‘What is the meaning of this?’ Pradip Shankar yelled as five men with sticks burst into his OB/GYN consultation chamber. The receptionist screamed. She ran out the glass doors just seconds before a stick swung and shattered them to fragments. The two patients who were waiting to see him, Mrs Singh and Mrs Malkani, grabbed each other as glass shrapnel flew everywhere. One of the men turned to look at them and grinned. ‘Leave now, randis,’ he said. ‘Or stay for the fun.’ The two women took one look at his red grin and fled for their lives. Downstairs, Pradip heard the shrill screeching of his wife’s pediatric patients. ‘Spare them,’ he muttered. ‘They’re innocent.’
‘We know,’ said the man. He raised his stick and smashed the monitor on the receptionist’s desk with a quick, professional jab. The other men took care of the TV. Pradip stood there helplessly. ‘Why?’ he wailed. Then a huge figure barreled through the broken glass doors and kept going until Pradip was pinned up against a poster of a smiling mother and baby. ‘Ramprolac is best for your growing boy!’ the buxom mother seemed to be saying. Pradip stared up at his former friend and patient. ‘Himmat Singh?’
Himmat Singh ripped Pradip’s black-framed glasses off his nose and stomped them. ‘I thought you were a good doctor,’ he said. ‘I thought you understood.’
‘I do! I do!’ Pradip whimpered as Himmat Singh squashed him into the mother’s cardboard breasts. ‘Tell me what it is that I should have understood!’
‘Guddu,’ Himmat Singh spat. ‘You said never to call him guddu.’
‘What?’ Then a memory stirred. ‘Yes, I did say that.’ Pradip giggled nervously. ‘It was just a joke. Your wife, Himmat bhai, your wife was apprehensive in the ultrasound room, it is her first time after all, so I tried to put her at ease. First babies tend to be small for their gestational aaaaaaaaah!’ Pradip’s head hit the wall as he tried to avoid the speculum in Himmat Singh’s hand. It clacked like a raptor’s beak under his nose.
‘You told my wife he looked like a doll.’ Himmat Singh shook him. ‘My unborn son.’ The speculum clattered on the tiles. ‘She thought you were saying she was carrying a girl.’
‘I never said that!’ Tears squeezed out of Pradip’s eyes. ‘It was a joke! A joke!’
Himmat Singh snarled. ‘I thought you were speaking in signs, to save your reputation, because the law punishes if you tell me what she bears. I thought you didn’t want the taint, so I took her to another doctor for the work.’
A horrified realisation began to dawn on Pradip. ‘Wait . . . you didn’t . . . did you . . . ? I hope you haven’t done anything foolish, Himmat Singh.’
Himmat Singh roared. ‘No redblooded man wants his first child to be a girl! So I took the stupid bitch to a hack, a sawbones, and said, “drop her belly”. But guess what we found after the deed was done, eh, Mr I-Came-Top-of-My-Class-At Chandigarh-Medical-College?’
‘You . . . aborted the fetus? No!’
Himmat Singh’s eyes turned cold. ‘You said you would look after my family. You said I would have children I could be proud of.’ He straightened and dusted his hands. ‘Now I want to make sure you never have the courage to hurt a father like me again. Daljeet! Sajao isko.’
Daljeet, a squat, ugly man in a misspelled Arsenal t-shirt, grinned. He came over and patted Pradip’s sweaty cheek. ‘Now we shall play football-football.’ Two men shoved him into a chair. Daljeet stroked Pradip’s left knee and drawled in the tones of a derpy commentator, ‘Gooooaaaal!’
‘Please, please, please . . . .’ Pradip gibbered as they took his left leg and stretched it over the fallen water cooler. Himmat Singh squatted a couple of times and massaged his stiff calves. Then he grabbed Pradip’s jaw in his huge hand again. ‘Listen carefully, you scum. If you ever practice medicine again, I will bury you and sell your lovely wife over the border.’
‘Please, please, don’t hurt me, I promise I’ll make things right, just give me another ch . . . .’
Himmat Singh grunted and raised his enormous sandal-clad foot. He stared into Pradip’s terror-stricken eyes. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘I won’t twist the bone. You’d make a pathetic cripple, anyway.’
Then the foot came down, and the lights went out.
‘Stay still, ji.’
