Fat Meera by TA Thakadipuram
Fat Meera by TA Thakadipuram
Meera’s life would change forever on that warm August day, but her morning began innocuously enough — she awoke to her bleating alarm clock at 6:00 AM and, for a time, lay in bed willing herself to get up. It was tempting, as always, to just snuggle back under the quilt and go back to sleep. But she knew that if she gave in to the inertia, she would feel guilty about it all day.
Meera pushed herself off the bed and, still half asleep, threw on her gym-wear (which she always kept folded on a chair beside her bed the night before), grabbed her gym bag (which contained the clothes she would wear to the office today), and left her apartment.
She was on the road by 6:30 AM, driving along nearly empty streets. Dawn’s first light painted the city in golden hues, and the old streets and the squat, aging buildings of the southern district gave way to the broad roads and towers of concrete of the Central Business zone. The Gold Fitness Gym occupied the entire mezzanine floor of a commercial building. It had five-star facilities — every fitness machine and device you could think of, a comprehensive weights section, well-maintained bathrooms, showers, and changing stalls, fresh towels, free Wifi, and basement parking. The membership fees were exorbitant and quite uncomfortably over Meera’s budget, but it was the one luxury she allowed herself. She didn’t want to scrimp on fitness.
Meera parked her little blue Alto in the basement and headed up in a gleaming, mirrored elevator. Anusha, the petite receptionist, looked up from her desk at the lounge area, flashed a high-watt smile, and called out, “Good morning, ma’am.” Meera smiled and waved back.
For the next ninety minutes, Meera put herself through her daily grueling workout routine. She began with a thirty-minute treadmill program, followed by weight reps for her upper body, core, legs, and chest, and then finished up with pilates and power yoga. By the time she was done, her tracks were drenched, her body was pumped, her heart was racing, and her muscles ached in a good way.
It was nearly 8:00 AM. She had made good time today. The gym was filling up with its wealthy clientele. Most of the women looked like they’d stepped off the covers of fashion magazines — pretty, trim, wearing tops that exposed shoulders and arms and midriffs, tops Meera would dare not wear.
Meera surreptitiously looked around as she toweled her face and arms; she took in the regulars, their taut, muscular bodies without a hint of fat. They grunted and heaved as they burned up every last calorie.
Meera glanced at her reflection in the mirror that ran down the walls’ length and pursed her lips. Although she wasn’t overweight, she carried unsightly excess fat on her hips, belly, and thighs so that her body (to her critical gaze) looked ‘bottom heavy.’ She had learned that the lower body was the worst place for a woman to have any flab because it was incredibly hard to get rid of.
The flab in her lower body was a remnant of her childhood, for she had been an overweight child. (Well, actually she had been just about obese!) During her school years, she’d been relegated to that tragicomic social caste that perhaps all overweight children find themselves in, the subject of nicknames and smirks, sometimes not taken seriously even by teachers. Her timid demeanor hadn’t helped. She had been a loner, rarely asked to join the others in games or group activities. During lunch hour, she sat alone in class, buried in a book, eating from the two heaped stainless-steel tiffins that her mother (also plus-sized) packed for her in the mornings. She sat at the back of the class because she was all too conscious of how big she must look to the kids behind her, especially the boys. She dreaded being asked questions because she would have to stand up to answer them, and when she did, the other kids would turn to look at her, their gazes dropping from her face to her body with the frankness of children. Some of them, usually the good looking ones, would smirk. Others might mouth her nickname (“Fat Meera”) and snicker.
She had acquired the nickname in her fourth grade. There had been another Meera in class (Meera Seidhu, a petite, sweet-natured Tamil girl who wore her hair in red pigtails). To differentiate between them, the girls in her class had labeled her Fat Meera with the casual cruelty of children. (It was usually the girls who were crueler.)
Her mother was flustered by her weight and occasionally pronounced that ‘being fat is not good for a girl.’ Yet paradoxically, Amma also fed her copiously, cooking Meera’s favorite dishes and looking happy when Meera ate well. It was, Meera would reflect later as an adult, perhaps a case of dueling instincts — the maternal instinct to feed and see one’s child sated, versus the more rational notion of keeping one’s children socially and physically healthy. Both her parents were portly. Meera knew that Amma’s parents had been corpulent, both dying of complications brought on by diabetes. Meera’s father, who had been a dapper man before marriage, was obese by the time Meera was in her teens. Meera was often astonished by how thin they both looked in their wedding photographs.
To the teenage Meera, the slim girls in her class had bodies as unattainable as movie stars, and she resigned herself to being “Fat Meera” forever. She imagined that when she was old enough to marry, her parents would arrange a suitably over-weight husband for her, and they would waddle their way to premature deaths from coronary disease. In her late teens, she watched from the sidelines as her classmates paired up with boys and participated in track-and-field events.
But then, when she was sixteen, a humiliating incident at the wedding of her cousin Raji changed her life; it triggered a fury at her own body, and a commitment to getting in shape that hadn’t abated to this day.
Meera headed to the locker room, where there were three women in various states of undress. One of them was so shapely that Meera kept stealing glances at her body.
Meera showered, then stepped into a dressing room. She studied herself in the full-length mirror and took in the unsightly bulges above her waist, the belly fat, and the meaty thighs. She felt that old niggling fury — she’d been working out for years now, following routines that specifically targeted her lower body. She was on a water diet two days a week, and she’d cut out carbs entirely on weekdays (she ate salads and boiled vegetables for lunch). Yet it seemed impossible to get rid of that obstinate flab.
On her way out of the gym, she stopped at the assessment room. It was a small carpeted chamber enclosed in frosted glass set discretely to the right of the gym’s reception area. It contained two faux-leather sofas, a round table stacked with “coffee table” books on diets and athletics, and an industrial digital weighing machine that told you your weight and printed out a two-page report on your body’s mass distribution. Fact-sheets on various diets and exercise programs, along with motivational quotes, were plastered on the walls. Today, the room was empty. She stepped on to the machine and studied the reading hopefully.
No change. Sixty-seven kilos. Precisely the same as yesterday… and the day before, and the day before that. She was still three kilos over her target of sixty-five.
I will get there, she thought.
She waved at Anusha as she left. In the elevator, she studied herself again in its mirrored walls. For a brief moment, her usual self-critical gaze softened, and she saw, to her surprise, a pretty woman wearing skin-tight jeans and a well-fitting white blouse-top, clothes she could never have dreamed of wearing while growing up.
On her drive to work, she stopped at the One More Cup coffee shop, a single-story, glass-and-concrete structure near the CBZ metro station. Its outer walls were of red faux-bricks, and a concrete, cream-colored coffee mug sprung out of its flat roof like a jaunty cap. OMC had become something of a popular hangout among the millennial working-class crowd in this part of the city, its parking lot often overflowing during peak hours.
She pulled into the lot, and the establishment’s security guard, a mustached man in his late fifties wearing a pale-blue uniform shirt, black trousers, and a black cap, greeted her with a languid salute. He pointed to his right, towards an empty slot.
She parked and was walking across the lot when she spotted the urchin, a little girl in a faded brown dress, barefooted, darting out from between two cars. The child looked about five or six. Her hair was matted and bronzed from neglect, her face pitted and scarred from exposure to the elements, her arms achingly thin. She trotted up to Meera and held out a cupped hand. She uttered a plaintive phrase in a dialect that Meera did not understand.
When Meera saw child-beggars, she was torn between feelings of terrible pity and cynicism. Back in her hometown, beggars weren’t a common sight, but here, in this metropolis, they were everywhere. It was common knowledge that most of them worked in groups run by organized criminal gangs. The gangs deployed the beggars strategically — outside hospitals, places of worship, restaurants, railways stations, etc. — and took a percentage of their earnings.
In India, begging was a crime; the government strongly discouraged giving alms — in some states, giving alms was a crime, too — as it encouraged the gangs and traffickers and created more victims. Despite this, despite government programs to take beggars off the streets and into legitimate employment, begging was still prevalent. The reasons were many — the lucrativeness of begging, police and citizen apathy, corruption, rural poverty, etc.
