This story first appeared in my collection The Finest Ass in the Universe, Ticonderoga Publications, 2015.
That loser suckup lab assistant Eugene
something had begged Libby Purfouy to watch how she worked. Sure, he’d been a
bit creepy with all his obsequiousness, and so unambitious-acting that she’d
had suspicions; but he had proved himself to be so careful to label
scrupulously, store everything in its proper place, and keep out of her way
that she had given in and let him know that she did her real work late at
night, really late, “so if you’re willing to watch and keep out of my way, you
It was the watching that she hadn’t properly thought out.
He was so attentive to her that he could have been a guide dog. It was
unnatural and a bit nauseating. But this silent undemanding waiting-upon her
every need was so damn useful and hell, both flattering and unthreatening. He
couldn’t have learned anything much from watching her. And washing up after her
wasn’t anything any other lab assistant saw as a path to glory.
She was working with a type of bacteriophage that had played a key role
in a tubeworm’s digestion mechanism when the phone in her pocket rang. At 3am,
there could only be one reason. She fumbled for it, feeling scooped out in her
gut. If only she had convinced her parents to move into her apartment. He could
have been resting here now on a couch by the wall where she could keep an eye
on him, pop a nitro under his tongue when he turned grey.
“Mom?” she said, to some reply she couldn’t make out. Maybe from her
mom’s most celebrated on-stage self, the ostrich-tailed Lady Carlotta LaRou.
“Las Vegas General? Intensive Care?”
“We are sorry if this is a wrong number. We are looking for Doctor Libby
“I’m Doctor Purfouy. He’s not . . .” She couldn’t say it.
“Doctor Purfouy, we are sorry to disturb you at this hour.” The foreign
accent and manner would have been charming at another time, maybe a palace
ball, but now the formality infuriated her as much as hospitals and their
euphemisms always had.
“Disturb! He’s my dad, fuck it.
You’ve got him stabilised?”
“Doctor Purfouy, I am sorry to hear that your father is unwell, but we
are calling you from the Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. My name is . .
* * *
The solemn Swedish man, she didn’t catch his
name, must have been used to inane reactions, and had been very gracious about
ignoring her crudeness when she thought he was a hospital drone. But she used
all her roused skill in repressing her real thoughts once she realised that the
call wasn’t a prank and that in hours the world would know her (and Kadambini
Bhattacharya) as the newest Nobel Laureate(s). The Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Freedom and respect. She would no longer have to pretend that the scorn
of other scientists didn’t hurt. After all, it’s only so long you can pose as
someone who doesn’t give a shit when people sneer at your work, call it
pseudoscience--when they damn you by your associate. Now she could walk the
halls with her shoulders back, and throw herself into research that might be
loopy as anything Hawkins would spout, and she would never again have to worry
that her work might be considered not worth considering for funding. Hell, she
could start her own institute, but what to study next?
Of course she had hoped. What scientist doesn’t? And though she knew
that her and Bini’s discovery could, would change millions, hundreds of
millions of lives, this Nobel had to have been singularly argued. She couldn’t
help thinking of the headlines. She would have to be the youngest recipient
ever at 31, but then that worldly board that made the decision might have had a
wry chuckle at her joke in that interview in Science, “amoebic dysentery
isn’t anything that a body can ignore, any body.”
All this flashed through her mind as on another level, she maintained a
short and dignifiedly friendly chat with the man in Stockholm. It seemed like
she’d been covering for her whirling brain for an hour but it was only three
minutes later that she thanked him politely, expressing again her surprise and
humbleness, and then ended the call by saying that she must get back to work.
“I usually work now when I can be least disturbed, though you can disturb me
this way any time, hah hah.”
He apologised again for disturbing her in the midst of an experiment,
saying “I always seem to interrupt scientists in the middle of the night, and
the middle of an experiment.” Then he said he’d look forward to meeting her
plane when she arrived for the December ceremony, that he liked to meet all the
laureates personally, and then hung up to save her the awkwardness.
She thought for a moment about Bini in Mumbai, who was probably now
having a party surrounded by her department at the institute, and would later
be stuffed with sweets by her extensive family.
Maybe I should ring her. No, if she wants, she
can ring me.
She dropped the phone in her lab coat and took her feet off the desk,
jumped out of her chair, dumped her coat over its back, and danced--eyes
closed, arms close to her sides so they didn’t hit equipment, but otherwise her
whole body in play.
Her ass wasn’t just bossily leading her dance as it tended to. It was a
real mutt of a dance in its swishes, sways, rolls and bounce--a cross between a
deliriously happy dog and Las Vegas showgirl.
