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New Year 2019 Issue: Fiction

Untouchability

Sumana Roy is the author of Missing: A Novel
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A short story

MRS CHAKRABARTI WAS ASHAMED OF HERSELF, BUT SHE WAS HELPLESS. She washed her hands again, pouring a few drops of the reetha-soaked water into her palms. There was hardly any lather, but she was gradually getting used to it. Bubbles were only a show of cleanliness—there was cleanliness before the invention of chemical bubbles just as there was sweetness in food before the production of industrial sugar. Mrs Chakrabarti was argumentative to a fault—the only thing was that it was herself that she argued with. Hardly anyone knew what was going on in her mind.

All of this hadn’t come to Mrs Chakrabarti overnight. She’d spent the three years after her retirement from her teaching job thinking about this. Her husband had died nine years ago— it was unexpected, as all heart attacks usually are, but it hadn’t shocked her completely. She knew the phrase ‘lifestyle disease’. Her husband used to travel too often and eat out too often. It wasn’t natural, she reasoned later. A lifestyle conditioned over centuries—a diet, a pattern of rest and work—was being uprooted and replaced by one fit only for machines. Her late husband had suddenly been forced to live the life of a machine. When he’d work late into the night, she’d sometimes wake up and tell him, “You’ve become a fridge. The fridge works when we sleep.” He’d laugh and ask her to go back to sleep.

Their son, Pinaki, now 33 years old, was living like a machine, too. At times she wondered whether working with machines—he was an engineer—had turned him into a machine. Increasingly, he spoke like one, exactly like recorded voices on gas-booking numbers and banking services. She remained silent as he spoke, just as she wasn’t allowed to say anything when speaking to automated voices, only press numbers. Indrani, his wife, was a banker. She rolled numbers inside her mouth like Mrs Chakrabarti chewed fish bones. She was terrified of their smartness. When they came to visit—usually for about a few days every year—she was scared and anxious all the time. They measured everything in numbers. A litre of oil each, for one person every month, not more; not more than a tiny spoon of sugar every day; seven hours of sleep; 10,000 steps a day (a watch counted their steps like a PT teacher in school).

Mrs Chakrabarti felt no great attachment for life, but it wasn’t that she wanted to die either. Her only sister, Mohua, had died four years ago. It was cancer. Just a year before her retirement from her school-teaching job, the only person she’d known all her life (her parents were dead) was gone. This had caused her greater shock than even her husband’s death. Mohua—whom she called Mou—was two years younger than her. She’d never married—their father’s pension and savings had been enough for her. Mou took such great care of herself—she ate her meals on time, ate lots of fruit and vegetables, moisturised her skin, paid electric bills before the due date. How could she get cancer?

Soon after her retirement, Mrs Chakrabarti rented her house to two tenants, on two floors, and moved into what had been her childhood home. At first she couldn’t sleep at night—she felt the presence of her sister and her parents, as if they were lying beside her on the same wide bed. A week or 10 days into her stay, she began cleaning the house, a corner every morning. It wasn’t the dust and cobwebs that surprised her as something else. Everywhere there were piles of plastic bags, folded and arranged beneath mattresses, inside cupboards and wardrobes, drawers, and plastic bags inside larger plastic bags. What had Mou been up to?

CLEANING THE KITCHEN BROUGHT even greater shock. Inside the cabinets was an inventory of plastic containers of all sizes and shapes. What did Mou do with them? She cleaned every single one of them—they’d been filled with all kinds of things, ground spices, lentils, beans, bay leaves, many containers of bay leaves in fact, rubber bands, buttons, safety pins, old bills, even coins and some currency notes. Mou’s world had been stored in these plastic boxes. After the tears, Mrs Chakrabarti felt something close to wonder: had she become a collector of plastic things, boxes and packets? For in the bathroom cabinet (the mirror was dotted with imprints of stick-on bindis) were rows of empty plastic containers of cosmetic creams. They looked tired from waiting. Mrs Chakrabarti took them out and threw them into a broken bucket where they landed with unexpected sounds, like someone who’d been woken up from deep sleep.

