Inside the Mirror


9781496236784

The following is from Parul Kapur’s Inside the Mirror. Kapur was born in Assam, India, grew up in the United States, and lives in Atlanta. She is a fiction writer, journalist, and literary critic whose writing has appeared in a number of publications, including Ploughshares, Pleiades, the New Yorker, Art in America, Guernica, Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Paris Review. Kapur holds an MFA from Columbia University.

Inside the gunnysacks were the makings of a man. There were two bags, roughly dividing the bones for the upper and lower halves of the body, and Jaya had not wanted them inside the bedroom. But her father said they should not be stored on the balcony during the monsoons, where she’d kept them last month, because they might start to smell in a heavy rain. The servant boy had climbed a stool and placed the sacks on top of the wardrobe at her father’s instruction, her mother grimacing as the thin boy raised the bundles overhead. Jaya had been told to ask the servant to retrieve the sacks for her whenever she was ready to work in the afternoons. Instead, she had moved the rootless bones once again. She’d removed a pile of household wreckage from the corner between the wardrobe and the wall—a broken towel rack, loose shelves, boxes of childhood belongings—and pushed the bone-sacks into the space, where she could easily reach them.

Today she had pulled out both bags, not only the one containing the bones of the upper body, which she had to mark up. She hesitated before removing the rib cage and placing it on an old sheet spread over the dhurrie on the floor. She glanced behind her—the door was shut. No one liked to see her laying the bones on the bedroom floor and taking her red chalk to draw a line where a muscle originated, and marking in blue chalk where the muscle inserted. Now she took out the brownish basin of the pelvis, searched for the long shaft of the thigh, and found a fully formed foot, all the knotty bones threaded together. These were new bones to her; she had not dared to assemble them like this before.

The first couple of times she’d set out to do her assignment, she had asked Kamlesh to stay in the room on the pretext of holding open Gray’s Anatomy for her. Searching inside the sacks was frightening, all sorts of forms coming into her hands, rough protrusions and smooth cavities. She’d have to pull out a number of bones until she found the ones for the arm that they were dissecting in college. Her twin had frowned and asked to leave, looking so distraught that Jaya realized she would have to do her work in privacy. If their grandmother happened to be in her alcove at the back of the bedroom, which the three of them shared, Jaya would ask her to shift to another room and Bebeji would rise from her bed, taking with her the many newspapers she read religiously. Bebeji found it indecent for a person to handle human remains.

From her writing table, Jaya fetched her pen and ink bottle and tore a sheet from a tablet of drawing paper. She tacked it to a small plank she used as an easel. She sat on the floor, leaned against Kamlesh’s curio cabinet, and considered the skull with its clenched set of teeth and hollow eyes, the winged whole of the rib cage, the rod of a femur, and beneath a gap of white sheet the fanlike foot. The morgue prepared the bones from the bodies of the unclaimed dead found in the roads and railway stations; each first-year medical student was partnered with a fresh skeleton.

Here were the pieces of a man. Who had he been? Jaya drew the rib cage with a slower hand. The trunk of the sternum and looping branches of ribs needed close attention to be given form as a whole, with lines and shading. A splotch of ink spread on the half-made foot, the toes sharp as pincers. A thought came to her: How do you become someone? She wrote the words like a banner in a fluttering script and capped the pen, lifting the board from her lap.

For a moment she let herself drift, closing her eyes, as she tried to feel some connection to the man. Moving onto the bedsheet, she slipped a few feet away from the fragmented figure she had laid out. Aligning her body parallel to his, she lay down, wondering if she could assess the man’s height, discern something about him.

*

The bell rang, the front door banged shut. Heerabai must have answered; Jaya could never hear the maidservant’s barefoot movements in the flat. Clicking steps hurried down the passage. Their mother called out, “You’ve come, Kamlesh?” Jaya was pushing herself up when her sister opened the door and caught her sitting beside the partially assembled skeleton. Her twin made a face, clutching a parcel to her chest. “What are you doing? Making the whole thing up?”

