Read time: 21 mins

Accidents are prohibited

by Gitanjali Joshua
20 September 2022

‘Accidents are prohibited’ was shortlisted for the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

 

Kalai swirled the pieces of meat around in the water and tipped the water into the sink, using her free hand as a barrier across the mouth of the steel bowl. The water drained away, tinted a faint pink from the blood. A few small pieces escaped her hand and had to be picked out of the sink, rinsed and put back into the bowl. When Kalai was a child, her Amma had shown her how to rinse the pieces of beef before cooking them. Kalai had yet to master Amma’s deft tilt of the bowl. Little Kalai had wanted desperately to be part of the warm noisy world of the kitchen instead of being left undisturbed with her homework at her lonely desk. 

Kalai rinsed the meat out a few more times. She hummed to herself as she made her way around her grandmother’s kitchen and began massaging a marinade of ginger-garlic paste, chilli powder and salt into the beef. She savoured the tenderness of the meat between her fingers. The muscle was soft yet firm, unlike chicken. The fat didn’t coat her fingers the way mutton fat did.  

Sudipto was not used to cooking beef, though he was quite enthusiastic about it. He regularly cooked a range of tasty fish and chicken dishes, heavy with mustard oil, that Kalai enjoyed. They tasted of his home, he said. His vegetarian home where chicken and fish were traditionally eaten. Until she had started staying over at his flat occasionally, Kalai had never thought there was anything particular to get used to about cooking beef. She had never really thought about what it meant to not eat beef, apart from the baby-fair skin and the highly educated great-grandparents that apparently came with it. She had imagined revulsion or hatred. She hadn’t considered anything as mundane as simply not being used to it. 

The first time they had cooked beef together, Sudipto had been excited, like a little child doing something forbidden. He looked to her for guidance, asking about various details of the cooking process. How long did they have to leave the marinade in? How many whistles should they pressure-cook it for? Was this the right texture for the meat to be? His questions made her nervous. They made her think about cooking beef as a more complex ritual than cooking chicken or mutton.  

When they ate the simple beef curry they had made together, he seemed to enjoy it almost as an act of defiance. She couldn’t tell whether he relished the taste or the subversive act more. Kalai had felt conflicted. She liked that he enjoyed sharing the taste of her home, but she felt the old deference rise in her. She had to stop herself from checking again whether he was sure about eating beef. He had been annoyed when she’d asked him over and over again if he was sure he wanted to do this. 

In her mind, she heard her Appa shushing her five-year-old self roughly on the train and apologizing profusely to the horrified family in the seats next to them. It was an accident. It won’t happen again, he assured them. The mother was crying as she wiped her son’s mouth with a napkin. They had made him throw up the tiny piece of beef Kalai had offered him in exchange for the spongy dhokla he had offered her. The boy hiccoughed uncomfortably and refused to meet Kalai’s eyes. Kalai’s Appa cowered, apologizing to the little boy’s father. The man stood straight and tall in the space between the berths as he told her Appa off, softly and self-righteously. The family spoke to the Ticket Inspector, the mother still crying, and they got themselves shifted to different seats. They hadn’t known they were travelling alongside people like that. Kalai’s Appa apologized to the Ticket Inspector as well and held out a hand to shake his in thanks. The Ticket Inspector in his jet black suit drew his hand away sharply and turned aside, muttering softly to himself. Kalai’s Amma whispered to her harshly through gritted teeth: We never share beef with people we don’t know. They could be offended. You should know this by now!  The word offended hung heavy with threat in the air until they got off the train at the next station even though they had a ticket for a much longer journey.  

Eating beef with Sudipto had always carried the flavour of an event. A private challenge to a social order she hadn’t quite grasped until she left her missionary school and went to university. When she ate beef with Sudipto, it did not taste of home and noise and laughter. It tasted daring and dangerous, like standing with him at a protest march, chanting slogans outside their university, courting arrest as they protested the latest gang rape of a woman for drawing water from a well she wasn’t supposed to use or the lynching of a man suspected of storing beef in his refrigerator. It was far more dangerous for her than it was for him. 