That is all Mrs Chakrabarti did for the next few months— like a detective she went about looking for, and then discarding, plastic bags and containers. It exhausted her, but it was also oddly energising. If she didn’t find any the whole day, she felt disappointed. Once she woke up in the middle of the night and began looking inside her pillow case to check whether Mou had hidden any plastic packets there. But, because she was self-conscious about the way she led her life, she soon became aware of what was gradually turning into an obsession. Plastic things meant a lot to Mou—that was all she took away from her discovery.

One day, quite by chance, she discovered a book behind the bed. It might have fallen off Mou’s hands, she surmised. It was wrapped in brown plastic paper, and so she couldn’t see the title of the book at first. She tore it open urgently. Cancer. The title was self-explanatory. Mou had bought it to learn more about her disease. Mrs Chakrabarti read the book all night. When the milkman rang the doorbell in the morning, she’d just fallen asleep. Shocked by the sound, she woke up slightly disoriented.

The sight of milk in the transparent plastic bag made her furious. She lost control of herself. “No more milk from tomorrow,” she shouted at Poltu, the milkman.

“Why Didi?” he asked, confused.

“Why should milk come in these plastic packets?” she said, pulling her hair into a bun.

“That is how Himul company sells it, Didi,” he responded.

“Everything in plastic! I don’t want such milk. Please collect the money due to you at the end of the month. But not a drop of milk from tomorrow.”

The truth was that Mrs Chakrabarti had had a dream that Mou’s cancer had been caused by her obsession with plastic. Though she didn’t fear dying, she’d decided that she didn’t want to die of cancer

The truth was that Mrs Chakrabarti had had a dream that Mou’s cancer had been caused by her obsession with plastic. Though she didn’t fear dying, she’d decided that she didn’t want to die of cancer. Scared—even slightly embarrassed—of sharing her thesis with anyone, she let it harden inside her into a conviction. She’d grown up in a world where illness came mostly through contagion, and conditioned to attributing both physical and mental disorders to touch, she decided to change her ways of living dramatically. Food poisoning, common cold, skin diseases, not just these physical ailments, but even the case of bad company, the proverbial rotten apple spoiling the rest—all of these were the result of touch. And the most deadly disease, whose name she was scared of uttering even silently in her mind—AIDS. It was only a matter of time before scientists confirmed what she now knew intuitively—it was the intrusive touch of plastic that caused cancer.

Was there cancer before the invention of plastic? She’d find out gradually. But she wouldn’t wait for knowledge, scientific and historical knowledge, to kill her before that. And so began her single-minded devotion to the eradication of plastic from her life.

All plastic containers from the kitchen—it made her slightly sad at first, throwing away the yellow Dalda containers that had been permanent members of the kitchen, for they’d actually become family, but no, they had to go. She didn’t want to touch them, and so she put her gloves on—then, realising that the gloves were made of rubber (‘Plastic!’), she took them off immediately, screaming in panic, as if she’d been touched by a gust of poisonous air. She took out her husband’s black woollen gloves from the almirah and continued with her job. Her hands were quite obviously smaller than his had been, and so they slipped out of her hands as she worked. Two rubber bands now tightened the gloves at the wrist, so that they didn’t fall off. But soon she was shrieking again—the rubber bands were made of plastic. She discarded them immediately, replacing them with the sterner grip—if not grasp—of safety pins.

Every day was frustrating—it filled her with awe and wonder how plastic had taken over the world, the entire world. Getting rid of it was turning out to be more difficult than getting rid of pigmentation marks from her face and neck, or even pubic hair. Just as parents find it difficult to remember what their lives had been like before their children took over their lives, the world had forgotten life before plastic. Plastic packets and nylon bags—no one remembered the jute and cotton bags anymore. And plastic pipes, plastic doormats, plastic plates and bowls, forks and spoons, plastic curtains and table covers, even plastic flowers! Was there nothing that was not available in—and sometimes only in—plastic?

