The Semicircle of Life by Noor Niamat Singh
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Ma only had two rules. One was that I not eat chaat off the streets, and the other was not to get pregnant. I broke both of them.

 

Ritu Di would laugh over the phone about how Ma was more appalled by the news of my chaat-eating than my too-early pregnancy. Ma stood there after my chaat confession, the veins on her bony neck popping, trying to be calm but almost in tears, telling me about all the illnesses I could contract, the water that was used in the chutneys and the dirt on the chaatwaalas’ hands. My fiancé didn’t have the same kind of dirt on his hands. Maybe that’s why she didn’t mind me getting pregnant. Maybe it’s because Amit never makes chaat.

 

I have it almost everyday now, although I don’t tell Ma anymore. Dahi-papdi chaat, right before I get on the bus. It’s a bit of a ritual. I love it when the oily, starchy fullness of the papdi momentarily shines through the cool, salty curd. It’s a pleasant surprise each time. While I eat, the air around me is cool, and the mosquitoes pool around my head. My friends have gone home, and Amit has already called. The Infosys building behind me has most of its lights shut off. It’s just me, my sweaty forehead, and my tingling taste buds. The chaatwaala is always bored-looking, and whenever he looks at me, it is as if he is looking right past me, into space. I am truly invisible, and it fills me with a strange sort of liberation. Completely free, unable to feel anything except for the tangy, textured chaat in my mouth. I feel light as a bird, despite the slight tyre around my hips and the baby bulge I can barely see but can feel inside of me.

 

I still remember that Thursday. I really don’t know why. I came home to Ma sitting on the dining table, waiting for me with big eyes.

 

‘I’ve thought about names for the baby!’ she said.

 

I slid my bag off wordlessly and dumped it on the sofa.

 

‘Or have you already thought about names for the baby?’ she asked, worriedly, looking at my expression. I hadn’t realised I looked disgruntled.

 

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I want something cold to drink. I’m going to make some nimbu paani, okay?’

 

Ma nodded her head once. Twice, thrice, four times.

 

'I want to hear your name ideas for the baby!’

 

I couldn’t respond. I didn’t know how to respond. To be honest, I didn’t know what I was supposed to be thinking about the child, or how often I should be thinking of it. I didn’t know if I was thinking enough about how often I should be thinking about it.

 

That same night, Amit called me.

 

‘I’ve thought of some names for the baby,’ he said. I could hear the smile through his voice.

 

‘I’m really tired, Amit,’ I said. ‘Why don’t you tell me tomorrow? It just makes more sense,’ I said. I remember looking at the date on my phone before falling asleep. 12th May. I don’t know why I remembered it.

 

The next day, I left work late. Amit called twice but I didn’t pick the phone up. I wanted chaat. I made some excuse about stomach pain and left the building, walking quickly past two women at the water cooler who had tried to make conversation with me in the morning.

 

I took the familiar turn, and felt relieved at the pattern of grey and red tiles that indicated I was near the chaat stall.

 

Ha!’I exclaimed to a man nearby, in shock. ‘What happened to the chaat anna?’ The area was empty; the chaatwaala wasn’t there.

 

I felt nauseous. What would I do now? It felt strange not to be eating chaat before going home. I wasn’t ready to go home yet.

 

*

 

It’s easy to overhear Ma. So often, she would describe her OCD as an incomplete loop. ‘It’s broken,’ she would say, when trying to explain what she felt to her psychiatrist, to the neighbours, to Dad. Never to me, though.

 

‘The finishing of the cycle. I have to keep going back to finish it, finish it, finish it, finish it. But I can’t trust myself to finish it.’

 

She tried her hardest to make sure her anxiety didn’t spill on over to her daughters, but chaat was her biggest fear, something she said she just couldn’t compromise on. She made them promise never to have it. Not having chaat made her feel safe. I think she needed to feel safe those days. I remember her telling dad that the one thing that really made her feel better was travelling by train. She wanted to call Ritu Di and travel somewhere by train. I read somewhere that the rhythm of the train reminds you of your mother’s heartbeat in the womb. That’s a little embarrassing, honestly.

 

*

 

I saw the G9 bus pull up. That was my bus.

 

It didn’t come very often, so I found myself getting on it. The bus was dingy and not very full. I sat in the front, in the women’s section, next to a bony woman wearing an eye-stinging pink sari. Her hair was in a puff and she fiddled around with a mid-range smartphone.

