She might have saved money by opting for the usual Bombay taxi: cramped, fumy, with no air-conditioning and a few gods on the dashboard. Instead, Kavita waited an extra fifteen minutes and took a limousine, a silver Mercedes, from the airport to her parents’ apartment on the top of Malabar Hill. She was exhausted, wanted to get home as soon as possible, felt icky and snuffly from the flight, ached sharply—whether truly or out of terror—in her left breast.
‘So I hope your philosophical conference was really worth it,’ said her mother, coming to greet her in the hall. ‘Was it?’
Normally, Kavita would have insisted on unpacking her own luggage, just as she had insisted on packing her own luggage, but this time there seemed no point in, again, making her point; she left it beside the front door—the maid, Francesca, would deal with it: send the saris to be dry-cleaned, have her reputable cousin launder the underwear. There were no secrets in there to be found. Kavita had brought no scribbled telephone number away with her: that would already have been emptied from the wicker wastepaper basket, lined with a clear plastic bag, back in the B&B in Hull. Hull which surely no longer existed, so impossibly other did it seem.
‘I am fine,’ said Kavita. ‘I would just like to go straight to bed, without a long discussion of my failures.’
‘It made you exhausted. I can see how exhausted you are. I told you the whole episode was a bad mistake.’
‘Goodnight,’ said Kavita.
‘It is eleven o’clock in the morning,’ said her mother. ‘I do not want you to die—and I especially don’t want you to die as a result of your own arrogance and stupidity.’
Kavita had hoped her mother would be out. This morning, though, her mother had stayed away from the art gallery, specializing in photographs, which bore their shared surname, Oberoi, just as did her father’s Import-Export business.
The apartment was chilly, even compared to the limousine—which had to be cool, as part of the service it offered. Her father didn’t see the point of air-conditioning unless it was merciless.
As soon as she entered her room, Kavita opened two windows. Her parents had repeatedly forbidden this. They were worried that Kavita’s much younger brother, Sunil, would be fool enough to climb out—fall the thirteen floors to the dusty concrete car park below. Kavita told them, every time, that Sunil was banned absolutely from entering her room, and that if he died because of doing so then it was his own silly fault. They did not allow her a proper lock on the door, to keep him out; the place needed to be cleaned every day, they said. All those books to dust; that was her life, for them, all those too many too complicated sterile dirty books.
Kavita let down the Venetian blinds, drew the indigo silk curtains—these, she had been able to choose for herself, the only unpatterned fabric in the apartment—and lay down, still clothed, on the bed.
It was mid-August. Her chemotherapy and then her convalesce would take place during the worst of the summer. Perhaps her father’s had been the best idea after all: go to Sweden, where there were world-experts. Then the whole thing would have been done within the cool comfort of minimalism. The clinic he suggested had won international awards for its therapeutic architecture. To have had a reason to go there could almost be made to seem a boon. Kavita liked Sweden and, even more, the concept of Sweden.
Her father had not stepped out of his office—the Home Office, as Kavita had once jokingly nicknamed it—to see her. She had not really expected him to. It was her duty to pay him a visit, and by avoiding this she was adding to the uncountable ways in which she had already insulted him, this past week.
When she left on Thursday, her father had told her never to come back, and her mother had told her to ignore her father.
‘He is too angry to do what is his proper thinking.’
On top of her silk-sheeted bed, Kavita fell asleep and dreamed immediately of Delhi, which was where she had grown up. Her body had come home and now her spirit—call it that— wanted to go home. The family had been forced to move to Mumbai when her father reached the level of being both too rich and not quite rich enough for Delhi society. He needed to be in Mumbai to be close to his money, to make sure that his money continued to grow, and more importantly still that it continued to be his.
Bombay, except in sought-out detail, remained for her an inelegant city, unclassical. But her judgement, as she knew, was prompted by homesickness for Delhi: she wanted dry heat, not humidity; history, not industry. Nothing in Bombay satisfied her—apart, perhaps, from the night-spangling parabola of the Queen’s Necklace—which was the view from her room and the family’s dining-balcony. During the day, though, Marine Drive formed a sea-frontage that might almost have been Marbella, and no-one with any sense of self-preservation used the beach. Bombay had other qualities than the classical—qualities commonly associated with vulgarity: it was frantic with energy both useful and useless, it was the undoubted centre, it was full of people who worked very hard at being fascinating, it was inconvenient but deep with possibility, it was less judgemental than Delhi—although that wasn’t saying all that much.
