences in her head, and then English Auntie would catch her eye and smile, and ask her some banal question about her day at school or her interests, and Anju would freeze, stammer a word or two and drop her eyes. Except once, that is: when English Auntie asked if she had any boyfriends. Anju saw her mother’s head snap round on its neck. ‘My God, no!’ Anju declared. ‘No, never.’ She had enough words available in her English vocabulary for that.

The end of month tests came round. Anju did worse than everyone except she herself expected, and uncomfortable enquiries were launched over the dinner table. Her father, briefly and uncharacteristically sympathetic, conjectured that her poor performance might be due to her anxieties about the ongoing conflict, or a rumour that had been going around that some schools might close because of the troubles. Only Anju knew different. She promised to try harder, but her head was so packed with cotton wool that she couldn’t think straight, and her fat fingers were too stiff to produce a decent diagram. Haggard, nauseous and with black patches under her eyes due to lack of sleep, she slogged to school every day like a manual labourer with a penchant for alcohol.

The newspapers were full of menace and desperate deeds. Pak was threatening to make incursions into Kashmir, and the separatists were threatening to make Punjab into a no-go area. Twenty people in Kurukshetra were seriously ill in an hospital because they had drunk contaminated milk, and a headless torso had been found in a ditch in Kapurthala. Three ten year-old children from Khanna’s Model Town had hanged themselves from a ceiling fan. Two sisters and a cousin all gone in one fell swoop, afraid that they would disgrace their parents in the end of year exams. Closer to home, the Armed Police had brought in customised agricultural machines with high-rise wheels to flush out terrorists hiding in among the sugar cane.

Anju pored over the photograph of the children’s sad little corpses. How she admired them for what they had done! What courage and logistical planning it had taken to pull this off. How she longed for such a release! Time was running out for her. The business with the doctor had, after all, been a deferment and not a solution. She had already been considering whether her own careful plan would involve phenol, the rat poison under the kitchen sink, the painkillers her mother kept in a drawer to treat a recurring back problem, or the razor her father used every day. And now the children had given her another idea. She decided to give herself until the week-end when things would be easier to arrange.

That Friday night, she fell into bed exhausted, after struggling with a series of velocity-time graphs and the laws of thermodynamics. She was wiped out, vanquished, had nothing left to offer. She was asleep before she could remember to switch off the radio. While singers crooned softly throughout the night, and the terrorists crept through the fields towards the next victims on their list, her body thought things over and decided to free itself from the grip of inertia. The first blood it released leaked quietly from between her thighs. Anju sighed and turned over in her deep, dreamless sleep.

By the time morning came, a dark stain with gelatinous deposits had soaked the sheet, and smeared itself across her body. For the first time, she did not regard this as a nuisance. She stuffed the sheet into a bucket of Rin, and and went out joyfully to the market to eat as much falooda as she could manage.

On Monday morning, in Biology, she handled the slides for a series of experiments on the cell structure of plants so deftly that it won praise from her teacher. Later on she produced a depiction of the chloroplast with such accurate attention to detail that it was reminiscent of a Mughal miniature. She was back on form!

No-one commented on her change of mood. Things at home continued in the usual vein, but she got into one or two conversations with girls in Plus Two who were preparing to go to medical college, and this raised some interesting options she had not considered. Eventually, end-of-year exams came. She sat them and acquitted herself well. Then, they were on vacation, and though she kicked about at a loose end with nothing to do and no-one to do it with – it was too risky even to contemplate a trip to either the cinema or the bazaar, for example – it was not a bad experience. She knew that when school resumed, she would be giving her full attention to the Ampère versus Biot-Savart problem, and her study of the musculoskeletal system. In the meantime, she amused herself reading Wuthering Heights and The Broken Bridge by Jagdish Vaidya.

The monsoon broke, and swept through the land, washing it clean of dissent and destruction. One night, in Ropar district, the Armed Police harvested twenty terrorists, and finished them off. No questions asked either by state or by central government. There was a collective sigh of relief in many quarters. The pill-box on the temple wall was dismantled. The sentry box remained but was already crumbling. The Armed Police went back to barracks. The family’s British relatives caught their flight back home. Anju started preparing her application for college. She had shifted her focus from Immunology to Reproductive Health and Population Management. She never saw the young guard again.

***