I Hear You is the latest psychological thriller by bestselling author Nidhi Upadhyay. Be the first to read this EXCLUSIVE excerpt!
“Most expectant mothers talk to their unborn baby. But what if the baby starts to respond?”
‘I know you feel trapped—just like me. But we both must learn to live in this captivity. Your confinement, however, will be very short-lived. Because nothing stays for long in your mother’s womb,’ she said.
A little shock ran over me.
I wasn’t living near her. I was living within her.
And the dark cocoon spun around me wasn’t bondage.
It was a womb. Her womb.
But weren’t the lives in wombs supposed to be oblivious to their surroundings? And was this woman aware that her unborn child was hearing and comprehending things he wasn’t supposed to?
This week your baby is about the size of a small blueberry—around 0.3 inches long. The lenses in the baby’s eyes have begun to form, and the colour of the iris is visible. His limbs are sprouting, though at this stage they look more like little paddles than the cute hands and feet you’ll love holding in seven months.
Thirty-three weeks to go!
* * *
February 16, 2003
Goodman Road, Singapore
It started with darkness. Not the kind that shades everything into grey, but the kind that robs you of your senses and instils a paralysing fear—a black-out spell that turns everything non-existent. Initially, I thought it was a power outage. But then the darkness lingered, enough to indicate something was wrong. With me. It was my eyelids; they were shut like clams. I tried to peel apart the blindfold if there was any, but my hands ignored all the neurological signals my mind sent. I strained to listen, to catch a drift of this place, but the silence around me hinted that my auditory senses were also compromised. I struggled to break free from the spell that had left me powerless and disoriented, but my physical faculties were undermined by a force unseen. Nevertheless, my brain was working fine, overcompensating, pumping fear and panic into every fibre of my being.
Was I paralysed? Had someone trapped me in this black hole? How the hell had I ended up someplace so dark and morbid?
I had no freaking idea how or why I’d ended up here. The memories that could lead me to my past were wiped clean, leaving me in the dark.
For days, I’d been floating in this darkness like an astronomical object orbiting in space, untethered to beginnings and endings. Yet, there must’ve been a beginning. Unless this was the beginning.
February 16, 2003
Goodman Road, Singapore
The bedside alarm clanged at 6 a.m. In bed, Mahika stirred and fell back to sleep, pulling the satin sheet over her face but not before Shivam caught a glimpse of her glowing face. The colour on her cheeks was returning, growing with light. Shivam studied how precisely the satin sheet outlined her new angular thinness. Before the unbearable thrill of touching her could sublimate his other fears, Mahika began to gently snore.
His aching body was demanding sleep, too. But expecting Mahika to wake up and resume normalcy was like pushing water up a hill. Unwillingly, Shivam dragged his fatigued body out of bed to prepare the meals, scrub the kitchen counter and load the dishwasher. An hour later, he placed a cheese sandwich, a serving of pasta, a tea sachet and a hot kettle on Mahika’s nightstand before going to shower.
Mahika was still asleep when Shivam left the bedroom, wilfully keeping his gaze away from the scattered pillows and unkempt bed. The spick-and-span downstairs—the kitchen, dining and living room—was a welcome sight for his sore eyes. Shivam placed his lunch in his work bag and accomplished the last task on his newly curated to-do list: check all the doors and windows. The new number-lock panel on the main door still had a plastic sheet on it. He fought the compulsive urge to peel it off and punched the numbers into the panel.
A three-digit code was all it took to lock his wife in. Shivam drove to work, beginning his day yet again by counting down the minutes. The same old editing of the genes at the university lab had stopped challenging him. He had to spend another morning in a blur of lab readings, impatiently waiting for the clock to strike noon.
‘Looks like your wife is feeling better now?’ Professor Chua, the head of the department, asked. It was lunchtime, and Shivam had strategically placed his lunch bag on his desk. I brought my lunch was the politest way to decline the lunch invites that his team frequently extended to him. Today, Professor Chua noticed the tiny sandwich box that had replaced his usual lunch bag. A plain cheese sandwich was no match for the condiment-loaded meal Mahika would’ve packed. However, it had served its purpose. Shivam had more important things to do than discuss politics and sports over a meal at the food court.
He speedily finished the sandwich and drove to the clinic, his attention shifting between the rear-view mirror and the road ahead. The only thing driving along with him was the feeling of being followed. This suspicion has been gnawing at him for a couple of weeks now, making him turn his head back now and then. If it continued any longer, this neck movement would be permanently coded in his DNA as an extra gene.
Shivam steered the car into the clinic’s basement. The relatively uncrowded car park brought a trickle of relief. He parked his vehicle closest to the stairway door and waited for the only people in the car park—the pregnant woman and her husband—to walk back to their car. He beelined to the stairway door, hastily unlocked it, rushed in and hissed out a slow, steady stream of breath. But walking down the dust-laden staircase felt as dangerous as being spotted in the carpark. Keep walking, he told himself.
The excitement Shivam had felt the entire morning reached its peak as he unlocked the expansive steel door at the stairway’s landing. But then the eerie silence in the lab made his heart flip.
Shivam pushed away his sense of foreboding, put on his scrubs and lathered his hands with an alcohol rub. The minor knife cuts on his fingers came to life with the sting of the astringent, making him edgier.
The infant in the cage looked like a lifeless stuffed animal. Shivam slid his hand between the bars and checked the infant’s pulse. Nothing. His heartbeat was absent too. Shivam studied the log sheet clipped to the cage. He had been fed two hours ago, and his vitals had been recorded an hour ago. What had gone wrong?
‘I’ve put him to sleep. His inane blabbering was too loud,’ Dr Steven said as he walked in. Dr Steven pulled the infant chimp from its cage and dumped it into an orange biological waste bag. He placed the bag near the bin and asked, ‘How’s your wife doing?’
His pager started beeping.
‘I’ve got to go. I’ll clear the cage later. We need more counter space for the new incubators.’ Dr Steven flashed a smile that accentuated his blue eyes and rushed out of the lab. Shivam stayed back in the lab to grieve for the chimp, but his mind yet again steered to places it shouldn’t have gone to. What if Dr Steven decided to view every sample through the same lens?
Shivam rushed out before the lab’s silence could drag him further down. He peered through the narrow opening in the stairway door, quickly stepped out and locked the door behind him. He took a moment to catch his breath, as no one was in the car park. But then he saw his car trunk partially open, which punched all the air out of his lungs. Shivam examined the boot. Someone had meddled with the order of his cleaning supplies in the caddy tucked in a corner. He restored their order and checked his glove compartment. Someone had meddled with his tissue packets and wet wipes. He was about to check the car papers tucked under the shotgun seat when a tattered piece of paper stuck to the dashboard caught his attention.
He peeled it off, reading the note scribbled on it.
Hide and seek part 1: I found your lab.
February 16, 2003
Goodman Road, Singapore
Mahika opened her eyes, and a tear rolled down her cheek. It had been trapped behind her eyelid like a bee accidentally trapped in a flower for a night, waiting for the first ray of light to free it. She brushed away the tear and drummed up her courage to start afresh. The receding sound of Shivam’s footsteps and the gentle thud of the washroom door had been a signal for Mahika to open her eyes. But in her bed, under this duvet, was her safe haven. Safer than her husband’s embrace, which she had rarely received in the last couple of years.
While Shivam cooked and cleaned, Mahika pretended to sleep until sleep did overcome her, monopolizing all her aches, yet again blurring the boundaries of day and night. Hours later, Mahika woke up to her stomach rumbling, and she wolfed down the meticulously packed meals on her nightstand. The fluorescent pink Post-its that labelled them as breakfast and lunch bore no significance to her. Although now that she’d devoured them as a single meal, a strong wave of queasiness threatened to bring everything up. And with that, she began her quest to survive another day.
Mahika detested household chores, and her recent nausea had given her a free pass from all the scrubbing and cleaning. Keeping Shivam happy had become as easy as swallowing her meals. Also, not throwing up earned her as many brownie points as running a lint remover over the freshly vacuumed carpet. This week, sitting up and sucking a ginger candy had helped a great deal, but she knew that things would get difficult from here on. Shivam knew it too, which was why he’d topped off the candy jar with a new brand of organic ginger candies.
Mahika took one from the jar and sat by the bay window. She’d promised herself she’d not cry, but the tricolour hibiscus had melted her resolve, and a sob heaved from her chest. Over the years, Mahika had worked to fall in love with the unnaturally coloured flowers Shivam nurtured in the garden. But since her last trip to the clinic, Mahika had begun to hate the colour- coordinated flower beds, the way she hated everything else in her life, including herself.
She looked away from the garden and scraped her memories in the way one scrapes the roll of tape to find its end. But the moment that could unravel the entire tapestry of hatred was still embedded in the bittersweet memories of falling in love with Shivam, getting married to him and leaving her father to start a new life. This new life had turned out to be all about keeping Shivam happy. And Mahika wasn’t sure whether she could continue paying the price for Shivam’s happiness.