Pradip struggled to open his eyes. In the chink of reality thus revealed, he saw his wife’s hands wrapping a medical journal round his thigh and securing it with lengths of packing tape. ‘That should stabilise the bone till we get him to the hospital.’
‘Ambulance is here, madam.’
‘Call the stretcher-bearers. He must be lifted carefully.’
‘Priya! Help me . . . .’
‘It’s all right, husband.’ A hand grasped his. ‘They’ve gone.’
‘Priya!’ He clutched her and pulled her to him. ‘Simple fracture of the upper left femur,’ he gasped. ‘Blunt force trauma applied anterolaterally to the . . . .’ The lights dimmed and flickered.
‘He’s out. Lift him on three. One . . . . Two . . . .’
He wanted to say he wasn’t out, but the sudden pain made his teeth lock.
When he came round again, he was in a hospital bed. His left leg was in a sling. Priya was sitting by his bedside, reading a book titled What Girls Need. The window showed night sky above the Chandigarh skyline.
‘Oh good, you’ve come round.’ She looked up and smiled. ‘We put a plate in your leg. Shivani wants to keep you for observation. You’ll be discharged on Sunday if all’s well. I’ve cancelled your appointments.’
‘Priya,’ he moaned. ‘I am ruined.’
She wavered, then rallied and smiled again. ‘It’s a clean break, ji. It should heal without sequelae.’
‘He said . . . he said he’d murder me if I ever practiced again.’
‘Worry about that later.’ She stroked his hand. ‘For now you must rest.’
‘Will you stay? Priya! Please . . . I need . . . .’
She hesitated. ‘I have my Study Club reading tonight.’
‘But . . . .’ His other hand waved vaguely, trying to free itself from the coils of the drip tube.
‘Shivani’s on duty. She’ll see you get the best care.’
‘Is your club more important than your own husband?’
‘All right, I’ll text them.’ She quickly typed a message on her phone, then she went back to holding his hand. A nurse came in, smiled at Priya, took Pradip’s IV channel and pushed 2.5 mg midazolam into it, as Priya had requested. Priya waited for the drug to take effect, then got up quietly and left. She looked in at Orthopedics on her way out. ‘Thank you, Shivani,’ she said to her friend. ‘Watch him till I get back.’
‘Doctor Mrs Khair Bintam,’ said Priya to the twenty or so young women sitting on rickety chairs in the little one-room shed. ‘In her, we lost a champion. But we still have this.’ She held up What Girls Need. ‘Khair Bintam was a scholar of women’s history at the Turkish University of the Humanities in Istanbul. Do you know where Istanbul is?’ Some of the more eager girls nodded. ‘She wrote this little book for her two daughters, Ayala and Lila. They were then teenagers, and they didn’t understand why their mother was never home.’
The girls listened attentively. Most came from hard-scrabble backgrounds, and some were first-generation learners. Priya had begun this initiative after she’d met Rani, a sixteen-year-old domestic worker who had showed up at Priya’s pediatric practice, twelve weeks pregnant and begging for an abortion. In vain Priya had protested that she was a ‘child-doctor’; Rani had merely said, ‘Yes, child-doctor, make this child go away. If you don’t, it will finish me.’ So Priya had had a word with Pradip, who had grumbled and objected and finally done a D&C. Then he had insisted that Rani get ‘counselling’ at the local satsang. Rani had shaken her head firmly. ‘He forced me, that Bappa from the bus terminus,’ she said. ‘I was minding my own business. He did it. Give Bappa your counselling, not me.’ Priya had wanted Rani to file a police complaint, but the girl had laughed bitterly. ‘Me go to the police station? Hah! You want five cops to do what Bappa did to me?’
‘I’ll go with you.’ But Rani hadn’t answered, just taken the strip of antibiotics Priya had handed her and gone home without another word. Pradip had read Priya the riot act for getting involved, then washed his hands of the whole affair.
But Priya hadn’t been able to forget Rani. She’d reached out to some of her wealthy friends from school and medical college, and they’d started the Study Club for Educational Uplift of Disadvantaged and Vulnerable Girls. Priya had then nagged Rani and a few other maids and nannies from her slum neighbourhood to attend. In spite of its grandiose name, it was little more than an after-hours training centre with a pair of donated computers and a couple of shelves of dogeared books. Here the kids learned to use spreadsheets, write emails and keep basic accounts. Priya had told them this was the way to a better life, and so far they hadn’t disagreed.
