Un-jointed by Saudha Kasim
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On Lailat-Ul-Qadr in 1997, Zulfath Abdulla was at the Wattayah Mosque in Muscat attending Taraweeh prayers and had just done the sujood, prostrating herself – it must have been the fifth or sixth cycle, she wouldn’t be able to recall later during her monthly phone call with her sister – when she lifted her head on the cue of the Imam and found that her world had turned black.

 

What is this Allah, was her first thought, she would tell her sister.

 

I thought, oh, I have gone into the next world and how strange that there was not a light to be seen. Was this what death feels like?

 

Zulfath’s voice quivered over the phone as she said this. Her sister Ruqaiyyah, standing in her living room in Thrissur with one eye on the pressure cooker filled with mutton on the stove which she could see through the open door of the kitchen and the other eye on her youngest daughter who was studying for her tenth standard board exams, couldn’t make out if Zulfath was crying or laughing. And then? Ruqaiyyah prompted, hoping this conversation would end faster than Zulfath’s usual telephone calls from across the Arabian Sea. She was losing interest with each whistle of the pressure cooker and was regretting not asking her husband to buy the cordless Panasonic phone when he’d gone on his business trip to Dubai just before Ramadan.

 

Edi, I heard a crack. And I gasped and flung my hands up and I realised I could touch the blackness and that it was the abaya of this Sudanese woman in front that had covered me.

 

What was the crack?

 

Oh my knee, my right knee, it was what brought me back to life. It’s got that arthritis I was telling you about last time I was home and I wanted to go to Natika for treatment and you said don’t go –

 

The pressure cooker’s going off, ittha, the meat will get tough, Ruqaiyyah said and they quickly exchanged their salaams and ended the call.

 

*

 

Two decades later, in late October, when the doctor was squeezing my right knee and feeling the bone and the ligaments and the general lack of muscle tone in my upper thigh and our eyes met and I felt the heat rising in my cheeks and I looked up at the three-dimensional poster of the flayed knee on his wall, it was to Zulfath that my thoughts strayed.

 

Ruqaiyyah told the story about Zulfath coming back to earth and this life and her arthritic knee to my mother who told it to me not too long ago when we were on a train to Cochin and a woman was hobbling on to the coach at Thrissur along with us. My mother told me that Zulfath’s knee, though heroic that Lailat-Ul-Qadr, had been a source of pain and intense discomfort for years afterward. The last time my mother had seen Zulfath was couple of months before at the Eidgah held at the Thrissur municipal stadium where she’d been doing her prayers on a chair. My mother, eyeing the hobbling woman, said Zulfath was walking just like that. And she’s been doing her prayers on a chair ever since she and her husband returned from Muscat to settle back down here.

 

The doctor was now asking me how I had managed to mangle my own knee. It was on the bus, I told him. In Koramangala. Just before the Sony World traffic signal where a pothole had opened up after the rains. The bus driver, seeing it too late, had swerved and I had been near the door and not holding on to anything so I got flung to the side and my knee twisted and I heard it snap and the next thing I know, it’s not listening to me. It wouldn’t hold. I was standing up and needed its support and it was not listening. It was giving way.

 

You couldn’t have heard it snap, the doctor said, pedantic to the core.

 

I did.

 

Your meniscus seems to be torn, it’s not a fracture, your bone didn’t break, you couldn’t have heard it snap.

 

When he made me lie down on the examining bed and bent my knee with all the force he could muster to my chest I saw the same blackness that Zulfath would have seen and cried out loud.

 

The nurse, who’d shown me in and who’d spotted in me a fellow Malayali the moment she saw me in the waiting room, squeezed my hand. It’s okay, she whispered to me in Malayalam. These things keep happening. You will be able to walk properly in couple of weeks. Listen to the doctor.

 

The doctor told me not to read stupid forums on the internet where every hypochondriac on the planet was self-diagnosing for everything from moles changing colour to knees not healing properly.

 

So, of course, I spent two days of the three weeks of medical leave the office gave me ghosting on the message boards of various web doctor and web medicine sites dedicated to knee injuries. I floated from thread to thread of graphic descriptions of ligaments snapping, empurpled knees, excruciating pain and pieces of bone protruding through skin and wondered how many of the posts were fake and put there to advertise knee replacement surgeries.

