Anjali hated Saturday afternoon. It preceded the only free day of the week – a day she had to fight very hard for. It had taken her more than two years to realise just how important it was to her. Only after she had established a name for herself as a surgeon did she develop the courage to broach the subject with the management.
And she hated Sakuntala Devi, the medical superintendent, with whom she had an ongoing tussle to maintain that privilege. Now, she stared at the fat jowls and the furrowed forehead of the senior doctor.
“Anjali, this is the second time that a patient has complained that you did not attend a call on a Sunday.”
“In four years, Madam,” Anjali replied. “In four bloody years. Why don’t you say that? Do you mean to say that Dr Zacharia’s patients do not complain at all? Prakash attended the call that day, and he is a qualified surgeon. We are obliged to offer quality care, and I have never compromised on that. I pay Prakash to cover my patients every Sunday, the hospital doesn’t. Maybe I should stop doing that, and ask for an assistant – on the hospital’s payroll. Haven’t you noticed that we are busier now? You have to consider this vis-a-vis how things stood four years ago, when Dr Zacharia was the only doctor here. I don’t think he can manage all the patients alone anymore.”
The last statement was a veiled threat, and Sakuntala Devi knew that.
“I have to scrub now for an appendicectomy, if you will excuse me,” Anjali continued.
It was not Sakuntala Devi’s battle, strictly speaking. She was a salaried employee, and not the owner. Being a paediatrician, she was definitely uncomfortable with female surgeons. They were a rarity. Anjali was a very capable and popular surgeon – an anomaly, in medical terms.
“I just wanted to let you know.” Sakuntala allowed herself a tight smile. “The Pothundi brothers are very happy with you. No issues. We want the patients to feel cared for on all days, that is all.”
Who cares what two liquor barons think! — thought Anjali. She only wanted a decent place to work; to practise what she had spent fifteen years learning. This was one weakness she shared with a lot of well-trained healers. Reminisce about the long training period. Sleepless nights, overwhelming responsibility, and years of hard work had a peculiar habit of etching themselves permanently on the brain. They buried into and became a part of a doctor’s personality, ready to re-surface whenever an opportunity arose. Women, of course, had a much harder time. Anjali remembered the ward-in-charge, when she was a first-year resident in surgery, who was rude to her to the point of making her cry. And that nurse was a woman too.
Staying buried within the four walls of a hospital for ten years, with only married men for company, was not a good way of finding a husband. Her mother tried to arrange a boy for her, but a career-oriented surgeon put many off. Then Anjali refused more proposals till she thought she was ready to earn a livelihood on her own. That took a long time. A late marriage was better than none, her mother said. She had to decide. India was not going to change just because a few women became surgeons. Family was central to a woman’s life. That was why at least free weekends were essential.
She had to hurry now. The appendicectomy was a difficult one. It was always like this whenever she wanted to leave early. It was six in the evening when she finished. She could not depart without talking to the parents of the patient — a young boy.
“You mean to say you won’t be there tomorrow?” the father asked with some disbelief in his voice.
“Prakash, a very good surgeon, will come and see him tomorrow. I have explained everything to him,” Anjali said firmly, but with a smile.
The parents seemed somewhat reassured.
She had to rush home. The moment the car entered the porch, Anjali saw Sunil standing on the veranda, anger and frustration clearly visible on his face. Whether an eight-year-old’s anger can be called formidable is a matter of opinion. To a perpetually guilt-ridden mother, it can be precisely that.
“You forgot my music class,” said her son. His voice was sullen.
This was one thing Sunil was really interested in. Anjali had also had an inclination towards music during childhood. That had been sacrificed at the altar of professional training. It had made her determined to encourage her son as much as possible. He wanted to go for volleyball training as well, but there she had to say no. It was simply impossible for her or her husband to find the time.
“Mummy!” cried Minu as she came running to her mother. Anjali picked her up. Three-year-olds cannot complain in words. Besides, they simply forget the feeling of being abandoned the moment they see you. Anjali could not decide what she found more disconcerting – Sunil’s anger or Minu’s calm acceptance.
“We are going to the piano class. We are only ten minutes late,” said Anjali, in a conciliatory tone. At least she hoped it was.
