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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 01, Dated January 09, 2010
SPECIAL ISSUE  
original fictions 2

Desanguination

ASEEM KAUL

I will not be reconciled to the circuit of my veins; Blood is not blood until it drips from the eye. Ghalib

image

It all started the day I cut myself on the news.

It was a weekday, I remember. I was drinking my morning coffee, reading the newspaper. There was a story about the killings at Beslan, the photographs showing row upon row of tiny, white-shrouded bodies. I was sitting there thinking how sad it all was when I noticed the paper sticking to my fingers. I took my hand away and there were red smudges on the margin, like blurred little mouths. My fingertips were bleeding!

I didn’t think much of it then. I figured it was just a paper cut — you know the kind — where you don’t even notice that you’ve cut yourself until you see the blood. I dabbed a little aftershave on my fingers, just to be safe. Then I forgot all about it.

Three weeks later I was watching the news on television — a story about an explosion in Baghdad that had caused a house to collapse — and my eyes started to feel gummy. I put my hand up to check and it came away stained red. I ran to the mirror and my eyes were brimming with blood, not just bloodshot, you understand, but actually dripping blood. Could it be some kind of haemorrhage? But I felt fine. Maybe it was an extreme case of conjunctivitis. I considered trying to find a doctor, but it was 11 o’clock at night and the bleeding seemed to have stopped. So I decided to wait till morning.

In the morning, though, my eyes were completely clear. Should I go to the doctor anyway? But what would I say? That I’d been crying blood? Who would believe me? Besides, I couldn’t afford to miss work.

The third time it happened it was an article about women getting raped in Darfur. The fourth time it was a report about a child killed in a car accident. The fifth time it was my aunt calling on the phone to tell me a distant cousin of mine had died of a heart attack. It wasn’t long before I began to see the pattern. Every time I felt pity for someone I would start to bleed. Sometimes the blood would weep from my eyes, other times it would come sweating out of me, either from my hands or from my forehead. But always out of sympathy for another human being.

THE DOCTORS didn’t believe me, of course. At first they wouldn’t admit there was anything wrong with me at all. I had to carry a newspaper with me to the clinic, actually demonstrate the bleeding to them. That’s when they started running the tests. Cardiovascular, dermatological, endocrine, gastro-intestinal, neurological, even orthopaedic — there wasn’t a department I didn’t visit, a specialist I didn’t see, a test I didn’t have. And the questions! The embarrassment of sharing my sexual history, confirming that no, I hadn’t had sexual relations with anyone in the past six months. Or in the past year. Or in the past two years. And no, as far as I knew there was no history of spontaneous sympathetic bleeding in my family; everyone I knew bled only when they were cut. And no, this had never happened to me before. True, I’d been thin-skinned as a child, quick to tears, but nothing like this.

I didn’t think much of it then. I figured it was just a paper cut where you don’t even notice that you’ve cut yourself until you see blood

In the end, when all my test results came back clean, and every other explanation had been ruled out, they decided my condition was psychosomatic. I was referred to a psychiatrist, who prescribed anti-depressants, suggested therapy. None of it helped. The pills made absolutely no difference, and while the sessions initially served to calm me, I soon became tired of hearing myself whine. Soon, my interaction with the medical community was limited to the occasional visit to hospital when my bleeding got so severe that I needed a transfusion. And that didn’t happen often. It turned out that my body’s willingness to bleed was matched by an almost superhuman ability to generate new blood cells, so whatever blood I lost was quickly replenished.

With science failing me, I briefly considered turning to religion. For months a Catholic friend had been telling me that my affliction was a sign from God. He spoke of martyrdom and the stigmata. I think he had a secret theory that I may be some kind of saint. He even suggested that I come speak at his church, but the priest in his parish turned him down. Apparently it was only a miracle when statues bled, not people. In any case, I’d never been particularly religious, and now that my condition had made me especially conscious of the suffering around me, I was finding it increasingly difficult to believe in any kind of higher power.

And there was so much of it, the suffering. Everywhere I went, at every turn, poverty and despair and violence surrounded me. Whether it was the slums along Tulsi Pipe road, or the beggars at the street crossings, or the body counts shouting from the headlines, the entire world seemed a collage of horrors, ready to set my blood aflow.