 

I wondered if my knee would have to be replaced and when.

 

*

 

I found myself seeing knees as though for the first time.

 

They were everywhere. In places where I expected them to be, they took centre-stage, diva-like: in the line where I waited for the MRI scan I spotted at least four others who had done their knees in and I saw in their eyes the same fear I suppose was lurking in mine. Where has my knee gone, why does it seem absent? How do I find it again?

 

The perfect knees were on screen, of course. They were Federer’s knees as he executed his magic forehand with grace. His knees seemed to be something to aspire to in the days I hobbled around the flat tugging the brace on and off. Tightly sheathed under his skin, bone elegantly sitting on bone, a joint to desire.

 

Beyoncé’s knees were smooth caramel under expensive silken tights. They weren’t as defined as Federer’s. Yet, when she danced forward in those towering heels, hips swaying, butt snapping, hair swishing, my eyes went to her knees and I found myself wincing at the thought of joint friction, of bone grinding on bone, of cartilage wearing out and nerves squashed.

 

I couldn’t watch anymore and instead wanted to look at the plants outside and I limped and dragged and made my way to them.

 

Federer would have bounced out in a second. Beyoncé would have strutted out in her infinite majesty.

 

I clutched on to all I could – door frames, mop handles, planter boxes – and found myself gleeful beyond logic when I reached the roses without once having felt my knee wobble.

 

Small victories.

 

*

 

Three weeks later, I hobbled around the apartment building with the brace off, my knee able to flex with just a bit of a catch still, but more solid than it had been since the visit to the doctor. When I entered the flat again my mother called me to talk about Zulfath.

 

Zulfath’s youngest daughter Fatimath-Suhura – both Zulfath and her husband couldn’t resist hyphenating all three of their daughters’ names, an extravagance that had led to much mockery of all three at their school in Muscat – was getting married to a boy she’d met in university in London.

 

Zulfath, though, was not very happy. When Fatimath-Suhura had come on Skype along with her fiancé and informed her parents, Zulfath had at first said nothing, but in five minutes, she’d fallen off her chair and been admitted to hospital with excruciating knee pain.

 

In both knees, my mother informed me.

 

Why so much drama, I asked.

 

She’s unhappy because the boy is – here my mother cleared her throat – Sudanese.

 

So?

 

Zulfath doesn’t have good memories of the Sudanese.

 

Is this about that mosque thing?

 

Not just that – she was never very comfortable around them in Muscat.

 

Because they are black?

 

My mother sighed over the phone. She’s not very educated, our Zulfath.

 

She always was an idiot.

 

My mother clicked her tongue and told me not to call my elders names. Besides, you know what we owe her and her husband. We owe them the same compassion and kindness they showed us years ago.

 

It still doesn’t take away the fact that she is an idiot. Even idiots can be kind. And compassionate.

 

On Instagram, Blanca Li twirled in tribute to Azzedine Alaia.

 

I watched them, those multiple videos, as my knee healed slowly and the dry February Bengaluru air sucked the moisture out of my toes and greyed them over.

 

Blanca Li’s knees were hidden under her red and grey swirling Alaia dress, her legs bending forward and then one in front of the other in rhythmic homage. I saw her right knee though when it pressed against the diaphanous material and it seemed a flawless joint.

 

I attempted a twirl. I did it gingerly, testing out my recovering joint, my knee that was making its way back in increments. My knee was no Lazarus, I had understood in those weeks and months of gradual healing. Don’t expect it to do instantaneous, miraculous reappearances in the land of the living.

 

In February, too, a friend put up her pictures from the bi-annual car show and there next to each sleek machine were the models, standing, one leg in front of the other, hands on hips, trying to keep the boredom from their faces. How long do they stand like that, I texted her as the images popped up one after the other on my feed.

 

Who knows, she replied. But they are wearing sensible shoes.

 

So they were. Two inch block heels. They look comfortable, my friend said. She ended the conversation with a thinking face emoji.