Kavita was back inside the house of her birth and of the first twenty six years of her life. It was the only real and right place in the world—everywhere else, judged in comparison, was lacking. The house was where most of Kavita’s dreams took place; her nightmares were far more widely travelled. If she hated her father for anything, it was because he had sold the house when he might just as easily have kept it. What made this even worse was that her Auntie lived in the next door villa, and so whenever Kavita went to visit she was given an update—sometimes even a tour—of the latest renovations. She could not refuse; the owners were very keen to get her approval. Somehow, she always managed to give them the impression that she had bestowed it. In reality, she spent much of her life secretly in mourning for her house. It would, she knew, have been her house. Sunil, aged eight, was already a Bombay-boy. If only they hadn’t moved, Kavita felt, she would not have got cancer, for nothing bad could ever have happened to her, guarded by the magic of the tessellated floors and the wisdom of the pot-plants, within that turreted palace of tumbledown survival.
In her dreams, as in her past, Kavita had another mother, mischievous, confiding, flirty, brave, and an entirely absent father. They lived together, she and her better-ma, in their three great projects: to avoid unwanted invitations, to understand the England of Queen Victoria and, above all, to civilize Sunil. The only person whose opinion mattered was her maternal grandmother, the Tigress, and most things modern were too trivial for her even to form an opinion of. She sat all day upon piled plush cushions, drinking espresso coffee from an imported machine, smoking a pipe and writing letters to her five sisters. They were, self-consciously, the Hindu Mitfords. Kavita had loved to sit enveloped by her nani’s smoke and swathed in her nani’s smell—mostly a special hair-lacquer that she had made up bi-annually by a shoe-shop in the Burlington Arcade, Mayfair.
‘You will come through,’ her grandmother had once told her, as if life were a matter of always returning from the trenches. (For the Tigress’s father, this was exactly how it had been.) And so, despite her diagnosis, Kavita never suspected nani’s tobacco clouds of causing her cancer; she knew for a fact that, had the Tigress still been alive, immersion in that aromatic haze would have been an instant cure. But her grandmother had decided to follow her daughter and her beloved granddaughter to the hated city—and had died three months after the move. Bombay, which she only ever saw through the window of the new limousine taking her to her new home—Bombay had surely killed her.
Nothing happened in Kavita’s dream; it was a long safe stasis. She woke up at six in the evening, feeling dehydrated, feeling worse. A glass of water (Evian ice cubes in Evian) had been placed on her bedside table some time ago—the base of it was ringed by condensation. Kavita was more than used to people entering her room as she slept but, for some reason, she resented this particular intrusion. It had been Francesca, she knew, because the books and papers from her luggage were placed on the edge of her desk—visible from where she lay on her right side. Francesca always did this, as if to put anything in the middle of the desk would have made Kavita angry, and in this Francesca was right, it would have been an attack.
Kavita undressed, showered in her bathroom, put on a sports bra, grey sweatshirt and faded blue tracksuit bottoms. She could smell food, and knew she should eat some, although the airline food still seemed to be keeping its shape in her stomach. Barefoot, she entered the dining room.
‘Your appointment is tomorrow, ten thirty a.m.,’ said her mother, as Kavita sat down. ‘It is important that you are there on time. Dr Mehrotra has made an exception of himself to see you.’
‘Hello, Papa,’ Kavita said.
‘Good evening,’ he replied. ‘Are you rested from your flight?’
Her mother continued: ‘Dr Mehrotra cured Mrs Vishnu, and without removing the bulk of her breast tissue. They have a new treatment which sucks – ’
Kavita’s father looked at her mother, who shut up.
‘I am going to the club tonight, to play snooker,’ he said, after which they ate in silence.
Francesca, under orders from Kavita’s mother, knocked upon the door of Kavita’s room just as the alarm clock on Kavita’s cellphone started to trill.
Kavita showered and put on an outfit which would be easy to take off again, at least partially: white bra and knickers, white blouse and black skirt-suit by Armani. This was her businesswoman costume. She wore it, satirically, whenever she was called upon to deal with the family fortune. Most often, this involved trips to the firm of lawyers who administrated her and Sunil’s trust funds. (Hers would pay out on the day of her marriage, otherwise on her fortieth birthday; Sunil’s would pay out on his twenty-first.) To wear these Manhattan-bought clothes now, apart from being practical, made her feel slightly more in control as well as slightly further distanced.
As Kavita came out of her room, her mother shouted across, ‘Sajjay with the car is waiting for you outside. It is nine o’clock. Don’t leave after quarter past. There will be traffic, like all the Tuesdays.’
‘Good morning,’ said Kavita.
Once seated at the table, Marco, Francesca’s husband, brought her a glass of water and two small plain dosas.
‘Signora,’ he said. Kavita had ceased to be Signorina the day of the diagnosis.
Her mother came and sat beside her, in her father’s chair.
‘Your father is upset. He will not show it, but he is, deeply upset. He did not return from the club until after eleven last night. That is a bad sign.’
