Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 01, Dated January 09, 2010
original fictions 2
I will not be reconciled to the circuit of my veins;
Blood is not blood until it drips from the eye.
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
|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
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
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.
Which 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
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.
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
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.