She sang as she danced, used stirrers as drumsticks against the
When Security called through the door, she stopped.
“It’s okay, Charles.”
“Roger, Doctor.” He was her favourite, and as she told him, might have
been a scientist if brought up in another family. “Discover something?” he
“No such luck tonight.”
“Can’t have that every night,” he said reassuringly. “Still, I’m glad to
hear you keepin’ up your spirits.”
She left the lab and walked out into the balmy Santa Barbara night.
Charles walked out with her and watched her unlock her bike. He was unhappy
that she didn’t let him call her a cab. “Can’t have anyone followin’ you,” he
always said. He was sweet, but old.
She answered back with “Who you kiddin’? I’m a lady scientist,” which he
accepted without further comment. It had become a routine between them. Anyway,
Santa Barbara is such a village of a place that she would have jogged home if
it didn’t make him way too nervous.
The moment she got under the covers, she remembered Eugene, and
shrugged. He’d heard other phone calls from her, reminding her dad to take his
pills. Other phone calls with hospitals. He must have left as soon as the phone
Sleep was impossible and it was too early to ring her dad and sister.
Her stomach felt like a filled and tumbling washing machine
She made herself a cup of coffee and dumped in, after a hunt, a dash of
vodka that someone had given her. It was--interesting. As interesting as any of
her own cooking.
So she got on the web, to distract herself with something mindless and
And wow, this should be good. Something that from the headlines looked
to be more viral than H5N1:
Who Says Scientists Don’t Have Big Brains?
Do This To My Test Tubes, Baby!
By the time she got to Lab Laureate Shakes it Up, she was gasping for
That little shit! His name was there in the brh corner, copyright. Sure,
he’d been pirated probably a million times by now, and America hadn’t even
woken up, but he’d sold the first rights to someone, or tried to. She tried
not, but couldn’t help but read an interview with him.
“She’s a really nice lady, you know . . . Yes, she IS kinda weird . . .
No, in regular work hours she doesn’t wear shorts to the lab . . . No,
honestly, I haven’t noticed that about her . . .”
All the stories had the same quotes, so she gave them a break and looked
instead, at that thing that you couldn’t avoid. It streamed now into the room
from her laptop, phone, and pad.
She felt sicker than when she thought her father had just died.
The screens were filled with her wagging butt.
It was apparently being sent around (when do people sleep?) stirring up
a storm of words. Tweets were turning into headlines, posts, the stories that
spread because they spread, turning more virulent the more they infect,
changing strains to keep infection lively.
The Bump and Grind of Science
Book a Laureate-o-gram for your Bucks Night!
Chickflick makes Nobel the butt of jokes
Crap queen drags Nobel into muck
High honor, low morals
Too Young to Know Better
The Tail that Wags Science
What can you expect from a copraphiliac?
Gen Why Makes Alfie Nobel Roll in Grave
This Nobel Laureate will take her Prize money in 20s, in her G-String
She forced herself to pick up a scalpel, plunge it into her arm, and
strip out her veins. Actually, she forced herself to go offline. It felt like
all the pain of a torturous death without the result one should expect: the
peace of oblivion.
She hid in bed, even from devices that she couldn’t cut off.
People rang to be let up. She put cotton in her ears. Tried to read a
biography of Madame Curie, a stupid idea; then a collection of Judy Horacek
cartoons, which didn’t work. Then had such a long shower that her skin pruned
but still didn’t feel clean. Slept, woke, took a lot of food to bed, ate till
she felt worse, tossed cartons and wrappers to the floor, curled up and passed
out again. Had another shower, got in bed and tried to sleep again.
At 3pm she gave in and peeked. Some pollster sleaze “news agency” that
would make the most of it, was making headlines with its snap poll.
Not only had 78 percent of women said that they would rather be known
for having the “finest ass in the universe” but that they’d prefer that to
getting a Nobel in Medicine.
The top headline in Google News.
Experts debate latest laureate’s
lack of visible pantyline
At six she rang her parents in Las Vegas. He answered the phone. “How’s
tricks?” same as he always did, making his little joke at the expense of
science. He’d been an electrician and off-season magician in the casinos, and
had come out of retirement to work himself to a heart attack, so proud he’d
been of his daughter going into science, and not only that, but performing
“tricks” that could maybe make real magic, as antibiotics had. He had followed
as well as he could, the scientific basis of her work, as well as the social
side; her lead role in the development of what one report called erroneously,
“beautiful poo.” He had always believed her brilliant. “My little rabbit,” he’d
called her, and she would wiggle her imaginary puff of a tail.
She was only wiggling now with shame. “I’m so sorry, Dad,” she blubbered.