 

The bus conductor asked her where she was going.

 

‘Yelahanka fourth phase,’ she said. That was the last stop.

 

As he made her ticket, he asked me where I was going.

 

‘Me too,' I said. Today, I had time.

 

I sat in the bus, hands on my lap, quiet as the bus grumbled along, picking up more grumbling people and getting heavier and grumblier.

 

The pink-sari woman next to me made a small squealing noise at her phone.

 

I looked into her phone involuntarily. She was on WhatsApp, looking at pictures of a woman holding a baby. The small child looked uncannily like a little pug dog.

She saw me look into her phone and smiled a bit tensely.

 

‘Sorry,’ I said.

 

‘My sister,’ she said, volunteering her phone, waving it in front of my face.

 

'Very cute,’ I lied. ‘I’m pregnant, too.’

 

I patted my stomach.

 

She smiled tensely again.

 

We got off at Yelahanka fourth phase. It was dark now, and I was hungry. I messaged Ma and told her I was going to eat outside.

 

I got four messages back at exactly 7:01 p.m. By now I knew that my mom’s logic was that 7+0+1 made 8. ‘Okay.’ ‘Okay.’ ‘Okay.’ ‘Okay.’

 

‘Listen,’ I started.

 

She looked at me frightened.

 

‘Is there anywhere I can eat over here?’ I asked. The bus was parked and I knew it would leave in five minutes.

 

'Don’t eat outside food,’ she said. ‘Eat home food, for the baby.’

 

I was annoyed.

 

‘I’m hungry,’ I said, coldly. ‘Where do I get home food over here?'

 

She reached into her bag, pulled out a faded Noddy lunchbox, and pressed it into my hands.

 

‘I didn’t have lunch. Give me the box tomorrow. I always take the bus at the same time.’

 

'No, I can’t take this,’ I said. I was stunned.

 

‘You can’t hurt your baby!’ She was beginning to look aggressive.

 

I heard a bus start up behind me at the depot and I knew the G9 was about to leave.

 

‘Thank you,’ I said, moving backwards quickly. ‘I’ll give it to you tomorrow.’

 

I had only recently moved to Bangalore, so when I opened the box of sambhar rice, I didn’t know how to eat it using my hands, especially in a moving bus. My stomach rumbled as I stared down at the food in longing.

 

When I got off at my stop, I was famished. I knew Ma wouldn’t have gotten any rotis made for me.

 

I stumbled past the momo counter and stopped.

 

I got two plates of chicken momos.

 

Before I entered my home, I didn’t know what to do with the sambhar rice. I threw it in the dustbin outside the front door.

 

*

 

Ma had been telling Ritu Di that I was acting as if I wasn’t pregnant. Ma tended to worry about things like that. Ma was always worried, it was hard to take her worrying too seriously, because she could only talk in this strange sort of deliberate rhythm. Every time she wanted to speak quickly and say something quickly, she couldn’t.

 

‘Why won’t Anamika listen? I thought she’d only be like this as a teenager,’ she would say softly to Ritu Di on the phone. ‘You’re like me, Ritu. You always get me, Ritu. Ritu. Ritu. Ritu! Even though I guess I’m – haha – going crazy. Too old now! Too old now! Too old now! Too old now!’ There is a silence. ‘So, what else?’

 

*

 

The next day after work, the chaatwaala was there, but I didn’t stop to eat the chaat. I got on to the bus early. She was there, wearing a dull maroon sari today.

 

‘Hello,’ I said, breathlessly. I handed her the Noddy box. ‘Thank you for your food, it was really nice.’

 

She smiled. She said she was trying to get a BEd, because she really wanted to be a teacher. ‘I love children, I would do anything for children,’ she said. ‘So I am happy to give my food,’ she giggled.

 

My phone rang. It was Amit.

 

I picked it up.

 

‘What’s wrong with you?’ he asked loudly, right off the bat. ‘You haven’t been picking up any of my calls since yesterday! And your mother said you were okay, everything was okay! So why are you ignoring me? Are you out of your mind?’

 

'I’m tired,’ I said. ‘I’m pregnant. I’m hormonal, okay? Give me a little space.’

 

His tone softened.

 

‘I was worried,’ he said. ‘And I’m on my way to your office. I have things to discuss with you.’