Since it was run by Doctor Madam, the middle-class housewives who employed the girls gave them grudging permission to spend time there. Some of them complained that the Study Club made the girls ‘uppity’, but the wives and employers all agreed it was better than those church groups that were luring girls with promises of free food and education. On Friday nights some notable female leader in their circle would drop in to give a talk, usually a yogin, a doctor or a lawyer. This week it was Priya’s turn.
‘Khair Bintam had a husband and two daughters, just like many of you, but unlike you she was always campaigning and teaching and explaining, just as I am doing for you today. She wanted girls to learn and use their minds, to work and be productive. Her books inspired me to start this club.’ She noticed with a twinge of disquiet that Sudha, one of the older girls, was grinning broadly, as if she knew something very amusing.
‘But of all the Bintam books, I love this little one the most. It’s written in the form of letters to her daughters, and each letter answers a question that one of them has asked. What does wealth mean for women? Is motherhood an instinct? Should I wear makeup? Whom should I marry? Can menstruation kill you? How do I know if I’m in love?’ Priya smiled. ‘All questions I wouldn’t have dared to ask my own mother when I was growing up.’
‘Me neither,’ said Rani with feeling. ‘Very quick way to get a thick ear.’
‘Those girls are lucky to have had a mother like that,’ said Rani’s friend Radha. The others nodded solemnly. Sudha was grinning and fidgeting.
‘Yes indeed,’ said Priya. ‘In the introduction, Dr Mrs Bintam says that the reason mothers get angry when questioned is because they’ve been taught that knowing too much is bad for girls. So, because they love their girls, they discourage them from learning how to ask questions. Even though they wish someone had answered their own questions when they were younger. They do this because they don’t know any better.’
‘But they always say they know better,’ Rani snorted. ‘All the time.’
‘Actually, Dr Mrs Bintam says that the older women, the mothers and aunts, in a sense do know better, because when they were young, they were taken aside and taught a lesson. Then they were told, if you breathe a word of this, bad things will happen,’ said Priya.
Rani’s mouth hardened.
‘So instead of answering questions, the mothers were taught to keep secrets.’ Priya tapped the book. ‘It’s all in here. But Dr Mrs Bintam decided she was tired of keeping secrets. She resolved to speak out.’
‘And what happened to her?’ asked Sudha. ‘How did she die?’
Too late, Priya remembered that Sudha was a nanny, and that nannies watched television all the time, because they were stationed in front of it with their wards, feeding them, playing with them, bathing and dressing them. They didn’t always watch the cartoon channels. Sometimes they got glimpses of the news. ‘It was a very sad business,’ she said. ‘She . . . she was shot by unknown men. On the steps of her university, as she was going home.’
Sudha nodded sagely. Priya went on, unable to stop herself. ‘They burned her body before the police could get there. On a pyre of her own books.’ For days after seeing the news clip, she hadn’t been able to sleep.
‘No wonder.’ Sudha pursed her lips. ‘What a wicked mother to write such things! Strange men can read all about her daughters’ monthlies? Haw.’ The other girls giggled nervously. Priya cleared her throat.
Rani frowned and turned to Priya. ‘I have a question,’ she said. ‘The family next door to ours has three girls and they’re always crying and begging for food. They used to have five but the two eldest were sent away to some uncle in the country. No one’s seen them for years.’
‘So? Why do you care?’ Sudha snapped.
‘Let her ask her question,’ said Priya, but Rani had jumped to her feet. ‘I care! Someone has to! When our father left us—’
‘Same old excuses! Trying to pretend!’ Sudha also rose, fixing her with a stern glare. ‘Everyone knows what you did, Rani.’
‘I did nothing!’
‘You care about those girls because you should have shared their fate! You’re just like them! Piece of shit!’
Priya stepped forward. ‘Both of you, sit down!’
Rani was flushed and close to tears. She thumped back down on her chair. Sudha twirled the end of her pigtail between her fingers, and took her time smoothing her dupatta as she sat. Priya said, ‘Sudha, please do not disrupt the class. Don’t you want to hear what is in this book?’