“What’s that, Bunbun?” he said. “You can do it. If that experiment
failed, you’ve got to . . .”
He didn’t know. He didn’t look at trash.
“Dad, shut up before the waterworks come again. Mom, are you on the
“Of course, Libby. What is the problem? You can always come home if
everything’s bad there. Horrible place, California.”
“Geez, Mom. I wonder what you’ll say when you go to Sweden. And Dad . .
. Dad,” She stifled a hacking sob. “You’re forbidden to have another heart
attack until at least next year. You’ve got to see me on stage, picking up my
One phone dropped, and Libby heard her father whooping up a storm,
stamping on the linoleum floor. She could only imagine his saggy butt flopping
in its trousers.
The other phone went dead after a quick “Love you, Libby, Gotta make
sure Dad doesn’t overdo.”
Libby laughed till she cried. The most unreal thing in her life had just
pulled her mom, for the first time in years, out of unreality.
Her mom had never understood why she wanted to work at what were often
lower wages than a hotel maid in Las Vegas, let alone with “even more dangerous
filth.” And Libby’s father had been so proud of her wanting to be a real
scientist, but never understood how she could “do experiments with someone in another
building,” so she hadn’t mentioned to them now, had never mentioned Kadambini
Bhattacharya. She could just imagine her mother’s reaction: “How can anyone
live with a name like that?” Anyway, Libby didn’t know what even her father
would think of her working with someone in India, especially after she brought
back at 18, not that boyfriend he had warned her about (Todd dumped her the
first time she couldn’t hold her shit), but a case of the runs that almost
killed her, and certainly changed her life.
She and Todd had been on the Grand Trunk Road, in a bus that was so
crowded that she was sitting on her pack on the floor in the back, when it
happened. She’d been trying not to vomit from the heat, the diesel fumes coming
in the open windows, the jerky way the bus driver sped, swerved and hit his
horn; the miasma of India--crushed-together humanity, an intimacy of natural
body odours and spices; and on this bus which must have carried three times the
stated passenger limit, one passenger
limit at least (and most of the floor) filled by huge bags of onions that many
of the passengers were carrying to market.
Suddenly she forgot her nausea. She desperately needed the bus to stop.
She had to get out. Todd was jammed in beside her, sitting on his own pack, his
face streaming sweat but his head bobbing to what was streaming through his
earphones. She grabbed his arm and he looked at her with annoyance--not that he
could have done anything with that mass of people, goods, and those hundreds of
kilos of onions between them and the door.
With a slight grumble that only she would have been able to hear, her
bowels didn’t wait. Like a silent fart, the air was blasted with stench. But
this hadn’t been a fart, and the smell wasn’t rich. It was unbelievably acrid,
poisonous. And it was wet. People turned to look accusingly at Libby and Todd.
Libby’s seat felt horribly warmed. Before she had a chance to think
about whether the shit had gone through her underpants and into her khaki cargo
pants, her bowels spurted out another liquid explosion. She clenched her
sphincter, but that was as effective in stopping the flow as trying to shove a cork back in a bottle of
She squirmed but couldn’t really move, and neither could anyone else.
Someone nearby yelled a few urgent or angry words, and they were passed
up along the passengers till they must have reached the driver. He beeped his
horn even more wildly than he had before, and slewed to a stop cutting in
between a camel caravan and a lorry.
All around her, people shifted. Bags of onions were pulled aside, and
she saw that the bottom of one of them was soaked.
The bus door opened up front with a rusty sigh.
Todd jumped up and space was somehow made for him. “I’ll get you
something,” he said, rushing out. She couldn’t see him but heard him say
“Excuse me” a few times, and then a bunch of other people got up, more and more
of them in the front. She couldn’t get up. Anything she could clean up with,
cover herself--it was all in the pack, the pack which was now soggy with stuff
that had run down its sides and wet the backs of her legs. She’d moved her legs
away from the pack though that moved more stench out into the air, and now some
short hairs on the back of her calves were being lightly pulled, as from a drying
People were saying things to her, but no one spoke English so she did
all she could think to do--smile shamefacedly at them and motion an apology.
She had to wait till Todd came back with a sarong or something, something to
cover her and her pack so she could get off the bus and somehow, clean up.
Her gut cramped again, and her bowels let go again, this time with a
long hiss and series of pops.
She almost slipped off her pack, and couldn’t look at anyone, but the
whole bus erupted in yells.
Someone poked her in the kidneys. Another pulled her arm. People pressed
away as she was poked and shoved to a standing position. They gave even more
space for her pack that she had to pick up and carry, dripping, toward the
door. Someone pushed her out, and she fell to the dust beside the road, her
shit-frosted pack hitting her head.