She kept thinking her repressed rage would take over and she’d end this marriage, but her courage disappeared every time Shivam’s car entered the driveway. This evening, yet again, Mahika ducked under the duvet before her husband stepped into the bedroom.
‘Did you eat?’ Shivam asked, gently lifting the Tupperware lid. She’d been married to Shivam long enough to know how hostile he felt towards the mountain of candy wrappers on the bay window and the damp towel by the bedside. She held her breath, waiting for him to say something, but today, again, he took the dirty dishes and walked out of the bedroom, saying nothing.
The tightness in Mahika’s chest disappeared.
Twenty minutes later, the beep of the microwave announced the beginning of her last battle for the day— to consume an entire meal without breaking into a sob.
‘Mahi, I got your favourite chicken rice for dinner tonight,’ Shivam said and woke her by gently patting her shoulder. In a rehearsed way, she rubbed her eyes, sat up and dismissively downed the chicken rice that tasted like cough syrup. He hovered around her like the parent of a
A feeling of triumph swelled in Mahika’s chest as she spooned the last bite from her plate. After five long years, finally, there was something Mahika could do better than her perfectionist husband.
She could feed the life growing in her stomach—a task her genius geneticist husband couldn’t have accomplished without her help.
Things are revving up now. Your baby has graduated from embryo to foetus, and now he’s the size of a raspberry. By the eighth week, your baby looks more and more like the newborn you’ll bring home from the hospital. His body has sprouted tiny arms and legs, fingers and toes, bones and muscles. Though you can’t feel it yet, your little one is also constantly moving. Imagine a kidney bean jumping around inside your uterus.
Thirty-two weeks to go!
* * *
February 23, 2003
Goodman Road, Singapore
The drums of time rolled and ceased, but I was still trapped in this dark cocoon, like a life recycling within a chrysalis. However, at times, my missing heartbeat and my numb limbs made me question my existence.
You could be trapped six feet under, said the voice in my head.
But I found no way to support or reject my millions of speculations. I needed a sign of being alive and that, ironically enough, came in the form of a sob. A loud squawking cry startled me as if someone accidentally rolled over the TV remote in the middle of the night, disabling the mute function on a show that had been silently playing.
Well, in your case, it would be a radio show, because you’re still as blind as a bat.
I ignored the commentary playing in my head and strained to hear beyond the muffled cry. A wave of sound barged into my silent world like the kernels of popcorn popping all at once: the chirp of the bird, the drone of the car engine, the thud of a door. Although the sounds were muffled, I could still differentiate the hum of a machine from the whir of a fan.
How come your memory is functioning well enough to identify the sounds associated with objects, but you can’t remember your name?
The devil’s advocate in my head was ruining my joy, compelling me not to settle for anything less than the entire truth. I hungrily listened, hoping the sounds would act as a catalyst for my memory. But nothing came back.
The sobs that should have ideally shattered my courage to break free instilled in me hope that I wasn’t alone, that someone else was living the same life I was.
And that together we would break free.
However, after listening to my companion’s incessant cries for days, I couldn’t tell who the real captive was: me or her. She sounded more miserable and helpless than I felt. And with that realization, the timid hope that my companion could free me diminished.
February 23, 2003
Goodman Road, Singapore
Another week had passed but Mahika’s feelings were still dormant, like lava churning in an abyss, the surface calm and the depths rumbling. She was waiting for her anger to boil over and shatter the facade of normalcy. But something in Mahika was clinging to a tiny hope that whatever she’d witnessed in the clinic two weeks ago was a figment of her imagination; this nightmare would shatter, and she could revert to her life before she’d gone for her pregnancy test.
Mahika had felt pregnant before the pregnancy test could confirm it. Although the raw ache of her three miscarriages had kept a tight leash on her happiness, a robust heartbeat reverberating in the dark scan room faded her sorrows instantly.
‘This is the sac. And let’s hear the heartbeat now,’ the technician had said when they had gone to the clinic two weeks ago. Shivam had reminded Mahika not to celebrate too soon, but happiness in her world was so scarce that she’d held on to her baby’s loud heartbeat without bothering to worry if it would last.
Sorrow, however, found her again. As she’d been wiping away the ultrasound gel, someone had slid an envelope under the clinic’s bathroom door.
The envelope was addressed to her, but the note made no sense.
Do you think the life within you is a creation of God, Mahi? Think again. Shivam, the
perfectoinist perfectionist can’t leave anything for the almighty to decide, can he? Not really. He has used his genius mind to create a perfection now breathing in your womb. If you don’t beleive believe me, walk into your doctor’s cabin now.
The hurried longhand, peppered with spelling errors, felt almost comical in contrast to its tall allegation. Mahika rushed out of the washroom to show the note to Shivam. He could be many things, but he wouldn’t play with his flesh and blood. But her husband wasn’t where she had left him. She walked to Dr Cynthia’s cabin, hoping to unravel this mystery.
The door to the doctor’s cabin was partially open. Mahika spotted Shivam in his lucky white button-down shirt. But before she could barge in and show him the note, the door shut. She was about to knock when she heard someone say her name.
‘Treat Mahika like an incubator and the life within her like a project. Or else the loss will feel devastating.’
Mahika’s heart flipped. She could never, ever imagine Shivam at the receiving end of such cold condescension, not even with his superiors at work. Moreover, in the last four years, Shivam had ached for a baby as much as Mahika.
‘I don’t need reminding. You have the first right to the baby,’ Shivam said, knocking her world down like a house of cards.
But this was her baby, and no one would touch her. Mahika rushed out of the clinic, away from Shivam and the man trying to claim his rights to her unborn child. The roar of the car engines and the pneumatic sigh of the bus by the roadside failed to break the conversation repeating in her head. She blocked her ears with her palms, but Shivam’s voice was still there, as constant as the traffic on the road. Mahika raced farther away from the clinic, hoping to find a haven for her baby, but Shivam spotted her on the footpath.
‘I was in the washroom. You should have waited.’ Shivam clenched his teeth to display his anger. He never used public washrooms, which meant he’d just lied, reminding her of the allegation in the note. She realized she’d lost the note in her attempt to run away from Shivam. That note could’ve put Shivam on the spot.
‘What are you looking for? I’ve put your handbag in the car. You left it in the washroom. Why did you rush out, Mahi? What was on fire that you couldn’t wait? Answer me. What was the emergency?’ Shivam asked.
‘My baby, is she okay?’ Mahika asked, voicing the fear that had knocked the air out of her lungs.
‘It’s too early, Mahika, and you know that. Now, let me drop you home. I have a reading due at 3 p.m.’
Shivam brought her back to the house as if nothing had happened, and Mahika spent the rest of the day on the Internet, trying to find a connection between Shivam’s lab work and the baby growing in her womb, but she had discovered nothing beyond what she already knew: Shivam was still leading the innovative engineering and life sciences research team at the University of Singapore. It was a high-profile role that had lured Shivam to relocate from New Jersey to Singapore two years ago. Mahika read the title of all the research articles published by his team. They were all about editing and splicing the genes for defects in plants. She was relieved to know that genetically modifying humans was still beyond the scope of his work, legally and ethically.
Maybe she’d misunderstood everything.
Mahika decided she’d confront Shivam and just hoped he’d refute all her allegations. However, by evening, Mahika had exhausted herself by thinking and overthinking, and the hormone shot she’d been given to support her pregnancy was creating in her a volcanic mix of anger, sadness and enervating nausea. So instead of confronting Shivam, Mahika endlessly asked herself the same questions: Was the claim the note writer had made even possible? And if it were true, where would she go with the baby? How would she raise this kid without any help? And above all, did she really think she could keep the baby for a full term in her dysfunctional womb?
Since then, with each passing day, living in denial felt easier than dealing with her fear.
Mahika had decided to spend another day toggling between courage and weakness, when something moved inside her. Like a butterfly’s wings scraping the inside of its chrysalis. At first, she mistook it for hunger, but then the tiny life growing inside her moved again. She’d never made it to the sixteenth week in her previous pregnancies, so she’d never felt the quickening, but she knew: it was her baby’s movements. But wasn’t it too early? She lifted her nightgown and pressed her palm against her belly. Nothing. The movement that had been so profound a minute ago had disappeared.
‘Was it you?’ Mahika asked in a slow, uncertain whisper. Then she heard a loud ding. It took her a moment to place the chime of the doorbell. She’d long forgotten how it sounded. Shivam had his own set of keys, and they rarely had visitors, except for a Filipina cleaner who came every Saturday.
Mahika ignored the doorbell and sat there in anticipation; her hands pressed into her belly. But the doorbell rang again. This time twice, indicating impatience. Maybe Shivam had locked himself out.
She rushed to the ground floor and hastily unlocked the door while peeping through the eyehole. The deadbolt gave away, but the door was still clamped shut by the new chrome digital lock mounted above the old one. Mahika studied the silicone number pad and pressed the unlock button on it. Nothing moved.