But to Meera, the children were the unspeakable tragedy in all of this. Most of them were born into families already working for begging rings; they were put to work on the streets by their own parents out of sheer desperation. Some of them were kidnapping victims, taken from slums or distant villages, and sometimes even from middle-class homes. They were trafficked to the metropolises, where they disappeared in the crowds and were put to work. She’d read that up to forty thousand children a year went missing. There were horrific stories of gangs sometimes crippling children, blinding them, or breaking their limbs to make them more pitiful.
When she saw these kids, some as young as four or five, barefoot, filthy, scrawny, she felt despair and shame. A child had no control of its fate; a child was always a victim.
As Meera gazed down at the little girl, she wondered: did the child have a mother somewhere looking for her? Or was it her mother herself who had pushed her out into the streets to beg?
That familiar, awful dilemma gripped her — should she give the girl money, knowing she was adding to the problem at large, or should she turn and walk away from an ostensibly helpless, needy child?
Meera said, “I’m sorry.” She forced herself to keep walking. The child trotted persistently beside her, gazing up at her, its arm outstretched. Meera felt her face flush, and she felt deep shame. Just a little while ago, she’d been obsessing over her weight and her calorie intake. Was this child even getting three square meals a day?
But following this thought was a more cynical one: This is what the child’s handlers want you to feel. Guilt and shame. So you’ll fork over money.
She felt a surge of anger… but who should she direct the anger at? At the criminals who were running the ring to which the child belonged? At this child’s mother (assuming she had one) who was forcing her out onto the streets instead of putting her in school? At the government and the politicians and the system? At herself for blaming everyone but herself and living in a bubble where the sight of poverty was an inconvenience?
The child made plaintive noises, and Meera, unable to help herself any longer, snapped open her purse.
“You should be in school,” she said kindly, as she drew out a twenty rupee note. “Not here. Where is your mother?”
Just then, she heard a man yell in rough Hindi, “Hey, what are you doing? Get away from her.” It was the security guard, who had been at the opposite end of the lot. He had spotted them and was now trotting over in a bow-legged gait. He barked at the child, “You, go away. Go!”
The little girl eyed the approaching guard without much alarm, then looked up at Meera, then back at the guard. She appeared to be gauging the distance between the guard and herself, seeing if there was time for her to get the money from Meera’s hand. But Meera snapped her purse shut. If she gave money to the girl, she would earn the ire of the security guard.
The child gazed up at her reproachfully for a moment. Mucus bulged out of her left nostril, and dirt caked her eyes. Meera thought: Is there someone who loves you? Who wipes your face and holds you at night? Who cooks for you? And she felt that great shame again.
The girl turned and ran just before the security guard arrived. As Meera watched, she slipped into a gap between two parked cars and disappeared.
The security guard said, “Madam, don’t give them money, please. They will keep coming back. “
Within the One More Cup store, men and women talked gaily over cups of coffee and plates of food. Nearly every table was occupied. The walls were painted orange and adorned with old Bollywood cinema posters and abstract paintings.
Meera stepped into a queue leading to a counter. It was Mitesh at the register today. He was tall and had beautiful brown eyes, and when it was her turn, he flashed her a disarming smile, “Usual order, ma’am?”
She nodded, and he tapped at the register. She paid with her card and stepped aside. Minutes later, he returned with an OMC-branded styrofoam cup of coffee and smiled broadly again as he handed it to her.
She was turning to leave when she spotted the pile of baked Punjabi samosas inside the glass showcase of ready-to-grab food. The samosas were browned to perfection, their crusts looking crispy and delectable.
No, just go. Don’t stop.
Those were deep-fried, and their crusts alone were calorie bombs. She thought of the meager breakfast she had packed — a single Idli, taken out of the fridge from a batch she’d made on the weekend, with a little coconut chutney. She imagined biting into the samosa as she drove to work, the crunch of its shell, the burst of flavors from the potatoes and vegetables inside. Meera swallowed.
Mitesh popped up on the other side of the counter, grinning, “Would you like something from inside, ma’am? Pastry? The vanilla cream cakes are super. Fresh cream. The egg sandwich is also very good.”
Meera cleared her throat. “I’ll have a samosa,” she said slowly.
No, what are you doing?
“Super choice, ma’am,” he said. “One set, ma’am? Two samosas in one set.”
“Just one,” she said firmly.
He slid open the glass case from his side of the counter and used a pair of tongs to extract one. He turned and popped it into a microwave. She stood waiting, trying to ignore the self-accusatory thoughts.
There goes my diet for today, she thought.
He drew it out of the microwave and put it, still steaming, into a white paper bag that immediately sprouted patches of oil. He flashed that big smile again when he handed her the bag, and this time she wondered if there wasn’t a mocking note in his grin.
She stepped out into the humid heat of the day and walked quickly across the lot. Then she saw something that made her groan inwardly. A small form stood beside her car; the urchin, waiting to have another go at her.
She looked around for the security guard. Yes, she thought, How noble. Let him do the dirty work. Let him chase her away so you won’t have to feel guilty. She spotted the guard at the other end of the lot, talking to the driver of another car.
I’ll give her some money, she thought. Ignoring the child was impossible to do.
As Meera approached, the little girl darted forward, her eyes big and dark and hopeful. The child held out a cupped hand and uttered those plaintive phrases again. Meera placed the coffee and the bag containing the samosa on the bonnet of her car and opened her purse. She was rummaging for a note when she noticed that the child was staring at the paper bag.
Meera said, “You want?”
The girl nodded, those large eyes shifting from Meera, then back to the paper bag.
Meera took the bag and handed it to her. The little girl hesitated, then took it, opened it, and peered in. Meera found a note in her purse and drew it out. The little girl’s eyes flicked past Meera and grew wide in alarm. She turned and ran.
She might have gotten away, but the guard had snuck upon them. He was right behind Meera, and he sprung after the child in two bounds and grabbed her.
“Stop it, stop that, I’ll thrash you,” he yelled at the wiggling child. “Give it back to her.”
“No, no, it’s ok,” Meera said hastily, “Let her have it; it’s ok.”
“Please don’t encourage this, Madam,” he said. His voice was laced with irritation, “I will get in trouble. Don’t give them money. Or food. They will come back with others, and they will annoy customers. More work for me.”
Meera looked down at the struggling child, from whose eyes huge tears had begun to flow. “Please let her go,” Meera said, distraught, “she’s just a child. Let her take the food and go.”
“Don’t feel sorry for her. There is a whole gang of them, Madam. She would have snatched your purse if she could.”
He squeezed the child’s arm, and she let go of the bag with a cry. It fell to the ground, and the guard bend to pick it up. The child yanked her arm out his grip and ran. She shot a reproachful glance back at the guard as she went. The security guard straightened and handed the bag to Meera, who took it with some chagrin. The man was just doing his job, he was on his feet eight hours a day, if not longer, watching over this lot.
She thanked him dispiritedly, climbed into her car, and tossed the paper bag into the passenger seat; she had no appetite for the bloody thing any more.
As she drove out of the parking lot and turned into the main road, she saw out of the corner of her eye a figure running towards the car. Meera turned and saw a gaunt woman in a ragged dark-green sari, her eyes ringed with kajal. As the woman drew closer, Meera saw that her face was wrinkled and weather-beaten, the face of an ageless crone. She was coming at a shambling run, gesticulating wildly, her mouth working, her lips drawn back to reveal teeth stained dark-brown from chewing paan. A necklace formed of beads and polished stones and what looked like bits of bone jostled around her neck. Slung on her shoulder was a roughly-woven bag made of what looked like sack-cloth.
Meera was about to floor the accelerator and race away when she spotted the little girl close at the woman’s heels. The child was nursing her arm where the security guard had gripped her.
Meera slowed the car to a stop and rolled her window down. She grabbed the paper bag and held it out as the woman drew up to the vehicle. “Here,” she said, “Give this to the child.”