Todd was nowhere to be seen. His pack! The bus took off with his pack
while he’s looking for something he can buy, something to help me off the bus,
but then she remembered a detail of him leaving--he’d casually slung his pack
over his back.
Oh yes, Todd and shit were inseparable--and they certainly had changed
her life. As had the kind doctor out with his family in his funky old Indian
car that had been cared for with love but that he poo poohed with an Indian
headshake, saying, “Increase of material comforts, madam,
does not in any way whatsoever conduce to moral growth.”
For a few more minutes, she forgot about her current disaster. But she
had to call her sister in New York.
“Calm down, Juliette,” she said, which only opened up a fresh onslaught
Juliette Adorina, an opera singer in the chorus at the Met, had been
having her late breakfast, with headlines. She was livid. “Do you remember that
tomorrow is Saturday and you promised to take Clare for a week while I tour?”
Libby had forgotten. Clare was due in LA airport at 11 pm. “I’ve not
forgotten at all,” she snapped. “Don’t worry about her, and have a good tour.”
She hung up cutting her sister off in the middle of something that
* * *
The stewardess met Libby, Clare in tow. “Such a
beautiful child,” she said. “She was such a pleasure.”
Clare smiled shyly at the stewardess and took Libby’s hand. In Clare’s
other hand a theatrical mask dangled from a cord. She was wearing a cloak that
matched the mask, thick green velvet with an elaborate gold toggle. She might
have stepped straight from the stage at the Met.
Libby snorted when they were out of earshot. “You should be illegal,
you’re so enchanting.”
She stopped and blew up a red balloon, handing it to the child. It was
really something she had done for herself, thinking it might make her feel more
festive. But she’d forgot to bring string, so it looked more than anything,
like something biological.
Clare took hold of the balloon. “D’you bring anything decent I could
“Sorry,” Libby said. “C’mon. You’ll just have to suffer the looks till
we get to my car.”
“You should know, sweet cheeks.”
Libby swung round.
“Has your mom--uh,” She tried not to badmouth her sister even though
Juliette obviously felt no such scruples.
“Mom wouldn’t have known. I saw it first and showed her. I didn’t know
she’d go ballistic. It’s a hoot.”
They were walking fast, and had almost made it to the car park. Libby
looked down at her ten-year old niece, a strange one, that. The halogen lights
were so strong now at midnight that they made human skin take on the sick gleam
of hot dogs in a gas station. Yet the girl was, even in this setting, almost
impossibly beautiful, as innocent looking as a day-old chick. Her talk,
however. She could have posed online as a thirty-something with too much
experience to remember. Libby could almost believe in reincarnation, listening
to this child. Clare had the rather bored mien of a 19th century courtesan who
wore her victims like a train. Her wit was channelled through a 21st century
Mae West. Libby hated thinking what the girl would grow up to be. Life was so
full of falseness that Clare couldn’t help but have a face creased by total
cynicism before she was 17.
At 10, however, she gleaned from the meanest nastiness, the most
sophisticatedly innocent fun. She was a hoot to be with. She broke from Libby’s
side and pulled the mask on. “What level’s it on?”
“C3. Be careful.”
“I’m a nutcracker.” Clare tripped ahead, leaping and twirling as she
ran. With that mask over her eyes, her glossy hair streaming over the snap and
flow of her cape, she could have been a prima ballerina on Mars, so misplaced
was she in this mundanity.
* * *
“You mean you’ve just hibernated? Like, been
literally in the dark? Not communicated?”
They were sprawled on pillows, polishing off a package of oatmeal
“Give me a break,” Libby said. “Tomorrow I’ll catch up. Work my whole
life for what? To be turned from a fool who disgraces science by my crackpot
ideas, to now, a chick with an ass.”
“Will you grow up already?” Clare rolled over, her child’s bottom
covered in faded flannel. With her thrift shop pyjamas she looked like some
Christmas appeal poster. It was one of her affectations, a fad that Libby
catered for, their little secret. In New York Clare was always dressed in the
most theatrical getups. She was already a fashion chameleon in the pages of Vogue,
and not in children’s clothes. Libby was her escape in so many ways.
Libby changed the subject. “Want to do microscopy now, or sleep?”
“I’ve got some disgusting stuff to look at, yeah. But that’s for later
in the week, if there’s a chance. But I don’t think there will be.”
“I’ve got enough food for us to stay here till you leave.”
“But you won’t have the time.”
“Too late. Nah nah nah nah NAH!”
Libby waved her iphone in Clare’s face. On it was a headline:
India explodes in rapture
Libby grabbed for the phone but Clare was too fast.