As my sensitivity to these sights increased, the suffering around me seemed to multiply, and it wasn’t long before my everyday life was affected. When the attacks had first started they’d been limited to the home, but soon I was crying blood in public, causing people around me to panic and draw away. At first my friends tried to be supportive. Some tried to counsel me out of my sympathy, telling me I mustn’t take these things so much to heart. Others tried to comfort me, tried their awkward best to console me when I began to cry blood. But once it became clear that my condition was chronic and nothing could be done to either cure my episodes or curtail them, my friends drifted away. Most of them started to avoid me, repulsed by my condition and too embarrassed to be seen with me. A handful hung around, but chose to treat my illness as a kind of annoying personal habit, one that was impolite to talk about or even acknowledge.

PERHAPS THE worst effect was on my professional life. In those days I was working as a PR spokesperson for a pharmaceutical company. It was a good job, one that made me feel like I was doing something worthwhile, one that I was good at. It was my demeanor mostly, my tone of voice. People said I seemed sincere, sympathetic. They said I had integrity.

All of that changed once the bleeding fits began. For one thing, I could no longer do any liaison work with NGOs, even their brochures were likely to set me bleeding. For a while I stuck on, focussing more on media relations, but then one day I was required to make a statement expressing the company’s concern over reports of severe side effects associated with one of our drugs, and halfway through the press conference I started to cry blood.

After that, I knew I had no choice but to leave. Fortunately my boss was understanding. He allowed me to quit instead of firing me, even helped me find a job with the sales department, selling a new cancer drug we’d developed. As it turned out, that didn’t work either. Most of the time I never made it past the waiting room — the sight of all those sad-eyed people would start me bleeding and I would have to leave — and if I did there was always the chance of an incident in the doctor’s office itself. Doctors don’t much care for bloodstains in their offices. They feel it sends the wrong message.

After I quit my job as a pharma rep, I tried my hand at a number of other sales jobs. I’d always been a people person, so I’d thought I’d do well at sales. But the truth was that my condition had left me permanently weak and wan, not the kind of person anyone wants to buy from. Finally, I got a job as a shipping clerk. It was strictly back-office work, all forms in triplicate and bills of lading, the kind of job I’d always hated, but, I figured, the only thing I could do.

For a while then my life seemed to stabilize. My condition had ceased to worsen, and I was learning how to manage. Things at home and at work were under control. Being outside among strangers was still a challenge, but even there I was learning to cope. As the months passed, I developed an instinct for bad news, a sort of sixth sense that warned me I was about to hear or see something that would trigger my sympathy. And I became adept at avoiding such situations. This meant behaving coldly to people, sometimes even being rude, but I told myself it was better than bleeding all over them. I learnt to tune out news reports, trained myself not to glance at headlines. I wore my iPod everywhere, the volume turned up high so I wouldn’t hear what other people were saying. I even took yoga classes, practiced meditation on crowded train rides, just to insulate myself from the world.

He said if they could isolate the thing in my blood that had kept me from bleeding out, it would be a major medical breakthrough

Still, accidents happened. It was impossible to avoid the suffering of the world entirely, and there was no telling what might set my bleeding off. Sometimes my reactions seemed completely out of proportion with the facts. Reports of the atrocities at Guantanamo left me unmoved, for instance, but the sight of a one-legged pigeon limping across the sidewalk triggered a minor haemorrhage. These public incidents were embarrassing, but over time I became an expert at concealing the blood. I got rid of all my white or light coloured clothing, sticking to a wardrobe of black and dark maroon. I took to carrying a battered old fountain pen filled with red ink, so if anyone noticed a blood stain on my skin or clothes I would produce the pen and say it was leaking. Then we would both laugh over the other person’s mistake.

This lasted almost a year and a half. Then one day I had to go down to the company warehouse to get a last minute manifest signed, and I saw how the shipments I was sending out were actually handled. All those listless men carrying boxes too big for them, their bodies bent under the weight, their movements docile, cattle-like. And I realized that I was a part of this, part of the system that oppressed these men, crushed them, bowed their backs and spirits. And suddenly my hands were red with blood and I knew I would have to resign. Again.

imageWhich is why, when the terrorists struck in November, I had been unemployed for over a month. The news reached me at home; I heard someone shouting in the corridor about shootings at the Taj, and I turned on the TV and there it was. The bleeding started almost immediately. At first I thought it would be okay, like the train bombings in 2007, but as the night wore on I realized that this was something of a different order. I kept telling myself I should switch off the television, but I couldn’t do it. Instead, I sat up all night, surfing from channel to channel, listening to the shrill, hysterical voices of the reporters as they struggled to outdo each other in melodrama. And all the while the blood kept dripping out of me. By the time the morning came the floor of my apartment was covered in gauze and blood-soaked tissue, and I couldn’t find the strength to stand. Panicked, I called my neighbour, asked her to arrange an ambulance.