The woman uttered a garbled shriek, snatched the bag and flung it to the ground. She brayed several phrases in the same thick dialect the girl had used, a patois that Meera could not understand. Her eyes danced with a crazy light. She pointed at the child, who was cowering behind her, and she spoke in broken Hindi, “You hurt her. You pay.” She glowered at Meera and thrust a cupped hand at her. “Pay.” Thick brass bangles that shimmered under the sun adorned her wrists. She seemed to have rings on every finger.
“I didn’t do anything to her,” Meera said. She was aware that passersby had begun to stop and stare, “I didn’t do anything.”
A scam, Meera thought, She’s playing the outraged mother, making a scene, trying to get money.
Meera began to roll up her window.
The woman spat, then began to rummage in her crude sack-cloth bag. Meera, suddenly afraid, put the car into gear. But before her window was all the way up, before Meera could pull away, the woman drew her hand out of the bag and held up a clenched fist. She let out a vicious screech and flung whatever was in it at Meera.
A black cloud of dust exploded against the window, and Meera screamed. Plumes of dust drifted into the car just as the window closed. The window was coated with the stuff so that Meera could no longer see the woman. Motes danced in the air. Meera began to cough. Her throat burned, and her eyes began to tear up. Still coughing, she hit the accelerator, and the car lurched forward. She shot a glance at the rearview mirror and saw the woman glaring after her, her eyes like opals.
Meera slipped the car into the heavy morning traffic. She looked down at her clothes, expecting to see them filthy with the soot-like dust the woman had thrown at her, but to her surprise, her white dress-shirt and her pale-blue jeans were spotless. The black streaks on the window were also gone, and the air in the car was clear. Although she was breathing hard, the searing pain in her throat had disappeared.
She threw a glance at the rearview mirror again, half expecting to see the woman coming after her on foot, but cars had closed in behind her, and there was no sight of the woman.
Meera let out a shaky breath. Her hands were trembling. She ought to have called the police instead of running away. The woman was a predator, part of some gang running a scam.
Except, calling the police meant spending the morning, maybe the whole day, filing an FIR at a station with apathetic, rough-spoken constables. She had a ton of work today, and she was already late.
When she arrived at her office, she was immediately roped into a flurry of activity around a client presentation. There were calls to make, meetings to attend, emails to send. By mid-morning, she had forgotten all about the incident.
Nidhi came by Meera’s desk at lunchtime.
“I think today I’ll just eat lunch at my desk,” Meera said, “I got too much to get done. I got here a little late.”
“You’ll end up skipping lunch; you barely eat anything anyway,” Nidhi said.
“You sound like my mother,” Meera said.
“Then, your mother is a wise woman. Come, let’s go,” Nidhi said, and Meera relented. Nidhi was right; she needed to get something into her stomach. Since morning, her stomach had been flaring up, rumbling and roiling, and she felt famished. Besides, it was hard to say no to Nidhi, who could get as pushy and solicitous as an old aunt.
Nidhi was the first friend Meera had made in this city. Meera had got this job at JB Advertising straight out of college at a campus placement interview. She had leaped at the opportunity to work in a large firm in a metropolis (away from her hometown). Amma had balked at the idea and tried to convince Meera to return home instead, telling her she could take a break for a few months before starting work. Meera refused. The idea of going back to her hometown was troubling. She was a new person now, had found an identity and independence apart from her past.
But when Meera arrived here, she found a vast and impersonal city. Life moved at a breakneck speed. She moved into a shared accommodation but rarely saw her housemates, who worked the nightshift at a call center.
Those first few months had been deeply lonely, and she’d been surprised to find herself homesick. That was how Nidhi found her, one evening, crying in the office washroom. Meera tried to brush it off, but Nidhi, in her direct manner, had probed, and Meera had told her everything. They had become good friends since. “You’re too sweet for this city,” Nidhi had pronounced once, “This place is full of wolves, they’ll eat you up if you’re not careful.”
They sat at one of the round green tables in the office pantry. Meera popped open her little rectangular plastic container and studied her lunch — steamed vegetables and green salad. It looked about as appetizing as a pile of wood. Across from her, Nidhi placed her stacked deck of round, stainless-steel tiffins on the table, each one having the circumference of a small frisbee. They reminded Meera of the tiffins Amma used to pack for her. Nidhi unclasped the stack and arranged the four tiffins on the table. The first was full of fragrant white rice; the second had a rich, brown sambar, the third a semi-dry potato and pea sabji, and the fourth contained a mix of various pickles and chamandi powders.
Nidhi looked up, “What?”
“Nothing,” Meera said.
Nidhi rolled her eyes, “Why do you punish yourself like this. How can you eat those boiled vegetables every day? It even looks tasteless.” She pushed her tiffins towards Meera, “Take some. Every day I offer you, and every day you say no.”
The smell was maddening.
“I can’t eat that,” Meera said, “You know I can’t. I’m watching my calorie intake.”
Nidhi shook her head, “Calories! I don’t know how you do it. The same thing every day, just those vegetables. I can’t last one day without eating rice.”
“I eat rice on the weekends.”
“I can never have that kind of will power,” Nidhi said.
Meera sighed, “I struggle with it… my weight. Last weekend, I let my guard down a little, and my weight shot up half a kilo.”
“You should stop obsessing over it,” Nidhi said, “You’ll get sick. Look at me. I’m square-shaped. I don’t care.”
Square-shaped, Meera thought. Nidhi often described herself that way. It was strangely apt; Nidhi seemed to have been hewn from a single block, with very few curves added. It was also true that Nidhi didn’t seem to care much.
Nidhi had grown up here in the city. She was thirty-five, was unmarried, and lived with her mother in the old city. She was tough, which Meera found both unnerving and fascinating. Nidhi could push her way into a crowded train, or bargain endlessly with street vendors, or hurl abuse at careless motorists and auto drivers. Meera both admired and was horrified by Nidhi’s brazenness. Nidhi could be overbearing at times, but underneath her rough surface, Meera occasionally caught glimpses of a tender woman that Meera suspected very few people were allowed to see.
“So finally,” Nidhi said, as she mixed sambar and vegetables into her rice, and then scooped a large wad of it into her mouth, “He told me he wants all the postings by noon. I told him to go to hell. I mean, what does he think? That I have only his books? I have four, including procurement.”
“Uh, huh,” Meera said. She munched her salad desultorily. She no longer craved rice as much as she once had, but today, maybe because she was feeling a little low, she was pining for something more than these awful greens. Was her period due? She couldn’t remember.
“Are you ok?” Nidhi said.
“No, you’re not. What’s wrong?”
“Just feel a little down. Also… something happened this morning.”
Nidhi frowned, “What?”
Meera told her about the incident at the coffee shop.
Nidhi snorted, “You’re too nice. These people, they see that as a weakness. They are like wild dogs. If you bark louder, they run away. You should never entertain such people. They’re pests.”
“I didn’t entertain anyone,” Meera said, a little shortly, “That was a child.”
“Don’t waste your sympathy on them. Do you know how much of our tax money goes for government programs? They get free schooling for the child if they want. They have job opportunities. But begging is easy. They make more money without hard work. They are not all victims. They work in gangs and share the money.”
“That child was hungry,” Meera said.
Nidhi reached out and patted her hand, “You’re such a sweet-heart, Meer. They love people like you. If I were there, I’d have chased her away and then given that security guard a piece of my mind.”
“That woman, I don’t know if it was her mother,” Meera said, “Right at the end, just before I drove off, she threw something at me. Like… soot or ashes.”
“Yes, some kind of dust. It was black.”
Nidhi shook her head, “From how you described her, they’re immigrants from the North, maybe North East, could be tribals who were run out of their land and migrated here. They have strange customs. You shouldn’t have let it go. You should have got out of the car and abused her. They would have run away like rats.”
They changed the subject after that, and for the rest of lunch, Nidhi talked at length about deadlines and workplace politics. Meera responded half-heartedly. The low fire in her stomach continued to gnaw at her.
That evening, Meera gazed into the bleak interiors of her refrigerator. The vegetable bin was stuffed with greens she’d stocked up two days ago — lettuce, spinach, beans, and some cabbage. But the idea of cooking was unthinkable; she was simply too exhausted. And hungry. There was a small tub of fresh yogurt, an apple, and a lone cucumber. She felt a sudden urge to pick up her phone and order food. She shut her eyes and imagined a mound of Chinese fried-rice with tangy orange chicken on the side. Or maybe some North Indian — garlic buttered nan with butter chicken. Her mouth began to water. The clawing hunger in her belly was driving her crazy.