So thinking she entered the bathroom, sweaty, but also oddly proud of her mission. She’d begun thinking of herself as a gardener weeding out plastic from life. But barely had she taken off her dull sweat-patched pistachio-coloured blouse than she began screaming in fear. The buckets and mugs were made of plastic! She stopped bathing and ran out naked. It was as if plastic had turned into a monster and chased her away. The next moment, she was making phone calls to people to help her buy iron buckets and mugs of the kind that now theoretically belonged to folk museums.

Ma go!” she screamed in the middle of the conversation with Nupur, a geography teacher, her former colleague.

“Are you okay? What happened? Did you fall …”

There was no response. There never would be, again. No, it wasn’t because Mrs Chakrabarti had died. It was because Mrs Chakrabarti would never touch a phone again in her life. She’d just realised that the outer case of the phone was made of plastic.

When Nupur came to see her after school, worried that the retired woman needed help, all Mrs Chakrabarti could do was request her former colleague to stop using the toy globe in her geography class. “Better to use the book, the Frank School Atlas, isn’t it?”

“The children love spinning it, you know …”

“It’s made of plastic …”

“So?”

Just as the eye looks for the moon in a naked sky without being aware that it is that it’s seeking, Mrs Chakrabarti’s eyes sought—and found—plastic. As Nupur spoke, Mrs Chakrabarti’s eyes registered, with concern, the plastic strap of her watch. “The world’s become plastic, space has become plastic, time has become plastic,” she said, pointing to the watch with her eyes.

Plastic pipes, plastic doormats, plastic plates and bowls, forks and spoons, plastic curtains and table covers, even plastic flowers! Was there nothing that was not available in—and sometimes only in—plastic?

Like fear finds corners, like water, from where it drips, the ageing woman’s avoidance of plastic caused plastic things to return to her more regularly than it did others. This was the law of nature—what we avoid pursues us.

“I brought you daab,” said Nupur, taking out one tender coconut from a black plastic bag. “The electrolytes in tender coconut water are good for you …”

“Aren’t black plastic bags banned in this town?” said Mrs Chakrabarti, without any show of gratitude.

“Oh, it’s an old plastic bag I found in my handbag,” said Nupur, laughing.

Old plastic is even worse than new plastic, Mrs Chakrabarti wanted to say, but didn’t. She herself wasn’t completely convinced of her thesis yet.

But when Nupur affectionately pierced the exposed membranous lip of the coconut with a drinking straw, Mrs Chakrabarti couldn’t hold herself back any longer. “Nupur!” she screamed, scaring Nupur, who dropped the coconut from her hands.

“What …”

“That drinking straw is made of plastic!”

Nupur left soon after, certain that something was wrong with Mrs Chakrabarti, but unable to make out exactly what it was.

When she saw her many months later, sitting on the balcony of her house, Nupur thought she knew what had been missing. “What happened to your specs, Mrs Chakrabarti?” she said from the moving cycle-rickshaw.

Mrs Chakrabarti replied, though the answer didn’t reach Nupur. “I discarded them. They were made of plastic.”

Neither ophthalmologist nor opticians could convince her to wear glasses again. “You’ll go blind,” Matri, the young neighbour next door, said.

But she didn’t listen, of course.

When she developed an eye infection, she refused to take eye drops because the medicine would have to be administered to her with a plastic dropper. She’d stopped writing a long time ago—there were no pens which were not made of plastic. Now she’d had to stop reading—the eye infection at first, then the discarding of eye glasses.