“But we have to collect the keyboard from the shop on the way. We gave it for repairs day before yesterday. Did you forget that too?” Sunil’s large eyes bulged. How could it have slipped her mind when it occupied such a large portion of his own world? Retrieving it was crucial. Today was the practice run for next week’s exam. Arun practised every day. That was what Sujith said. Arun’s mother sat with him for half an hour as he played. Some boys were lucky.
“I am going for an office meeting,” Sreejith, Anjali’s husband, announced as he appeared.
Anjali realised with a stab of self-pity that he looked fresh … and young. Younger than her. They had planned to go to the clubhouse together before Sunil’s class for a swim and a round of table tennis. He had stopped complaining about the frequent change of plans. But that meant she could not resent the fact that he was going off on his own now.
“Why don’t you say office party? I know only your junior – bachelor – team will be there.”
“And bachelorettes, Mrs Sreejith.” Sreejith grinned. In the light, his grin looked almost spiteful.
“Who will look after Minu if you leave?” Anjali’s voice was unnecessarily sharp. “You know the maid is not there on Saturday and Sunday.”
“Take her with you. In any case you’ll have to wait till Sunil’s class is over.”
Frustration added to the traffic on the road. Autos arranged themselves in all directions like Lego pieces scattered from their box. Trucks loomed and bikes zoomed past. Pedestrians swore and showed their middle fingers. Every now and then the entire show froze as there was a gridlock, and horns started blaring as if to make up for the lack of movement. Some revved up the engine, spewing smoke.
Anjali had to squeeze the car into a tiny space between a van and an auto parked defiantly in a no-parking zone. When somebody else has already broken the law, it is easy to follow their lead. When options are few, the law doesn’t intimidate.
In spite of that, she had to walk half a kilometre to the shop, carrying Minu and holding Sunil by the hand. Somehow, she could not allow herself to leave the children in the car while she went to fetch the repaired instrument.
“What do you mean, it is not ready yet? You had promised to give it back yesterday.” She was ashamed at the whining tone of her own voice in front of the man at the shop. She gave Sunil a sidelong glance. He seemed about to burst into tears.
“A component of the key master card has crashed, Madam. The Casio has to come from Bombay. It will take another week,” the man returned with the complete confidence of one who knows that the customer has no option.
“You should have called and told us. Then we would not have driven through this insane traffic.”
“You should have called, Madam. We didn’t have your number.” He smiled as if he had done something clever by not taking the number in the first place.
Anjali could feel her blood pressure shooting up. Who said one cannot feel one’s blood pressure? She could feel a dull thud building up inside her ears, and could hear a soft wail from Sunil.
“Shut up,” she hissed venomously as they started walking back. The volume of the wails inevitably became louder. Passersby gave her curious glances, as if they had personally witnessed her beat her boy mercilessly.
While she backed the car, Sunil yelled, “You have spoilt my exam! Now, Arun will come first. All because of you!”
Minu was quick to catch on. She started wailing loudly as well, the noise piercing the confines of the car.
Anjali’s anger breached its banks. “Me! What did I do? You are too old to complain like this! Things happen, you know that. Nobody has to be responsible. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”
She thought about how clichéd her words were, and how she was repeating what her own mother used to say – when there was a crash. She had hit an auto. It was not a small bump. She got out hurriedly, carrying the crying toddler in her arms. When many autowallahs started crowding around on the road like crows around a dead dog, she decided to call Sreejith. She couldn’t handle this alone with two troubled children. But she wanted to. Oh, how she wanted to.
Sreejith drove the car back after an hour, all four of them now silent. They were poorer by five thousand rupees, and robbed of dignity.
“I read somewhere that women have very poor spatial and mechanistic skills,” Sreejith commented, breaking a long period of silence.
Anjali knew that Sreejith was reading Desmond Brown’s Why Women Can’t Throw and Men Can’t Listen. He quoted frequently from it nowadays.
“Desmond Brown is an ass. You mean to say surgeons have poor mechanospatial ability and software engineers have plenty? Don’t make me laugh.”
Anjali knew she should have kept quiet. But a lifetime of competence had not prepared her for extra prudence.
“You are the one who crashed the car, not me.” Sreejith laughed without humour.