 

I went back to her pictures and noted the smoothness of the models’ limbs, the ridge-less knees encased in shiny white nylons. Vanilla mousse knees. The hemlines of the models rose and fell according to the nation of origin of the carmaker. The French hems skimmed just above the knee (as did the Germans’), the Japanese went mid-thigh, the Koreans an inch longer than the Japanese, the Indians went demure and covered the knee.

 

*

 

In February, too, my mother called me and told me that Zulfath’s knee replacements in December had gone well and she’d made her peace with Fathimath-Suhura marrying the Sudanese who, it turned out, wasn’t Sudanese after all. He was from Senegal. The mix-up was blamed on bad Skype audio, the passing on of messages through various relatives and poor general knowledge. Those women are not the most educated, my mother said, repeating a well-worm talking point.

 

The nikah took place on Valentine’s Day, an unintentional coincidence. My mother sent me photos on WhatsApp of Fathimath-Suhura beaming in her teal wedding dress and her tall, handsome husband dashing and glowing in his beige achkan. Zulfath sat, hands on her knees, still and stiff in all the photos.

 

A week later, Zulfath’s husband died during his afternoon nap and my mother called me in the late evening, asking me to come to Thrissur.

 

When your father, your uppa, passed away in Riyadh ten years ago it was Zulfath’s husband who helped us with all the paperwork, with the burial rites in Saudi. Come, show your respects. Take a bus from Madiwala tonight and come.

 

Fathimath-Suhura, who’d already left for Dubai, didn’t even make it out the airport and took the next flight back to Cochin.

 

At Zulfath’s house, the air was filled with loud weeping and clouds of frankincense and the voices of women reciting the Yaseen.

 

I walked around, threading my way slowly through the crowds of mourning relatives and found myself next to red-eyed Ruqaiyyah who asked me about Bengaluru and my work and my knee. Be careful, she said. Take care of your joints. She disappeared into a knot of women in the kitchen and I went along with the ebb and flow of the crowd and reached Zulfath, sitting on her bed in the master bedroom, her husband’s corpse wrapped in a white shroud next to her, the nostrils stuffed with cotton.

 

She saw me and pulled me close and called me by the wrong name and whispered something in my ear – the Fatiha, most likely, I couldn’t make out as she was mumbling and out of breath – and sighed deeply before releasing me. My mother, who’d appeared behind me, pulled me away and we made our way to the door. I turned back and saw that Zulfath was crying.

 

She rubbed her knees, her brand new titanium joint knees, and cried.

 

*

 

When I was six years old, we celebrated Eid Al Adha at my father’s ancestral home near Guruvayoor.

 

It was summer, I remember. A hot, windless summer, the air humid and sticky, my skin beaded with sweat through the days and most of the nights. My cousins and I would put our heads under the tap near the well and let the cool water run through our hair.

 

My grandfather, my vellippa, brought home a goat the day before Eid. He took me to see it where he’d tied it under the Priyur mango tree. He gave me a bundle of grass and kept me in charge of the goat.

 

By sunset I had named the goat Alif and had fallen deeply, uncontrollably, in love.
The next day after the morning Eid prayers my grandfather said Bismillah and slit Alif’s throat. I reached the tree just as my uncles were skinning my love, and then hacking at his legs. The knife they used must have been sharp: it sliced through bone and muscle and blood with barely a whisper, with barely a ligament resisting.

 

When they hacked at the leg still attached to Alif’s torso and separated his remaining knee, I fainted.

 

I know what you’re thinking of, my mother told me on the way to the airport from Zulfath’s house. That goat. Your vellippa never meant to be cruel. They didn’t think things through. They didn’t realise how a child, a girl, would feel.

 

Especially a girl like you.

 

I didn’t tell her then nor did I tell her afterwards.

 

That the day it happened, the day I fell in that bus in Koramangala, the day my knee snapped, and I looked up, dazed, through the open vent in the roof, it was not the smoky Bengaluru sky at dusk that I saw, but Alif’s face.

 

Black and white and sweet and trusting and lost in time.

 

*


Saudha Kasim is a writer based in Bengaluru where her day job as a corporate communications professional helps pay the rent and bills. At other times she's writing short stories and working on completing a novel. Her work has been published in Cha, Out of Print, Eclectica, Elle India and elsewhere. She was one of the writers in residence during the 2017-18 season at Sangam House.