Hot-water Bag by Nighat M Gandhi

'Does it hurt a lot?' he asks, pulling his armchair closer to her bed.


'No, sir, not very much,' she replies coyly, keeping her eyes lowered.


'Is it swollen?' he continues interrogating in a voice that's not tender, careful not to appear overly concerned.


'No, sir, not much.' Still in that shy, smothered voice.


'Did you get an X-ray?' he bends forward slightly, hoping she'll let him take a look at the foot, unasked.


'Yes, I did, sir. Shamim sahib said it was unnecessary, but I insisted because you had asked me to.'


'Good. An X-ray is the only way to tell if there's a fracture,' he replies in a stiff, matter-of-fact voice, trying to make his visit to her flat late in the evening appear necessary and of a clinical nature.


'Why should Shamim sahib object to you getting an X-ray?' he adds irritably. 'Everyone at the office tries to play boss when I'm not there.'


'They don't like me, sir, you know that, especially Shamim sahib,' she whines, letting go of her initial shyness. Although her head is bowed low, he detects the self-pitying way in which her mouth is twisted and finds it unattractive.


'But you're sure there's not much swelling?' He ignores her remark about Shamim. He doesn't want her to start about how nobody in the office likes her.


Very timidly, as if she were afraid of appearing disrespectful, she lets her left foot slide out from under the quilt.


The sprained ankle comes into view.


His first thought is that a woman's feet should be a pleasant, mildly exciting sight. Why aren't her toenails cut and clean? There is black dirt congealed under the crooked nails. On two of the toes, he also notices pea-sized blackened corns. They are so prominent; his eyes become riveted to their bulging surfaces. The ankle is mildly swollen like a soft tumorous growth, and covered with a thick yellow paste,
which makes her foot appear diseased. He feels absurdly hurt, as if her dirty foot says something about him.


'Turmeric and egg yolk,' she says in an uncertain voice.


'What?' he frowns, staring at the foot.


'Amma applied a paste of turmeric and egg yolk to help the pain and swelling.'


'Accha, accha,' he says, wishing she'd retract her foot under the blanket. But the foot stays out, an unbearable reminder in its brown and yellow ugliness of how far and low he's fallen in his quest for love.


He extends a hand and touches her ankle with his index finger, depressing the soft swollen area. It is a gesture of supreme effort and it exhausts him to test his strength in these ways.


'Does it hurt when I press it?' he asks like a doctor. His voice is calm. He has willed himself to get through this. The greater the effort demanded, the more self-forgiving he is.


'A little, sir,' she winces and looks up at him before adding, 'just when you touch it.'


He finds her shyness irritating. Does she think he finds it pleasing to touch that unclean foot? Has she any idea what it takes?


As if sensing his displeasure, she quickly covers her foot with the quilt.


Amma enters with two cups of tea on a tray.


'Hmm. You should be very careful,' he continues, not bothering to acknowledge her mother's presence. 'Don't put any weight on that foot. You wear high heels, right? You should stop. I'm never in favour of those, myself.'


'Yes, sir. But sir, the sprain—”as you know, sir, I twisted my ankle when I was getting down from the rickshaw. I was wearing chappals then, sir. Not heels.'


'Anyway, rest for a few days,' he says, getting all the more agitated by her school-girlish defensiveness. 'No need to come to the office until Monday or Tuesday. I'll ask Shamim to type a sick leave application for you.'


'But I should be fine if I rest tomorrow,' she protests, smiling. 'I'll be bored at home.'


Whatever else she lacks, at least she cares not to be away from him long. What more need he ask of a woman? His irritation starts to dissolve slowly. He must learn to live with her lack of sophistication. A small insuppressible voice inside nags that if only she could have been a little more refined in her speech and dress ... Is he ever going to meet the woman he has yearned for all his life, he wonders, as he mentally enumerates all that needs to be corrected about Neelam—the vulgar high heels, her poor hygiene, her adolescent taste in music and movies, her complete lack of interest in politics and religion, subjects that he himself loves to discuss.


'You should take a good long rest. I'll come and check on you every day.'


Turning to her mother, who's been sitting quietly at the foot of the bed since she entered with the cups of tea, he gives a dismissive nod.


Amma immediately gets up, flustered, and starts rearranging the faded cotton dupatta on her head.


'Tea, sir, please, it's getting cold,' Amma mumbles, shuffling over to the little table beside her daughter's bed.