“Why did I have to deal with two children on my own? I have to do all the housework and babysitting, while you go and party with young girls in jeans and T-shirts!”
She suddenly realised how much like an ordinary woman she sounded and felt ashamed. But then she questioned herself. Why should she feel ashamed? That was what she was – an ordinary woman. She blinked her tears away. In her mind, she could visualise a chapter on ‘Women and Ever-ready Tears’ in Desmond Brown’s book.
Her husband said, “Now I have to work on Saturdays too. Recession has hit us badly. Do you realise how much pressure I am under? I can’t relax for even a single day just because…” He trailed off. Anjali had to go to the bathroom and cry for a few minutes after they arrived at the house. Then she heated up a few dishes and served dinner. It was a quiet affair, as Sunil was still sulking. An eight-year-old’s sulking can be extraordinarily effective. She washed the dishes, while Sreejith retired to the bedroom. He used to come and help once, but slowly that had changed because she did not insist. Her instinct had told her how to keep her marriage intact. Family was important after all. She was aware that without it she would be helpless. Some women were stronger, but not she.
She had to brush Minu’s teeth and put her to sleep. Sreejith did that sometimes, but on most days Minu became too cranky by bedtime and insisted on having her mother with her. Sreejith had to do everything whenever she had night calls, or when she returned from the hospital very late, and she had to compensate for it on free evenings and weekends. That was obvious. Sunil was unhappy. A keyboard class once a week was not too much to ask. And Sreejith was taking too much interest in office parties these days. Half his team consisted of twenty-year-old girls. He was visibly annoyed at being interrupted by the car accident. It was my fault, she reflected. By the time she joined her husband in bed she had brooded herself into depression.
“Mother called while you were in the kitchen,” Sreejith said.
“Why didn’t you call me? I wanted to talk to her,” Anjali pretended to be interested.
“We can go there tomorrow. She wants us to go over for lunch. I told her we would be there with a couple of dishes prepared by the dear daughter-in-law.”
“But there are no vegetables … the groceries…” She protested a bit too quickly.
“I bought everything on the way from office,” Sreejith said smugly, as if expecting gushing praise.
“But … that means you already had it all planned! Why don’t you tell me these things beforehand, so that I can be prepared?” Her annoyance was evident now. It was a two-hour drive to her in-laws’ place. She had to start preparing the dishes early. She looked forward to the lazy Sunday mornings. That was not going to happen this time.
“I will help, Anjali.” He pulled her towards him. She did not protest as he hugged her tightly. She buried her face in his chest and tried to relax. No, she couldn’t do it today. There was too much on her mind. Her nerves were like the irritable leaves of the Mimosa. She shrank from his touch. But he persistently manoeuvred his hands through her clothes onto her breasts. She wanted to be left alone. And close her eyes and breathe. She gently pushed him away. He froze.
“What is the matter? Today is the day, isn’t it? Once a week is the maximum we achieve.”
Numbers. Had he prepared an excel sheet to enter the data each time they did it? An entry for each kiss and thrust and ejaculation? Were there tables and graphs for comparison with his friends and colleagues? Anjali felt her body turn cold. Sreejith had already given up, and turned to the other side to sleep. Half of her wanted to please him, talk to him. The other half seethed with humiliation. Her hand reached out to touch him, but eventually didn’t.
She lay awake for a long time, and tried to forget that she had to wake up early.
By the time they reached the palatial house, it was twelve. The drive did not soothe her. She was still recuperating from cooking in the morning. She hated cooking. The ‘no non-veg’ clause was the worst. She became clumsy and awkward in the kitchen. Early morning on a Sunday somehow exhausted her. That was the day the backlog of sleep was usually taken care of. Two young children meant constant restlessness that prevented her from meditation she was intent on trying. She could not even think about that right now.
“Hello Amma,” she greeted Mrs Arvindan as she embraced her son. She wondered whether her lack of enthusiasm showed.
Amma smiled at her as she cursorily surveyed her from her head to foot. Papa hovered in the background smiling benignly. One could see the lady was the dominant force in this household. Or was it because of their age? As a couple aged, did the man slowly shrink in significance while the woman turned stronger, like wine? Amma felt the children’s bodies as they embraced her, as though checking tomatoes for freshness at the supermarket.