“From the Times of India,” she said. “Hundreds of thousands of
Indians celebrated in the streets today as they cheered the first Indian woman
to win a Nobel prize; and not only that, but the prestigious Award for
Medicine. Many view this as the first time in living history that an Indian who
is proud to be an Indian, in India, has become a Nobel Laureate. Today
Kadambini Bhattacharya was announced to be the latest Laureate along with her
co-winner who also worked on the discovery, American Libby Purfouy. Dr
Bhattacharya has dedicated the past thirty years of her life to fighting the
scourge of amoebic dysentery and now thanks to her, not only will the poor
millions in India (and in many other countries) no longer lose their lives let
alone their work from this debilitating infection, but, she adds pointedly, ‘so
will many tourists.’“
Clare looked up. “Should I read on?”
“We found the modest woman, who looks like a simple grandmother, at her
pocket-sized office in the venerable Institute of Sciences in Mumbai. She said
that she was pleased and humbled by the Prize. She also said modestly that she
couldn’t have achieved the breakthrough without the help of the brilliant young
scientist who shares the Award, Dr Libby Purfouy, who Bhattacharya considers a
‘daughter of Lilavati’ and affectionately thinks of as the ‘child I
never had’. For this dedicated professional had to forsake the joys of having
her own children in the quest to do good for the nation and the world. She was
instrumental, however, in helping other women to work in sciences in this
country. And she is almost militant in her insistence that India is a place to
stay in to make discoveries.
“When asked if she would move to,
say, Harvard, like other Indian Nobel winners who had moved abroad years before
they won, she answered with a touch of anger. ‘Why? If Indians hadn’t saved
their bacon, both American IT and biological sciences would have dried up like
a smear of yesterday’s dal. And any cursory glance at science papers in America
would tell you that our unpronounceable names are everywhere, not just the USA
but the world. We must have been doing something right, or they would not have
wanted these exports of ours.’ Your reporter thought that this little woman had
subsided, but Dr Bhattacharya had only paused for breath. ‘Many people have
said that Harvard is heaven,’ she said, ‘but you’ve got be dead to be in
heaven. Besides,’ she said, adjusting her mango-and-lime sari, ‘Heaven’s got
too many rules. I’d hate to have to dress in widow white.”
Clare stopped because of a sound
that her aunt made, but Libby waved her hand to continue.
“Dr Bhattacharya is a fine mixture
of fiery-eyed militant and jolly joker. Every morning she can be found amongst
the devotees of laughter, making seriously raucous noise for thirty minutes
under the gaze of the Taj Hotel. Of her choice to not marry, she referred quite
irreverently to Gandhi, by saying, ‘He devoted himself to a cause and made his
own children and spouse suffer. I make no one suffer when I work through the
night, nor have I needed to learn how to make good lime pickle. I’m afraid that
I even burn chapattis. But as Auntie, my family gets the best from me and I can
give to them, and the nation.’“
“Does it end there?”
“No, but don’t you want me to find
what everyone’s saying about you now?”
Libby made a grab but Clare
slithered away and continued.
“This reporter asked Dr Bhattacharya what her reaction is to
the erroneous conviction of millions of
Indians, that she is the ‘first Indian woman’ to win the Nobel, when in fact,
as we reminded her: Mother Teresa of Indian citizenship won the Nobel Peace
Prize in 1979 for what the Nobel committee called her ‘work in bringing help
to suffering humanity.’ The good doctor raised an eyebrow. This seemed to
be her comment but then she delivered what might have been a mini lecture. ‘The
discovery that Dr Purfouy and I have made is only a pixel in the bigger
picture. India’s problems are really no different to those of every nation’s,
indeed, of the world. Clean water and sanitation can only be achieved by civil
action, just as you can’t clean up corruption by scientific discovery. Did you
know that France’s water was a source of disease and result of corruption until
really quite current times? There is no reason why wealthy Parisians shouldn’t
be yearning to drink, say, bottles of Mother Ganges water instead of wealthy
Indians guzzling Perrier.’ Her eyes flash when she talks, and she has an
especial scorn for bottled water, which she says only keeps an inadequate
system propped up in its inadequacy while making crores of ruppees for
“Her work has been supported by
grants from the National Science Academy. When asked about how much she has
received in contrast to her colleague in the USA, she said that she didn’t
know, but that she had done much better than the American scientist, receiving
perhaps a tenth of the funds that the American would have been able to get.
‘But we cost so much less here so we can do so much more with less’ is how she
explained the discrepancy.