'I didn't put sugar in Anwar sahib's tea,' she says, handing him the cup.


'Amma, his sugar tablets are in the drawer in the almari,' Neelam tells her.


He finds the old woman's obsequiousness comical. Old, should he be thinking her old? She can't be older than he, perhaps even a few years younger, given that women of her class were always married off so young. But widowhood and dependence have deposited oldness in the lines on her face. My God, my God, what am I doing here, he wonders. He's been here too long. He feels agitated, because Amma has made him feel he's out of place here in this room, that he has other responsibilities to answer to, that out there, in the real world, there is another world, waiting to engulf him as soon as he leaves.


'Bhai sahib, is the tea cold?' Amma continues. 'It'll only take a minute to make another cup.'


He shakes his head. The oily soothing tone in which she addresses him as 'Bhai-sahib' sticks in his throat as something he'd rather gulp down but is unable to.


'It's all right, just give sir one tablet,' Neelam intervenes, sensing his impatience.


Amma struggles with the bottle.


'I'll do it,' he says, giving the old woman his cup to hold.


Amma watches, embarrassed, as he presses the bottom of the plastic container and pops a tiny white pellet of sugar substitute into his palm.


The tea is terrible, not made the way he likes it. He doesn't bother to finish it. He doesn't have to be polite with these people, he consoles himself angrily, because the moment the thought comes to him, he feels a little guilty.


Neelam tries to dispel his gloom by making him talk. 'Have you had your sugar tested this month, sir?'


'Yes, it's up again,' he sighs. 'The lab sent a fellow over to the house this morning to test it. Exercise is very necessary to keep my sugar under control. I haven't gone walking the past couple of weeks. I went for a walk before I came here. That's why I got here so late. Plus, the traffic. You know how terrible it is on Friday evenings.'


Amma has been sitting at the foot of the bed, staring at her kurta print. Since both of them seem to have dispensed with her, she creeps out of the room inconspicuously. He starts wondering what sort of mother leaves her young unmarried daughter alone in a room with a man? What sort of daughter? What sort of man? He despairs at his mind's inability to accept, ignore, forget—necessary attributes when engaging in behaviour for which society has no neat slots.


Perhaps she thinks he's like a father to her daughter! He's touched with self-derision momentarily, as he imagines himself a father to Neelam. If he were, he would have tried to get her married to a decent man. His manner is stern but not fatherly. The old woman must know he's a married man. He never bothers to talk to her as a well-wisher of the family should. And does the old woman ever wonder why he takes her daughter travelling with him on his foreign trips? Perhaps mother and daughter are complicit in robbing him. This flat, the phone he got installed, the little repairs he takes care of, the unasked-for gifts of money, the medical bills—don't all these silence even the most upright of mothers? He feels desperately lonely, thinking that untainted, selfless love can be found nowhere except in novels, and there too, as nothing more than the author's own cleverly disguised longings.


Once Amma is gone, he's alone with Neelam again. They have little to talk about. In the office there's a context to their conversations. There she shares with him who she overheard saying what against him, in the intervals between the comings and goings of the peons and his staff, the phone calls he has to attend to, the faxes he has to send out. Here, with such stark unadulterated aloneness between them, he's at a loss. He glances at his watch.


'It's very late,' he says, almost with relief and gets up. 'I'll come again tomorrow.'


He steps out of the apartment building and glances around quickly, taking stock of this lower middle-class mohalla in Nazimabad before stepping into the car that pulls up smartly beside him. The driver gets out and comes round to open the door for him. There's little fear in his mind that any of his acquaintances would spot him in this crowded, dingy neighbourhood. Still, that tiny spark of fear makes him check.


The general store, the chemist's shop, the paan shop, and the kebabwalla on the ground floor of the building, are still open. A few idlers are smoking and chewing paan at the paan shop. The paanwalla glances up at him while his fingers move in circles, spreading katha on betel leaves, and in that look he can see he's been evaluated—a well-dressed man with a chauffeur-driven car, therefore, not a resident of this mohalla. But there can't be recognition in that look, because he doesn't come here often. Still he wonders if it's wise to come again tomorrow. The driver honks to get past a couple of boys engaged in a scuffle in front of the kebabwalla's shack. Just as he starts to roll up the window to block out the world and to let the air-conditioning take effect, the kebabwalla's eyes meet his. His deft hands are sliding fresh kebabs off skewers into plates lined up beside his glowing grill. The hot smell of charred meat stays with him and he remembers with a heavy heart that the evening isn't over yet. He still has to get through dinner with his wife and he has no appetite.