“Sunil is so much thinner!” she exclaimed. “And Minu is worse. Is she small for her age?”
Anjali felt resentment rising within her. This was going to be even more difficult than she had expected.
“It is heredity. Both of us are thin, Amma. And Minu is average in size. Sreejith is not exactly tall.” She knew she should have stayed silent, but she couldn’t help it.
Mrs. Arvindan gave her a false smile.
“I know you don’t have time, Daughter. This is what happens when both the parents are working.” She nodded with inflated sympathy, which Anjali ignored.
She couldn’t complain that nobody enjoyed lunch. It seemed as though Sunil and Minu had been starving for days. Amma looked on, clucking her tongue sympathetically. Sreejith praised Amma’s dishes with great enthusiasm. He said it was worth driving for two hours just for the brinjal curry. Amma and Papa beamed. Amma gave helpful hints on how Anjali could improve her sambhar and potato mappas.
“A girl should learn all these things from her mother,” Mrs Aravindan finished.
“Leave my poor mother alone.” Anjali laughed lightly, converting an explosive situation into the usual cold war scenario. Nervous laughter marked the end of lunch.
When they were washing dishes in the kitchen, Mrs Arvindan turned to her casually. “You know, Daughter, I had made it to the PSC list soon after my marriage, and I was an MA. A post-graduate degree was a big thing in those times. But I decided that one person had to stay and look after the home and children. That was one of my wisest decisions. Sreejith and Srikumar turned out so well. All our duties have been completed properly. That is a very satisfying thing at this age.”
Anjali kept her eyes glued to a speck of dirt she was scrubbing off a plate. The stainless steel surface reflected her face. It showed her furrowed brows.
“When both parents are busy, it is not fair to the children,” Mrs Arvindan continued.
“Well, maybe. Either of the parents can take care of the house,” Anjali said tersely.
“Sreejith earns very well. Software people are the highest paid nowadays. He definitely earns more than you, I am sure. His salary can easily support a family.”
It had become personal now. The charade of general principles was over. “Look, Amma, I am a surgeon, and I am not going to sit at home looking after the children. I made it very clear to Sreejith before marriage. He may be earning a lot, but this is not about that.” She was upset now.
Mrs Arvindan looked at her with dismay. “And I thought it was something between us.”
Without warning, her mother-in-law transformed from a strong woman into Ms Teary Mom. She ran the back of her hand over her eyes, staining her cheek with tears. “Yes. I have no say in what you choose to do; sorry about that. Just forgive an old woman, Daughter.”
In spite of her contempt for Desmond Brown, Anjali was struck by the extraordinary effect of this weapon. Guilt coursed through her chest and turned into a dead weight that made further conversation impossible.
They left quickly after that. She saw her mother-in-law talking seriously to Sreejith, and tried not to imagine the dialogue.
It was evening when they got back.
“I have to go to an emergency client meeting. The section head called. I will be late,” Sreejith announced.
Was it another office party? Perhaps he was doing this to spite her after her afternoon’s blunder. There was no way to tell. She deserved it, she thought guiltily. How could she lose control like that? Sreejith had a right to be upset. Minu was cranky and had to be carried around till she went to sleep at ten and Sunil’s homework was still pending. Her short temper ensured that half the evening was filled with two children throwing tantrums.
Waking up early, making breakfast, packing lunches, shouting and threatening to make the children ready for school, were part of the routine on Monday mornings.
Anjali parked her car in her allotted slot. The security guy saluted her. She smiled at him. The secretary stood up as she approached her room.
“Good morning, Doctor.”
“Morning, Kavitha. I want some coffee, please.”
“Light – with half a teaspoon of sugar? Coming, Madam.”
“Call the physician assistants for rounds. I will start in exactly twenty minutes.”
Then she called the operation theatre.
“Yes, Madam,” the theatre manager said. “The hernia patient will be ready and induced by exactly eleven. You have only one case today.”
Anjali sat back on her chair and sipped her coffee. It was exactly as she wanted it. She took a deep breath.
Mondays were so good, she thought. She already dreaded the next weekend. (Jimmy Mathew)