How remarkable that Nidhi didn’t wrestle with these issues of weight. How was it possible for one not to care about one’s body? Was Meera’s “obsession” with her body a result of the trauma of her childhood obesity?
She thought of that day at her cousin’s Raji’s wedding when her life had changed forever. She’d attended weddings before of course, but Raji, whose father was a doctor in the US, was having the mother-of-all weddings. The whole family had been abuzz with excitement. Raji’s father was spending crores on the festivities, and thousands were attending.
Meera had been fifteen and undergoing the agonized throes of teen-hood — the hormones and the awkwardness. She had a heightened awareness of her body and (to her mind) its lack of attractiveness. She spent days fretting over what she would wear to the wedding, and in her anxiety, she ate more than usual. Weeks before the event, Amma took her to a tailor and had a beautiful custom-tailored ghagra-choli made. It was purple, silken, its borders inlaid with glimmering stones. The tailor, a grizzled old fellow, was kind, much to her relief. When she tried it on, he told her that she looked beautiful.
On the day of the wedding, she woke up early and spent hours in front of the mirror, brushing her hair, studying the fit of her clothes, and despairing over the folds of flesh above her hips. Amma came in later and helped her put on makeup, painting her eyes and dabbing on lipstick. Just before they left for the wedding, Meera studied herself in the mirror and thought that this was the prettiest she had ever looked.
At the venue, things had gone well enough… at first. She had timidly trailed behind Amma as Amma went around meeting relatives, some of whom Meera hadn’t seen in ages. It had all been overwhelming for the fifteen-year-old Meera — the fabulous decor, the lights, the colors, the music, the food… and all the beautiful people in their beautiful clothes. At dinner, she sat beside her mother at one of the great round tables in the hall. The table was draped with a silken white cloth, laid with gleaming silver cutlery and wine glasses and silver plates. Magnificent chandeliers hung above them from a high ceiling. The newly wedded couple sat at the head of the room on a fabulously decorated stage.
Amongst the relatives seated at the table were several aunts, uncles, and cousins. Meera was painfully aware that she was the stoutest of all of them. She did not speak through dinner; she hunched over her plate and ate quietly.
Seema Aunty, who was older than the others and had a shrill voice, asked Meera, “How old are you, dear?” All eyes turned to Meera. She glanced shyly at Seema Aunty. “Fifteen,” she mumbled.
“Fifteen?” Seema Aunty squawked, raising her eyebrows, “You don’t look fifteen.” In a voice that cut through the chatter, she turned to Amma and said in a tone of outrage and concern, “You must help her, Cheenu. For her age, this much weight is not good. Not good for health or self-esteem. They are young girls, no? You must support her.” She spoke as if Meera wasn’t present, and the other aunts nodded and murmured assent. A boy, perhaps a little older than Meera, stared at her. Someone tittered. She felt every gaze at the table on her, and she felt fatter and uglier than she had ever felt in her life. At that moment, she wanted only to sink into the earth.
Amma had not defended Meera and had agreed with Seema Aunty.
That night, Meera lay in bed and wept, and the next morning she had awoken to an alien rage, a fury at herself, at her body, at her parents, at the world. And then a thought came to her, so clear and obvious that it shocked her. You don’t have to be Fat Meera, she thought, It’s not something you were born with. Like a cleft-lip or a missing limb. This is something you can control.
She began to watch online videos on radical weight loss programs and crash diets. She’d made resolutions to lose weight in the past, but those had only lasted a few days. But this time she knew that something was different. Something had awakened in her… or perhaps it was more accurate to say that something had died in her.
Meera began to wake early and take long walks, much to her mother’s astonishment. The walks eventually turned into runs. At mealtimes, Amma was startled by the ferocity with which her daughter refused to take second helpings.
A few months later, Meera joined a gym. She learned that if she stuck to a routine, if she worked hard at her body, if she drank lots of water and curbed her eating even when the hunger burned, she could lose weight at a steady clip. She learned that because she was in her teens, her metabolism was at its peak and she could burn calories quickly.
Over two years, from her tenth grade to her twelfth, she whittled herself down from ninety-eight kilos to a respectable seventy. The difference was remarkable – she had to change three sets of school uniforms, and she found new confidence. And although her classmates never did accept her completely, and although her nickname, Fat Meera, stuck till her final day in school, the teasing and the smirks stopped entirely. In its place was begrudging respect. Something had changed in Fat Meera, the other kids in her class seemed to agree, and it wasn’t just her body. Something in her eyes had changed, and it made you careful about how you spoke to her.
In her final year at school, she even took part in a few track-and-field activities and was surprised when some of the junior kids regarded her with adulation.
When it was time for her to leave home for a university in another state, Meera realized with a thrill that nobody there would know her. She would have a chance, with her new body, to start anew. Meera stood in front of a mirror in her bedroom and tried to see herself as the students at the university would see her. She still had a bit of a belly, her arms were beefier than she would have liked, and her lower body was pear-shaped. Stretch marks ran down the insides of her thighs and her stomach, but these would be hidden away by clothes. Might she even be pretty?
At the university, she made new friends, and when she was out with them, she would catch a glimpse of herself in a storefront reflection or a restaurant mirror, and genuine surprise and delight would fill her. That’s me, she would think, That’s me.
Yet even today, despite how far she’d come, the sight of the flab on her hips and thighs (oh how she hated that flesh, how she deeply desired to burn it away) depressed her and reminded her of that overweight, timid girl who scuttled down school corridors while holding in her belly as far as it would go, who tried to make herself as small as possible to escape the cruel, frank glances of her peers. The girl who had always sat at the back of the class because she was terrified of how big her butt must look to the boys sitting behind her.
Now, she snatched the cucumber out of the fridge and bit into it. She chewed, swallowed, bit. Control It was all about control. Controlling your diet, controlling your weight, and, most of all, controlling your mind and the compulsions that drove you to eat.
She finished the cucumber and grabbed the tub of yogurt and the apple. She took bite after bite of the apple until only a skeletal core was left. She then scooped up spoons of yogurt. She realized she had let out a moan.
She cleared the kitchen and retreated to her bedroom. Her hunger had not abated; if anything, it had grown more intense. Had she ever felt this bloody hungry? She paced her bedroom, then climbed into bed. She opened her laptop and called Amma over video. Talking to Amma would distract her.
But the first question Amma asked her was, “What did you have for dinner?” Meera groaned inwardly and told Amma.
“A cucumber?” Amma cried, “That is not dinner!”
“I’m still sixty-seven kilos, Amma.”
“What craziness is this!” Amma said, “You are not fat. You are too thin! Why do you want to look like a skeleton?”
To change the subject, Meera asked after Appa. Appa was in the other room watching TV. He bellowed out, “Hello, baby.” and went back to the news. Amma asked her about work and when Meera was going to visit next, and after a few minutes, Meera wound down the conversation by saying that she was tired and wanted to go to bed.
She lay awake for a time, trying to ignore the gnawing in her belly, and presently, she fell asleep.
The next morning, she had to draw on all her will power to head to the gym. She felt sluggish and tired.
She hit the machines hard — twenty minutes on the treadmill, followed by weights and power yoga. She finished up with core exercises that left her drenched with sweat, panting, feeling good.
On her way out, she stopped at the assessment room. There was no one there. She dumped her gym bag on the table and stepped onto the scale.
There was something wrong with the machine. The number on the digital readout was sixty-nine kilos.
She got off the scale, got on it again. The reading was the same. Sixty-nine.
She shook her head and grabbed one of the measuring tapes that hung off hooks in a corner. She checked her waist and was alarmed when she saw that it had gone up half an inch. Hadn’t her trousers felt a little tighter today?
My period must be due, she thought. I’ve just forgotten. Sometimes, her belly distended a little during.
But… two kilos?
She did not stop at OMC for coffee. She would skip today.