“I wanted to try drawing it.” Jaya stood up and arranged the pleats of her sari. Her nervous hand went to her hair, which was bound in a neat plait down her back.

“They want you to draw the full skeleton?”

“No. I wanted to see how the bones fit together.” “Just like that?” Kamlesh squinted at her.

“Yah—just like that,” said Jaya, bending over to gather her art materials, then the bones.

*

In the darkness of a hissing rain that night, she wondered if she should try sketching each bone as an exercise to become familiar with the anonymous man in the room, to gain some understanding of him. Listening to the downpour from her bed, she opened and closed her fist in front of her face, her fingers bursting open like petals, but nothing could be seen. She had vanished into the night, become formless, inert, existing only in her thoughts. It was difficult to talk about the things she saw in college, so it was an altogether lonelier time. She told no one in any detail about the cadavers in the dissection hall, not even her twin—who could speak of such things? Sometimes when she slept, the face of the man her group was assigned to dissect came to her unbidden—he would break into a dream, like someone she was running away from. At daybreak, she filled with dread, realizing she would be returning to him. Her father didn’t ask about the dissection hall. It was something she was meant to bear alone.

When the exam results for Inter-science had been published in the paper a couple of months ago, they knew her marks, her first class first, had earned her a seat at Grant Medical College, which took only the top one hundred and twenty applicants. A renowned institution, it attracted premedical students not only from Bombay state but from other parts of India and even some African countries. Her father had never looked happier, medicine his choice of profession for Jaya. Just twenty-three girls had been admitted. He’d laughed in relief, having tutored her occasionally from his collection of books on the body and disease. Though he relied solely on natural remedies to treat his asthma and digestive ailments, he believed in the power of allopathic medicine. As a reward for her achievement, he had presented Jaya fifty-one rupees. She had felt a swell of pride, then, holding so much money in her hands.

She heard her name in the dark, her sister calling. Kamlesh must have heard her shifting around in bed. Rain pelted the coconut trees that fringed their building, fronds sputtering in the wind. The curtain flapped in the doorway. They’d left the balcony doors open for the breeze when they went to bed, before it started to rain. Now she could hear the waves thrashing the seawall, as if it were just inches away, a rhythmic pounding of water on stone. Some mornings they awoke to find Marine Drive flooded, cars gliding slowly through saltwater like boats.

“Jaya?”

She didn’t reply. Kamlesh would want her to close the doors, although the wind whisking through the room was lovely. She was always asking Jaya to do things she could do herself, as if she were younger by years, not just twenty minutes. Jaya groaned in protest, hearing her name again. She knew she ought to get up, at least to bring in the painting she had left to dry on the balcony.

“Should I close the doors?” Kamlesh’s clear words startled her.

“I’m shivering. Just see.”

Her sister sounded wide awake, eager to talk. “Feel my legs—they’re ice cold,” she urged Jaya.

“Come here. Where are you?”

Jaya got up, blundering in the darkness, clutching her pillow and sheet. It was hard to go on resisting her sister’s voice. Clumsily she climbed in from the foot of Kamlesh’s bed, because of the curio cabinet pushed along its side like a defensive wall, rising a foot above the mattress. Once it had been meant as a barrier against her, because she was considered “too strong,” as their mother used to say. It was true she’d tried to dominate Kamlesh. And yet, no matter how much they’d fought as children, they had found comfort in sleeping with their beds joined together. Now, on the narrow mattress between the cabinet and the wall, they adjusted the sheet over their doubled bodies, Kamlesh scraping her chilled feet against Jaya’s for warmth. Jaya pressed her hand over her sister’s mouth, reminding her of their grandmother—“Bebeji!”—asleep in her alcove, a deep enclosed balcony, at the back of the room.