She needed a passcode to unlock the door, which she didn’t have. She pushed away the rabbit-trapped-in-a- snare feeling and peered through the eyehole once again. No one was at the door. She walked to the living room window to spot the visitor at the main gate. No one was there either. Mahika was about to return to the main door when she realized the key usually on the window grill’s sliding lock was missing. She paced from one room to another, but the universal key that could slide open the grills was nowhere. Shivam had secured all the grills by their respective locks. She was about to punch her anniversary date into the new digital lock panel when a white envelope on the floor caught her attention.
Had Mahika missed it earlier or had the envelope just appeared? She tore open the envelope.
Do you remember how I used to monitor a
geneticaly genetically altered sapling, Mahi? The growth of the first shoot, the first leaf and the first flower: everything was recorded and closely monitored. But have you ever wondered what fate the samples in a lab meet if the experiment goes wrong? Well, you will know soon if you don’t start acting now.
The new digital lock on the door means you procrastinated again, like always. Wake up, Mahi. Else it will be too late for your son. You have already missed the golden opportunity to escape, so now, you need to be extra careful. I am warning you: no one should find out you know about this research, not until you have discovered a means to escape. Or else, they might hold you captive. This baby is nothing more than a sample for Shivam and his team. But Rudra is your son, Mahi. And you need to protect him.
Mahika stabilized her shaking hands and read the note again. It was addressed to ‘Mahi’ not ‘Mahika’.
Her father and Shivam were the only people to call her by that name, and her father was no longer alive. But why would Shivam slip her a note condemning himself?
Also, the untidy longhand, the spelling errors and the paper’s torn edges could trigger Shivam’s obsessive- compulsive disorder. She read the note again. The writer of the note did draw references from the past and the longhand wasn’t any neater than her father’s. Fear churned in her stomach.
Someone was messing with her head.
She swallowed the bitter taste in her mouth, but bile swirled up her throat. She rushed to the washroom to throw up when the life within her announced his presence once again. Loud and clear.
Mahika walked to the study, thumbed the pages of the pregnancy book and skipped to the sixteenth week. She was right. The baby growing in her womb had kicked her eight weeks early.
Mahika’s heart broke. The unborn’s premature kicks were the first confirmation that her husband’s fetish for perfection had marked its territory in her womb.
Mahika jumped a mile when the phone on the desk rang.
‘You, okay?’ Shivam asked in a preoccupied voice.
‘Yes,’ she replied, glancing at the clock purely out of habit. It was 11 a.m.—time for Shivam’s call. He called Mahika with clockwork precision, twice a day, at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., to check on her. She’d mistaken it as her husband’s love. With that thought, the anger Mahika had buried deep within her found its way to her throat, constricting it. Mahika walked to the kitchen to get a glass of water, thinking it would calm her. But the kitchen’s gleaming countertop did the opposite, and the stacked-up bowls and size-sorted spoons in the drawers added more fire to her rage. Her kitchen wasn’t hers either. It looked like a kitchen of an open house, spotless and untouched. Mahika went to the wall-mounted dish rack and gently knocked over the stacked IKEA ceramic bowls. They tumbled down and slipped over each other. She lifted a few serving spoons from the stainless-steel cutlery stand and dumped them in the adjacent stand meant for the tablespoons.
She went back upstairs to their bedroom. This was enough to throw Shivam off balance. For now.
It had channelled her rage, too. Temporarily.
February 23, 2003 Goodman Road, Singapore
I was still waiting for my crying companion to come and free me when a low buzzing thrum of a locust’s wing monopolized the darkness around me. It soon grew into a loud storm-like roar—the kind of storm that could level even the mightiest of trees. The panic within me grew as the thudding became unbearable, threatening to shatter my eardrums. I peered through the darkness and spotted a silhouette. It had popped up from nowhere, like a memory that elbows its way into one’s mind.
The silhouette inched towards me, and a sensation rose in my legs and made them alive, as if the fear had unlocked my limbs from a spell of numbness. I wriggled in pure panic, and to my surprise, my faulty nervous system followed my command and triggered movement in my entire body. I kicked again, and this time, I felt power flowing through my legs. But before the euphoria of getting control over my body could sweep me away, I felt a touch. My crying companion had managed to find me in this dark.
‘Was it you?’ she asked.
The movement of my limbs had announced my presence in her world.
I wriggled again to test my hypothesis, but a loud trill broke the spell and her attention drifted away from me. Her single touch had broken the dam of numbness. It flooded my heart with overwhelming emotions. It was a feeling I’d never felt before. Or, if I had, someone had erased the experience for me to create new memories with her.
Don’t get too excited. For all you know, she might be your captor.
Ignoring the voice in my head, I anxiously waited for her to come to free me. But her muffled voice killed my hope.
‘I know you feel trapped—just like me. But we both must learn to live in this captivity. Your confinement however will be very short-lived. Because nothing stays for long in your mother’s womb,’ she said.
A little shock ran over me.
I wasn’t living near her. I was living within her.
And the dark cocoon spun around me wasn’t bondage.
It was a womb. Her womb. But weren’t the lives in wombs supposed to be oblivious to their surroundings? And was this woman aware that her unborn was hearing and comprehending things he wasn’t supposed to?
February 23, 2003
Goodman Road, Singapore
Do you remember how I used to monitor a genetically altered sapling, Mahi?
It was ridiculous of Mahika to think that the letter in her hands was written by her deceased father, but her father’s lab was the only lab where she had seen the genetically altered saplings. And the writing looked like her father’s hasty longhand too. She had to rule out the possibility no matter how absurd it felt.
Mahika pulled the box down. Her father’s letters were neatly stacked and arranged in chronological order. Her anger came to a rolling boil again. Shivam had read the letters written to her, and then he had filed them in the order he liked, treating her treasure like his research papers.
Mahika’s father had written to her every week since the day she landed in New Jersey. She didn’t want to leave him alone to start a new life with Shivam. But her father’s promise to write to her kept her going. His letters arrived weekly, filling her with all the unnecessary details of his life that couldn’t be covered on a short international call.
Mahika pulled the very last letter he had written to her. It had turned pale yellow, and the ink on it had faded too. But the ‘i’ and the ‘t’ in the letters had a striking similarity to the one in the anonymous note.
Her skin lined up with goosebumps.
In the last two weeks, Mahika’s world had taken on a whispering unreality: Shivam tailoring their unborn, the baby kicking too early, and the mind-bending anonymous notes that made her feel absurd and hopeful at the same time.
Shivam’s car entered the driveway before Mahika could go through the entire stack. She hastily slid the anonymous note into the pile of her father’s old letters and dumped the pile under her mattress. She was tempted to hide under the duvet too, but her hair was dripping wet. So, she turned her back to the bedroom door and stood by the bay window, studying the unnatural blue shade of the roses and petunias in the garden.
Would the designer baby in her womb look that unnatural too?
She was on the verge of falling apart. However, the warning in the anonymous note—Shivam should not find out that you know—helped her keep a tight clutch on her emotions. Mahika hastily swallowed the tears threatening to roll down her cheeks and waited for Shivam to fuss about the wet towel tossed on his side of the bed or the tampered arrangement of spoons in the kitchen. But instead of fretting over the mess, Shivam walked towards her.
Mahika’s insides fluttered with a familiar panic— something between hatred and love—as she spotted his reflection in the window. Before Mahika could react, Shivam wrapped his arms around her, placing his chin on her left shoulder. She was tempted to cherish this moment, but the life within her stirred and dragged her back to reality. Shivam’s words again crowded her head: You have the first right to the baby.
Mahika pushed Shivam away and rushed to the washroom before her rage could spill over. She leant over the toilet and waited for her stomach to empty itself, but nothing was left in it. So, Mahika inserted a finger into her throat and waited for the food, the rage and the tears she was holding back to come out. But everything was still in there, causing a volcanic stir.
She emerged from the bathroom only when Shivam had retreated to the kitchen. She prepared herself for a takeaway Indian dinner, as it was a Monday and her husband was a creature of routine. But the leftover chicken soup and toasted bread meant Shivam had deviated from his routine.
‘We’re not cooking much at home, so I didn’t go to Little India for groceries,’ Shivam explained, handing her the food tray, trying to read her eyes. But when Mahika looked away, he said, ‘Please eat this. I will change and come.’
The soup’s tangy fragrance caused a fresh wave of nausea, killing her appetite. Yet Mahika dipped the bread in the soup and swallowed tiny bites while Shivam put the bathroom back in order: the towels folded and stacked neatly, the tissue roll’s end tucked, and the droplets of water wiped away from the slab and the mirror.
By the time Shivam had finished, Mahika had already switched off the lights, turning the room pitch dark. Another encounter with Shivam would break Mahika. The anonymous note and the unborn’s constant kicks were red flags, but the love Shivam displayed also felt equally dangerous. His gentle and loving touch had tugged at her heartstrings, reminding her of how he’d charmed her five years ago.
Living in the present felt unbearable, so Mahika closed her eyes and travelled to her past, where love and happiness had felt concordant.
Botanical Research Institute Lucknow, India
‘Mahi, it must be Shivam, my new RA. Can you please hand him the keys on the table?’ Mahika’s father had shouted from the bathroom that morning. Mahika had rushed to see the man whose arrival in her father’s lab had made him happy once again.