At lunch, she ate only the green salad in her little plastic container, skipping the boiled vegetables. She was quiet and did not notice Nidhi glancing at her quizzically several times.
That evening at home, despite feeling faint with hunger, she skipped dinner entirely. She drank six glasses of water and went to bed. She would have to get up several times through the night to pee, but that was ok.
She slept fitfully, and her dreams were troubling.
After her workout, while showering, she felt light-headed. She had to grab the towel rack to steady herself. Maybe she had pushed herself a little too hard today.
You’re barely eating anything. It can’t be good for you, she thought.
She changed into her office wear, and her trousers felt tight again. Too tight for comfort.
She hurried to the weighing room. A man in a crew cut wearing shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt was stepping out. She stepped on the scale, and for a second, the world began to spin again as she stared in horror at the cool-blue digital figures.
“No, it can’t be,” Meera whispered.
That was impossible.
She got off and got on again.
Meera left the room and strode to the reception area. She spotted Anusha.
“Oh, hello ma’am,” Anusha said brightly, “How can I help you?”
“I think there’s something wrong with your weighing scale.”
“Oh,” Anusha said, frowning, “Nobody has complained, ma’am. Why?”
“I just checked my weight, and it’s showing that I gained five kilos in two days. Which is impossible.”
I will ask maintenance to check,” Anusha said, “How are you today, ma’am? Did you have a good workout?”
Meera said, “You know, you really should have your machines working correctly.” Her voice was rising, growing jagged; she realized with horror that she was going to cry.
“Ma’am? Are you ok?” Anusha said.
“Yes,” Meera said, “Yes, I am. Sorry. Thank you.” And she walked away quickly, feeling terribly stupid. The machine was wrong; that’s all it was. The machine was wrong. Had to be. There was no possible way she could have put on five kilos in two days.
She drove to the office. The machine’s broken, she thought again and felt a surge of relief. That had been scary, though. Also, it was pathetic how easily she’d come undone by a broken weighing machine. Tonight, she would get a cheap bathroom scale on her drive home.
But it was odd that they hadn’t noticed a defective scale. Dozens of people used that machine every day, and the Gold Fitness gym was well maintained.
Are you sure it was defective? she thought. Her trousers felt tight. Really tight. When she had put them on, she had barely been able to draw the buttons closed.
That’s just bloat, she thought uneasily. Her period was coming in early, that was all. Five kilos was humanly impossible. She had eaten nothing at all for the last two days.
At lunch, Nidhi said, “What is it, Meer?”
“Nothing,” Meera said. She had eaten her vegetables, but her hunger was a harsh, blaring white noise that made it hard to think. She tried not to look at Nidhi’s food, but the smell was making her giddy.
“I’ve got to go back to work,” she told Nidhi and hopped to her feet and left the pantry. Upon returning to her desk, Meera realized with a sinking feeling that she had to unbutton her trousers just to sit down. The waistband was cutting into her flesh. And she felt distinctly… heavier. Was that even possible? Yet, there was no denying that sensation of increased inertia.
My period. It’s my period, that’s all.
But her uneasiness had turned into full-blown anxiety now.
On her way home, she stopped at a pharmacy and bought a digital weighing scale for 1,999 Rupees. It was a simple plastic box with a tiny digital readout. At the counter, she eyed the diet candy bars and peanut snacks and had to restrain herself. She returned home, tore open the packaging, and placed the scale on the bathroom floor.
But she found she did not dare to use it. Tomorrow, she thought. Tomorrow, they would have fixed the machine at the gym. She would check tomorrow.
She took a shower, then opened her refrigerator and peered in. Her hunger was a roaring, raging thing. I’ll cook something quickly, dice some carrots, cauliflower, potatoes. Add some coconut milk and coriander powder. I’ll have it with a slice of bread maybe.
But she found herself picking up her phone and pulling open a food ordering app.
The food arrived forty minutes later in packets that were slick with grease. A tub of Butter Chicken Masala, garlic butter nan, a portion of steamed white rice, and aloo-jeera. The Butter Chicken masala’s gravy had what looked like an inch-thick oil slick atop it. She took the food to the kitchen table and ripped open the packaging with her bare hands. She stuffed dripping dark-brown pieces of butter chicken masala (wrapped in buttered nan) into her mouth, shutting her eyes, barely aware that she was making soft moaning noises as she chewed. She did not notice a tear spilling out of her eye.
She ate both the nans and then mixed the aloo-jeera and the remaining butter chicken into the rice. She had almost finished the entire tub of rice when she forced herself to stop. She felt ill, and incredibly, still hungry.
She washed up and went to bed. When she burped, acid fire washed up her throat, making her cough.
Sleep did not come for a long time.
Something’s wrong, she thought when she woke up the next morning. She hastened to the bathroom, and when she saw herself in the full-length mirror, she gasped. She was bigger. Her lower body and her arms, even her face, seemed to have swollen.
She gazed at the weighing scale but still didn’t dare to step on it. Instead, she packed for the gym. When she put on her track pants, they felt far too tight around her buttocks and thighs, and she had to loosen the drawstring considerably.
At the gym, the real horror occurred after her shower, in the dressing room, when she tried to draw on her jeans and found she could not pull them all the way up. They got jammed at her thighs. She yanked them off, her heart racing, and she put her track pants back on again. She thought distractedly, I have to go back home and find something I can wear. She would be really late for work today.
With deep dread, she made her way to the assessment room. There were two women there, both as skinny and shapely as models. They wore tank tops and figure-hugging track pants. Meera sat on a sofa in the corner of the room and pretended to read a magazine. The two women chatted endlessly, their conversation shifting from shopping to their jobs, to their diets. Meera clenched her teeth and wished they would go. Presently, they did, and Meera leaped to her feet and climbed onto the scale.
She let out a strangled cry.
“Impossible,” she whispered. Seven kilos since yesterday morning! There was something wrong with the machine for sure. They still hadn’t fixed it.
She marched to the reception. Anusha looked up, and her expression turned wary when she saw Meera.
“It’s still broken,” Meera said.
“Ma’am, we checked already,” Anusha said, “I informed maintenance yesterday. They checked, and it was fine. I also personally checked this morning. Nobody else has complained. If the reading is wrong, many will complain.”
“There’s something wrong with it,” Meera repeated, her voice rising.
“Ma’am, that machine is from BeFit. It’s a very good one. But since you’re insisting, I will check it for you one more time.”
Meera walked out of the gym. It’s broken, she thought, Has to be broken.
In the basement, Meera climbed into her car and burst into tears. She sat there, her face buried in her hands, her shoulders heaving.
If the machine was broken, why was it that she could no longer put on a pair of jeans that she’d been able to wear three days ago? Why did she feel heavier? Even getting into the car, sitting down, was more difficult than usual. Her body somehow felt too big for the tiny Alto. The idea of going home, throwing on loose clothes, then getting to her office nearly an hour late, was unthinkable.
After a time, she grabbed her phone and called Neelum in HR. “I woke up feeling unwell,” she told Neelum.
“Oh, what happened?” said Neelum. She was a dainty woman in her late thirties who handled attendance. “Hope nothing serious?”
I woke up seven kilos heavier today than I was yesterday, and yesterday I was three kilos heavier than the day before. My waist has grown maybe four inches in three days; I can’t put on my pants anymore. Other than that…
“I’m ok,” Meera said quietly. “Just a bad cold. And I think I’m getting a fever. I’d like to take the day off.”
“Of course,” Neelum said, her voice laden with concern, “Take rest, dear. I’ll let the team know.”
At home, Meera went straight to the bathroom and stood before the scale she had bought yesterday. Her stomach rumbled and roiled. She stripped down to her underwear, hesitated, then took off her bra and her panties. She stepped onto the scale.
Her eyes widened.
It read “80”, one kilo more than the reading at the gym.
She looked up and glanced at the mirror and recoiled. Her face was puffed, and she appeared to be growing a second chin. Her thighs and her butt and belly looked swollen, and her body was thicker all over, flesh swelling out in unsightly lumps.
It was eleven AM, and she had eaten nothing since morning, had drunk only two glasses of water. Her hunger was impossible to ignore any longer; it was a vicious, burning thing tearing away at her stomach.