A stray strand of hair tickled Kalai’s nose, bringing her back to the present. She rubbed her cheek against her shoulder to move the hair from her eyes without using her hands, now sticky with the marinade. She caught a glimpse of the street outside her Paati’s kitchen window. A cow grazed mindlessly, rooting around in the overspill of garbage from the dump across the street, just outside the pharmacy. On the grey cement wall behind the cow, spray-painted in bright red letters against a rectangle of blue, were the words ‘Axedents R prohibited’. Kalai wondered whether the graffiti artist was being intentionally ironic or just practising their craft. The words were quite new. The blue rectangle had been spray-painted over a faded large-nosed portrait of Gandhi that she remembered from childhood visits to her Paati’s house. Had the residents of Paati’s neighbourhood heeded the sign, making sure their little accidents happened elsewhere? 

A flimsy bit of sky-blue plastic caught under the cow’s hoof was tugged by the wind as a bus screeched past. The bus tilted dangerously as it veered around the corner, heeding the graffiti and narrowly avoiding a stray dog on its way to the dump. The cow, its ribs outlined under its skin, chomped placidly on vegetable remains and bits of plastic and turned its dead-eyed stare on Kalai through the window. Kalai looked away, feeling both mildly guilty and oddly defiant. Her hands continued to knead the marinade into the beef.  

‘Paati, I’ll put half the beef in the fridge, no?’ she yelled. Her grandmother was sitting at the dining table, chopping beans finely. 

‘Yes, ma. We’ll make biriyani with it on Sunday. Half will do for curry today. And I’ll make beans poriyal.’ 

‘Okay! I’ll make the curry now. Then I have to go and attend class. If you need more help, wait for me to finish my class, no? Please?’ 

‘Why should I ask you for help? I have been cooking since before you were born—since before your Amma was born!’ grumbled her Paati, good-naturedly. 

‘Yes, yes. I know… but still. What is the use of having a granddaughter staying with you if you won’t let her help?’ argued Kalai as she packed away half the beef for Sunday’s special meal. 

‘What is the use of staying with your Paati if you don’t let her spoil you and focus on your studies?’ parried her grandmother. 

Kalai grinned to herself as she chopped onions for the beef curry. They had settled into this easy banter after a few days of awkward conversation that stopped and started abruptly like the rickety old TVS XL her Amma’s enterprising brother used to ride. He used to ferry chickens and, from time to time, a confused goat to the city when it was new and hadn’t yet spread to include her grandparents’ house.  

At first, conversations with her Paati had revolved around health (numerous aches and pains relayed in mind-numbing detail) and unrelenting questions about when Kalai intended to get married. It had taken daily placatory phone calls from her Amma to stop Kalai from snapping at the old lady. The first week of the lockdown in Paati’s house had been like a simmering pressure cooker, with Kalai waiting to explode. 

And then, tired of Amma’s relentless reminders of how Paati had once regularly cleaned Kalai’s shit, she had hit upon a simple strategy. It happened after Paati had launched into yet another obliviously cheerful set of questions about marriage. Paati wanted to know whether Kalai would meet her friend’s grandson who had a good job as an engineer in another city even if he was a bit shy. And if not, why? Her parents had sent her to university so that she could marry a man with a good job, Paati reminded her.  

Kalai had stormed into the kitchen for a glass of water. In her head rang Amma’s pleas to be a little patient with the old woman who had made sure she and her sister went to school. As Kalai tried to calm herself, she saw the sambar vegetables laid out on the counter and started chopping them viciously. A few minutes later, Paati came in and thanked her for doing it so quickly. The tension dissipated suddenly, like a balloon deflating. Helping Paati cook could apparently be a bonding strategy and give them other things to talk about.  

As a child Kalai had been envious of the smells and sounds of the kitchen that was not allowed to be her domain. She had wanted to be part of the clangs and clatters, the movement, the sizzle, the backstage tensions and last minute rescues that led up to the grand finale on the family’s plates. The exciting world of her Amma and Paati. But they had pushed Kalai away into the sterile world of books and school. They wanted her to be more, to have a wider world to call her own.  