Mahika lost her mother to cancer when she was in the second year of her graduation. And since then, she’d failed to free her chatty, fun-loving father from the clutches of his colossal grief. But when Shivam Rathod had joined her father’s lab as a senior research associate, her father had finally stopped frowning.
Mahika wanted to thank this gentleman for dragging her father out of his grief.
She had imagined her father’s new senior research associate to be a middle-aged man with large-framed glasses. But the man staring at her with his light-brown eyes was too young to be a senior research associate. The loose white button-down shirt with blue baggy trousers was his attempt to hide his age, perhaps, but the camouflage was failing miserably.
‘Hey there. Is this Professor Mishra’s house? He asked me to collect the lab keys,’ Shivam said.
Shivam saying ‘Hey there’ instead of ‘Namaste’ confirmed her hypothesis. So he was a genius working with a team of colleagues who were almost double his age.
Her father showed up at the door. ‘This is how you want to make sure I come home early—by scaring away my genius RA and implying I live with ghosts. But Shivam isn’t scared of ghosts. Are you, Shivam? Or have you started reading Hanuman Chalisa already?’ Mahika’s father teased her in his usual sing-song voice.
‘Shivam, this is my daughter, Mahi, and this isn’t her usual get-up. So, it’s safe to collect the keys until I get approval for you to possess your own set,’ Mahika’s father said. He then lovingly wiped away the streaks of white flour from Mahika’s cheeks.
‘Sir, I’ll see you in the lab soon,’ Shivam said in a preoccupied voice. He didn’t even say hello to her. However, Shivam’s gaze paused on Mahika’s face and that pause was powerful enough to cause a flip in Mahika’s chest. Shivam showed up again the next day to collect the keys, and she felt the same unexplainable pull towards him. Mahika thought she was drawn to Shivam probably because her father kept singing his praises. But soon Shivam’s coffee-brown eyes started following her everywhere, and her cheeks would burn in anticipation of the doorbell in the mornings. Mahika knew Shivam had his own set of keys now, yet every day she craved a glimpse of him. But all Mahika got was the dinner-table discussions about Shivam and his genius mind. Mahika’s father was handing her pieces of information about Shivam like a jigsaw puzzle, and she was solving it slowly and steadily. For weeks nothing happened, and Mahika assumed the fire burning in her chest was a one-sided attraction. Until Shivam showed up unannounced in her college library.
She had read stories about the kind of love that tore you in half but experiencing it in the college corridor was different from reading about it in books.
‘I need to borrow this book, ma’am, but I’m not a student,’ Shivam said and looked at Mahika. He was soaking her up from head to toe with his eyes, like a sponge.
As expected, the librarian refused to entertain his request, and Shivam waited in anticipation for Mahika to offer her library card. But Mahika was still studying him. He looked younger in his white polo shirt and blue jeans, and his eyes looked a shade lighter than she remembered.
‘Can I borrow your card, Mahi?’ Shivam asked and broke her trance.
‘Mahika . . .’ Kirti, her friend, elbowed her, and on cue, Mahika fished her card from her bag and handed it to him.
‘Funny, I thought your name was Mahi,’ Shivam said, passing her card to the librarian. His unrestrained, disarming smile made her go weak in her knees. Mahika wanted to say something, anything, to keep the conversation going, but there was nothing she could say to impress him. She was in awe of him—her father had seen to that.
‘I’ll return it in a week. Hope that’s okay?’ Shivam asked.
Mahika nodded, her eyes now trained on the floor. She didn’t want her eyes to give away the storm brewing in her heart.
‘You can talk, right?’ Shivam asked. And Mahika nodded again, which made Shivam break into a laugh.
‘I don’t know what to—’
But before Mahika could complete her sentence, Kirti lifted her chin. ‘He’s gone. Why are you blushing like a newly-wed? Who is this guy?’
Mahika looked around. Kirti was right. Shivam had disappeared, leaving a dreamy texture behind.
Mahika spent the entire next week waiting for Shivam to show up in the library. As promised, Shivam returned on the seventh day with the book. She’d found him waiting in the corridor, with his arms folded across his chest.
‘I’ve returned the book. But I wanted to extend my thanks to you for helping me.’ Mahika flashed a nervous smile, mentally kicking herself for acting dumb. Shivam walked a step closer and tilted his head a little more. ‘You don’t like to talk or you don’t know how to talk?’
‘I don’t know what to say.’ Mahika tucked her hair behind her ear.
Shivam followed the movement of her hand with his eyes. ‘Walk me out if you’re free.’
Mahika walked with him, saying nothing. Kirti stayed where she was, but Mahika felt her best friend’s eyes burning into her back like a laser beam.
She’d have a lot of explaining to do.
‘Did you wait for me?’ Shivam asked and started walking closer to her.
Say yes, you idiot, but her tongue had turned liquid, and her heart was beating in her mouth.
‘Miss Mahika Mishra, I don’t know how you felt, but I was beating myself up for saying I’d return the book in a week. But I couldn’t have returned it the very next day, as it was meant to look like a genuine request, right, Mahi?’ Shivam stopped, turning towards her.
He was sizing her up, and his eyes felt like hands running over every inch of her body. His stare was stirring up things inside her, but before her eyes could reveal her feelings she looked away. She’d lifted her hand to tuck her hair back, but Shivam’s hand had already pinned her hair behind her right ear. His touch caused a hot swift current to run through her.
‘I could do this all day,’ Shivam said and freed her hair from behind her ear, then tucked it back again, this time running the back of his hand gently along her cheek.
‘I haven’t slept for days, Mahi. If you don’t talk to me right now, I’ll go tell your father you’re keeping me awake at night, and that’s why I can’t focus in the lab,’ Shivam said, coming a step closer.
‘No, please don’t do that,’ Mahika begged.
‘Well, only if you agree to meet me tomorrow in the library,’ Shivam said and walked away with a promise to see her. Kirti appeared out of nowhere and shot her a questioning glance.
‘Start from the start,’ she ordered. And Mahika shared every tiny detail about her handful of interactions with Shivam, which were in contrast to the feelings running riot in her heart.
‘Why am I falling for him?’ Mahika asked Kirti.
‘My dear friend, you don’t find logic in love. In Shakespeare’s words: Love is blind.’ Kirti teased her, tucking her hair behind her ear as Shivam had done a moment ago.
Love is blind, Mahika whispered.
The love that robbed you blind and now you are left with nothing.
The life within her kicked her. Mahika placed her palm on her stomach and felt a surging tide of warmth and courage. She wasn’t alone any more.
She had someone to call her own. The baby in her womb.
February 23, 2003
Goodman Road, Singapore
Shivam once again opened the drawer, pulled out the note hidden under a stack of files and read the message, hoping to find some new clues.
Hide and seek part 1: I found your lab.
The words hit him as hard as the vacant cage kept aside in the lab. Until now, Shivam had treated all the model animals as lab samples. But this one time, Shivam felt differently. Especially after the baby chimp had started making the ‘b’ sound by pressing its lips together.
It had been a breakthrough.
However, it hadn’t been enough for Dr Steven. Because the chimp had failed to produce sounds from the back of its throat, the animal had failed the experiment aimed to genetically tailor primates so they could talk like humans. Shivam would’ve waited a little longer, but Dr Steven hadn’t consulted him. And in doing so, Dr Steven Ng, the world-renowned in-vitro geneticist, had once again shown Shivam Rathod his place in the lab and Steven’s life, too.
Unable to focus on the research, Shivam left the lab, closing the door behind him. No one was in the car park, yet Shivam couldn’t wash away the feeling of being watched—not after receiving the anonymous note. He was about to unlock the car and leave when he noticed a white envelope stuck to the windshield wiper of his car. He looked around. The carpark was still empty. But someone had seen him in here. Someone who knew his name. The envelope tucked under the wiper had his name on it.
He hastily put the envelope on the passenger seat, calmed his thudding heart and drove out of the basement, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. But the anxiety of being watched still ruled his heart. Shivam looked about to spot the stalker, but no one was there. He steered the car to the nearby HDB parking, turned off the engine and opened the envelope. The note’s untidy scribble felt as childish as the content.
Hide and seek part 2: I found you. And you
thoght thought you were better at playing hide and seek.
Shivam turned over the page. It was blank. He studied the note, the messy longhand had childlike strokes. He examined the paper closely. Someone had nicked the corner multiple times, nipping an uneven half-moon in every pinch, as if the author had fiddled with the paper while writing this one line. He read the note again. Hide and seek had been Shivam’s favourite game as a kid, but that was decades ago. And no one from his past could have found him in his new life.
The note must be referring to the lab. He should inform Dr Steven. But Dr Steven had not come to the lab since the day he’d put the chimp to sleep. Shivam decided to call him after dinner and drove back home, thinking that a scrumptious meal waiting at the dinner table would calm his nerves. But the house still smelt of the citrus room freshener he’d sprayed in the morning. The missing aroma of freshly cooked roti meant Mahika was still suffering from morning sickness.