Sudha shrugged. ‘My mother says, when I marry I have to pay for a hut and a scooter for the groom’s family, otherwise I will get a man who beats me.’ Sudha pointed at the book. ‘Does it say where to find those things? I think not. And why is that?’ She turned to the other girls and spread her hands. ‘Is it because Doctor Madam’s daughters never had to worry about getting husbands who beat them?’
Priya sighed and laid the book aside. ‘Sudha, in my family, I have five elder sisters. My father could only marry off three of them before our dowries and wedding expenses bankrup
ed him. My fourth sister vowed never to marry. She nursed my parents through their last years. I always knew I had to study hard, get a job, find my own husband. And I was lucky. I met a man who told me, “You are a good doctor, you can make ten dowries if you want.” He believes in me.’ She smiled, filled with a sudden rush of tenderness for her stricken husband. ‘There are such men, you know. They’re rare, but they exist.’
‘How did you get into medical college, didi?’ asked Radha.
‘I studied hard and scored well in the entrance test.’
‘Huh,’ muttered Sudha, and looked Rani up and down. ‘You can forget it, trashbag. The only entrance test you know is how to open your legs.’
She grinned and folded her arms. ‘I will say no more.’ They could all hear Rani grinding her teeth. Priya heaved a big sigh. ‘All right then,’ she said, acknowledging defeat. ‘As Sudha is determined to be difficult today, we’ll discuss the questions next time.’
‘Why are you like this?’ Radha hissed, but Sudha only laughed nastily.
Rani remained sitting as the others left. Sudha lingered in the doorway with her cronies. ‘Now she’s going to cry to Doctor Madam. Just see, buckets will come down.’
‘Sudha, go,’ said Priya sharply. ‘Meeting is over.’
Rani got to her feet. ‘I’m going too.’
‘Stay, Rani. Don’t lis—’ Rani rushed away. Priya almost followed her, then remembered she had to get back to the hospital before Pradip woke up. She sighed, locked the doors and left.
Pradip Shankar brooded. His left leg, bound up in its brace, felt as though it no longer belonged to him. Like a failed and sullen traitor forced to go on living in the household of the betrayed master. He grimaced as his bare right foot brushed the rough surface of the bandage.
Himmat Singh was right. He was a failure. All through medical college, he had nurtured the dream of building India’s future. Now even his own personal future was slipping through his fingers. He had joined medical school to get a career, but then something slightly shameful had happened to him: he had grown to love medicine for its own sake. He was supposed to be learning how to provide for his family and acquire status in society, not dream of utopian futures. But dream he did, all through his student years.
The world was in crisis, every news feed said so. Too many people were clogging up the works, from primary schools to metro stations. Mothers and their baby-hunger were a threat to world civilisation. He’d always known this, but until now, he’d never really had the leisure to examine the problem.
So what should be the solution? Himmat Singh had wanted a son: was that so wrong? Men want sons: they are our only chance at immortality, he thought, trying futilely to scratch his left knee. In the course of acquiring sons, fathers produce surplus children, failed attempts, so to speak. In other words, daughters. Daughters must be married: they can’t be left lying around for random men to take advantage of and shame the family. Therefore, he thought, reaching for a notepad embossed with bouncing babies, the proposed solution must at one stroke decrease unwanted births and lessen the upward trend of world population in subsequent generations.
He wrote in a careful, rounded hand: ‘Sons produce no babies. Therefore, in the long run, sons decrease world population.’
But how to achieve this outcome? He felt the edge of something slip past him, an idea so brilliant it took his breath away. Where were his old molecular genomics notes? He tried to rise and grimaced as his leg twinged.
‘Priya? O Priya! Priya? Oho, have you gone deaf?’
Priya looked in at the doorway of his empty chamber. ‘What is it, ji?’
‘My old notes. Where are they?’
‘What old notes?’
‘From college! My special project!’
‘I have no idea what you mean,’ she said, ‘but all your papers from before we were married are in the trunk in the back room. I’ll tell Jasbir to bring it here for you. Why do you want those old things?’
‘Because I am a man of science. No matter what Himmat Singh says, I am a man of knowledge and intellect. I topped my class; you were the second topper, Priya. How dare he forbid me—!’ His voice had risen sharply. He began again. ‘If I do not use my mind, I will die. I will die, Priya!’