It's good to have at least two distinct divisions to one's life, he muses in the car on his way home. You can flit between the two indefinitely. When one gets unbearable, escape to the other. Except that neither can really soften the drudgery, the dailiness, the exhaustion involved in getting through a day. Both were simply illusions, after all, created by the mind, which was desperate to escape, to find true freedom.


There are long traffic jams even at nine at night, and despite the driver's attempts to take short cuts through by-lanes, it takes them an hour to reach the chaos-free environs of Defence Society. The driver is another individual buried under his largesse. Money can buy most things, especially people. And what little it can't buy can't be of great importance. But, his reasoning rings hollow as he gets out of the car and walks wearily up the marble steps of the porch to enter his elegantly furnished house in one of the quietest streets of Defence.


There are no surprises. His wife meets him with her customary complaining look, which makes her face appear old and extremely unattractive. Rarely does she greet him with a smile. She's holding the paosura in its green satin coverlet. She's probably been reading it all evening.


'Where were you? It's almost ten. And we haven't even had dinner yet,' she says, walking away from him towards the kitchen.


He goes into his bedroom without answering her. In the bathroom he washes himself in preparation to say his ishaa prayers. Dinner can wait a few minutes longer, he reasons, rolling out his prayer mat on the ground. Besides, he wants to impress upon his wife that one's obligation to Allah comes first. If he spends the first few minutes after coming home in prayer, his lateness will be condoned by her. She's a little reluctant to start anything distasteful just after he has finished his prayers, when her judgement has usually softened.


Hands across his stomach, the suras rolling off his tongue mechanically in whispers, he goes through the last namaaz, prostrating himself on the ground and repeating the verses in Arabic as he does five times a day. His mind is on everything except where it should be. He has often wondered why it is so impossible to focus his mind on Allah while saying namaaz, even though that is his intention. Why can't he escape the allday ordinariness of life for the few minutes he spends praying?


He ends by praying for his children and grandchildren, all of whom are with the grace of Allah, in America. He thanks Allah for having enabled him to educate his children well enough so that they've found good jobs in the United States and are well settled. He prays for his parents, who are dead.


He asks Allah's forgiveness for all his sins, known and unknown to him. Then he rolls up the prayer mat and goes into the dining room.


'If you were hungry, you shouldn't have waited for me,' he says grimly to his wife who comes in with the bowl of chicken curry she had to heat up, as the maid they employ has left for the day. They're long past the stages of intimacy and expectations where a wife waits up for her husband.


'I wasn't hungry. But you could've called. You know how worried I get,' she replies in the low morose voice she uses when she's full of self-pity.


'I had to see an important customer. He's leaving for London tomorrow. I tried to call but nobody answered,' he replies, without having to think. If he told her the absolute truth each time, he'd be causing unnecessary pain for both of them.


'When did you call? I've been sitting in the lounge ever since you left, right next to the phone, reading the paosura. The phone never rang.'


'I don't know,' he shrugs, soaking up some gravy with a piece of chapatti. 'It seemed to me like it was ringing. I thought you might have fallen asleep, so I didn't try again.'


They get through the meal in silence. He isn't hungry, but he eats because sleeping on an empty stomach will give him gas and keep him restless at night. Besides, his wife's chicken curry is his favourite.


'Is there any papaya or some melon?' he asks.


She stops eating and gets up. 'There's some papaya in the fridge. I'll get it.'


'You can finish eating. I can wait,' he says, knowing well she'll not make him wait. 'I'm afraid my bowels won't move tomorrow morning. I had a very difficult time in the toilet this morning.'


She leaves immediately and returns with half a papaya and a spoon on a plate.


'You've been eating salad and going for walks. Still, you had trouble this morning?' she says.


'Who knows?' he says scooping out papaya flesh with the spoon. He catches the guilt in her voice with relief. Her rancour is being softened. Her pity redeems him, always.


'Sometimes I wonder what life is? What's the point if you have to watch everything you eat, and even then suffer?' he says with a sigh.