Shivam performed an unenthusiastic check of the living, dining and spare bedroom, then walked to the backyard door. The door latch was still pointing up, yet he opened the makeshift temple door and inhaled the still air. The musty stale air spreading in the shed slowly overcame the permanent fragrance of the sandalwood incense sticks. The Shivling on the altar table, usually loaded with fresh jasmine flowers and vermillion, was bare. Mahika’s raging hormones had kept her away from her kitchen and her Shiv for almost two weeks. And for a change, Shivam was glad for it.
In the kitchen, he took leftover chicken soup from the fridge, dumped it in a pot on the slow burner and walked up to the bedroom.
Mahika had just come out of the shower, yet she was still wearing one of her old, faded cotton nightgowns. Today she’d chosen the one Shivam hated the most. The batik prints on it looked like ink splotches. The curly ends of her hair were still shedding a few droplets. Before the tiny puddle on the floor could trigger Shivam’s irritation, the tilt of Mahika’s head shifted his mood. She was admiring his garden downstairs, which was a riot of rainbow colours. He was particularly proud of his genetically modified blue petunias. Shivam walked to the window, and the waft of Mahika’s rose-scented body soap generated a surge of desire in him, and the need to feel her skin against Shivam’s blurred his fear of germs considerably.
Shivam had expected Mahika’s body to melt in his arms, but she gently pushed him away. A knot twisted in his stomach. Their relationship had changed a lot in the last five years, from Mahika waiting at the doorsteps for Shivam’s return to welcoming him from the aroma-filled kitchen, to ignoring his arrival. Shivam had seen the gap widening between them. But pushing him away was a new low in their relationship. Was it the pregnancy hormones, or did she know something she wasn’t supposed to?
Before his doubt could grow more, Mahika began to retch. Shivam scooped Mahika’s damp towel, neatly folded the unevenly bundled-up duvet and arranged the pillows on the bed three times. It calmed his mind. He walked down to the kitchen to serve the leftover chicken soup, as this was the only time when Mahika would agree to eat. Mondays were supposed to be Indian takeaway dinners, a ritual Mahika had started by going to the temple every Monday evening. But the arrival of that anonymous note had meddled with his routine trip to Little India. Thinking of the note brought his simmering worry to a boil, unlike the soup, which was still too cold to be edible. Shivam gave the soup a long stir as he pulled the note from his pocket and read it again. The longhand was as unreadable as a doctor’s prescription, but the childish grammatical errors made him think this was the work of a kindergartener. However, the tiny circle on every ‘I’ reminded him of Mahika’s father. Prof. Mishra, Mahika’s father, used to dot his i’s in a similar fashion.
The soup boiled over and spilt around the gas stove, bringing his attention back to the task at hand. He poured the rest of the soup into a bowl, toasted the bread and walked up the stairs, once again remembering the hatred with which Mahika had pushed him away. Mahika had started acting in a very strange way ever since her last visit to the clinic.
What was she hiding?
Your baby is now about three-fourth of an inch long— about the size of a grape or an olive. It’s an exciting time for your baby: major organs continue developing; arms are growing; elbows can bend. Tiny toes develop, and the ears and eyelids that began emerging a week ago continue to form. Your baby is becoming more active, although it’s too soon for you to feel the motion. It may be possible for the heartbeat to be detected on a handheld Doppler ultrasound.
Thirty-one weeks to go!
March 2, 2003
Goodman Road, Singapore
Shivam had destroyed the anonymous notes, but a week later, they still ran in his mind like a hamster endlessly spinning a wheel. He’d woken up to his alarm clock, but before the desire to sleep more could take over, the silence in the bedroom sent a jolt of panic through him.
Mahika wasn’t there.
He rushed to the bathroom and found the door ajar. Before the tightening in his chest could grow, the microwave’s beep made him sigh with relief. Mahika was in the kitchen. Cooking. She had nowhere to go.
Shivam mentally kicked himself for letting his fear take over; it was becoming a fixation. He made the bed, arranging the pillows. Generally, it calmed him— arranging the pillows three times—but not today. He inhaled and exhaled the waft of roasted semolina. The thought of Mahika prepping for upma, his favourite breakfast, should’ve calmed his nerves. But it did the opposite. The mess in the kitchen, the tiny granules of semolina sparkling on the black granite kitchen counter bothered him. The cellphone on his nightstand vibrated, and his anxiety shifted as the green screen lit up.
Coast clr. Appt at 3 pm tdy. Skp ur lnch visit.
Shivam was still staring at the text when he heard something in the kitchen fall. Mahika had dropped a jar. Nothing unusual. But today his agitation swelled to an unprecedented magnitude. With another ping on the phone, the second problem multiplied as well.
I dn’t wnt ny scare ths time. Keep her on a shrt leash.
Shivam’s anxiety spread like fire in his chest and throat. He walked to the bathroom, locked the door behind him and calmed his ragged breathing. But the finger stain on the vanity cabinet mirror added to his agitation. He ignored the stain, opening the cabinet to get his medicine, but the disturbed order of the medicine bottles acted like a match to gunpowder. He’d rearranged them from tallest to shortest last night. But Mahika had disturbed their arrangement when taking her medicine. Shivam popped a pill and shut the cabinet before his anger could spill. The chaos in the medicine cabinet disappeared. But he saw the spare hand towels unevenly folded. Mahika had yet again pulled the lowest towel from the stack.
He could handle this.
Shivam splashed cold water on his face and waited for the medicine to work, but the ugly sight of Mahika’s comb filled with loose hairs was too much to ignore. He pulled out a set of disposable gloves from the cabinet beneath the sink and cleaned the comb. But the hairs were still there. A strand on the bathroom counter, two on the floor and many resting on the drain in the shower. He had to get rid of those before he choked. Shivam frantically wiped the vanity cabinet’s shelves, and soon the need to vigorously scrub every nook and corner of the bathroom took over.
Over the years, Shivam had learnt to tame his meltdowns. But today he was fully under their spell. The mantra you-will-scare-Mahika-and-the-baby didn’t work either.
To his surprise, Mahika stayed away from him and the room while Shivam’s compulsive need to clean shifted from the bathroom to the bedroom.
Shivam came downstairs only when his medicine had complete control over his nerves, leaving the bathroom and the bedroom sparkling clean in his wake. He had expected Mahika to be in the shed, which would let him escape, but she was in the kitchen, packing his lunch. Before he could find the right words to apologize, Mahika rushed to the washroom with her left hand covering her mouth. A feeling of relief immediately replaced his remorse. Today, his meltdown had killed two birds with one stone: it had released his anxiety and also helped him dodge a conversation about the door’s new lock.
Shivam lifted the lid, anticipating upma but was startled to see halwa instead. He pushed away the casserole and lathered two slices of bread with butter, put them in a LocknLock, and rushed out of the house before Mahika could return from the washroom and ask for the lock’s password. He could come up with an excuse for the lock later, but first, he had to find out what was going on with Mahika. The alarm in his mind had started ringing again.
March 2, 2003
Goodman Road, Singapore
Mahika woke up with debilitating nausea, rushed to the washroom and emptied the contents of her stomach into the toilet, but her stomach still felt as heavy as a boulder. Shivam’s betrayal hid in the pit of her stomach, keeping her unborn mutant company. Yes, that’s what it was—a mutant that had jumped the growth chart, kicking her eight weeks too early.
And thanks to the evil concoction of her raging emotions and hormones, she’d done nothing about the lock. She didn’t have the energy to worry about the lock, the baby trapped in her womb or the writer of the note calling her a procrastinator. She could barely manage to reach the washroom to throw up. Mahika had been diagnosed with hyperemesis gravidarum, a medical term for severe nausea and vomiting, during her first pregnancy, and it had come back with a vengeance in every pregnancy since, incapacitating her. But this time the anti-vomiting medicine her obstetrician had prescribed wasn’t helping, and the hormones injected into her, to stabilize her pregnancy, were making it worse.
Mahika had been about to nibble on a cracker when the craving to eat halwa—the one her mother cooked— gripped her hard. She pushed away the image of roasted semolina swelled in ghee, but the craving multiplied with every breath. Mahika had not felt like eating anything for weeks. She caved, going down to the kitchen to roast the semolina, waiting for its fragrance to kill her appetite. However, the fragrance teased her hunger instead. She was about to crush the cardamom in when the pestle slipped from her hand and dropped to the floor, making a loud thudding noise. The baby in her womb kicked almost instantly as if also startled by the thud. But before Mahika could discount it as a coincidence, Shivam had started throwing things upstairs, announcing his meltdown.
Welcome back to your life, she thought.
Mahika walked to the kitchen sink and ran the faucet, trying to drown out the little voices in her head, at least, if not the non-stop thudding coming from the bedroom. But her stomach was still a rolling boil—growing, with the increasing noise upstairs. She blocked her ears and waited for the moment to pass, but something within her couldn’t calm down.