Returning to Paati’s kitchen during the lockdown, Kalai found ways of being with her that were not antagonistic. Ways that all the words she learnt at university did not help her capture. She learnt that the secret to a flavourful rasam was to grind the pepper, jeera and garlic together with a mortar and pestle, instead of taking a shortcut and using an electric mixer. A good rasam could cure all manner of ailments. When her Thaatha had been sick almost to the point of death two decades ago, it had been Paati’s rasam that had brought him back. She learnt that her Amma had wanted to eat beef almost every day of her pregnancy with Kalai, but when she was pregnant with Shobana, Kalai’s sister, she had detested beef in any form. Paati had run out of different ways to cook beef during those last three months of the first pregnancy when expecting Ammas were pampered no end. Kalai’s Appa himself had joined in the efforts, preparing variations on his mother-in-law’s recipes and earning himself brownie points. Kalai began to remember why she had been so drawn to the kitchen when she was a child. 

Her eyes watered, but she refused to blink. Amma had taught her to cut the fleshy purple onions all in one go without blinking. Blinking made it worse, made the eyes water uncontrollably. Sudipto was terrible with onions, so it was usually Kalai’s task to chop them whenever they cooked together. She turned from the counter holding the cutting board with its load of deadly fine-chopped onions and froze. 

The child was there, again. She smiled up at Kalai silently with big round eyes, just like Shobana’s. Her little chubby arms were outstretched, offering to take the cutting board from Kalai, the way she herself had often tried to help her Amma and slip into the happy bustle of the kitchen. The child’s button nose wrinkled hopefully at Kalai, like Sudipto’s did when he wanted to appear endearing. 

Kalai took a deep breath and closed her eyes. When she opened them, the onions had had their revenge. Her eyes watered uncontrollably. The kitchen dissolved into a liquid, surrealist rendering of itself, all curves and flowing lines. When she set the onions down and wiped her eyes, the child was gone. 

The child had first appeared two weeks into the lockdown. Kalai’s period was due, and she was feeling restless, anticipating the dull backache. She had gone to the pharmacy at the street corner and bought herself a jumbo pack of sanitary napkins and a strip of pain-killers. When she got home, Paati had scolded her for refusing the newspaper in which the pharmacist had offered to wrap the sanitary napkins. Now everyone would know. Kalai laughed off her grandmother’s concerns and stowed the pads in the cupboard that Paati had cleared out for her when the lockdown was announced, just a day into Kalai’s visit.  

When she turned, the child was there. Staring up at her out of large curious eyes just like her little sister’s. Kalai had blinked. And the child had disappeared. Kalai’s heartbeat had quickened. She had slipped a hand under the waistband of her shorts and into her underwear. Her fingers curled in the wiry hair, the thick stickiness of blood strangely absent. She drew her hand out, embarrassed, and washed it. She took a deep breath and remembered an article a friend had shared on Facebook that she had bookmarked to read later. It was about stress affecting women’s menstrual cycles during the pandemic. She wasn’t unduly worried, of course. She and Sudipto were very careful and always used a condom.  

That night, she waited for Paati to fall asleep as usual. Then she called her friend, Tanima, and whispered to her about her fears. Tanima, veteran of pregnancy scares, assured Kalai that it was very unlikely. She promised to call her cousin, a gynaecologist, in the morning. Just in case. Kalai thanked her, reassured. They spoke into the night, Kalai struggling to describe her worries about the beef-eating, vegetarian-fish-and-chicken-eating child and what place she could have in either family. 

The child took to showing up silently and unexpectedly. She never said anything. Just watched quietly as Kalai scrolled through news updates about migrant labourers, rendered superfluous in crowded cities, walking unimaginable distances to unwelcoming homes. Or about the aftermath of communal riots in the nation’s capital city. When Kalai glanced up from her phone, she was there. Observing Kalai’s expressions silently. And then she was gone, leaving a faint aftertaste of fear, reminding Kalai of more immediate dramas than those playing out in the news. 