WHEN I got to the hospital, I found myself the centre of attention. The staff there had been following the story on the news, and when they heard that someone was coming in with heavy bleeding as a result of the attacks, they were excited to be getting their first victim. The minute my ambulance arrived I was surrounded by sympathetic nurses and grave-faced doctors, all jockeying to be of help. There was even one hopeful-looking journalist. Eventually, of course, they figured out that I hadn’t actually been wounded, and their interest in me waned. They stuck me in the overnight ward, hooked me up to a couple of bottles of blood, then went back to watching the news. Occasionally a nurse would stop by to check on me but her manner seemed resentful, even angry. When I asked her to turn off the television in the ward because the news was making my condition worse, she just looked at me in disbelief, then left me lying there. All in all, I spent three nights in that hospital, sweating and crying blood, too weak to get out of bed, even to go to the bathroom.

By the time I got home it was clear to me that I could no longer function in the outside world. It wasn’t just that the attacks had left me weak — that would pass — or the threat of another haemorrhage. The truth was I could no longer stand being around other people. At first it had been fear. Every time I stepped out of the house I was afraid that something or someone would set me bleeding. But after a while my anxiety turned to resentment. I’d had a good life once, I’d been happy. And now here I was, a wreck of a human being, and no one cared. Those who were well off were bad enough, ignoring the suffering around them, safe in their houses, spending their days in wealth. But the oppressed were worse. After all, it was their troubles that were causing me to bleed, their suffering that was driving me to despair. Yet when I tried to reach out to them they acted as though they were the only ones with real problems, as though my suffering didn’t count. Even the beggars in the street started to avoid me, scared by the way I would start to bleed at the sight of them. They abhorred me, they fled from me. One of them even spat in my face. Oh, how I hated them all! The servants and the slum-dwellers, the widows and the orphans, the crippled and the destitute, the homeless and the hungry. Even as my eyes wept blood for them I despised them, felt oppressed by them.

By the time the New Year came around I was deeply depressed. I began to think about suicide. After all, what did I have to live for? I was clearly unemployable, my savings would soon give out, I had no family, no friends, and a relationship was out of the question. All I had to look forward to were long years of living alone, feeling sorry for other people, crying blood over all the evils of the world.

Four months ago I tried reading Grapes of Wrath and the resulting haemorrhage left me bedridden for a week

I took to drinking heavily. I started taking sleeping pills, even in the day, just to numb me to the woes of others. One night, after my fifth drink, I decided to end it all. But not with the pills, no, that would be too slow. I took a knife from the kitchen, went into the bathroom, and made two long, vertical cuts from my wrists to my elbows. Then I opened the tap all the way and plunged my hands in water.

I didn’t die. It turned out that easy as it was for me to bleed for others, I couldn’t bring myself to bleed for myself. The blood simply wouldn’t flow out of me. All these years I’d been so busy trying to keep myself from bleeding, I’d never noticed this about myself, but now it was becoming clear. I tried to kill myself for over half an hour that night, soaking my wrists in warm water to increase the blood flow, making cut after cut on the chance that I’d missed the vein, but nothing worked. Eventually I stumbled back to bed, exhausted. Then I cried myself to sleep, and this time the tears were tears, not blood.

That was the low point. The next day I went to a doctor. It seems strange, I know, but I couldn’t stand the thought of catching an infection, dying of sepsis. When the doctor heard my story he got really excited. He stitched up my wounds, then referred me to a private research facility that was studying blood coagulation. He said if they could isolate the thing in my blood that had kept me from bleeding out, it would be a major medical breakthrough.

And just like that, my life changed. In the months that followed, I became an important research subject, perhaps the most important subject in the country. The doctors who’d initially treated me had seen my condition as a problem, if they’d believed me at all; the researchers I met with now saw me as a unique biological specimen, and were grateful for the opportunity I represented. The quest for a better clotting agent turned out to be only the first step. Soon there were scientists who were trying to isolate the ‘sympathy’ gene in my DNA, and others who were talking about weaponising my sympathy, inducing spontaneous bleeding in enemy soldiers as a way of rendering them weak. It was as though every scientist in the land wanted a piece of my flesh, a sample of my blood. There were even invitations to speak at research conferences, medical conventions, though I declined them all.