“No, don’t,” Kamlesh cried, catching Jaya’s hand tightly in hers to keep from being silenced again. All Kamlesh’s strength was physical, her hands iron-hard from the gestures of her dance, her spine straight as a plank of wood. For a full hour, she could be heard slapping the stone floor with her bare feet, practicing adavus in the bedroom. She would shape her hands into Krishna’s flute at her lips, or set them quivering to mimic the movement of flowery arrows shot by the god of love, sometimes demonstrating mudras for Jaya to draw. Kamlesh began whispering about a friend from college who was teaching herself to drive her father’s car on the sly, promising to take their group to Juhu Beach one of these days. The same Meher who danced every Thursday to Chic Chocolate blowing his horn at the Cricket Club. Did Jaya know what a “tag dance” was? Jaya laughed. How could she know? They didn’t go to clubs like Meher. Parsi girls had all the freedoms. “It’s when another boy is allowed to cut in on your partner,” Kamlesh replied, delighted. Closing her eyes, her hand grazing her sister’s, Jaya imagined painting two curves of rounded female hips and thighs. The dancing figure burned in her head, a sudden lamp, then vanished. “You know what else she was saying?” Kamlesh lowered her voice. “She wants to have a love marriage.

She wants to ‘experience the rapture of falling in love’—that’s what she called it. Rapture. Such rubbish she talks.”

“A mad hatter,” Jaya agreed. “Hema’s just like that.” Though, really, Hema wasn’t. None of her classmates at medical college were anything like Kamlesh’s friends at Sophia College or their old friends at St. Anne’s—purely social girls, competitive about clothes and family standing. Medical college girls had not an ounce of glamour in them. Shy, bookish students from conservative families, they hesitated even to answer a professor’s question. What made Hema different from them was her low, mannish voice and bravado. “I don’t know how she does some of the things she does,” Jaya confessed.

“What things?” Kamlesh asked.

“Some things,” Jaya replied vaguely, hesitating to say any more. Silence had become her shelter, a comfortable place to conceal her thoughts. These days she floated in a state of mind that kept her at a distance from everyone, even her sister. The things she used to think awaited her at the threshold of adulthood had never appeared—her admission into medical college was nothing she had wanted for herself. Growing up, she’d dreamt of becoming a different person. In the library at her old school was a mural of Mother India in a pristine white sari, atop a pyramid of village emblems—a cartwheel, a farmer in a turban, a scythe, a pulsing sun. The figure of the artist painting the portrait, his palette in hand, stood at the bottom of the mural. She had always pictured herself there, in his place.

Gingerly Kamlesh laid an arm over her, as if touch might enable her to speak, but Jaya remained quiet. Kamlesh had always studied among girls, even her college was a girls’ college, and all her notions of romance came from the cinema hall. Still, it was to tell her twin about something unsettling, Jaya realized, that she had come to her bed. “There’s a Parsi fellow a few years senior to us, Mr. Wadia,” she began. “Hema’s gone out with him for tea a couple of times. Telling fibs at her hostel that her aunt or her cousin has come to town and taking permission to leave the campus.”

“Does she want to marry him?”

Jaya didn’t know. “Probably,” she surmised. She knew of no other couples at college, and Hema didn’t speak of what she hoped her clandestine meetings with Farrokh Wadia would bring. We’re just coming to know one another, she would say. He was a soft, plump, deeply courteous boy with gold-rimmed spectacles. It was hard to imagine Hema, who was demanding and quick to speak her mind, married to him.

Jaya turned away, onto her side, pushing herself to say what she was burning to. “This Mr. Wadia has a friend, and his friend, if you please, has been asking about me. ‘Who’s that girl who’s always with Hema?’ ‘The one who’s always wearing yellow clothes?’ Can you imagine some fellow taking notice of your clothes and such?”

“Who is he?”