For some reason, Kavita’s father punished his wife for the sins of their grown-up daughter. Perhaps because he had no way, beyond violence—which he had only rarely used—of punishing Kavita directly.
‘From now on,’ said Kavita, ‘I will devote myself to getting better.’
This satisfied her mother, who seemed to interpret it as meaning not only I am trying to avoid death but I am trying to avoid causing you any unnecessary bother.
‘Dr Mehrotra is the best breast cancer specialist in India. What he cannot cure cannot be cured—even by men in Sweden.’
Kavita left at sixteen minutes past nine, her mother making flutterings behind her.
The car—a seven-seater Volkswagen people carrier in Indian blue—was parked in the shadow of a wall, its engine idling. Kavita waited for the driver, Sajjan, to bring it round. She liked Sajjan. He was sixty-four and had driven the Tigress (who owned a Bentley) for the last fifteen years of her life. When prompted, he would talk about her—and the Bentley—with genuine adoration. Otherwise, he would speak only of the inferiority of Mumbai-traffic to Delhi-traffic, both in terms of driving and the quality of the vehicles on display. His life, too, had been ruined by the move.
Sajjan got out of the stopped car and came round to open the door for Kavita. He was dressed, as always, in a dark blue uniform modelled on one the Tigress had once seen in an article on the Tyrol. Sajjan continued to wear it, out of loyalty to her, insisting that the lederhosen-style shorts were more comfortable even than a cotton kurta-pyjama. He had a new pair made up twice a year.
Sajjan did not say anything, as Kavita climbed into the back seats, for which she was grateful. He knew where they were going, and why. But when he had started the engine and driven out onto the public highway, he said, ‘You should have let me collect you from the airport, baby. There was no need for you to take another car. If you had let me know the flight number and arrival time.’
‘That would have meant speaking to my mother,’ said Kavita, meaning the both of them.
Sajjan nodded, as if he knew the impossibility of this.
‘I would have driven you to the airport, too,’ he said.
‘They would have fired you, Sajjan. You would have been assisting in my suicide.’
‘I would have done it,’ he repeated.
Kavita had always hoped that, in some way, she might remind Sajjan of her grandmother—and these words of his suggested that just possibly she was starting to.
‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘Now I will be quiet,’ Sajjan said.
Kavita nodded at the two eyes squinting into the rear-view mirror.
There had been an accident involving two tuc-tucs, a motorbike and a child at the bottom of Walkeshwar Road, and two lanes of traffic were forced down to one.
It took them twenty minutes to get past the snarl; they were nearly late.
Sajjan took them through the backstreets and played the horn with the calloused nub of his wrist. Like Francesca, he had his orders from Kavita’s mother.
The car drew into Dr E. Borges Road at twenty-five past nine.
‘I will wait for you, baby,’ said Sajjan.
Kavita tried not to hurry as she walked in to the hospital, a tall white building that looked like stacked shoeboxes. She did not want to be out of breath when she met Dr Mehrotra for the first time. Today, they would be discussing her treatment programme. She was going to have some of her remaining eggs removed, in case she changed her mind about children in the four or five years left to her. (Her mind was not going to change, but her mother had insisted upon this.)
Dr Mehrotra was Head of the Department of Breast Surgery at the Hospital. It had taken the intervention of Mrs J. Vishnu to get Kavita an early appointment—for the Friday afternoon. When Kavita had said she would be on a flight to Heathrow at that time, and had refused to alter her plans, Dr Mehrotra had graciously suggested another time. He was very young to have reached such an important position—only just forty. Kavita knew this because her mother had told her, whilst also telling her how unreasonable she was being by not taking the earliest opportunity for seeing him.
‘He is at the height of his profession,’ her mother had said, and although Kavita knew this was an implicit declaration of her love, she was still annoyed by it. What her mother also meant to imply was that Dr Mehrotra was the kind of son she herself would have wanted— instead of her philosophical daughter, instead of her sport-obsessed son. And son-in-law would have been almost as acceptable.
Kavita knew from the way her mother spoke about him that Dr Mehrotra was a good-looking man: there was a certain candle-lit glow to her voice, again to say if only…
Unable to resist curiosity, Kavita had Googled Dr Mehrotra and found out that he was married with two children, both boys, nine and six. His wife owned a boutique in Raguvanshi Mills which imported Scandinavian furniture and rugs. Dr Mehrotra’s profile on the social networking site was very pleasant and open. Apart from Chess, he listed his interests as, ‘Classical Music. Ballet. Tai Chi. Tennis (from the spectator’s point of view, alas). French Cookery.’