Mrs Chakrabarti grew thinner and lonelier. Though she wasn’t rude to anyone, friends and acquaintances stopped visiting her—it is easier to visit and commiserate with the physically ailing than one in mental agony. They began to think of her as a person who was being purposely difficult— they had nicknames for her. Quite strangely, all of these were names of female politicians—Mamata, Mayawati, Indira Gandhi. A distant relative she used to call Tapan Jethu called her ‘Scheduled Caste’. No one really understood what it signified until the 93-year-old man explained it himself: just as the lower (‘Scheduled’) caste people were considered untouchables, Mrs Chakrabarti had turned plastic into an untouchable, ‘Scheduled Caste’.

Did all this gossip reach her? It was unlikely—she’d discarded her phone, and in the process lost contact with her son and his family, and no one visited her anymore. Even if it had reached her ears, it wouldn’t have mattered. What she did didn’t reach them either. So it wasn’t until she was seriously ill and Matri, not having seen her in the tiny garden for weeks, went to see her and found her unable to get out of bed. There was no food in the kitchen. Matri quickly got two packets of Maggi from her house and put a pan of water on the boil. Then, noticing her dishevelled appearance, she ran to get a comb from the dressing table.

Just as the lower (‘Scheduled’) caste people were considered untouchables, Mrs Chakrabarti had turned plastic into an untouchable, ‘Scheduled Caste’

“I’m making Maggi for you,” she said, like only an enthusiastic 24-year-old can, someone who’d had an opportunity to be of some use for the first time in her life. And then making her sit up on the bed, began gathering her hair towards the back of the head. The underside of the woman’s feet was stamped by dust—she’d stopped wearing plastic Hawaii sandals.

“Nooooo!” screamed Mrs Chakrabarti as if she’d been struck by a bullet.

Ki holo?” said Matri, embarrassed of her youth, her lack of experience.

“I can’t have Maggi—I don’t eat anything from plastic packets.” She was shaking, as if on the verge of a moment where she’d cease to be.

Matri receded from her desire to be good—she wanted to run away and complain to her mother-in-law and cry.

Taking the comb from Matri’s hand suddenly, she screamed, “I don’t use that plastic comb anymore! Where did you find it? I use a wooden comb, and when I misplace it, I don’t comb my hair at all. Why did you let plastic touch me? I will die now!”

Matri ran away in fear.

No one had visited her after that. They weren’t even sure whether she lived in that house at all—for no lights were switched on in the evenings. How were they to know that Mrs Chakrabarti had stopped switching on the lights because the switches and switchboards were made of plastic?

No one could quite say who it was that took Mrs Chakrabarti to hospital. They later speculated that she might have walked to the nursing home by herself. The doctor, who had once looked after her sister Mohua but now avoided her, for her refusal to take medicines that came in plastic vials and containers (and medicines came only in plastic), might have felt pity and admitted her in. He didn’t realise that he was making a terrible mistake.

Once in the nursing home, Mrs Chakrabarti refused to let saline and any other medicine be administered to her. The reason wasn’t hard to guess—they came in plastic bottles and would enter her body through tiny plastic pipes. She would allow neither a catheter nor an oil cloth to be spread under her. And, of course, no injections and blood tests—there were the plastic disposable syringes.

Though no one was actually present there, they knew of the last conversation she had had. It was with the doctor.

“Why are you doing this to yourself, Maya?” he’d asked. He knew she’d stopped eating almost completely—there was nothing, almost nothing, that didn’t come inside a plastic container or packet—rice and daal, oil and spices, vegetables and meat; in fact, she’d told him about a rumour, that China was now producing plastic rice and eggs in its factories.

“Because I’m Maya,” she’d said feebly.

No one could say what he’d said in response, but they knew her last words: “Everything is made of plastic now. Everything except Maya. How can Maya be made of plastic?”

In the ‘Cause of Death’ column, the doctor wrote ‘Plastic’. When his assistant looked at him, he added a line: ‘Unnatural death caused by trying to avoid natural death.’ Dissatisfied with the formulation of that reason, he struck it out twice with black ink and wrote again: ‘Plastic.’

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