“I’ve seen him in passing, I think. A Bengali chap. Some Mr. Dasgupta.” She wouldn’t give away everything about him, not the strikingly dark impression of his face, not his remarkable height. She didn’t mention that she’d come to a fourth-year boy’s attention only because Hema had goaded her and a few other girls in their batch to trespass inside the Boys Common Room in the second week of college. Hema had charged in ahead of them like a campaigner for social justice, saying, “A ‘common room’ should be for all students—we girls also require a place to hang about in.” Some of the boys looked amused, and others tried earnestly to correct them— “Gentlemen only.” After that initial incursion, their group summoned the courage to stride into the dim Gothic hall a few more times on the pretext of playing table tennis despite the looks they got. How embarrassing to chase after errant balls in their saris. The other girls dropped away, one by one, even the adventurous Gujarati girl from Kenya, until it was only Jaya left following Hema into the hall, her feelings shifting between emboldened and mortified. Once she felt someone’s eyes piercing her back and turned to catch the Bengali boy, standing among his friends, staring hard before he looked away. Aggressive eyes under thick black brows. A giant of a boy. Must be a six-footer.

“Do you want to meet him?” Kamlesh said.

Jaya laughed softly without answering. An image came to mind again: a painting of a long, dim room with a vaulted ceiling, in shades of gray and soft yellow, a cathedral window at one end. The window filtered a beam of light that lay over empty tables and chairs, that paled as it lengthened, ending at two figures, a man and a woman, speaking in an inner doorway. She lingered over it for a moment then turned to her twin, reaching into the blackness and smoothing Kamlesh’s heavy tresses, which lay along her arm like strands of her own hair.

A watery ripple of light shifted over the bed from behind them. Their grandmother’s torch dipped down to the top of the curio cabinet, grazing a trio of black porcelain cats linked by chains and Kamlesh’s film magazines spread out in a fan.

“Did we wake you?” Kamlesh sat up, shielding her eyes from the beam with her hand. The torch darted up to her face, illuminated lush hair falling over the shoulder of her lime-green nightdress, her eyes glistening with a vitality Jaya hadn’t imagined in the dark.

“First the rain woke me up. So much noise, as if the sky is falling down,” Bebeji said in her rough voice. “Then I could make out your khuss-puss going on. What’s so important that you have to talk in the middle of the night?” The beam jerked across the blue wall, and Bebeji grew visible in her white widow’s garments, dragging her feet as if she found her body a burden. Her thinning gray hair was pulled away from her face in a plait, exposing heavy jowls and earlobes that drooped with stretched-out holes.

“You shouldn’t walk alone—it’s pitch dark,” Jaya said.

“Go to sleep now. You’ll be too tired for your classes tomorrow.” Bebeji shifted away, saying she would shut the balcony doors, the rain was too loud.

Jaya stopped herself from objecting. The room belonged to the three of them—she couldn’t demand they keep the curtains open to the breeze. Bebeji took a few steps and uttered a startled moan, reaching her hand back to the cabinet for support.

“What happened? Did you hurt yourself?” Jaya said.

“Some pain—here—in the inside of the knees.” Bebeji bent over, pressing the spots on her legs. Her arthritis seemed to grow worse in the rainy season, the pain sharper. She winced as she raised her broad face, etched with a map of deep lines. Rolls of flesh hung over her petticoat, her nightshirt gathered around her cascading stomach. Sometimes she would pound her belly as if she wished to dissolve herself. Almost by habit, she slept poorly and little, getting up at five-thirty every day to sing her muffled hymns in the puja corner in her alcove. In the mornings, she sat in a whitewash of light, staring at the empty sea from the front balcony. “Everything lost,” Jaya had heard her mutter to herself. The lively, willful, energetic person she’d known her grandmother to be as a child had vanished.

Bebeji moved toward the balcony doors, calling to them as if they were small girls. “Go to sleep.”

Jaya got up and slipped the torch from Bebeji’s hand, seating her at the foot of Kamlesh’s bed despite her protests. Bebeji might not notice if the balcony floor was wet; she would struggle to reach the latch. Her composure was slipping with August looming close, the month of the death anniversaries: her husband’s and her eldest son’s.