Kalai’s Paati shuffled in to the kitchen, carrying the neatly chopped beans on another chopping board. When he was alive, Thaatha used to chop the vegetables. No one cut them quite like Kalai’s Thaatha had: meticulously even, almost as though someone had measured them out with a ruler. He always maintained that they tasted better if they were cut to the same size. Paati chopped vegetables much faster than he did. They appeared evenly chopped to Kalai, though Thaatha had always complained that Paati hacked them roughly. It was an ongoing domestic squabble between her grandparents that Kalai had never expected to miss. 

‘So when are you going to finish all this studying and give me a great-grandchild?’ asked Paati, cheerfully. 

Kalai stiffened. She forced her expression into a careless smile, ‘When you find me a nice boy who will cut vegetables just like Thaatha did.’ 

They laughed together at the impossibility of finding a man who chopped as well as her Thaatha. Kalai felt uncomfortably hot as she lit the stove. She hoped Tanima’s letter would arrive today.  

As the curry thickened on the stove, Kalai hummed to herself. She thought of her last night in the university hostel. Her roommates and she had chatted and laughed late into the night. There had been no sense of the impending lockdown.   

She stirred the curry with the wooden spoon, feeling the texture of softened meat falling apart just to the right degree. The child gazed up at Kalai from the pan of meat curry on the stove, unblinking. The face flowed and formed like a mass of thickened blood congealing. Kalai dropped the spoon and yelped softly, sucking on her finger where hot oil had splashed. 

The child’s face was gone, but she couldn’t shake her unease. The internet had promised her nothing more alarming than a heavy period if she could get hold of the right pills, should she need them. Thick clots of blood flowing like life out of Kalai’s body. Kalai felt a single bead of sweat trickling down her back slowly.  

That night, after Paati fell asleep, Kalai almost called Sudipto. Tanima’s letter hadn’t arrived yet.  

Kalai had quarrelled with Sudipto a week after the child first appeared. It was as though she had been looking for a reason. He had called as usual at night, so that her Paati would be asleep and wouldn’t overhear her whispering on the phone. He told her he missed her and was dying to see her again once the lockdown was lifted. He missed her presence, her laughter, her smile. She answered in monosyllables. He asked if everything was alright. The news from the pandemic could be overwhelming, and he knew she hadn’t spent this much time with her family since she had left school. It must be quite hard for her. As always, he sounded calm and understanding. Concerned. Without planning it, the words spilled out. Do you truly love me, or am I just a way for you to convince yourself of your progressiveness? He asked her where this was coming from. She tried to tell him about the ghost child and her missing period. As she grappled for the words, he asked whether it was her time of the month. She gasped angrily, a sharp intake of breath. And then silently cut the call. 

Sudipto was applying to universities abroad for his PhD. Kalai knew that he would easily get admission to one of them. His father was an economics professor who knew several academicians in Sudipto’s field.  

Kalai planned to apply to the same universities the following year, once she completed her MA. She was less sure that she would get admission. She had only heard of Foucault a year ago. It was Sudipto who told her how the name was pronounced, like a fancy swear-word. When he saw how embarrassed she was, he told her it had taken him a year to learn to pronounce it properly…back when he first heard of Foucault in school. Meanwhile, she struggled to actually read and understand any of Foucault’s work.  

Sudipto planned for their future, excitedly. He assured her that she should apply. She was so intelligent. He would help her find scholarships to pay the fees. She couldn’t tell whether he was blind to their differences or whether he was trying to gloss over them in his progressive-ness.  

They had never really spoken of their future together. They had attended a talk on honour killings at their department, together. They spoke of gender, patriarchy, caste and religion but had never once spoken about their own families and how they would react to their relationship. They had only spoken of children obliquely. Of all the things their parents had done to them that they would never do to their own children.  

Kalai cried herself to sleep that night. Softly, trying not to wake Paati. She felt profoundly alone. She didn’t know what she feared most if she told Sudipto of the ghost child. If he wanted her to take the pills, would she feel relieved or resentful? And if he didn’t… if he spoke of marriage and changed his mind about the foreign universities…could she live with that? A beef-eating, vegetarian-fish-and-chicken-eating baby. Could it have a place in the world? Would she ever feel at home living with Sudipto? Would she ever forgive herself for limiting his future? 