She came in and sat down beside him. ‘No you won’t. You need to rest and heal now. All this nonsense will blow over eventually. You know what this city is like. There will be new scandals, new feuds. One man’s tragedy is a straw in the wind.’
‘Priya, you do not understand. Himmat Singh is a fixer, a wielder of influence. His roots run deep into the sources of power. And I have hurt his most sensitive spot. He will not forget. As long as he lives, I am a dead man walking.’ He grunted a bitter laugh. ‘Or rather, a sitting duck. He has hung a padlock on my mind as surely as if he had slapped a court order on me.’
‘Can you not explain to him?’
‘I tried, that day when he trashed the place. He was too angry to listen then, and he will keep me away now.’ He turned to her. ‘Anyway, what can I say? I should have been wiser. It has only been a year since we set up our joint clinic, and now there is so much damage to pay for.’
‘The insurance will cover it. And I still have my pediatric practice.’
‘No! I refuse to live off my wife’s earnings like a pimp. If I cannot practice medicine, I must find some other calling. That’s why I want my notes.’ He slammed a fist into the desk. ‘No man of reason should have to suffer as I am suffering. I must fix it.’
‘Don’t be angry, ji. Have some compassion for the man also. He is angry because he is ignorant. If the common folk knew anything, they would be the doctors, not us.’
‘Exactly! This country no longer respects learning. All it respects is wealth. And power. Hah! You remember I wanted to specialise in gene tech, but then I realised I would have to work in some government lab for a pittance. OB/GYN was my second choice, with much better prospects.’ A manic gleam appeared in his eyes. ‘Hmmm, maybe God is telling me something. Maybe I am meant for higher things.’
‘That’s nice, ji.’ She patted his hand. ‘I’ll send the trunk up with your afternoon tea.’
‘Hey Pradip!’ Natwarlal Nehra roared. ‘Look, boys, it’s Pradip Shankar. Come here, you old sawbones. Bearer, bring another round. How’s the leg?’
‘Better,’ said Pradip bravely, as he took a seat in the snug of the Punjab Achievers’ Club and leaned his silver-headed cane, a gift from Priya, against the polished mahogany table. Shortly after setting up his clinic, he’d joined this club in the hope that it would bring him high-profile patients, and it had, but it has also brought him into Natwarlal’s ambit, which was a mixed blessing. Natwarlal ran a vast commercial empire, although he affected a Gandhian humility in person, always scrupulously buying only the second most expensive whiskey on the menu.
There was a new face in the usual circle of Natwarlal’s cronies, a fair and decidedly non-Indian face. Pradip tried not to stare. Natwarlal clapped him on the back. ‘Meet Lesley Chen,’ he boomed. ‘We were just talking about you.’
‘Namaste.’ Pradip folded his hands and bowed.
‘English, please. Lesley has only been here a few weeks. He’s a big engineering man in Ramdhun Corporation of Singapore. He is invited to Vij Vaghela’s pure veg parties and all. Very big man. Bearer! Whiskey, Pradip? Single malt of course.’
Pradip nodded. Lesley smiled. ‘It’s okay, Nattie. My introduction to Chandigarh was a big Punjabi wedding: my own, so I do know some of the words. Namaste!’
‘You got married in Chandigarh?’
‘Indeed he did!’ Natwarlal roared. ‘To Reshmi Arora, star of my favourite Punjabi soap!’
‘Congratulations,’ said Pradip sincerely. ‘Reshmi is my wife’s favourite actress also.’ Lesley was blushing at all the attention.
Natwarlal barrelled on. ‘I was recommending you to Lesley for consultation, Pradip, for when his lovely wife gets her good news, then I remembered your, ahem, problem.’ He waggled an eyebrow at the cane. He leaned towards Pradip. ‘No more trouble from that quarter, I hope?’
Pradip shook his head. ‘He has not shown his face since.’
‘And he won’t. So long as you don’t practice publicly. But in private . . . much can be done.’
‘I’ve been thinking about that,’ said Pradip. ‘I have an idea. It is better than medical practice. It is really about what happens before my patients come to me.’
‘Oho!’ Natwarlal’s eyes twinkled. ‘You want to become a sex doctor?’
Pradip turned a furious red. ‘No! I want to help men have sons.’