The torch in Jaya’s hand swung across the bulky wooden wardrobe, darted to her stale drawing on the wall of a footbridge in a snowy wood. The gold nucleus slid onto the dressing table’s triple mirrors and, in the murky surface of the glass, she glimpsed volumes of hair, her flowered orange kameez, the imprint of Kamlesh’s fine features. Though Kamlesh was the more beautiful one, her skin as bright as a child’s, her face a fine oval, they had the same large, light brown eyes—like a doe’s eyes, Bebeji said—thin noses that pleased Mummy, and abundant hair that fell below the waist. Strangers sometimes mixed them up, and in photographs the impression was of identical twins.

Their clothes were the easiest way to tell them apart. Kamlesh still dressed in a schoolgirl’s skirts and blouses, or in loose salwar suits; Jaya wore a sari to college like a grown-up woman.

The torch beam skimmed a slippery patch of rain that had blown onto the balcony floor. Jaya leaned over the rail to view the burning eye of a gas lamp on Marine Drive, rain drawing silver streaks in its glow. The headlamps of cars swept around the bay, and a dull light burned in a window in the next building, but she could see nothing of her city beyond these faint illuminations. She untwisted the ropes, letting the heavy chiks down. Her painting of roses, beaded with water, stood timidly on top of a sideboard containing her paints. The cabinet, missing a leg, was raised on bricks. She traced the beam over blotchy stalks of painted pinkish-red roses against a clotted blue ground, the flowers crammed into a narrow vase with a glass frill around its neck. Handles curved along its sides like a pair of brittle arms. They were another dead thing in her life, these flowers stiff in their urn. Though a canvas could open out on many images, she had confined herself to painting still lifes, trapping herself in a garden of vases, just as she was encircled by the fourteen gates of the hospital every day, as she was closed inside the bedroom with her twin and her grandmother at the back. She hadn’t signed her name to the picture after she finished it yesterday, only noted the year on the back of the board in black oil color: 1953.

Stepping back inside the room, Jaya banged the doors shut and pulled the damp curtain over them. “Everything is soaking wet,” she called to Bebeji and Kamlesh, her wounded tone implying some damage had been done. Without the wind blowing inside, the room was already tight, already close, but she said nothing as she ushered her grandmother to bed.

*

The next morning, she climbed the outer stairs of the anatomy building with a habitual apprehension and opened a door to the sweet, charred odor of the dissection hall. It struck her first as a cloying bakery aroma, something sugary and smoky, then strongly chemical. As she walked into the hall, the smell ripened in her nostrils to the pungent stench of rubbish heaps fermenting in the heat. Two crows flew around in the arches of the ceiling, high over the rows of tables laid with bodies. The boys were shouting, one batting the air with a bamboo pole they kept to shoo birds back out of the open transom windows.

Jaya paused to watch for a moment before following a shallow gutter in the floor all the way through the hall to the lockers at the back, where she kept her apron. She buttoned her white smock over her sari, dismayed to see the front smeared with the fat and grime of previous dissections. When she returned to the hall, the uproar over the birds had subsided—one of the crows apparently had been expelled; the other nervously perched on a rafter, surveying the graveyard below. Making her way over to her group, she was relieved she could now walk almost casually among the dead. At the start of college last month, in June, the nude bodies lying flat on their backs on white marble tables had horrified her. A dozen dark, shriveled men, their skin glistening wet with formalin, their lips, teeth and eyes intact. Some had scalps shaved to stubble. Others retained bushy heads of hair. The cadavers dripped their fluids into a hole cut in the center of each table, the liquid draining onto the floor, then dribbling into the gutters crossing the room. Second-year students left bodies halved or in pieces on their tables. A torso propped face down on wooden blocks, shedding flakes of charred skin. An open abdomen packed with the pale tubing of intestines. A worker with a bucket scrubbed an empty, yellowing tabletop, nodding to her as she walked by. Jaya greeted the other girls warmly as she passed their groups.