 The post arrived during Kalai’s class the next day. She was sitting in her Thaatha’s old study. It had been left mostly untouched since he passed away, a year before. He had started to read more after he retired from his job as a clerk in a government hospital. Paati scrupulously dusted and swept the bare room with its desk, chair and little bookshelf the way she had when he was alive. She had cleared out a couple of shelves for Kalai to use during her stay. She had discarded a lot of the magazines, kept the papers which seemed important and handed Kalai a Rubik’s cube that her grandfather had loved to fiddle with. 

Paati answered the doorbell, then crept into the study, making a great show of being stealthy, and deposited an envelope on the desk. She had hitched up her faded cotton sari, so that Kalai could see her place one foot after another with exaggerated slowness. Her face was contorted in mock concentration as she lowered each foot to the ground. Standing behind the laptop, she made a funny face at her granddaughter. Kalai looked up at her, grinned at her antics and then focused on the screen again. Stuck indefinitely in her Paati’s house after what was meant to be a three-day visit, she was learning to ‘set boundaries’ and politely ignore these ridiculous grandmotherly attempts at humour. 

Waiting for class to end, Kalai dozed fitfully. She stared at the computer screen, sitting at  Thaatha’s old desk. The lecturer droned on disinterestedly, her voice threading through the rhythmic clatter of the desultory ceiling fan overhead. Beside the laptop, Kalai’s phone screen lit up, and Sudipto’s name flashed repeatedly as the call rang through. Kalai ignored his call again.  

‘There is no such thing as a problem without a person or a group who has this problem’, intoned the professor, her voice echoing through the odd unmuted laptop in the zoom classroom. An endless feedback loop that stopped abruptly when the student whose device had been unmuted managed to mute it in her distant hometown. Kalai yawned. The professor had a distinct way of making even the most interesting ideas sound boring and pedantic. Online classes during the lockdown had only amplified her soporific abilities. As she waxed eloquent on the implications of marginal subjectivity for the very structures of knowledge, Kalai’s heavy eyelids began to droop again. 

The child, waiting silently at Kalai’s elbow for just such an unguarded moment, clambered in through Kalai’s ear. She made herself small, the way Kalai had when she was a child and her parents fought. Then she slipped herself into Kalai’s sleepy ear, folding herself in between the tinny drone of the lecture and the clatter of the ceiling fan. 

‘A problem is always a problem for someone or the other… ’ droned the professor, gesticulating self-consciously in the only rectangle with the camera turned on. Around her, 33 black rectangles were arranged impassively, revealing nothing of what the students logged in were actually doing. Kalai’s eyes closed again slowly and inexorably, ignoring her struggle to keep them open. 

The problem. The problem was many-sided, mused Kalai absently. She was sitting on the lawn outside the university library with Sudipto, twisting and turning the Rubik’s cube in her hand. They were laughing about the pedantic professor. Sudipto’s eyes almost disappeared into the crinkles of his face when he laughed. Around them, the university buildings melted away. They were in Sudipto’s flat sitting on his dusty mattress, ash trays surrounding their mattress island like an unhealthy ocean.  

Kalai frowned as she twisted the cube in and out of shape. It was all or nothing with a Rubik’s cube. You had to get all six sides right, or it wasn’t worth the trouble.  

The child unfolded like an origami crane and began to stride through Kalai’s dream like a scurrying rabbit with a stopwatch. At first Kalai didn’t see her, absorbed in the softness of Sudipto’s expression, watching the little transformations that marked his expressions. The tightness of his mouth when he disagreed with her and was struggling to put it politely. The mischievous light in his eyes when he was building up to the punchline of his joke. The inadvertent crinkling of his nose when he was surprised but happy. The self-consciously raised eyebrows when he rode up to her outside the sociology department on his newly purchased second-hand Activa. 

Out of the corner of her eye, Kalai saw the child. Watching them. Shadowing their joy with her presence. Holding an ominous stopwatch. 

When she looked back at Sudipto, she tried to tell him about the danger, but the words wouldn’t come. Instead her mouth shaped a different set of words, ‘Accidents are prohibited.’ Red words on a blue background. 