PERSONALLY, I didn’t care what they did with my blood. All I wanted was to be left alone, cocooned in my apartment, safe from the outside world. And being a research subject made that possible. The clinic hired a woman to do my shopping and to cook for me, and ensured that anything I needed was delivered to my door. Twice a week they would send a van for me and I would have to go over to give blood and tissue, but that was the only time I needed to leave the house. I was no longer allowed to smoke or drink, and my diet was regulated, but I figured this was a small price to pay.

For a while I was happy with this arrangement. No, that’s an overstatement. I was content. But then the boredom started to get to me. The trouble is, there’s nothing to do in this apartment. I can’t watch TV, or listen to the radio, or read newspapers. I have no social interaction. I have an Internet connection, but all news sites and blogs have been blocked so I won’t see anything that will start me bleeding (now that my blood is so precious, the clinic doesn’t want me wasting any of it). I play the occasional video game, read the occasional book. But even there I’m restricted to children’s stuff, because four months ago I tried reading Grapes of Wrath and the resulting haemorrhage left me bedridden for a week.

Mostly, I just sit around and listen to music, which is the one thing I can do without putting myself at risk. I’ve always been a big fan of ghazals, and since my affliction I’ve come to love them all the more. I can sit for hours with the CD on repeat, listening to Begum Akhtar sing Ghalib. Death wouldn’t be so bad, if it happened only once. Exactly.

But it isn’t enough. The truth is, I can feel myself slipping back into my old depression. I have the same feeling as I did the last time — a sort of trapped restlessness, as though something inside me had jammed, was winding tighter and tighter. Once again I find myself thinking of death. Of what a relief it would be, what a release.

I mustn’t let the clinic find out though. If they knew they’d have me locked away. I’m too valuable to them, they can’t afford to let me die, can’t afford to take the risk of letting me kill myself. It’s not as though they see me as a person. Oh, they pretend to be nice, it’s true, but I can see they don’t really mean it. They’re frightened of me, and a little disgusted. They think I’m a freak. They talk to me the way one talks to a wild animal one is trying to tame. They say they know how hard it’s been for me, that they understand what I’m going through, but how could they? They’re just saying it to win my trust, so they can use me. Not that I blame them. When I first went to them I was grateful to be of use. But now? Now I know that if they realize I’m suicidal they’ll have me committed, lock me away in some facility, cage me up like a lab animal. It may even make it easier for them to run their experiments, if they don’t have to pretend.

Which is why I can’t afford to let them know. But I can’t go on like this. I can’t. What was it Ghalib said? How shall I render the heart till the heart is murdered. I need to find some way out. I’ve thought about killing myself some other way — by hanging, for instance, or with poison — but not to die of blood loss seems wrong somehow. Disloyal.

And then today it came to me. It happened while I was talking to Shanti, the woman who comes in to cook. I’ve been trying to engage her in conversation recently, trying to see if she’s really a maid or a spy sent by the clinic to keep tabs on me. So far she seems genuine. Anyway, it turns out that they haven’t told her very much about me. Just that I’m an invalid who needs looking after. Nothing about my condition, or what precautions she might need to take. I suppose they didn’t want to scare her away.

Which means she doesn’t know what she’s not supposed to tell me. And therein lies my chance! All I have to do is develop an acquaintance with her, talk to her about what’s going on in the world. Nothing too serious, you understand, I can’t afford to start bleeding in front of her. Just enough so she feels comfortable chatting with me. She’ll be suspicious at first, I’m sure, but I can get past that. After all, I used to be in PR. And I could always pretend that these conversations with her are helping me recover.

Then one day there’ll be some big disaster. Maybe there’ll be another terrorist attack. Maybe there’ll be a flood, or an earthquake, or a hurricane. Thousands of people will die. It’s bound to happen, probably sooner rather than later. And then, then I’ll get her to tell me all about it. Maybe even talk her into getting me a newspaper. And when I learn all the facts I’ll bleed and bleed and no one will be able to save me. My veins will empty, my heart will give out. And I shall lie still and be quiet, I shall sleep, and be at rest.

I only hope it happens soon.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 01, Dated January 09, 2010

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