Hema looked up from the book in her hands, smiling brusquely, thick black kajal making her eyes dramatic. Jaya stood next to her, clasping her arms behind her back. The only two girls in the group of six, always side by side. The ambitious boy, Mr. Nigrani, drew his blade obliquely across the cadaver’s left forearm, making two transverse cuts like bangles at either end as Hema read sternly from Cunningham’s Manual of Practical Anatomy to guide him. The other boys leaned in to watch Nigrani pull the tough mahogany skin back, cutting away the sticky fat and cellophane of fascia with vigorous flicks of his knife.

Jaya could look and not think the body human. Despite the reek of formalin mingled with flesh, the cadaver didn’t seem as if he’d been a real person until she had to lay her bare hands on him. The boys had been quite chivalrous, offering her the easier dissection or allowing her to miss her turn, knowing it alarmed her to touch the corpse. On their first day in the hall, six weeks back, they had all gathered solemnly at the cadaver’s feet with their heads bowed and scalpels in hand, like devotees before an idol. When the buxom lady demonstrator announced that they would begin their study of gross anatomy with the superior extremity, they had all moved guardedly up the table and Jaya had dared to look the dead man in the eye.

His eyeballs were a jaded yellow, his face compact, a sleek Marathi man with a mustache flaring under his nose. Soiled brown teeth protruding from a mouth left permanently open were his only flaw. Pushing her knife into his skin for the first time, she felt light-headed, her stomach convulsing so sharply she was afraid she might vomit.

“Chalo, why don’t you take over, Miss Malhotra?” Mr. Nigrani half smiled and gestured to the cadaver, as if he were presenting her a valuable opportunity.

Jaya was startled by the invitation—was he challenging her? He was a cocksure type. None of the other boys offered to step in for her. Maybe they were fed up of protecting her from her work. Hema located the appropriate section in Cunningham’s and began to read how Jaya should separate the muscle to reach the passage through which the median nerve was threaded. Jaya studied the man’s taut, smoothly angled jawline. He wasn’t old, probably no more than thirty-five. Medium height, slender of build. No blemishes on his body. What had happened to him? They said the mortuary was packed to the ceiling with unclaimed bodies. The corpses of poor men and women. Students occasionally fell ill with the diseases still alive inside some of the dead.

Jaya clutched the man’s hard, knobby wrist with her free hand, trying not to think of what she touched, pressing her blade below the double head of the pronator teres into the swell of pinkish-brown muscle. She let herself imagine she was tracing the bowed edge of his arm, taking a charcoal stick with its twiggy protrusions around his knuckled fist and one pointing finger. In the end, a person was nothing more than flesh, gristle, and bone—pure matter. What he’d thought or felt or tried to be didn’t seem important, only the body remained. She had to get used to touching him, to become comfortable handling him without dissolving in a panic. Her left hand slipped around to cradle his leathery fist, to accept the connection to him.

“Friend banarahi hai.” One of the boys laughed. She’s making a friend! Mocking her as if she were trying to hold a boyfriend’s hand. It wasn’t Nigrani, but someone else. A few of them were smirking. Jaya dropped the rigid hand, too embarrassed to say anything.

At noon, when she and Hema left the Anatomy Hall, the gardener was burning a pile of leaves and rubbish in the yard, sending up a smoke so acrid they rushed across the grounds, past the Court of the Coroner of Bombay and the hulking stone castle of the Pathology School. Jaya pressed the edge of her sari against her nose as if she could block out the morose hospital campus around her by snuffing out its smell. Past the red dust yard of the eye hospital crowned by battlements and blinkered by massive date palms, they came to the grim centerpiece of Grant Medical College: the smutted black-stone facade of J. J. Hospital, which sprawled in the form of two crosses joined together. Each long wing was marked by a row of arched glass doors that offered glimpses of patients plodding around in their white gowns.