Chess was an understatement. Other websites revealed that as well as being a surgeon, Dr Mehrotra played chess to International Master level. A child prodigy, he had made a decision during his brief and untroubled adolescence to devote himself to the healing arts rather than sport. He still kept up his game, however, and blitzed occasionally with Humpy Koneru or whoever was in town. On one occasion, he had drawn a tournament game against his near-contemporary Viswanathan Anand—they had been fourteen years old.
The hospital complex was vast. Kavita had twice to ask directions to Dr Mehrotra’s office. His name was on the door and his secretary was behind her desk.
‘Good morning. I am Dr Kavita Oberoi. I have an appointment at ten thirty to see Dr Mehrotra.’
‘I’m afraid Dr Mehrotra is running a little late today. He has yet to arrive. If you would be so kind as to take a seat, he will see you the moment he arrives.’
The secretary, whilst young and pretty, was extremely flat-chested, and Kavita wondered whether this might be considered tasteful.
Kavita seated herself in a very comfortable leather chair that she more than suspected was Scandinavian in origin. Upon a low glass table there were fashion magazines and also leaflets about breast cancer, but she could not force herself to read either kind of literature. She wanted something in-between, neither insulting nor patronizing; a magazine about fashionable cancers.
Her gaze went round the room. Dr Mehrotra’s certificates were up on the ivory-painted wall behind his secretary’s head. Also, there were two framed photos of him. In one, he faced Viswanathan Anand across a chess board and a complicated endgame; in the other, he shook the hand of someone Kavita didn’t recognise. It looked like someone important in the BJP.
To pass the time, Kavita thought about her failure with Patrick. She had gone over everything more than once during the flight, and had in the end decided she was glad her seduction had been resistible. It would have been painful to think of his betrayed wife and children. Now, though, she wished—for herself—that she had succeeded. It would have given her a feeling of greater strength.
Half an hour went past. The secretary apologised three times for Dr Mehrotra’s lateness—every ten minutes, exactly. ‘This really isn’t like the doctor at all. He is an extremely punctual man at all times.’
Another patient arrived, a brightly-dressed woman in her late fifties. ‘My name is Batliwalla, Mrs.’ She, too, was asked to sit down and wait.
Mrs Batliwalla nodded at Kavita, smiled sadly and then dived straight for the fashion magazines.
‘I will call his home,’ said the secretary, after another ten minutes had passed. ‘Perhaps he has been unavoidably detained.’
Kavita and Mrs Batliwalla listened as the young woman dialled Dr Mehrotra’s number, fingernails scratching on the keypad.
‘Hello,’ she said, then louder, ‘Hello? I’m sorry, I can’t quite understand you. Is something the matter? Who am I talking to? Yes. What are you doing there?’ There was a dropping pause. ‘He is? Yes. She did. Yes. I understand. Thank you.’
They looked up at the secretary.
‘I am very sorry but Dr Mehrotra is dead. Apparently, his wife stabbed him more than several times. The children, she spared. I can’t understand. Dr Mehrotra was a good man. We were not having an affair. You will both have to see another specialist. Please go to your homes, and the hospital will contact you there within the coming days. This is a great upset. I must type up a notice. Excuse me.’
Kavita and Mrs Batliwalla looked at one another, briefly.
‘Are you sure he’s dead?’ Mrs Batliwalla asked. A stupid question, but Kavita had wanted to ask it, too.
‘Absolutely sure,’ said the secretary then turned away. She opened a new file in Word—Kavita could see this on her screen.
Standing, Kavita said, ‘I am very sorry. Please pass on my condolences to his family.’
‘Yes,’ said Mrs Batliwalla. ‘Please also pass on my sincere condolences at this difficult time. But not to his wife.’
They went out of the waiting room door. As soon as it was closed, a choking could be heard. Kavita thought about going back in. But the young secretary had been so brave, staying professional until they had gone. Kavita turned away.
Mrs Batliwalla realised she was still holding a copy of Vogue. Sombrely, as if it were a wreath, she placed it on the floor beside the door to Dr Mehrotra’s office.
They walked together along the corridor.
‘So, which breast?’ Mrs Batliwalla asked.
© Toby Litt 2013
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Toby Litt was born in Bedfordshire, England, in 1968. He read English at Worcester College, Oxford, and studied Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia where he was taught by Malcolm Bradbury, winning the 1995 Curtis Brown Fellowship. He lived in Prague from 1990 to 1993 and published his first book, a collection of short stories entitled Adventures in Capitalism, in 1996. Two more collections followed: Exhibitionism (2002) and I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay (2008). In 2003 Toby Litt was nominated by Granta as one of 20 “Best of Young British Novelists.” He is the author of several novels, including Beatniks: An English Road Movie (1997); Corpsing (2000); Deadkidsongs (2001); Journey into Space (2009) and King Death (2010). He teaches in the Department of English and Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London.