“When asked again if she would
consider going to the United States, she said that she is not interested in
trying to find cures for mortality in the wealthy over-eighties or cures for
wrinkles in the under-forties. When asked if she considers herself a radical
economist, as some have labelled her for fighting all attempts to patent her
and Purfouy’s breakthrough cure, that eyebrow rises again, like Shiva’s
trident. Then she delivers a big belly-shaking laugh. This is one Auntie you
don’t want to cross.”
Clare looked up as smoothly as a
newsreader. “I always wondered why you never told me much about her before. Now
I know. She’s pretty awesome. Let’s see what else--”
“At 3am? It’s way past your
Clare bounced onto her feet. “How
about ice cream?”
Libby blushed. She had bought a
carton of Clare’s favorite, but it vanished between her bouts of escapist
sleep. She picked up her keys. “Let’s have an early breakfast.”
Clare stuck her feet into a pair of
slippers with a bad case of mange and pulled a hoody on over her pyjamas.
“Stop,” she said as Libby opened
the apartment door. Clare tweaked the curtain. “As I suspected.”
Libby slammed the door so fast that
Clare giggled. “They’re just douches out there with cameras, not a disease.”
“I can make eggs.”
“With what you make them do,” said
Clare with a shudder, “I’m not surprised persuasion hasn’t worked.” She tossed
her pack to Libby. “Lucky one of us plans well. Open it.”
Clare always travelled light to her
aunt’s place, since Libby was entrusted with keeping all the clothes that Clare
loved wearing. This time, however, Clare’s little carry-on pack was stuffed
with drab used men’s clothes, a Budweiser baseball cap, a half-tube of glue and
a scruffy beard-and-mustache.
“You don’t look half bad,” she said
after she’d stuck the facial hair on her aunt.
“I sorta divined. Lucky I saw the
stuff while I was still at school. First time I’ve ever got anything worthwhile
from going to the School of the Performing Tarts.”
They made their escape with Clare
bent over under a blanket--a groaning sick child being taken to the hospital by
her loving sleep-deprived dad.
The paparazzi and “news teams” were
on wait, not watch at this hour; but didn’t pay the two more than a glance, not
even considering the man as someone who might know the woman.
Libby drove to a 24-hour donut
place on Carrillo Street, and then to Clare’s favorite picnic place. Resting
the cups of hot chocolate and coffee on the stones, and dipping into the big
paper bag, they sat in the cemetery, taking their time working their way
through cinnamon-sugar, jelly-filled, Boston cremes, and Long Johns. They ate
and drank to the sound of waves, till their presence had been noted by the
seagulls, who got three donuts.
Libby folded up the trash. “Do you
want to walk on the beach?”
“Why would I?”
Libby wondered how Clare could bear
to be out here so--naked. Clare had left her phone at the apartment, and didn’t
even act jumpy. She must have left it purposely, a state of being that Libby
had never reached, though when Libby thought about what she got from the thing,
a new state of sick panic took over her stomach again. Clare said nothing now,
seemed oddly self-sufficient. Again, Libby thought it both weird and natural
that this child could possibly be her best, probably her only friend.
“Libby,” said Clare. “Have you ever
been to India?”
“A long time ago. I got very sick.”
“That’s a no-brainer.”
“Hey, young lady. What’s all this
“Go to a place like that, and what
do you expect?”
“Eat a school lunch and get sick
from FDA-approved pink slime, and what can you expect?”
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry. But what
“I got sick, is all. And it made me
think of how we need to do something to stop this kind of thing.”
“Good we cleared that up.”
“No we didn’t. You’re harder to
open than a giant clam.”
Libby flushed. Sometimes it seemed
that life was one long series of embarrassments. The doctor--she never did
catch his last name, and his first couldn’t have been Sandy, but that’s how she
remembered him--the doctor must have been tortured by his quandary, where to
take this foreign visitor to whom he had apologised so profusely for his
country having “poisoned” her with its “unsanitaries”.
“Our hospital is having a shameful
state of unrepair,” he said over the poisonous blurts of Libby into the back
seat of the car. Libby groaned at the image of some hellish hospital, and the
thought of being abandoned there terrified her. “Can’t you just take me to your
place?” It was either there or dying, she almost didn’t care anymore. Her
stomach hurt so much that she put herself to sleep, an ability she had always
had when she needed to escape.
Whereever the family had set out
for on their drive, Libby had never known. She was installed in a high, airy,
room darkened by the huge mango tree that hung over the old house and the
dense, flower-filled front garden. The walls inside and out reminded Libby of
sweated-into shirts. They all had rough, ugly lines of stain where no paint
would adhere, but mould and mildew congregated. The smells inside the house
were such a mixture of decomposition and flowering, spice and rot, scented
talcum powders and powdered sandalwood and incense, ripening fruits, mice,
sewers, and warm hot bread. The whole family smelt quite deliciously edible.