His wife hangs her head low as if the answer to such mysterious acts of Allah are best left unsought, and starts to clear the table. He sits stirring the flaky isabgol in a glass of water, until it dissolves to the exact consistency of flowing jelly. Then he downs the gelatinous murky liquid in two long gulps. Every night he must have fruit (but only those low in sugar) and the isabgol. No skipping. No getting tired of the routine.


He goes into his room to get ready for bed. He makes a mental checklist of reading the two current affairs magazines that have just arrived by airmail and the paper he didn't get through in the morning. His books, magazines and newspapers are stacked at the head of the bed in the space between his pillow and his wife's. He likes having their space divided in this way and has given her instructions never to disturb his pile of books, even when the sheets are changed.


He reads until one in the morning. His wife is snoring softly. She takes a sleeping pill every night. It keeps her asleep until two or three in the morning, after which she usually can't sleep any more. In the past couple of years she's become a bundle of aches and pains. Her insomnia seems to be getting worse. She's getting old, he thinks, rearranging the pillows under his head and turning out the reading lamp. But, so am I, so am I. Dear God, is there no peace to be had even at this last juncture of one's life?




A soft swishing sound wakes him up. In the dark, he has to listen for a minute before he realises it's somebody pacing the length of the room.


'Who is it?' he asks, a little alarmed.


'It's just me,' his wife whispers.


'Are you all right? What time is it?' he tries to locate the orange-red numbers of the alarm clock on the nightstand.


'It's about four. I've been up since three.'


'But what is it?'


'What can it be? The same old pain,' she replies, pacing.


'Walking seems to help.'


'Should I rub some Iodex on your leg?' he asks hesitantly.


'No, no,' she says, just as he expected. 'Just try and go back to sleep. You'll have trouble in the bathroom again in the morning otherwise. I'll just get a hot-water bag and that'll help.'


'Are you sure you're all right,' he asks, relieved, and turns on his side.


He can hear her in the kitchen. The clanging of some pots and pans, the sputtering sink tap, the trapped air bubbles followed by the gushing water. He listens as if his ears are hungry for all the sounds she makes despite trying to block them out and get back to sleep. He hears her enter the room several minutes later but pretends to be asleep. She gets in on her side of the bed and he hears the lapping sound of water in the rubber water bag as she places it on her right hip, where she gets the sciatica pains. He hears her shift, finding a comfortable position. Reassured by her satisfied sighs, he begins to doze off.




'What is it now?' he asks impatiently, angry from broken sleep.


'Why don't you go back to sleep? It's nothing,' she replies.


'How can I sleep if I keep hearing things? I'm always worried about someone breaking into the house. What do you mean it's nothing?'


'It's just the hot-water bag. All the water's leaked out and the mattress is wet. So are my clothes.'


'I've told you hundreds of times to buy a new one. But you won't. Just to save a few rupees. What for? This sort of nuisance needn't happen in the middle of the night.'


'It's all right. I'll go and sleep in the other room,' his wife mutters, going out.


His ears follow the flap-flap of her rubber slippers on the marble floor going down the hallway to the guest bedroom.


He hears a door close, and then all is quiet. But sleep is banished from his heavy eyes. Vaguely, and against his will, he recalls that she had asked him to bring her a hot-water bag from London on his last business trip. About the only thing she wanted. Some idiotic notion she had in her head, that they were particularly well made in England. And he had meant to get it. But, and he feels exasperated with her for always managing to make him feel guilty, he had forgotten. So she wouldn't go and buy one on her own now. They sell all sorts of imported things in Karachi these days, he urged her. There's no need to bring anything from abroad. So what if you have to pay a little more? But she wouldn't buy a new hot-water
bag. Has anybody understood women and their queer logic?


Try as he might to blame his wife's seeming illogic, somehow sleep eludes him.


It is nearly dawn, time to get up for the fajar prayers. Of course, his restless conscience makes him admit, as he struggles to overcome the temptation to continue sleeping, there was a reason for not bringing the bag. He was with Neelam and didn't want to buy it. He could see the English salesgirl cracking up over a drink with her boyfriend after work, relating the incident of the old Paki who came in with his mistress or wife half his age, asking for a hot-water bag probably for his arthritic legs. He didn't want to be the butt of some inconsequential joke cracked in a pub by a silly Englishwoman.