Jaya wouldn’t feel relief until they reached the Lady Students Hostel, where Hema stayed and the girls’ canteen was located. Only as they walked down a paved path overhung by the wide boughs of mango trees did she realize they were headed in the wrong direction. She had been following Hema without thinking, lost to that terrible moment she’d clutched the cadaver’s hand—how strange and repulsive the hard, slick crust of his skin had felt against her palm. Ward boys pushed trolleys piled with boxes. The sick walked in front of them with a painful slowness. A stooped man dragged a wooden handcart behind him loaded with bundles of hospital laundry. “Why are we going this way?” She turned to Hema.

Hema suggested stopping in at the Boys Common Room for a few minutes. She thought Jaya wanted to look for him, claiming Jaya had turned in this direction. Jaya denied this—she hadn’t been paying attention to where they were going. Some older boys passed them and Jaya shrank a little. The church-like building that housed the Boys Common Room stood a short distance ahead, just beyond the tin-roofed cottage of the C.C., the canteen where the boys ate. They could hear radio music playing in the mess. Jaya hesitated. No one had taken them to task for it, but every time they entered the Boys Common Room, they were violating college rules. The Bengali boy, Kirti Dasgupta, was probably inside playing teen patti, gambling for his pocket money as the older boys did. She was tempted to stop in, but also reluctant. She didn’t want to appear obvious about courting his attention. She could spoil her reputation. She had seen girls on campus turn right around and walk away when a boy tried to talk to them.

“They’ve all remarked that you don’t say a word, Farrokh was saying. Not a peep out of you.” Hema shut her fingers like a beak. Her gaze was blunt and probing. A Marathi girl from Poona, she didn’t soften her tone or offer pleasantries like the girls Jaya had gone to school with. Many things set Jaya apart from Hema: her convent school education, her fluency in English and smattering of French, her cosmetics and flame-colored sandals. Hema copied her remorselessly, down to her coral lipstick and dark glasses, though she’d make the look louder and sloppier with her dark eyebrow pencil, her big earrings, and her hair pinned up in a large, showy bun, her springy curls poking out from the sides.

“Why should I speak to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who comes around?” Jaya affected a superior tone but her face warmed. Had the tall Bengali boy complained about her? Inside the hall, some third-and fourth-year boys had come around to ask her stupid questions like what was the time. Her own class boys kept a respectable distance from girls; they were always “Miss” and “Mister” to each other. No one was accustomed to studying with the opposite sex in school; but a number of colleges in Bombay, not only medical college, were co-educational. Her mother said that would be unthinkable in the North. No one would accept it. Girls only studied among girls. The last few times in the Boys Common Room, Hema had not hesitated to accept Farrokh Wadia’s invitation to play table tennis, leaving Jaya bewildered and without a purpose. She’d found herself sitting alone at a table, her head bent over her Atlas of Histology, a paper laid inside on which she sketched the angles of boys’ faces. Where is he? Until she spotted him, she remained in a restless state of waiting.

*

A network of paths took them around in a circle past the Anatomy Hall, and Jaya began to regret denying herself the chance to see Kirti Dasgupta. At the Lady Students Hostel she went up to Hema’s tiny shared room. Hema complained about her roommate’s dirty hands. Two bones had been left out on the writing table, the batons of the humerus and ulna laid in a straight line beside a half-drunk cup of tea. Jaya felt desperate to take a full bath before lunch, as she’d done once before in Hema’s hostel. Hema offered her a stiff towel and a chunk of used soap. Quickly Jaya removed her sari and laid it on Hema’s bed, then hurried down the corridor with Hema’s dressing gown belted over her blouse and petticoat. In the washroom she undressed and squatted on the floor in front of a brass bucket brimming with cold water, lathering her thighs, arms, and head. Traces of the sugary smoke aroma coating her neck and hair came off on her fingers. She could still smell the cadaver as she flung cups full of water at herself, trying to wash away the lingering sensation of mucking about in a dead man’s flesh.

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From Inside the Mirror by Parul Kapur by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. ©2024 by Parul Kapur



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