They are building a hospital for plants. My old neighbour, whom I have not seen or heard from in about sixteen years, somehow lands up on my doorstep at seven in the morning and tells me about a hospital they are building for plants. I ask him who they are but he asks me what that noise is. The stray cat who visits me sometimes takes a quick sniff at the old man’s toe while he invites himself in, admires my one-room apartment and asks me to carry on. I fill the electric kettle with water then remember that it’s broken and as I am transferring the water into a saucepan, he says he has a flight to catch in the evening and asks me if I can hear that noise or not. It is the dumb pigeon rattling its pink feet on top of my ac again.
It is the season of expanding doors. My old neighbour avoids all questions I ask about his family. About his wife and his son to whom I gave all my comic books as a parting gift. I look at the old man closely. I think I see traces of a cataract in his right eye. His earlobes seem to have elongated and white hair sticks out like the whiskers of my sometimes-cat. His forehead is furrowed. Every time he rests the teacup on the saucer, his hands shake a little. At his feet lies his briefcase, like a faithful dog, grey-brown and creased like its owner, the initials M.S. written in white paint near the handle. It begins to rain and I try to shut the window but there is a little gap and this is when my old neighbour says that thing about doors.
Salt not kept in airtight jars will absorb all this moisture. My old neighbour, who used to teach me chemistry in the evenings is upset when I tell him that I’m doing nothing with my chemistry degree. Then I show him my drawings and he says they are good but what will they do. Who, I ask. The drawings, he says, will not change into something else will they now. And then I tell him that they are soon going to turn into a book. To be bought and sold, he says. He sighs. I ask him if he wants rice or roti for dinner. He says he’ll eat in the aeroplane. I ask him how long it would take for him to reach the hospital and it is at this point that he picks up my salt shaker and observes it intently. I wonder if old people ever run away from their homes and if I should locate a telephone number for his son, but I have long severed my ties with that neighbourhood. I get up to heat dhal, etc in the saucepan and have to transfer some leftover water back into the broken kettle so I can use it later.
That pigeon: is it dancing or does it have fleas? He is amused for some time. I ask him about the hospital for plants again and all he says is that he is going there. He then tells me that if I wanted, if I really wanted, maybe he could look for a research job for me there. His hands shake slightly as he points at the bird again and this is when I realise that what we don’t have – who we cannot be with – where we are not – always it is these that will save us, an illusion created perhaps by the brain so that the body does not give up so easily. A little more, it says, and maybe you’ll see him again – further ahead is that book, finished and flying off the shelves – just round that corner is the ticket to where you are meant to be. I try again and ask him where there is and who they are and he asks me if I could tell him more about my book. He flips through the pages, points at a charcoal rail track and asks me if the story is set in our common ex-neighbourhood, and when I shrug my shoulders, he mumbles something about how things will never be the same and then something bizarre, about sprinklers. Where are the people, he asks me, after he has come to the end of page six. On the next page, I mutter.
They are saying that by 2022, one fifth of the world’s population will be obese and one in nine will go hungry. Isn’t there something comic about this tragedy? My old neighbour, run away from home and gone soft in the head. My old neighbour, the news bulletin reader, the re-mythicised Cassandra, the most unperturbed doomsday-slayer. He asks me if I have rice or roti for dinner. Yes, he’d like to have some too. He says he used to be afraid of flying and hasn’t been on a plane in years. You don’t have to go, I tell him because suddenly his fear is my fear and it is stuck in my throat. His eyes light up for a moment and then he tells me that he must, that Mee-Zu or someone with a name like that is there and that together they must finish building the hospital. And then at seven pm sharp, the old man, my ex-neighbour is gone. The last thing he tells me is to tell everyone I love to be very, very careful of the rising dust.
They are building a hospital for plants. Because I don’t know how to react to his statements, now that he longer is sitting there wobbling in flesh and bones in front of me, I get a sense that he was never there, none of it happened. To distract myself, I order the cheapest electric kettle they will ship to my address without a delivery charge. Who’d be building a hospital for plants anyway. I turn the question around and around until I can finally see a stark white room with plants that look ill. Some people dressed as nurses, bring in medicine trays, count and pour out the evening’s dose of snails and earthworms, adjust artificial light via a complicated set of touchscreen virtual monitors. In the corner, an old man with an ever-creased forehead stands attending to a particularly weak-looking sapling. His hands shake slightly as he uses a moist cloth to wipe the plant, one leaf at a time. By now, it’s stopped raining and the dumb pigeon or its many twins has settled smugly on the ac and won’t look at me as I try to explain to it the strangeness of the day, or what is coming our way.
Sohini Basak has poems and short stories in journals such as 3: AM Magazine, Missing Slate, Ambit, Lighthouse, Ofi Press, Muse India, Paris Lit Up, as well as in print anthologies of Helter Skelter, Emma Press and Poetrywala. She won second prize at the inaugural RædLeaf India Poetry Prize in 2013 and was shortlisted for the Melita Hume and the Jane Martin poetry prizes in 2014. She is a social media manager for the translation journal Asymptote and works in a publishing house in Delhi.