 

‘I’m not in office,’ I said. ‘I’m on the bus.’

 

‘The bus? Are you going home already?’

 

‘Yes.’

 

There was a pause.

 

‘Okay,’ he said. He sounded annoyed. ‘I’ll talk to you later.'

 

I didn’t get off the bus this time when we got to Yelahanka. I simply kept sitting on it. I felt it loop, making the turn, as it started again. My heart sped up strangely, as it moved, in a semicircle, back home.

 

The next day at work I got on the bus early again. I realised I didn’t even need to tell anyone why I was leaving. I could simply leave. I had picked up Amit’s calls and told him I was going home early.

 

‘Again?’ he asked, exasperated.

 

I met the woman again, and she showed me more pictures of the baby, and talked more about education.

 

‘My parents really believe in education, you know,' she said, sticking her chest out proudly. ‘And I’m going to help children have the best lives!’

 

I listened to her in disdainful curiosity. I found myself again, at Yelahanka fourth phase, waiting in unreasonable anticipation for the bus to coil back in a little circle. I realised that I had been waiting for that the entire day. When I arrived home, I knew something was different. I could almost smell it.

 

‘Surprise!’ shouted Ritu Di, as I stumbled into the house. She wrapped her heavily-perfumed, fleshy arms around me, knocking me over. Her young son, Ronil, a skinny boy with hair covering his face, smiled at me awkwardly. Amit was there too, and he enveloped me in a hug after Ritu Di uncoiled herself.

 

‘How come you all are here?’ I asked. ‘Di, you’re here all the way from the US!’

 

‘You’ve been working so hard,’ said Amit. ‘When you’re dealing with so much. But Ana, I thought you were going home ea –’

 

‘We wanted to give you some time off!’ interjected Ritu Di. 'And how could I not come help my sister when she’s pregnant?’

 

'We made some nice home food,' said Ma. ‘And we’ll play some cards today.’

 

'Anamika,’ said Amit. ‘We’ll talk about the baby’s name soon, okay?’

 

‘And tomorrow,’ squealed Ritu Di, ‘when I’m a little less jet lagged, we’re going to go out, and have a celebration! Party! A mothers-only dinner!'

 

I gave them a small smile.

 

‘This is amazing, you all,’ I said. ‘I don’t know how to thank you.'

 

‘I’m so excited,’ said Ritu Di. Tears filled her eyes. ‘There’s no connection like mothers have, you know? No connection.’

 

‘Connection with who?’ I asked.

 

But she didn’t answer. Her phone had started ringing. Her husband was video calling her on Whatsapp.

 

*

 

The next day, I left the office building early again.

 

‘Yelahanka fourth phase,’ I told the conductor.

 

My BEd friend wasn’t there today. I don’t know why, but I felt a little betrayed. There was a knot in my chest as I saw the night darken in front of me. My stomach was rumbling. I didn’t want chaat. Nothing today. My phone was on silent in my lap.

Missed call from Ma.
Missed call from Ma.
Missed call from Ma.
Missed call from Ma.

 

I swallowed tightly and put the phone away in my purse. I had to get to that twist at the end of the Yelahanka station. Nothing else could save me.

 

I shut my eyes, tears pricking them harshly. This was the most I had felt in a long time. I was surprised I remembered how to cry. Could one forget how to cry?

 

I decided I wanted to stop thinking about what I was feeling. I didn’t know when I would stop crying otherwise. I turned my focus outwards, on to the sounds of the bus. How had I never noticed how rhythmic the moving of the bus was when there was so little traffic? It was just like a train. I kept my eyes squeezed shut to centre myself.

 

The rhythm was making me sleepy. As I drifted off, my head against the window, my hands reached to my belly, and for the first time I could feel the small, semicircular bulge, a little unfinished loop.

 

My head hit the window in soft painless beats, and I fell gently sleep. The bus was warm and dimly lit. I slept in its damp darkness all the way until I got to Yelahanka, soft thuds against my head. The conductor woke me up before we turned back towards home. I picked up my phone and called Ma on the way back, and told her I’d be back home in time to go out for dinner with her and Ritu Di.

 

*


Noor Niamat Singh is an undergraduate student at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, where she is majoring in Zoning Out, Making Oatmeal and Obsessively Thinking About the Dynamics of Emotional Damage. This work was sent in response to a Master Class on the form by Out of Print editor, Indira Chandrasekhar.