The faint rubbery smell of the bag begins to grow in the room. Gripped with anxiety and unable to sleep, he sits up and yawns. From the window to his right, a quiet dawn is streaking the patch of visible sky grey. He feels for his glasses under the pillow. He yawns again as if to swallow some of the weighty silence. Despite the consistent whirring of the ceiling fan, the silence seems unwieldy, growing oppressive by the moment. He walks up to the window to the right and pulls it open. The humid freshness of the newly-breaking day seeps in with the chirping of the birds and the rustle of the leaves to reassure him. The world is still the same, he sighs, not knowing if he feels relieved or despondent. He wants to hear his wife's regular snoring. He wants to know that while he's sleepless and miserable, she, at least, has found respite. He thinks he'll walk down the hallway to the guest room to check on her but decides against it. He doesn't want to risk waking her up. She's a light sleeper. Besides, if she isn't asleep, what is he going to tell her? Any conversation with her at this odd hour is going to be awkward. He's afraid it might trap him into becoming intimate with her. He has got through these years with her by shirking even the remotest possibility of any closeness. How else could two people with so little to keep them together have stayed together?


He doesn't want to miss the fajar prayer, so he drags his feet to the bathroom to wash himself. Again, as he prostrates himself before Allah, reciting from habit the suras, his real entreaties are not for forgiveness, but for concentration. Grant me, Oh merciful Allah, as your ninety-nine names imply, You who grant the true prayers of even the lowliest of your creatures, grant me the power to concentrate on You. He's convinced if he can think of nothing while he prayed to Allah save Allah, his problems would somehow get resolved. But even as he beseeches Allah to let him focus on nothing but Himself, his mind lists all that's wrong with his life, all that needs fixing, all that he could fix if only he reached that state of true love the sufis reached, where the distance between human and divine blurred. Restless with discontent, he reaches the end of his prayers. He rolls up the prayer mat, and, going out of the room, clears his throat loudly in the hallway, hoping that his wife would wake up and come out of the guest room.


Usually he goes back to sleep for about an hour after saying his morning prayers. Today he may as well have his breakfast early. It'll give him an additional hour or so in the bathroom to empty his bowels. He walks to the front door and unlocks it. The newspapers are lying outside in a roll, fastened with rubber bands. He bends down to pick them up, and getting up, closes the door with more noise than necessary.
The guest-room door to his right opens and out comes his wife. She looks tired but that's the way she always looks.


'If you're not too tired,' he says, 'I thought I could have my breakfast early today since I couldn't go back to sleep after namaaz.'


She yawns, and covering her mouth with her dupatta, flipflops in her slippers down the hallway to the kitchen. He stares after her slightly bent figure going away from him, grey-white in the early morning light, and is truly puzzled as if he's seeing, not her, but her ghost.


He takes his papers to the dining room and switches on a light and the fan. Glancing at the headlines of all four of them, he tries to decide which one he's going to read first, as he awaits the coming of his breakfast. All the news he's going to read, he has read before. It seems nothing new ever happens in the world. People, whether politicians or businessmen, or the ordinary sweeper, all seem given to repetition.


What was he going to do today that he hadn't done yesterday? Could he omit even a single detail of his daily routine and hope to get away with it? He thought of not sitting in the bathroom today for as many hours as he did, and immediately was seized by a sense of great discomfort. He imagined himself young and free and loved, unburdened by guilt and ill health. A great melancholy filled his heart, and he raised a hand to remove his glasses so that he could look upon a fuzzy world with a sense of letting go. At that moment he heard his wife's slippers flapping in the hallway, and he lowered his hand to the tabletop. His fingers started drumming the smooth polished wood to show his impatience to his wife, as she entered, carrying the tray with the teapot and the toast.



From Ghalib at Dusk and Other Stories by Nighat Gandhi, published by Tranquebar Press, an imprint of Westland Ltd., New Delhi, 2009.

Nighat M Gandhi is a writer and professional mental health counsellor. She spent her formative years in Dhaka and Karachi. After college in the USA, she married and moved to Allahabad, where she raised her two daughters, and became a member of Stree Adhikar Sangathan, a feminist women's group. She writes on women's and human rights issues for newspapers such as The Hindu and Dawn. Ghalib at Dusk is her first collection of short stories. What I am Today, I Won't Remain Tomorrow: Conversations with survivors of Abuse (Yoda Press, Delhi) is her second book. She is currently working on her third book about Love in the Lives of Muslim women of the subcontinent.