Mahika placed her hands on her belly and was startled by the powerful kicks. The life within her was throwing his legs and hands in panic, responding to the sounds coming from upstairs.
It had taken a week for Mahika to come to terms with her unborn baby kicking eight weeks early. And now the baby was startled by these sounds. They were loud and annoying, but were they loud enough to penetrate her womb?
‘Calm down, kiddo.’ But her touch and her command held no weight. She picked up the pregnancy guidebook, flipping to the ninth week’s milestones. Nothing. Mahika then jumped to the sixteenth week’s milestones and then to the seventeenth week. Nothing.
She read the growth benchmark of an eighteen- week-old foetus. The structures inside the baby’s ear develop around week eighteen. Your baby can hear your stomach gurgle and air whoosh in and out of your lungs. Not until weeks twenty-seven to thirty would your baby start reacting to voices and noises filtering into the womb.
But she was in her ninth week. How could the life within her register all those thuds upstairs?
Another loud thud came from upstairs, followed by another kick in her womb. Mahika’s heart ached in an unfamiliar way. Instead of playing Mozart for his unborn, Shivam was hurling insults, screaming and shouting like an animal.
The very thought of her unborn tormented by this pandemonium stirred in her a volcanic mix of anger, sadness, betrayal—and an ounce of courage, too.
She had to end this all. If not for herself, for him.
Mahika let the wave of courage subside, as she always did. She could barely stand straight without throwing up. How would she plan her escape? She pulled out the tattered spiral notebook from her recipe books. It still smelt of her mother. Mahika folded the notebook into a hug and stayed there. The sounds coming from upstairs became bearable, but only for her. The life within her was still kicking with the same intensity.
‘You and me, we have no place to go. This is all we have. The sooner you accept that, the better it will be for you,’ she said.
Was it her imagination or did the kicking stop? She waited for another thud to startle the baby, but the house had also fallen silent, suggesting the end of Shivam’s meltdown. As she crushed the cardamom, Mahika rehearsed her words to casually inquire about the new lock on the door. However, nothing today was going as planned. The overwhelming fragrance of freshly crushed cardamom—always bringing with it memories—triggered her nausea. This let Shivam escape. The charade of normality and the ready lunch bag, neither had inspired Shivam to share the password. He left for work, locking the door behind him.
An image of a canary bird flashed in her mind. A bright-yellow bird singing the sweetest melody, locked in a cage.
Rudra would be his next canary bird. The name ‘Rudra’, suggested in the anonymous note, had appeared on her lips from nowhere. ‘Rudra,’ she said, fighting tears. Mahika summoned him again and patted her belly. But there was no movement in her womb. She’d imagined it all. He couldn’t hear. But she didn’t care. The thought of him being there was comforting enough.
Shivam had warned her not to get attached to the baby until she had crossed the twelve-week milestone in her pregnancy, but how could she ignore the little flutter in her womb? In Shivam’s eyes, it might not be a baby, but in her heart, the baby became real from the moment she conceived. And like every mother-to-be, Mahika had hoped and dreamt for her unborn in every pregnancy. Her last three pregnancies terminated too soon, and the stream of blood between her legs left behind grief, guilt and emptiness. With every miscarriage, Mahika lost trust in her body, in herself and her future. However, in this pregnancy, Rudra’s powerful kicks had rekindled her hope.
Mahika patted once again, and this time he kicked back as if reciprocating the love Mahika had begun feeling for him.
‘Hey, little one. Let us call you Rudra for now,’ she said and paused to weigh the word ‘now’, calculating how long this happiness might last. Twelve weeks. Or sixteen? That’s how far she’d gotten with her previous pregnancies.
But the baby’s powerful kick again pushed away her negativity, and Mahika blissfully indulged herself in this one-sided conversation.
‘Hello again, little one. I’m your mommy, and my name is Mahika. But I guess that’s not the kind of introduction we should have. You will first know me by my fragrance, my voice and then by my name. But let’s cross the bridge when it comes. For now, be assured these meltdowns and these loud noises aren’t a regular feature. Don’t worry, these incidents happen when your father is anxious. There must be something very important going on at work. Your father is a genius, Rudra. However, nature has balanced his perfections by giving him a temper. Ironically enough, his fetish for perfection is what makes him imperfect. Because all his mood swings and obsessions circle back to his desire for perfection.’ Mahika spooned a bite of halwa. She thoroughly enjoyed her son’s company while she ate breakfast.
‘I was also scared when it happened the first time. We were in New Jersey back then. It was a month shy of our first wedding anniversary. Your father had an important work meeting that morning. I can’t remember what it was, but it was important. He’d requested that I iron his white button-down shirt again. I couldn’t spot the invisible wrinkles, but to calm his nerves I ironed it again. But in ironing it again, I’d left a pale-yellow iron stain. A moment later, an ear-splitting scream startled me. The way it probably startled you today. Thankfully, you’re spared from seeing the mayhem upstairs. But that day, I saw it for the first time: the wreckage his anger had left behind. All his colour-coordinated shirts, his neatly folded T-shirts and boxers—which he fussed over every day—were on the floor. Amid this chaos, he radiated a rage I’d never experienced before. I approached him to shake him out of his rage and to offer some help cleaning the mess on the floor, but then he twisted my arm and spat an insult at me. The food you eat comes from the money I earn. And that requires going to work in a clean shirt. Can you make sure of that at least?’
Mahika swallowed the lump in her throat. The lump that had stayed there since Shivam’s first meltdown. Today, for the first time, she felt this lump easing. As if telling this story was the mechanism to dissolve it. She’d been holding in her pain for so long that her words had started flowing like a broken dam.
‘Rudra, that day, soon after his meltdown, I called my father, but the line went dead right when I needed him the most. I waited for an entire morning for the dial tone to return while I rehearsed my lines. I didn’t know where to start, as I’d never told my father about Shivam’s obsession with cleanliness and the number of household chores I had to do to keep him happy. I’d tried talking to my father several times, but he was living all alone in India and giving him another thing to worry about seemed too selfish. But that day, I couldn’t dismiss Shivam’s meltdown, because the bruise on my wrist was a red flag of physical and mental abuse. And, for the first time, I wasn’t blaming my carelessness for his outburst. Nothing I could’ve done would’ve warranted Shivam’s crossing that line. But he had crossed that line, Rudra. And I had accepted it. I should’ve walked out of the house that very day, but instead, I waited for the phone to work. I wrote an email to my father, but then I deleted it. The warmth of my father’s voice would’ve helped me gather the courage I needed to walk out of my marriage or confront Shivam, but the dead phone line left me lonely and shattered. By evening, I’d packed my bag, determined to go back to my father. But the white lilies in Shivam’s hands and his remorse-filled face melted my heart. Dinner in a nice restaurant, a list of universities to apply to a course in architecture and a promise to never lose his temper again were all it took for me to forgive his first meltdown. Rudra, the idiot I am, it took me two meltdowns to deduce the pattern. Shivam’s outburst, his stinging comments and the faulty phone line. A gift and a dinner at a fine dining restaurant. These were Shivam’s means to absolve himself from his abusive meltdowns. But by then, my father had succumbed to a heart attack, and I had nowhere to go. My grandmother, aunts and uncles would never accept my decision to walk out of a marriage, as to them, my failed marriage would mean social failure and a burden on them. And seeking support from Kirti, my best friend from college, wasn’t possible. She was living in a joint family, fighting her own battles. I had nowhere to go, and I learnt to swallow every insult, fooling myself that this was his last abuse.’
Mahika suddenly had to rush to throw up the halwa that she’d devoured. She held her head in her hands, reliving Shivam’s every meltdown and the scars they’d left behind.
‘But you’re not an orphan, Rudra. And I’ll do whatever it takes to shield you from his anger.’ Mahika stood up from the bathroom floor. Before her courage could fizzle out, she rushed to the emergency cabinet mounted in the entry hallway. The torchlight, the camping bag, the Swiss army knife and the emergency bars were all neatly stacked on the shelves. The red fireproof bag holding important documents was there too. But her passport wasn’t in it. And the traveller’s cheque her father had given her five years ago to facilitate her first international travel from India to New Jersey was also missing. Shivam had never removed the passports from the red bag except when they were travelling, and the bag was always somewhere accessible in the house. In case of a fire or any other emergency, he’d explained to Mahika. The idea of storing all the important documents in a fireproof bag had felt extreme—until now.
Where was her passport?
The image of the canary bird again flashed in her mind. Shivam had not only caged her, but he had also clipped her wings.
Mahika spent the next hour searching the house for her passport. She wanted to rummage through every drawer and rearrange things later. But placing Shivam’s things back in the same meticulous order he preferred was a Herculean task that Mahika had yet to master. She thought of that second note, telling her not to alert Shivam. So, she searched one stack at a time, which took excruciatingly long.
Thankfully, Mahika had an entire day at her disposal, or so she’d assumed. She heard Shivam’s approaching footsteps, ceased her search and ducked under the duvet just in time. Shivam came in and opened the same closet door Mahika had just searched.
Had Shivam been watching her? A shiver went down her spine.
