The mellow sounds of Kenny G warbled through the receiver as Swami’s wife fell slowly to pieces.
“Premaaa, be patient, they’ve put me on hold,” Swami said. Her name used to be Aanchal but Swami found that to be too modern, too lacking in tradition. “A woman’s name should always end in a vowel, don’t you think?” he had asked her during their engagement. “Gayathri, Lakshmi, Lalitha, Prema...”
The Kenny G, surprisingly, was not on infinite loop. “Ah, Mozart,” Swami said as the music changed, “I know this one,” even though it was Bach. Cello Suite No.1, Praeludium. Behind him, Prema’s right arm came loose at the elbow and fell to the floor. Swami hummed along with the music, even though he was really just following it very closely, humming each note a fraction of a second after he heard it. A baby’s wail interrupted him.
“Prema, go see, no? She must be hungry.”
But Prema just sat there, coming apart. Swami pressed the receiver to his ear to hear the music better over the baby’s crying. She would get tired and stop soon, he figured.
The music stopped with a click and Swami heard a voice on the other end. “Yes, I’m calling to complain about my wife,” he said. “She’s not working properly... Sorry? Describe the problem? How to describe... she’s piece-pieceaa coming. She’s not able to do anything—sorry, one sec, ah?”
Swami placed his hand over the receiver and looked over at Prema. The baby was shrieking now. “Prema, please, can’t you see to her? I’m trying to... my hands are full. For your sake only I’m calling,” he said to her, although he knew it was as much for his own sake. He was hungry and she had started to come apart right before she had started to make dinner, when he told her he didn’t want to eat sambar again we’ve already had sambar of some kind or other at least thrice this week don’t you know how to make anything else?
Prema opened her mouth and all her teeth spilled out, clattering as they bounced and scattered on to the tiled floor. The baby went quiet, pausing for breath. “No, no, she was fine right until this evening,” Swami said into the phone. He listened for a few seconds, and then huffed loudly. “Don’t you know anything, bleddy... bleddy bleggard! Which school you went to? No, really I’m asking. Who is your supervisor? Just put me through to him... a-gain they put me on hold!” he shouted in Prema’s direction. The baby resumed screeching.
Swami cursed and dropped the phone and went over to the baby who was folded up in blankets who lay on the bed who was not yet named because they had only thought of boy names who was two weeks premature but had the lungs of a banshee who could scream louder than Prema did when she delivering her, and picked her up, cradled her in his arms, and brought her over to Prema. Her left arm had fallen out of the shoulder socket, so she couldn’t take the baby. With one hand he picked up Prema’s arm and jabbed clumsily at her shoulder, but it refused to stick.
Something slid down Prema’s kameez and flopped on to the floor. Swami bent down and picked up her breast. It felt soft and familiar in his hand, but as he stared at it, it stared back at him with one brown unblinking nipple and began to appear alien to him, a warm lump of flesh, separated from its twin, an object incapable of arousing desire. He put it in the baby’s mouth, who sucked at it hungrily. Swami could not tell if she was getting anything from it, but at least it shut her up. He carried her back to the phone but did not have to lift the receiver to hear music, to know that he was still on hold.
“Look at this,” Swami said to Prema, although her ears had fallen off. “After I feed her who’s going to feed me? Your grandfather? Plch. You studied engineering I studied finance. Who should know how to reattach these parts?”
Swami lifted the receiver with his free hand, contemplated hanging up and calling his mother instead. But she would have no solutions, only more complaints about Prema or how he only ever calls when he needs help with something. “If I could just remember where I put that damn manual she gave me...” he grumbled.
That night Swami went to bed with his stomach growling and Prema beside him, in pieces arranged to the best of his ability (her teeth had to go in a little bowl on the nightstand, and her eyes too, since they kept popping back out of their sockets). When the baby began to wail after midnight Swami thought she couldn’t be hungry already, she must need her diaper changed.
“But I don’t know how, child. Your mother does these things,” he said, looking into her crib. He turned to where Prema lay, like an unfinished puzzle. “In the morning she should be fine and then she will attend to both of us.”
And on the nightstand Swami saw Prema’s eye glinting in a beam of moonlight.
Kaushik writes a column called 'Dr K's Cure for Sanity' in the 'New Indian Express', which, like much of his writing, has been deemed inappropriate for adults. His stories have been published in 'Karadi Tales', 'Scholastic', and 'Tinkle'. He was shortlisted for the 2012 Toto Funds the Arts Award for Creative Writing, and is currently in the process of writing his first novel.
Ananya is a design student and dog lover. When she's not busy drawing odd faces, she loves munching on some grape-flavoured Tang while keeping her stationery intact. She has a weakness for fine-nibbed black pens and