Sudipto nodded sagely and patted the black leather seat of the cow he was sitting on, indicating that she should climb on, ‘The problem depends on your standpoint,’ he said earnestly, in a tinny imitation of the professor. He held the cow’s horns like handlebars. It all made perfect dream sense. Kalai climbed on to the backseat, still twisting the Rubik’s cube. Each side would make a different picture. On one side was a picture of Kalai in a graduation gown. On another was a picture of her standing confidently before a class of students, captivating them with her interesting lecture. On a third were her proud parents, standing next to the car she had bought them. On the fourth was her sister dressed as a happy bride next to her current boyfriend. On the fifth was a tidy apartment with a big bookshelf and two spare bedrooms so that her parents could come and stay whenever they wanted. And on the sixth was a family photograph of Kalai, Sudipto and the child.  

She glanced down at her hands and saw that the child’s face now filled the side of the cube, threatening to burst out of it and ruin the entire cube. She had showed up too early, and if Kalai didn’t twist out of shape the side with those hopeful eyes looking up at her,  she could never make the pictures on the other five sides. 

That was the thing about a Rubik’s cube, thought Kalai as her eyes sprang open with a jolt. Her fingers were still trying to twist the child’s face out of the single complete side. She realised there was no cube in her hands. On the laptop screen in front of her, the professor droned on about the epistemological advantages of marginal standpoints. 

Kalai locked herself in the bathroom she shared with Paati. She ripped open the envelope she had received from Tanima. Inside was the familiar soft plastic pink and white packaging printed with images of obscenely happy, smiling mothers and picture-perfect pink infants in their arms.  

Kalai knew she should wait until morning. Apparently it was most accurate when you used the morning’s first pee, but she couldn’t wait anymore. The child was even climbing into her dreams. And she didn’t know what to say to Sudipto anymore. 

Her hands shook as she used the plastic dropper to drip three drops of mildly yellow urine into the little circular hole on the plastic stick. She watched the paper stain a faint pink, as it absorbed her pee. Almost the same colour as the waste water she had rinsed out of the beef. 

There was a pharmacy across the road, of course. She could see it from the kitchen window. Kalai had bought sanitary napkins there. The kindly old pharmacy-uncle knew her Paati very well. He would often suggest medicines to her for various ailments about which she didn’t want to trouble her doctor. Kalai couldn’t very well walk up to him and ask for a pregnancy test. Tanima, living alone and unfettered in Mumbai, on the other hand, could buy a pregnancy test. It was just a precaution, of course. Kalai and Sudipto always used protection. 

Tanima had asked her cousin for a prescription for the pills if they were necessary, but the cousin was undecided. A home abortion could be risky.  

The door shuddered as Paati banged on it. 

‘What is it, Paati? I’m in the toilet!’ yelled Kalai. 

‘Will you take long?’ came her Paati’s voice. 

‘Just a few minutes… ’ 

‘Okay, okay! I just wanted to ask you something.’ 

Kalai took a deep breath. Grandmothers did not know the meaning of boundaries. 

Kalai watched as the faint pink stain resolved itself into two pink lines. She felt a faint shiver pass through her body. The hair on her arms stood on end. This was it. The child was here.  

‘Kalaiii… ’ came Paati’s impatient voice through the closed bathroom door, ‘Who was it who sent you that letter? He has very bad handwriting. I couldn’t see his name.’ 

Standing next to the washbasin, the child watched wide-eyed and silent as Kalai took a deep breath. She stared at the pregnancy test in her shaking hand. 

‘It’s a love letter, isn’t it?’ asked her Paati gleefully, from beyond the bathroom door. ‘Is he from a good family like ours?’ 


Artwork © Buku Sarkar

About the Author

Gitanjali Joshua

Gitanjali Joshua is a perennial student, who enjoys skipping across disciplines. She is exploring the intersection of law, religion, and gender for her doctoral thesis at the University of Hyderabad. She loves dinosaurs, the sea, and things that give her a sense of scale. She somehow manages to find cats to befriend wherever she goes. […]

Related