March 2, 2003
Goodman Road, Singapore
I wasn’t sure what left me more perplexed—my father’s screaming or my mother’s resignation.
‘You and me, we have no place to go. This is all we have. The sooner you accept this, the better it will be for you,’ my mother said, killing the tiny tendrils of hope sprouting in my heart.
So, this is how she lives. And you’re soon going to end up with her. I think you’re better here. What do you say?
I was wishing for an exit from this exile, and the exile that would soon follow when my mother christened me. I had a name now—Rudra. A name that marked the beginning of my existence in her world. A name that broke the dam of her silence and brought along stories of pain and loneliness. But instead of sympathizing with her, I wanted to shake her, to coax her to end all this.
I didn’t yet know that nothing can throw you on the path of disaster more than love.
‘I’m looking for my passport in case we need it. I have no one in this country who would come to our rescue. Not that going back to India would be any better. We’ll have no one to support us. At least we can hide from Shivam and his team, but only if I can keep you in my womb for that long.’
‘Only if I can keep you in my womb.’ And with her words, my hope disappeared like the glow of a firefly.
You might die before being born.
The voice in my head delivered this like a joke.
My soon-to-be-mother, unaware of the fear she’d instilled in me, was moving things, picking them up and putting them down with a thud. I couldn’t see her. I couldn’t help her, but I knew how it felt: locked in darkness. She spent hours pacing, and I stirred within her. Helpless. Her desire to break free triggered a storm within me.
You might not live, but she can.
The need to help her tightened its grip on me. There was a word to describe how it felt, but I couldn’t recall it—not until my mother’s words came back to me. ‘Your father gets driven by his obsessions.’ Yes, she’d used the word ‘obsession’ to justify my father’s actions this morning.
So, you have taken after your father.
According to the letter my mother had received, my genius father had designed me hoping for a perfect baby. But this untenable feeling running riot within me wasn’t a sign of perfection.
Didn’t she say that nothing could ever miss his sharp eyes?
But he’d missed the compulsiveness that silently sneaked through his DNA.
What else did he miss?
March 2, 2003
Goodman Road, Singapore
‘Mahika, we have an appointment with your doc.’ Shivam gently prodded her shoulder. The knot in her
chest opened a bit. He was there to take her to the clinic. That explained his meltdown. He was nervous about the baby.
Mahika got ready and went downstairs. Shivam was waiting at the main door, his back hiding the new lock.
‘You go and sit in the car. I’ll lock up,’ Shivam said.
Mahika walked to the car while he hastily punched in the passcode. She was tempted to turn back and ask about the lock, but then his body language suggested she shouldn’t.
Maybe she could run away from the clinic. But where would she go?
She watched Shivam turn the doorknob once. Twice. And before he could check the third time, Mahika looked away.
Was it always that easy to predict his next move?
The long ride to the clinic generated a fresh wave of nausea. As with everything else, Shivam had anticipated this. He handed her some air sickness bags and pointed to the disposal bag next to her feet.
‘Remind me to talk to the doctor about changing your anti-vomit medicines, Mahi. You’ve lost a lot of weight, and it’s not good for the baby. And listen, don’t wander around in the clinic this time. I don’t want to involve the entire clinic in finding you. I was so embarrassed the last time around. Okay?’ Shivam said and suggested she take a sip from the ice-filled tumbler he must’ve filled while she was getting ready. Mahika noticed the sachets of ginger candies on the dashboard, and his silent care made Mahika doubt her feelings again. Shivam cared for her and loved her too. But his love was different.
Unusual. And it disappeared as quickly as it appeared. He was passionate and loving in one moment and cold and indifferent in another. Shivam was raised by his uncle, and the absence of his mother’s unconditional love and his father’s protection had perhaps twisted Shivam’s feelings. Mahika always had an excuse for Shivam’s love and abuse. Until now.
Shivam drove to the HDB car park near the clinic. Today she was newly alert to her surroundings like a blind person seeing the world for the first time. Shivam had again avoided the clinic’s car park. His stiff shoulders and his roving eyes meant that he was scared. Mahika slowed her steps, and he regulated his pace, not giving her a moment alone.
Shivam was scared of someone.
Secretly and illegally designing a genetically modified baby must’ve required an army of people, and maybe Shivam had rubbed someone in the clinic the wrong way.
‘Madam Rathod,’ the nurse said and ushered them into the doctor’s cabin. Mahika had to exercise all her self-control to not let the memories of her last visit determine her actions.
‘How are you feeling today?’ Dr Cynthia, her obstetrician, asked with a smile, beckoning Mahika to lie flat on the examination bench. The doctor did a quick pelvic examination and referred to Mahika’s reports. ‘You’ve lost a considerable amount of weight in the last two weeks. I’m increasing the dosage of your anti- vomiting pill. You need to force yourself to eat or else you’ll become dehydrated.’ To Shivam, she said, ‘You need to take better care of your wife.’ She flashed a genuine smile and handed their file to the nurse standing by her side. Either Dr Cynthia wasn’t part of this charade, or she was a seasoned player too, because Mahika felt nothing off-kilter.
‘Maybe I’ll go to Mustafa tonight to pick some Indian snacks for you,’ Shivam said. They waited outside for the nurse to dispense the pills prescribed by the doctor.
‘The doctor has requested an ultrasound scan as you have a history of miscarriages.’ The nurse ushered them to the scan room before Mahika could get herself together. The news of an unscheduled ultrasound fell on Mahika like an unexpected blizzard. She’d deliberately not mentioned the premature quickening to Shivam. However, the technician’s probe was about to spill the beans, bringing an end to her lies and Shivam’s too.
‘Let’s hear the heartbeat first, Mrs Rathod,’ the technician said. A shiver went down her spine. It was the same cold voice that had warned Shivam to treat this pregnancy like a project. The man’s eyes were too blue to go unnoticed and they stood in contrast to his Chinese features.
‘This gel might feel a little cold,’ he said and gently spread it over Mahika’s belly. The hairs at the back of her neck stood up as the technician moved the probe across her stomach.
‘There it is. Your baby with a head, a torso and tiny limbs,’ the technician said.
You have the first right to the baby. Shivam’s words came unbidden and stirred in her more pain. Mahika held back her tears and waited for the technician to figure out
the extraordinary length of the foetus’s legs, but the blue- eyed man didn’t give away anything.
The scan couldn’t miss the size of the baby’s limbs. Could it? Or were the baby’s limbs growing normally, and she was imagining things?
Mahika walked to the washroom, and this time Shivam followed, staying suffocatingly close. Mahika felt an urge to break free. She curbed her impulse, however, and stayed in the cubical, shedding silent tears of fear and anger. She didn’t know anyone in Singapore who could help her, and going to the police meant exposing Rudra. Her high-risk pregnancy needed close monitoring—more so because the baby was genetically modified.
She was once again finding excuses instead of taking action. She needed to find a way to fight back instead of living in denial. Did she need a stranger to write a note and coax her to protect her flesh and blood?
It was as if the thought of that note had conjured another envelope. Mahika picked up the envelope that had just been slid into the bathroom cubical. She read the note, feeling the thud of her heart in her cheeks.
It’s not too late, Mahi. You can start afresh. All you must do is believe in yourself. I always wanted you to stand on your feet. I think it’s time to act and fight back. You always needed a push. So here is where you can start. But remember to be careful.
‘All you have to do is believe in yourself’ was her father’s favourite phrase. Mahika had grown up hearing it,
especially when her courage to take up a task had fallen short. All her long-distance phone conversations with her father had been about gaining financial independence.
Someone was messing with her, making her believe that the notes were written by her father. Could it be part of Shivam’s plan?
But why would Shivam reveal his plan? Unless he wanted a way out? Or was she reading too much into this? Mahika was about to stuff the note back into the envelope when two ten-dollar bills and a tiny piece of paper in the envelope caught her attention. An address was scribbled on the paper, and below the address was a
note that looked like an afterthought.
Money is for the taxi. In case you are deprived of that too.
But how was she supposed to leave the hospital?
‘Hello, Mommy. Hope you’re doing okay. Your hubby seems worried,’ a woman said.
‘Yes,’ Mahika called loudly enough for Shivam to hear her. The woman sounded American.
Maybe she was another pregnant mother. Or her mysterious helper?
Mahika hastily put the envelope and notes in her bag and rushed out to chase the woman. But no one else was in the restroom. Just a faint fragrance of perfume. She wanted to rush out, but Shivam was waiting for her outside. Mahika splashed water on her face, hoping to achieve the fake calmness that Shivam could wear with such ease. But the notes and the ten-dollar bills resting in her bag had revved up her heartbeat. And Shivam guarding the door made her breath echo in her ears.
If Shivam was waiting outside the washroom, how did someone manage to slip the envelope into the cubical? Because her anonymous messiah was here to beat Shivam at his own game. Or was this all part of
Clementi Fertility Clinic, Singapore
March 2, 2003
The tiny pea pod in Mahika’s womb had shot legs and hands in the last three weeks, and Shivam’s perfect creation had officially transformed into a foetus. Yet he didn’t allow himself to relish this success.