‘Isn’t that what you do already?’ asked Lesley.
‘No, I help women have babies. I do absolutely nothing for the fathers. That must change.’
Their drinks arrived. And then they had a very interesting conversation about Pradip’s future plans. By the end of the evening, well lubricated with whiskey and veggie kebabs, Pradip was feeling more positive about his project than he had in weeks.
‘My idea will work,’ he muttered to himself as his car came round to take him home. ‘I will show them all.’
‘So what do you think?’ asked Pradip Shankar.
Priya paged through the document, her gaze lingering first on this diagram, then on that. When she didn’t respond, he asked with more acerbity, ‘You do understand the science, yes?’
‘Pradipji, you can’t do this.’
‘Why not? I said I would solve the problem of Himmat Singh. Is this not an elegant solution?’
‘It’s . . . unethical. You could be stripped of your licence.’
‘Uffoh, don’t worry about that. I have friends.’
‘And . . . you can’t call it a vaccine. Vaccines prevent diseases, and this . . . what does this prevent?’
‘Poverty,’ said Pradip Shankar. ‘Overpopulation. Underdevelopment. Prostitution. Climate change. So many evils will be prevented by Humane Choice.’
‘It is very simple, Priya. There are one billion people in India alone. If half of those people become mothers even once, that is an extra half-billion people in the next twenty years at least, overloading the planet beyond capacity. But,’ and he raised a finger to forestall her objections, ‘if the children of those mothers cannot have children themselves, the problem is stopped from growing. Ergo, those children must be males. We have to save the planet by having sons, not daughters. In one generation, we can reduce earth’s population to manageable levels without any suffering or chaos. We need to have just enough daughters to keep the core population renewed.’
‘The core population? But how will you—’
‘Uff, Priya, you are so simple. The core of society is the families with the resources and the will to bring their daughters up correctly.’ He fixed her with a stern glare. ‘You of all people know how expensive it is to rear a daughter, not least because we must have security, surveillance and good staff to keep them safe. That burden will henceforth be only taken by choice.’
‘Fathers who want daughters can opt to delay the administering of Humane Choice until they have had them. They will be the lucky few in charge of creating the next, sustainable generation. Sub-par fathers need not burden themselves with girls at all. They can take Humane Choice straight away.’
‘If we restrict the production of surplus females, the ones we produce will be able to fulfil their sacred destiny as mothers without destroying the earth, and they will be treated as the precious resource they truly are. Thus our society can protect women, fathers will have the children they desire, and people will stop foolishly blaming mothers for giving birth to girls.’
‘But what will—’
‘This will eradicate the evils of dowry. More than seventy years of Independence and we have still not managed to do that. But now we will.’
‘What about the mothers? Don’t they get a say in this?’
‘Of course they do. This is for their benefit. You know as well as I do that sex selection happens through the male contribution. Yet women are blamed for it, or they are forced to risk their health by bringing failed attempts to term. The government is at fault for this. By criminalising sex selection of fetuses before birth, they only spread fear. Himmat Singh thought I was talking in some secret code. Would this have happened in an enlightened country? Do you know that in US, they have parties when they find out the sex of the coming child? We are robbing our fathers of that privilege.’
‘I know all this, ji. You don’t have to convince me. But you cannot release a vaccine without undergoing clinical trials. There is a procedure.’
‘Do not worry about all that. Natwarlal Nehra of NehraMed has agreed to arrange that part for me. They have hospitals and facilities all over the country. They will do the needful. But I have to make the requisite number of doses within the next six months and that’s where I need your help. NehraMed Chandigarh has offered me a factory to make it. I need you to recruit the people, design the manufacturing process and keep the books. You are good at such tasks.’
She stared at the pages helplessly. ‘You are going to use a carrier virus to deliver a payload to germline cells? What is this rAAVan? People will ask why you have maned it after the most notorious villain in Indian mythology!’’
‘It’s the Recombinant Adeno-Associated Viral Analogue I am using,’ he said a little sulkily. ‘Never mind that part. This is a secret formula, protected by corporate law. The public will not see it.’
‘Corporate . . . law?’
‘Indeed, yes. Lesley explained how to do it. Ah, I forgot to tell you, I have made a new friend. See? I am expanding my circle, just like you asked.’
