‘Zarina’s encounter with Mr Eastwood’, gouache on paper by Siona Benjamin (detail)
‘Zarina’s encounter with Mr Eastwood’, gouache on paper by Siona Benjamin (detail)
  Voices in the head
 

  first impressions
  Vol VI : issue 3

  Cover
  Jayant Sankrityayana
  Kaushik Basu
  Altaf Tyrewala
  Shilpa Paralkar
  Parismita Singh
  Only in Print
  New Writing Award
  Current Issue

 

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Altaf Tyrewala

Computer art Duratranslite by NITASHA JAINEE

I am an abortionist. I run a nursing home in a seedy by-lane of Colaba. On the steely innards of trains crawling along the Harbour Line, you will find badly-spelled fliers advertising my services. I get one or two customers every day. Sad cases, angry faces, embarrassed women, careless men, swelling tummies, a cut, tears, and we all go home happy. Yes, happy. I spread happiness. Relief. I save families, lives, marriages. Now I need to be saved. From all the unborn-baby voices in my head.

This morning a client walked into my nursing home. Her stomach had just started to stick out. I could see through her cheap nylon kurta. Three more weeks and it would have been obvious. But she was safe now. I handed her a form asking for personal information. She filled it out and handed it back to me. I don’t talk to my clients. No one talks to anyone in my nursing home. I don’t bother to read the forms either. They always lie.

I locked the entrance to my nursing home and nodded to the nurse. She went into the adjoining room to prepare for the operation. It was over in half an hour. Don’t. Don’t ask me about the foetuses. They stopped registering after my third abortion. Now, I only see them as knots of blood and gore. Abdominal tumours that threaten to wreck the lives of decent, god-fearing people.

I am married. She has the mentality of a farmer. Won’t let me touch her willingly. I am violent with her every night. She says she won’t give herself to me willingly till I stop harvesting the wombs of mothers. She even has the rhetoric of a farmer. If only she saw the gratitude in my clients’ eyes. Like the lady this morning. She kissed my hand before I administered the anaesthesia. When she regained consciousness she wanted to know if it was a boy or a girl, she wanted to know if it was fair or dark, she wanted to know if it was normal or deformed, she wanted to know... “Or is it too early to tell? Can you tell? This soon? Tell me, doctor! Am I right? Can you tell this soon?”

I didn’t answer her. I don’t talk to my clients. No one talks to anyone in my nursing home. I too will have a child some day. I will have several children. Several. I will have a child for each time the doors to my operation room have been sealed. The collective cries of my children will drown out the unborn-baby voices in my head.

This is how my flier reads. Yes, it is badly written, unimaginative, but it gets the message across.

Get Rid of Unwanted Pregnuncy in One Hour

Rupee 300

Absolutely Secrative

Shamma Nursing Home

Opp. Janvi Manzil (Bahind Colaba P.O.)

I wrote it. The nun pun makes me burst into amused hiccups every time I read it. It is the only comic relief in my life. The family dramas that are occasionally staged in my nursing home don’t amuse me any more. Their horrible echoes don’t die for days. Daughters pleading with incensed fathers, husbands kneeling before heartless wives, brides begging with misogynist mothers-in-law.

I have heard that in America abortion is a source of perennial controversy. If you are pro you are a murderer, cruel, careless. If you are anti you are stupid, religious, but still careless. I am neither.

And I am never careless. You can either be qualified or careful. I am very, very careful. That is why I get repeat business. Mostly from slim, college-going girls of the neighbourhood. There was one who visited me six times in two years. Haven’t seen her for three years now. Doubt if I ever will again. Also, married women with their husbands. The first time is shameful and painful. The second time, the routine sets in. Like visiting a dentist to deal with a recurring cavity on a sweet tooth.

In a wilful attempt to decay and self-destruct, I have started smoking. Never in the nursing home. Always on the street, outside the front door. I deliberately don’t carry matches or a lighter. Asking for a light is my only excuse to talk to others. Unfortunately, the only people in the by-lanes of Colaba are pimps and German tourists in search of Aryan India — they first want to know if you are Brahmin. The man next door, the one who owns a souvenir shop, doesn’t talk to me. He is a Jain, the epitome of non-violence. Won’t even eat potatoes because the act of extracting them from the earth deprives and kills underground insects. I am an abortionist and a Muslim to boot.


When I try to imagine how she died that day in the Holy City, I stop believing in Allah. But only for a short while. I can’t afford to remain godless for too long. The only way I can hide from myself is by being religious — or delusional. Call it whatever the hell you want. Ma’s voice is now a part of the unborn-baby voices in my head

I have grown used to people avoiding me. Friends and relatives have gradually forsaken me over the years. They avoid me at the mosque. My wife and I are invited to marriages only out of formality. Even then, we are ignored. Treated like well-dressed gatecrashers who can’t be ejected (because you never know), but are watched from a distance.

Five years ago, Ma, my mother, had gone to Mecca for Haj. For my sake. Just before boarding her flight, right there in the crowded departure lounge, she had looked at a point about three feet above my head and said, “Oh Allah! I am undertaking this journey to the heart of your home so that you may forgive my son and cause a change of heart in him so that he may find a cleaner occupation and may stop taking the lives of children, so that when he has a child of his own he can love the child with all his heart and realise what a wondrous thing it is to nurture life in all its forms and in all the situations that you may put us in.”

When I am in an irreverent mood, I like to believe Ma paid with her life for such convoluted appeals to Allah.

She was trampled while running toward the Satan’s pillar at Haj. Of all the physical metaphors that thrive under an otherwise abstract Islam, the Satan’s pillar at Mecca is the most potent. On the fifth day, after the morning namaaz, as is traditional, two million pilgrims made a dash toward the Satan’s pillar. They all wanted to be the first to stone it.

A woman who had been with her told me that Ma ran the fastest that morning. She pushed at the burgeoning crowds the hardest. She cursed the Devil the loudest. Like some hysterical lioness whose cub was being snatched away. But in that crowd, there were people far more desperate than Ma. People whose sons were worse than abortionists. They, too, wanted to attack and vanquish the Devil with all their might. These very people, these desperate, god-fearing fathers and mothers of sinners, were the ones who ran over Ma and pounded her body into the Holy Ground.

Of the three hundred Indians who had gone to Haj that year, Ma was the only one who died in the stampede. She and three Nigerians. My father, my wife and I got the news a day later. By then, they’d already buried Ma’s two-dimensional remains on the outskirts of Mecca.

When I try to imagine how she died that day in the Holy City, I stop believing in Allah. But only for a short while. I can’t afford to remain godless for too long. The only way I can hide from myself is by being religious — or delusional. Call it whatever the hell you want. Ma’s voice is now a part of the unborn-baby voices in my head.

p. 1 p. 2

 
Altaf Tyrewala is the author of the novel 'No God In Sight' (Penguin India, 2005).
He lives in Bombay. This was his first published story (2001)