A premature celebration often left too much ache to endure.
Shivam’s heart kicked as Dr Steven placed the calliper’s ends to measure the unborn’s crown-to-rump length. Dr Steven had decided to mitigate the risk of being exposed by keeping the ultrasound technician out. Consequently, Shivam had to memorize data points to compensate for the ease with which the numbers would come to a technician. Shivam compared the numbers stored in his head to the ones reflected on the screen. The numbers were three and a half times more than his baby’s gestational age. The measurements for the head, the abdominal circumferences and the femur bone were off the charts too. The ten-week-old foetus in Mahika’s womb showed the growth of a sixteen-week-old foetus. However, Mahika’s flat belly defied these numbers.
That was why Shivam had been against Dr Steven doing the scan by himself.
Shivam, then, noticed movement on the screen. The midget had lifted his hand and put it to his mouth. Another milestone that wasn’t age-appropriate.
Dr Steven said, ‘You can wipe off the gel. I’ll send the report to your doctor.’
Shivam followed Mahika to the washroom and paced outside, worrying about the baby.
Was Mahika taking unusually long or was time moving too slowly?
Shivam impatiently waited for her return when he noticed someone watching him from a half-opened door. He brushed it away, but the feeling of being watched was too profound to ignore.
Shivam rushed to catch the blackmailer, but no one was in the room. He checked under the table, behind the curtains and in a tall storage unit mounted on one wall. Nothing. The silhouette he’d spotted a moment ago had disappeared into thin air. Shivam was about to leave when he saw an envelope on the table with his name on it. He slid open the envelope and read the note:
Hide and seek part 3: I have found your wife. Now let’s see if I can help her find the perfect baby hiding within her, and the real Shivam, too.
The paper looked almost identical to the paper the previous notes had been written on. The longhand was also similar. The notes were written by the same person,
using the same resources: an old notepad and an old ballpoint pen that had erratically spat ink.
‘Can I help you?’ A lady in blue scrubs asked him, which made him realize his mistake. He’d left Mahika alone in the washroom.
Shivam put the note in his pocket and ran to the washroom. He requested the Caucasian woman emerging from the washroom to check on his wife. Mahika’s robust voice brought a sigh of relief.
Shivam resumed his pacing and gathered courage to inform Dr Steven about the blackmailer. He was scared of the consequences since the last visit had triggered panic in Dr Steven, who had then twisted Shivam’s arm to keep Mahika behind closed doors.
Maybe Dr Steven was receiving these notes too. And that’s why he’d wanted to imprison Mahika. How was he going to explain that to Mahika? She had seen the new lock.
Before Shivam could find answers to the problems closing down on him at a neck-breaking speed, Mahika came out of the washroom clutching her bag too close to her chest. Her face was white as chalk powder and her eyes were streaked with red.
‘Are you okay?’ he asked.
‘I can’t stop throwing up,’ she said.
‘Take this. Hopefully, the increased dose will help,’
Shivam said, handing her the ginger candy sachet. He looked away from Mahika’s gaunt face. She’d aged considerably in one week. But the raging hormones were happy news for the baby, which he told Mahika, also reassuring her that the increased dosage of the anti-vomit pill would bring her some relief. As he drove Mahika home, his thoughts were running miles a minute, and by the time they reached Goodman Road, Shivam had found a solution for the lock problem.
A little planning went a long way.
‘Mahika, I’m not sure if you noticed the new digital lock. I wanted to ask you before accepting the owner’s request to change the lock, but you were in a miserable state. Don’t worry about remembering the passcode. We’ll figure out a way to help you remember it. Because we don’t want to repeat the New Port Mall fiasco, right?’ Shivam said as they approached the house.
At the doorstep, Shivam shared the PIN code for Mahika to punch into the silicone pad, displaying the same level of patience he’d shown while teaching her to operate an ATM in New Jersey. However, the impetuous Mahika had paused before punching in 1, 9 and 2. Shivam noticed the slight bounce in her step as she unlocked the door.
She’d known about the lock and had been waiting for him to share the passcode. Whatever rocked her boat. Momentarily.
Hours later, Shivam punched in the same passcode three times to make sure it no longer worked. He could play this game of cat and mouse for at least a few more days.
Or maybe he’d get lucky the way he had got lucky with the ATM passcode.
Shivam retreated to the bedroom, feeling accomplished. This problem was sorted, for now, bringing his attention back to the unborn’s erratic growth pattern. But the slight shift in his neat arrangement of clothes in the wardrobe consumed all his mental space. The hangers holding his button-down shirts and trousers were slightly askew, as if they’d been pushed to one side and then moved back. But he’d rearranged his wardrobe this morning during his meltdown.
He was imagining things.
But suspicion had already started tightening its noose around him. Shivam pulled open his briefs drawer and spotted the tilt in the drawer’s liner. His things had been tampered with. He sat on the bench in the walk- in wardrobe and replayed the morning in his head. There hadn’t been much time between his meltdown and Mahika’s nap for her to meddle with his things.
Unless she hadn’t been sleeping when she said she had been. Or had someone broken in when they’d been at the clinic?
He decided to check on Mahika. At the clinic, he’d dismissed Mahika’s flushed cheeks as an after-effect of throwing up—the way he’d discounted her clenching her handbag too tight as her fear of losing it. But now his disturbed clothes steered his thoughts in a different direction.
She was hiding something. Maybe in her bag.
March 2, 2003
Goodman Road, Singapore
Mahika closed her eyes tight at the sound of his footsteps. Shivam was tiptoeing into their bedroom, and before she could make sense of this, he’d left.
With her handbag.
Once again, the urge to confront him gripped her, but she stayed glued to the bed. Something in the wardrobe had made him suspicious. Maybe she’d screwed up in keeping his things in the right order. Nothing missed his sharp eyes.
She heard his footsteps receding into silence and imagined the scene: Shivam emptying her bag on a newspaper and his gloved hands wiping the bag’s contents before replacing them. The old half-used tissue packets and biscuit sachets with broken cookies would finally meet their fate tonight. But Shivam wouldn’t find what he might have if Mahika’s instincts hadn’t guided her.
She slid her hand under her pillow and felt the envelope she’d just put there. Betrayal had sharpened her instincts. Or were these her motherly instincts, which had begun to grow alongside her baby?
But why was Shivam searching her bag? To find the note? How could he know about it?
Because he was the one writing them. Trapping her in a new lie.
The hasty writing and the paper’s torn edges were just distractions. He was probably planning to lock her away somewhere where no one could ever find her.
He’d given the door’s passcode, using it as bait.
March 2, 2003
Goodman Road, Singapore
‘Inhale and exhale. One more time. Now focus all your attention on your breathing.’ An unfamiliar voice startled me.
Is he asking you, dude? But your lungs are still under construction.
‘Now follow the sensation of your breath as it goes in and out. Your attention will leave the rhythm of your breath and wander, but bring it back to the inhale and exhale.’
My mother inhaled and exhaled. The instructions were for her. But where were we? And who was this man giving orders?
‘Be gentle to your wandering mind yet train it to come back. It’s like training to ride a horse: slow and steady. And once your mind is focused on your breath, tilt your chin up and bring your attention to the spot between your eyes. Inhale and exhale, and centre all your attention between your eyebrows now.’
My mother again followed the command. Her heart, which had not normalized since her return from the clinic, resumed its pace.
‘Come on, you can try too,’ the voice said as if inviting me to join the party.
Inhale and exhale without lungs, a must-try.
I ignored the voice in my head and brought my attention to my mother’s inhale and exhale. It felt therapeutic.
‘Now imagine a tiny sun glowing on your forehead, right between your eyes. Breathe in and breathe out, channelling all your thoughts and energies to create that golden dot. Sit still and visualize seeing nothing but this light.’
Do you want to like switch positions? You can’t see anything, and our friend here wants everything around
him to disappear. The grass is always greener on the other side, boss.
‘Don’t try hard. Let it come to you.’ His calm voice overrode the little voice in my head. This voice had a hypnotic charm to it, like a witch casting a slow spell. I was under the spell, just as my mother was. I focused my energy on my mother’s breath and waited for the golden dot. But before I could spot the sun glowing between my eyebrows, it disappeared, flooding my mind with endless thoughts.
‘Let your thoughts run their course.’ The voice read my mind.
I tried again. But my thoughts were still running riot in my brain. The more I tried, the worse it got. And then, when I was about to give up, the world around me turned stony silent. The spot between my eyebrows lit up. I could see a round ball of light growing in diameter, consuming me. I did what I was told. I became one with this giant ball of heat. A sudden surge of energy filled my veins as if the power of an unbroken current had found a path through my cells.
I had awakened in a new way.
Loved the excerpt? Review it on Instagram and tag us @penguinindia and @nidiupadhayaywrites, using #ReadingTheUnbornBook – you could stand a chance to win an early copy of Nidhi Upadhyay’s jaw-dropping thriller I Hear You!
Releasing 17th April! Pre-order now.