‘His name is Lesley Chen. He is a Chinese engineer from Singap
re, but he is here in Chandigarh building the new State Assembly Annexe for Ramdhun Habitat Projects. He is married to Reshmi Arora.’
‘The TV star?’
‘She is retired now. He wants a son. He helped me set up Humane Choice Private Limited. I will need your signature, you are also a partner. Lesley and Natwarji’s legal team will bring the paperwork next month. You are agreeable, yes?’
‘As you wish, but you really should have consulted me before you got into all of this. It looks . . . .’
‘Consulted you? Why?’ Pradip’s moustache bristled. ‘I am the one Himmat Singh attacked. It is up to me to fix this. Lesley has been very helpful. I must take advantage of his contacts while he is here. Any day Ramdhun may order him back to Singapore. Reshmi wants to meet you. Also, I took the vaccine, so you may consider the human trials to have officially begun.’
Pradip looked slightly uncomfortable. ‘They challenged me, Lesley and his friends, to show that my vaccine is harmless. So the last time I visited the Achievers Club, I took with me a dose from my first viable batch, and I injected myself with Humane Choice in front of them. To convince them.’
Priya stared at him. He made an irritable gesture. ‘I would be a poor inventor if I did not believe in my own creations. In any case, Priya, we have vowed never to have children, so it does not affect us. My OB/GYN practice has been murdered in the cradle, but your child-doctoring is still alive. Unlike me, you are still a viable parent to your profession.’
‘I would have . . . maybe . . . liked to have had a daughter, one day,’ Priya said in a small voice. ‘But . . . I suppose we can still adopt . . . .’
Pradip wasn’t listening. ‘Lesley wants a boy to share his triumphs and carry forward his legacy. He has been afraid to start because he can only afford one child, but I will persuade him. This will take the uncertainty out of parenthood for many, many men, all over the planet. They will not have to mortgage their present to pay for the future, they will have just the child they want, and they will not clutter up God’s earth with extra women in the process.’
‘What kind of world will it be if most of the children are boys?’
‘It will be a highly productive, rational, go-getting and sane world, that I can tell you,’ said Pradip firmly. ‘Are you not tired of these teen pregnancies, trafficking, gag rapes and love jihads?’
‘Do you mean “gang rape”?’
‘Whatever. Too much drama. This vaccine is liquid engineering, Priya. All it does is tag X-bearing sperm and make them sluggish. They are somewhat like that anyway, because they are slightly heavier than Y-bearing sperm. My vaccine does not kill them: girls can still be born, just at a lower frequency.’ He took her hand. ‘Please be assured, Humane Choice does not break the law. Sex selection before birth may be illegal in India, but my vaccine is not to be given to pregnant women, or any women at all. There is no child who is being selected for or against. All I am doing is giving reproductive choice back to the fathers.’
‘Are you certain this will be a good thing for the world?’
He patted her hand as it lay in his. ‘I swear it.’
‘Your husband is a murderer.’
Priya nearly dropped the book she was holding. ‘Rani?’
‘You heard me.’ Rani came out of the shadows near the door. She picked up a duster and began helping Priya to dust and reshelve the library books in the Study Club’s tiny book corner. ‘Your precious Doctor Shankar is murdering our futures.’
‘Do you mean Humane Choice? Oh Rani, it’s not like that at all.’
‘All the big men are getting it. No one says anything straight, but I hear them talking when I wipe their floors and wash their children’s backsides. ‘They say “Go to Dr Shankar, he will tell your husband to come for flu shot, then in three months you will get blessings.” You think I don’t understand it?’
‘You have no proof.’ Priya turned pale.
‘Proof!’ Rani sneered at her. ‘Aren’t you the woman who told us we should have dignity and pride in ourselves? Where is your pride?’ She flicked the duster like a whip. ‘You are helping him. It’s your patients who are gossiping.’
Priya took a deep breath to object. But she couldn’t let the words that crowded her mind come tumbling out of her mouth. Such disloyalty that would be. Finally she deflated. ‘He’s obsessed,’ she said in despair. ‘He asks me to point out the mothers who are sad because they had a girl. I tell them to bring their husbands, and he does the rest. But I think the husbands have figured it out. They have started coming to him directly. So don’t worry, Rani, I am not helping any more.’