She hurried to the grocery store at the corner of her street, walked down its aisles, grabbed food off the racks, and threw them into a red shopping basket. She took a whole loaf of sliced white bread, a tub of cheese-spread, two packets of masala-flavored potato chips, a large pack of sugared banana wedges, and a tub of strawberry flavored ice cream.
At home, she tore open the packets with her teeth and began stuffing slices of bread dipped in cheese-spread and hands full of potato chips into her mouth. After that, she ate heaped spoons-full of ice cream directly out of the tub.
Leaving the clutter on the kitchen table, she trudged back to her bedroom, crawled into bed, curled into a fetal position and began to cry weakly.
At four PM, her mobile phone buzzed. She turned in bed and picked it up from the bedside table.
“Hello?” she said groggily.
“Meera?” Nidhi said.
“Why don’t you just tell me what’s wrong?”
“Nothing, it’s nothing,” Meera said.
“Meer. Don’t shut me out. What is it?”
“Just going through… a bad patch,” Meera said. But she felt a flood of gratitude all the same; Nidhi had cared enough to call, to probe, to not want to leave her alone. In this city, alone in this apartment, it was easy to think she was going crazy. The concern in Nidhi’s voice was a blessed salve.
“Are you chumming?” Nidhi said.
“No, but maybe that’s all it is.”
“You want me to come over?”
Meera considered this, then said, “No, I.. I don’t want you to see me like this. But thank you. I’ll be ok. I think I just want to get through this day.”
“Ok,” Nidhi said, “But call me for anything, ok?”
“I will,” Meera said.
An hour later, Amma called, but Meera did not answer. She lay in bed in the darkening room, wide awake, her mind returning to the numbers on the scale, to her appearance in the mirror.
What is happening to me? she thought. She knew with certainty that some fundamental shift had occurred in her body. She could feel it in the way her stomach churned and burned relentlessly, in the way her flesh heaved as she turned in bed. Was this some kind of illness? Was this, God forbid, some kind of cancer?
But what cancer made you fat? Didn’t you lose weight with cancer?
She grabbed her phone and, despite knowing it was a bad idea, searched the internet for “Rapid weight gain disease 13 kilos 4 days.” She got back a flood of articles about ailments with names like Radical Edema and Polycystic ovary syndrome.
She tossed the phone aside and curled up again.
She woke up at dawn and knew at once that the situation had become worse. Much worse. It took an effort to raise her arms. And when she held them up before her, she shook with horror. Great slabs of flesh hung off her upper arms, like those of some old, obese woman.
She tried to get off the bed, something she’d been able to do without a thought, but which was now a chore. She plodded to the bathroom and turned on the lights and froze.
This was a dream. It was just a dream. Because the thing looking back at her from the mirror could not be real. The woman in the mirror was a nightmare vision from her past — a gross parody of the fat child she’d once been, a monstrous creature with rolls of flesh hanging off its sides, two chins, and large slabs for thighs. This was some kind of nasty mental trick her mind was playing on itself. For all she knew, she was still in bed, dreaming.
Because the woman looking back at her was Fat Meera.
She shut her eyes, opened them, but the grotesque apparition continued to stare back at her. Meera lumbered to the weighing scale and stepped on it. The plastic squeaked in protest. She had to use both hands to push in her belly just to see the reading.
Eighty-nine kilos. She had, as per the reading, put on another ten kilos in a single night.
Shaking, feeling faint, Meera searched in her wardrobe for the loosest clothing she had — an old bottle-green salwar kameez from her teenage years that she had been unable to part with.
When she tried to pull on the kameez, she heard the cloth rip loudly. The salwar bulged as if the flesh on her hips would burst through. Weeping now, she pulled out one of her track pants and tried to put it on, but despite its elastic material, it was absurdly tight around her hips and her butt.
How will I ever go to the office?
With shaking hands, she called Neelum and told her that she would need one more day to recover. Neelum told her not to worry, to get as much rest as she needed.
Meera hung up and wondered if she would ever be able to go back to work again? How would she bear their stares, their snickers, their smirks? How would she walk down the hall knowing that all eyes would be on her body, on her monstrous butt, as they surmised at how she might have put on so much weight so fast.
Stop it, you’re not fifteen anymore. You have a job, responsibilities. Nobody cares how you look.
She would have to go out and buy a whole new wardrobe. Because she would have to go in to work at some point. Tomorrow. Or the day after. She couldn’t lose her job. If she lost her job, she would lose everything she had struggled all these years to gain — her independence, her confidence… everything. She couldn’t afford to stay in this city without a job; she would have to go home, back to Amma, back to her hometown.
What if my weight keeps going up?
Meera thought of calling Amma then. But that was a terrible idea. Amma would freak out, beg her to come home, and that would just make matters worse.
Finally, because she didn’t know what else to do, she called Nidhi. Nidhi was the only person she could think of who might not think her insane.
“Hey,” Nidhi answered, “One sec… hold on.”
There was a pause, and then a moment later, Nidhi said, “Alright, I just stepped away from my desk. So, are you finally going to tell me what the problem is? Neelum told me you’re off sick again today?”
Meera let out a long shaky breath. “Something’s happened, Nidhi. Something terrible.”
“What?” Nidhi said, sounding alarmed.
“I’m putting on weight very fast.”
A long pause. Nidhi said, “My God, That’s all? You scared me, Meer. I was so worried.”
“No, it’s not like that,” Meera said, “I don’t mean a few kilos. I’m gaining-“
“Meer, you’re making yourself sick obsessing over this.”
“It’s not like that,” Meera shrieked and burst into tears.
After a pause, Nidhi said, “Ok. I’m sorry. Tell me. What is it then?”
Haltingly at first, and then speaking so fast that she could barely contain the rising hysterical note in her voice, Meera told Nidhi everything.
There was a long silence at the other end.
Now she’ll say that I’m crazy. That my ‘obsession’ with my body has reached new heights.
But when Nidhi spoke, her tone was grave, “How many kilos did you say? In the last five days?”
“Twenty-two kilos,” Meera whispered.
Stunned silence. Then Nidhi said briskly, “I will text you the details of a doctor. He’s not easy to see. There’s a waiting list of a month to get an appointment with him. But my cousin is a nurse there. She will get you a walk-in appointment. He specializes in gastric illnesses. I want you to go for a check-up today.”
“I don’t know-“
“Don’t argue with me,” Nidhi snapped, “That kind of weight gain is… Just see him today, ok?”
Meera shut her eyes. She believes me.
“Yes,” Meera said, “I’ll do it.”
“Good. Don’t be stressed out. Go to the doctor. Call me after that. You will be ok.”
Dr. Suresh Kalra’s consulting room was like every other doctor’s office she’d been to — sterile and foreboding. The walls were whitewashed and decorated with medical stuff — embossed plastic intestines, a calendar with the neatly cleaved side-view of a head, and incomprehensible fact sheets on drugs.
She had come in to see him an hour after Nidhi had arranged the visit. He had listened gravely, then asked her to do a slew of tests. She had spent much of the day going from one wing of the hospital to the other. She had her blood work taken, given samples of her stool and urine, and got some scans done on her abdomen.
Now, Meera sat across from Dr. Kalra, her ‘file,’ a pale yellow dossier containing the results of all the tests Meera had done today, on the desk between them.
Dr. Kalra, a short, dapper man with greying hair at his temples, thick black-rimmed glasses, and a genial face, was reading the reports carefully. A nurse stood patiently at his shoulder, her face serene behind her blue mask, her eyes distant.
Dr. Kalra placed the sheets of paper back into the dossier, then shut it and sat back. He regarded Meera. “There’s nothing wrong with you.”
Meera stared at him.
Dr. Kalra said, “All your tests are ok. There’s no pathology, no physiological evidence of anything wrong with you.”
Meera said, “But… but my weight.”
“I am not denying that your weight-gain is concerning. Usually, unexplained weight loss is a sign of some underlying disease, usually severe. In your case, it’s the opposite. But are you sure it is twenty-two kilos? Because that’s a lot. “
“In five days? Twenty-two kilos?”