He was extremely worried about her
diarrhoea, but when she refused to let a stool sample be analysed, he then
carefully explained that there were two kinds of this “discomfort, one of which
is most serious because the little creatures, parasites that you cannot see but
drink your moisture can be the undoing of you. We must keep your insides
“Anything, just get me well,” Libby
said, mumbling “so I can get out of this shithole country.” He went out and
brought back sachets of rehydrators that tasted vile but looked legitimate,
emblazoned with the names of international drug firms. And he prescribed and
his wife made, drinks that they begged Libby to take even though she cried into
her hard pillow that she couldn’t stand the stuff: gingery, peppery salty
buttermilk, some weird pulped fruit stirred into boiled water; ground
pomegranate rind in milk, something so yuk that she demanded to know what it
was. Rice porridge that smelled like Christmas cookies but was essentially,
thin, cool hot cereal. Three days later, the doctor asked if she would like him
to take her to a hospital.
“Would you like me to take you anywhere
She was a sullen patient, silent
when she wasn’t weeping. She felt gypped by pretty much everyone and
everything. Todd had dumped her. Her dad had been right. She had no business
going off with the jerk, to some dump of a country where she was probably gonna
die, too sick to go off by herself to the American consulate to get help and a
ticket home. Not that she knew how to do it anyway. Everything was just too
The family must have bent over
backwards for her. She had to be taught how to use the squat toilet correctly
so as not to dirty it, and doctor and his wife had been particularly fluttery
about their arrangements. “You will be so happy when you again have recourse to
your sparkling American commodes.”
Everyone in the family, and the two desiccated servants, were always washing, themselves and everything else. Libby
could hear the splash of water on floors, rain of water-can on paths and
garden. The ambient sound in the air was a mix of birdcalls, crush of people
and traffic frighteningly close on the road outside the gate, but close, inside
the environs of the humble home, a constant sweep of brooms that looked like
movie props for a fantasy. The doctor’s wife woke before dawn and set out fresh
flowers and food gifts on the little shrines in various places in the house.
One morning, Libby padded out to the kitchen and saw her praying to the
elephant god. In a corner, a mouse was nibbling on a flower petal. That was
when Libby realised how hard it must have been for the woman (Libby never did
get her name) to gently explain so many times that Libby should be careful with
her food, not to let any lay around.
Libby was getting stronger, almost
able to keep food in long enough to properly digest it. One morning she
squatted over the toilet and finally felt a civilised movement coming out when
her buttock was lightly brushed by a giant rat leaping up and out.
The doctor drove her all the way to
the American consulate in Mumbai. He didn’t let her out of his sight until the
US Marines had opened the gate for her.
She couldn’t get away from him fast
enough. That last look of his, a smile that showed most of his big white teeth.
The consulate had seen too many
dumped teen-age girls who were also disgustingly sick to be anything but coldly
efficient, not bothering to veil their disgust. A reassuringly American member
of the staff got hold of her dad and advised him how to send money for Libby’s
ticket home. Somehow, that added another dimension to the experience. “You come
from Las Vegas?” the staff member asked, though he already knew. Then he copped
such a clever and fast feel that she knew it was a game of his, one that he
couldn’t lose. She was fixed up with enough Lomatils (“They won’t cure you, but
will make it easier to get home. We advise you not to eat anything but bread or
rice and to drink lots the water on the plane, and wear sanitary napkins. And
definitely, no alcohol!”) to stop up a diarrheic horse before being got rid of
on a nightmare of a flight back to the States. But the nightmare continued when
she landed. American
hospitalisation-admittance, a bout of hospital “care”, and then “treatment”.
She never did know if she got well finally, from exasperation.
She went back to college, not
aimlessly but with a passion. She felt possessed--both better and worse than
boy-fever, she had never guessed how emotionally draining science would be. Her
highs and lows she kept to herself, but it came out in fidgeting at school and
work; and when she got home, dancing till she dropped.
The doctor began to appear in her
dreams, begging her to forgive his country, himself. One night she woke up, her
pillow soaked with tears. She’d seen his smile again, was just as furious as
when she’d fled from it, but this time she looked upwards from his lips, and
she saw his eyes, his broken eyebrows.
That face, the lying mouth, the
truthful eyes and brows--it was the same as that of a student from India who
was attending the same lecture she was. He had asked a question, one that she
had wanted to ask but hadn’t had the gumption to. “I just explained that,”
said the professor, “but maybe you don’t understand English.”