He said slowly, “Sometimes, due to… stress or mental strain, our perceptions can be… mistaken.”
For one horrific moment, she wondered: Is that it? Is this whole thing some kind of psychotic episode? What if I have always been fat, and thinking I wasn’t.
Then, she remembered her clothes, and sanity prevailed. She was wearing tracks pants and a t-shirt because her wardrobe was filled with clothes she had been able to wear four days ago but which no longer fit.
She said firmly, “Doctor, I’m sure. Twenty-two kilos. My clothes don’t fit me. I could wear them last week.”
The doctor glanced at his nurse, then turned to Meera, “We don’t have records of your original weight, but the only possible explanation is that this is some kind of reaction, and it may have caused temporary edema. Although your scans don’t show excess fluids.”
“Yes, excess water in your body. But again, there’s no evidence for it.”
“I don’t understand,” Meera said, her voice breaking, “Is there a way to fix it?”
“I know you’re distressed,” the doctor said, “When our bodies behave in unexpected ways, it can be frightening, even humiliating. But we must approach this systematically. There are a couple more options I would like to explore. I’m also going to prescribe some medicines. Some vitamins and a mild sedative that you can take before bedtimes. Do you exercise?”
“Yes, I go to the gym daily, but..”
“Please keep doing that. Exercise is good for you. Meanwhile, I’m going to book you in for an appointment with Dr. Shiv Sudhakar. He is the best in his area.”
“Ok,” Meera said, “Is he also a gastro specialist?”
“No,” Dr. Kalra said, “He’s a psychiatrist.”
When her doorbell rang that evening, Meera did not get up from bed. Then she heard Nidhi calling out, “It’s me!”
When Meera opened the door, Nidhi studied her for a moment that seemed to stretch out forever, her expression frozen. A terrible thought came to Meera: what if Nidhi turned and walked away. Or worse, what if she said, “Meer, you look fine, the same as always.”
Then Nidhi stepped into the apartment and hugged her fiercely. She held Meera for a long moment, and when she let go, Nidhi was teary-eyed. “I’m so sorry, Meer.”
“Thank you,” Meera said.
Nidhi held up a brown paper bag. “Got some food,” she said, “Don’t worry, it’s just light stuff. I cooked some sabji and some chapatti.” And although Nidhi said nothing more, Meera saw the shock in her eyes.
They sat together on the sofa, which creaked alarmingly. Nidhi took Meera’s hand. “You’ll be fine. Dr. Kalra is one of the best, and your medical tests were ok.”
“He didn’t believe me,” Meera said in a low voice, “He wanted me to see a psychiatrist. I understand why. I can barely believe it myself. And these doctors go by evidence.”
Nidhi said, “Do what he says, see the other doctor he is recommending. Until then, you just take the medicines he’s prescribed, get rest.”
“The office…” Meera began.
“Don’t worry about work,” Nidhi said, “Leave that to me. I’ll tell them that I met you and that you have a viral fever. Just send in an email to Neelum. And you take a week off.”
“Nidhi,” Meera said in a barely audible voice, “What if… what if it doesn’t stop in a week? What if I keep growing? I just checked my weight an hour ago, and I’m eighty-five kilos. Eighty-five! It’s going up too fast. What if it never stops? I won’t be able to walk. I’ll be bedridden, like those morbidly obese people.”
She had been thinking about it all day. She’d read an article last year about a woman so obese that she had needed a crane to carry her out of bed and into the back of a truck to take her to a hospital. A crane!
Nidhi said, “I’m sure that won’t happen. This must be some temporary freak thing, something to do with hormones or your metabolism.” But she looked uneasy.
“I don’t know,” Meera said, “It’s like something changed inside me. My hunger is… it’s unbearable. “
Nidhi said, “There must be some cause. Do you remember taking anything, like anything different, any medicines, or any type of food, something that may have caused a reaction?”
“No,” Meera shook her head, “The doctor asked me the same thing.”
But the words rang in Meera’s mind. Anything different.
Nidhi was saying, “Because this could be a reaction to something. Some change in —”
The beggars, Meera thought suddenly. That strange woman on the road outside the coffee shop had flung black dust at her face. She had injested it, coughed.
But the idea was ridiculous. Even if the woman had thrown some kind of poison at her, and if that poison was strong enough to cause this horrific reaction, her medical tests would have revealed something.
“What is it?” Nidhi said.
“Nothing, it’s… nothing.”
“Are you sure?”
They chatted a while longer, then Nidhi rose. “I have to go. It’s already eight. Ma will start calling.”
Meera said glumly, “I haven’t answered Amma’s calls in three days.”
“You should call her.”
“I will, but I can’t tell her anything. She’ll panic. I don’t want her to worry.”
After Nidhi left, Meera walked to the bedroom window and watched as, three stories below in the parking lot, Nidhi mounted her blue scooter and rode away.
Meera paced her bedroom. She thought again of the billowing black dust the crone had thrown at her, the searing pain in her throat. The idea was absurd, but…
She grabbed her car keys and left the apartment.
“There are many of them,” the security guard said, his tone cold, “They work in gangs in this area. On different days you see different people. I chase them away, but they keep coming back.”
Even though it was half-past eight PM, the OMC parking lot was nearly full. The store was packed. Spotlights lit the giant cream coffee mug.
This guard was different, younger than the one who’d been here on the day of the incident.
“There was a small girl,” Meera said, leaning out of the car’s window, trying to keep the desperation out of her voice, “She was with a woman. Elderly, with a necklace and bangles. There was another guard here that day. He will remember.”
“Were you here in the morning or night?” the man said.
“Morning. Around eight-thirty. It was four days ago.”
“That is Ravesh. He does the morning shift.” He peered at her, “Did she steal something? They are scoundrels. We can tell the police. Sometimes they will help. “
“Yes, she took something,” Meera said, “I need to find her. I must find her.”
He appeared to think this over. Then he said, “I don’t know, ma’am, during the day they work around the area in small groups, at night they sometimes gather near the old railway tracks. At the old north terminal. There was news about that because the residents near the tracks complained.”
The roads were crumbling, and the car shuddered as she navigated large cracks and the potholes. Above her, an overpass thrummed and groaned as traffic roared past. The street lamps were few and far between. Once, this part of the city had been thriving and well maintained, but when the new metro service was introduced near MG Road, the old railway line was abandoned and the roadworks department let the surrounding area fall to disrepair.
Meera drove down decrepit streets flanked by dilapidated shacks and concrete houses and cramped shops. At this hour, except for a few solitary pedestrians, the roads were empty. She drove parallel to the abandoned railway track, which was overgrown with weeds and lit by aging track lights, many of which were flickering or dead.
She drove past the old terminal, which had once been a fully operational passenger station. Now it was a train graveyard. It was a large single-story structure falling to ruin, its roof having shed large chunks of tiles, its concrete walls flaking and crumbling, its windows shattered. Street lights painted it in stark shadows. The guard had told her that the homeless gathered here, but there was no sign of people.
The road veered to the right, away from track. Meera turned and drove back the way she had come.
What was she doing? How could she hope to find a lone beggar woman on these dank, dark streets? And even if she did find the crone, what was she going to do? Ask her if she had cast some kind of curse on Meera?
She was about to turn away in despair, to head into the winding gullies, when she saw them.
Just up ahead, across the road, the abandoned track disappeared into a railway tunnel. A single overhead lamp above the tunnel’s entrance cast a dull light upon a group of people assembled at its mouth. Amongst them, standing with the child, was the crone. Even at this distance, Meera recognized the beaded necklace and the gleaming bronze bracelets at once. The child squatted in the dirt beside her.
Meera pulled the Alto off the road and killed its engine. They were about fifty meters away, a group comprising men, women, and children, about twelve in all. They wore ragged clothes and were barefoot, and their bodies were gaunt. Some squatted in the dirt amidst the strewn trash and weeds. Others stood talking.
Meera grabbed her cell phone and called Nidhi.
“Are you ok?” Nidhi said as soon as she answered.
“Remember I told you about that incident at the coffee shop?”
“Four days ago? There was a child, a beggar, who asked me for money? I told you about that woman who-“
“Yes,” Nidhi said, “I remember.” Her tone sharpened, “You said she threw something at you.”
“Dust. Ash, something like that?”
After a pause, Nidhi said, “What are you saying, Meer?”
“It sounds crazy,” Meera said, “I don’t even know why it came to my mind. Maybe because you’d asked me if anything strange or different had happened to me. I think she might have something to do with my condition.”
She heard Nidhi hesitate, then say, “I don’t know, Meer, it’s…”
Meera said, “I’ve found her, Nidhi. It’s her. I’m sure of it. She’s with that child.”
“What? Where are you?”
“I’m near the old railway station. I’m going to talk to her.”
“Don’t,” Nidhi said, “It’s dangerous. Wait, I’ll come there. It’s only twenty minutes away from here.”
“No, it’s ok. It’s late. I’ll call you later. I just wanted… if you don’t get a call from me in an hour, then call the police, ok?
Meera hung up.
Meera stepped out of the car and trekked over crumbling concrete and weed infested ground towards the tunnel. She began to pant with the effort.
They turned their faces to watch her approach, their expressions guarded, wary. The crone stood up and shuffled forward. The little girl gaped at Meera in alarm.
Meera drew up to them, and silence descended.
Their faces were hostile and guarded.
Meera addressed the woman: “You remember me?”
Under the pale overhead light, the crone’s face was etched in shadows. She grinned widely, displaying blackened teeth. Those ancient, sunken eyes gleamed. “Oh yes,” she said in broken Hindi. “I remember.”
“What have you done to me?” Meera said.
The crone shrugged, “Nothing. I did nothing. What happens to you, you do to yourself.”
“Take it off me,” Meera said, her voice shaking. “Whatever it is, take it off.”
The woman spat, “We are like cockroaches, to be stamped on. You want us to run in the dark, from our lands, and you step on us and kill us. You take and eat what is not yours, while we starve. Now eat. Eat all you like.”
The others around her shifted and murmured. One of them, a man, growled under his breath.
“I didn’t do anything to you,” Meera said, “I gave your child food that day, you can ask her. Do you want money? I can pay.”
The crone giggled, the sound making Meera’s blood go cold, “No food. No money. You go back to where you came from, and you eat. Eat what is not yours.”
Beside her, a cadaverous-looking fellow turned to the woman and uttered something in that alien dialect. The woman shook her head at him.
Meera stepped forward, “Please. Why are you doing this to me? I did not hurt you.”
The crone was about to speak when the little girl tugged at her dress. The crone turned to her, and the child spoke in a low voice. The crone shrieked, and the child shrank back.
The woman looked at Meera, her face writhing in rage, “Go away from here, now. Or you will be sorry.” Two of the men broke away from the group and walked towards Meera. One had open sores covering his upper arm and his left cheek. The other appeared to be blind in one eye and was missing most of his teeth.
Meera felt a sudden fury grip her, and she drew herself up to her full height. “Don’t you dare touch me,” she said, “I did nothing to you. Take back what you’ve done to me. If you don’t, you will pay.”
“What will you do?” the crone screeched, but she must have seen something in Meera’s eyes because her bluster faded a little. The two men paused, suddenly unsure.
As if on cue, the rasp of a scooter on the empty road filled the night. A blue scooter appeared around the bend and pulled up behind Meera’s car. Meera said, “Whatever happens to you now, you have done it to yourself.”
The men and women began to murmur again. One of them turned and slunk away into the tunnel, disappearing into its black depths.
A figure got off the scooter and began to run towards them, a square-shaped figure.
While all eyes were on Nidhi, Meera strode up to the crone and grabbed her shoulders, “I did nothing to you or your child. Take it off me,” Meera said, “My friend, she is powerful. She will make your lives hell.” She held the gaze of the woman, “Remove what you put on me.”
More of them fled into tunnel. The two men who had advanced on Meera looked doubtful. One of them turned towards Nidhi.
And then Nidhi was amidst them. Without a word, she walked up to the man with the sores and drew her hand back and struck him with a blow so hard that he seemed to fly off his feet. He sprawled on the ground and crawled away in terror.
“What are you doing to her?” Nidhi roared, “Who do you think you are? Come, let’s see what you’re going to do. After I’m done with you, the police will take you all.”
The crone regarded Meera balefully. Behind her, the child began to wail. The woman shook Meera off, then rummaged in her bag and drew out what looked like an old soda bottle. It was stopped up with rags and filled with a milky white liquid. She pulled out the rags, then handed the bottle to Meera and said, “Drink.” She held up two gnarled fingers, “Two swallows, not more.”
Meera took the bottle and, without pausing to think, took two sips. The liquid tasted chalky and bitter, and she nearly gagged and dropped the bottle. The crone snatched it from her. “It will come out of you,” she rasped. She turned and shuffled into the mouth of the tunnel, followed by the little girl, and they were swallowed by the blackness.
Then Nidhi was beside her, holding her hand. “Meer. Are you ok?”
“Let’s go,” Meera said.
The pains hit her belly on the drive back home, and she doubled over, screaming. The traffic on Route 73 roared past as she jammed the brakes, and she heard tires screech.
She managed to pull the Alto off the road, and the car shuddered as its wheels slipped off the blacktop and came to a halt.
Meera slammed the door open and tumbled out, gasping. The land bounding the road was wild, the earth scattered with debris, weeds, and strewn garbage. Behind her, she heard the crunch of tires and the thrum of Nidhi’s scooter as Nidhi pulled up behind her.
Meera doubled over in agony as cramps struck her. A moment later, Nidhi was beside her, holding her.
“She’s poisoned me,” Meera gasped, “Nidhi, I think she’s poisoned me.” Meera’s legs buckled, and she fell on all fours. Nidhi screamed and knelt beside her. “We need to get you to hospital,” Nidhi said, “You’ll have to ride with me. Come on.”
Meera gasped and gagged, “I don’t think… Nidhi, I can’t -“
And then she began to vomit. Great black, ropy jets flew out of her mouth and splashed into the earth in front of her. Nidhi screamed. Meera’s stomach contracted, cramped, and she vomited again. An impossibly large volume of black tar-like liquid was pooling in the red dirt before her. Meera let out a cry of disgust and scooted backward even as she continued to dry heave.
Nidhi helped her get to her feet, and Meera clutched at her and wiped at her mouth. They gazed with horror at the black liquid as it began to sink into the ground. The weeds around it wilted, turned brown, and then black.
“Let’s go,” Nidhi whispered.
But when Meera turned, her legs buckled, and she stumbled and fell. Nidhi held on to her desperately. “You’ll have to ride with me,” she said.
“My car,” Meera groaned. Her legs seemed to have lost their strength.
“Leave it here. We’ll come back for it later,” Nidhi said, “I’ll get the keys and lock it.”
After that, Meera must have fallen unconscious because when she next came to, Nidhi was helping her off the scooter and into the ER of a hospital.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” Nidhi said.
“Thank you,” Meera whispered, already sinking back into darkness. The exhaustion was a vast suffocating thing that shrouded her, and even as she slipped into deep sleep, she sensed that whatever had been in her body, whatever had caused those violent physical changes, was gone.
Meera watched the waves wash in, the crowds of screaming children and beachgoers. She felt the brine-scented breeze touch her face, and she shut her eyes for a moment to savor it.
“You look much better,” Nidhi said.
“I feel better,” Meera said. It had been a week since that terrible incident, and the weight had gone almost as fast as it had come, her body shedding four to five kilos a day. She was now seventy-four. “I get bad dreams, but that’s ok..”
“When will you come back to work?”
“Monday. I think I’ve rested enough.”
A small boy wearing ragged brown shorts and a filthy t-shirt, his hair in bronzed corkscrews, ran up to them and held out a cupped hand.
Meera smiled, drew a note out of her purse, and gave it to the child.
“You know you shouldn’t be doing that, right?” Nidhi said.
Meera grinned and watched as the child clutched the money and ran down the beach, his feet leaving tracks in the sand.
Copyright TA Thakadipuram 2020