A few titters could be heard, and
the eyes of the room were on the student. He broke into a smile was almost as
wide as the doctor’s. Libby felt like yelling at the professor, but didn’t do
anything. Instead, this smile of the student’s made her spine crawl. The lying
mouth, the honest eyes: pure shame. Not shame that she had felt in her life,
but a shame on behalf of someone else, someone who needs it but is lacking. A
shame that should make the other person suffer agonies of embarrassment, but
it’s not meant that way, anyway. It’s a smile of almost Christian charity--I’m
dying for your boorishness--without the superiority. The professor was
smiling too, perhaps in relief. He’d certainly avoided answering a tough
But the doctor’s smile had an added
dimension, Libby saw in the aftermath of her dream. Fear.
The doctor. She didn’t even know
his name. She hadn’t even asked for his address, let alone his telephone
Sometimes she wished that she had
been able to tell Bini, but she couldn’t. How could he be found again. Even if
he could be, what if he was dead? What if he had died--of shame?
Ah, well. Strange how things work
out. India--the whole country--had become a place of blanked-out thought to
Libby, till Bini contacted her because of that “unscientific” paper that Libby
had written. Libby and Bini had joked in emails that Bini had Indian foresight
that she applied every morning with her finger. Bini had offered to send Libby
a pot of instant foresight. Bini was, in fact, so understanding about so many
“You’re such a great sigher,” said
Dawn had broken. They walked hand
in hand to the car. The traffic was almost nonexistent this early Saturday
morning, but Libby’s street was now parked out with cars and vans. She could
only find a spot two blocks away. They entered the building as unnoticed as
they had left.
“Back to work,” said Clare, as if
they were co-workers and this a normal day.
They searched on Libby’s laptop. The
Hindu ran an interview in which the journalist praised Dr Bhattacharya for her nationalism, only to be
lectured at about nationalism, a sentiment that she called “the diversion of a
government that sits on its nitamb”.
“See?” said Clare. “If it hadn’t been for you, I would never had learned
a new word for ass. But shit, look at this!”
India was now the top story in all
media, with new stories coming in by the second. Twitter was a cacophony. The place
was indeed exploding. Literally millions had taken to the streets in
spontaneous demonstrations. Night must had fallen there, and the sky was alight
with not just lights of many colors, but exploding fireworks. They showered
millions and boomed like armies of joy--set off by civil servants, fathers,
mothers, children. Libby thought it must be just like that festival she had
wanted to see, but hadn’t been able to stay for, way back when. And everywhere
there was dancing.
Someone buzzed the apartment, yet
again. “Aunt Lib,” whined Clare, who had jumped up, only to be grabbed by the
“They can all wait.”
“Coward.” Clare pulled what she though of as
an ugly face. “But no shit. I’ll scream if you don’t look through your
There were hundreds of them, but in
the midst, there were five from Bini, each more worried than the last, but in
Bini’s inimitably gentle way, not showing it. The last one read, “Dear child, I
know you must be so busy with interviews to contact me, but let me again congratulate
you on your brilliant win. We would not have achieved anything without your
wonderful intelligence and creativity. And without you getting sick in the
first place! Please don’t let your sensitive soul get the better of you at this
important time. Remember that what counts is not what the crowd says about you,
but your own sense of worth that only you can weigh. your loving Bini”
Clare was busy on her own iphone.
“Cool! Wanna see this story on Fox? It’s titled Nobel Disgrace: The
Anti-American and the Lab Dancer.”
Libby laid down her phone and blew
“It’s too stupid,” said Clare, “but
heh. Oh you’ve got to see this.”
“Not another YouTube.”
“Not just here. It’s from some
science place, but like . . . it’s everywhere!”
Under a banner that said “Daughters
of Lilavati” about two dozen women stood together on a stage. The streaming
subtitle said Scientists Scientists Scientists. Most wore saris or salwar
kameez, but some were in western dress. They bowed solemnly, then broke their
line--into dance--smiling like mischievous starlets, moving like houris. They
were colourful as a garden, and in their dipping twirling dance they waved
beakers, petrie dishes, goggles, rubber gloves, kidney dishes and bladders.
They used lab coats like veils and scarves, and threw themselves around with
joy and in such close cooperation, the riot was carefully calibrated abandon.
Suddenly, in the midst of them, Dr Kadambini Bhattacharya burst through, in a gold-bordered pomegranate-red
sari. She moved her stuff like an overripe Bollywood star.
Libby's eyes were already flooded, but then Bini and the troupe broke into what the
subtitle streamed--The Purfouy Boom Boom.