‘Aren’t you hiring people for the factory? And I hear you go there every day and sit in an office.’ Rani wagged a finger at her. ‘You’re helping him, you liar.’
‘He’s my husband!’ Priya wailed. ‘He just does things, he never asks me.’
‘And you go along with it? Where’s your spine? Stop keeping his accounts and doing his dirty work.’
‘He’ll get someone else to do it.’
‘Yes, someone he cannot trust. Someone who might steal all his money or sell his secrets.’ Rani snatched the book out of Priya’s hand and threw it across the room. ‘You have to give us a chance, didi. You have to walk away.’
‘How? He will never allow it.’
‘Then help us. Radha and I and a few others have started our own group. Kuri Kommandos. We’re going to fight him.’ She puffed up her chest. ‘We are Girl Kommandos and we will protest your Humane Choice until it is banned.’
Priya stared at Rani. Then she rose to her full height. ‘Are you threatening my husband?’
‘No, didi, I am asking you to help us. We have to shame him. Tell the world what he is doing. Show his evil. Only then will police do anything. And you.’ She pointed an angry finger. ‘If you do not help us, you are accessory!’
Too late, Priya remembered that Rani had a newfound taste for police procedurals, thanks to the watchlist of the latest family whose kids she was minding. ‘You can’t ask me to do this.’
‘Huh. So you are fine with making and selling these death-doses?’
‘That’s not what this is. No one is dying. We are just . . . adjusting the future a little bit. Isn’t this better than people abandoning their babies or feeding them milk laced with opium? And I’m not fine, if you must ask. I have doubts. I’d like to stop him, but he’s shut me out. He only comes to me when he needs something. It’s these new friends he has made, through Natwarlal Nehra.’
‘Natwarlal Nehra! The King of Chandigarh?’
‘Yes, him. My husband is a member of his club, and Natwarji has convinced Pradip that he must “think like a businessman” and acquire money and power. That way the Himmat Singhs of the world will not dare to touch him.’
‘Your man is a coward. And if you help him, so are you.’
‘Rani, please. Don’t insult my husband to my face.’
‘How can it be an insult if it’s true? You live with him. If I can see it from where I’m standing, you can too.’
She sighed. ‘So what do I do?’
‘Hai rabba! Are you a child?’ Rani clasped her hands. ‘Stop thinking like a wife and think like a woman! What will the world be like if there are three Bappas to every Rani?’
‘But he says the lower classes will have no more daughters. Only rich families will choose to have girls. There will be no Ranis at all, just Bappas.’
Rani’s eyes flashed. ‘Is that supposed to make me feel better? What am I supposed to do? Vanish? I have to live on this planet you are creating.’
‘Oh, don’t be dramatic. Surely having fewer girls will mean less trafficking and abuse? Your employers will have to pay you more, won’t they? If there are fewer maids you will get more work.’
Rani stared at her, speechless. Priya shook her head. ‘Look, Rani, I do know this isn’t right, I just . . . I can’t find a way out. I’ve tried so hard. Although . . . he did promise that I could retire from managing the company if Ramdhun Corporation buys it. Then we could go live in Singapore, and there would be no Himmat Singh to cause trouble. We could reopen our joint clinic. It would be just like old times.’
‘Hmph.’ Rani put her hands on her hips and glared at her former mentor. ‘In that case, Doctor Mrs Shankar, my recommendation is that you pick up your worthless tashrif and get the hell out of my country.’
‘Really, Rani? After all I’ve done for you?’
‘You make me sick.’
‘He is not returning my calls,’ said Pradip Shankar, slurping his tea. ‘That Vij Vaghela of Ramdhun. Lesley swears he gave the correct number of his personal line in Singapore. But he also told me the old man is doddering.’
‘What shall we do, then?’ Priya asked, laying a plate of steaming samosas in front of her husband. ‘Is there any other way to reach him?’
‘We could go there, I suppose.’
‘Oh yes!’ She brightened. ‘Let’s!’
‘Hmph. It will cost a lot of money. And you will want to spend even more when we get there.’ He cracked open a samosa and blew on his fingers. ‘No, I have a better idea. I will ask Lesley for Mr Selvam Vaghela’s contact number. I have a feeling that if the father is doddering, the son will be running things tactfully behind his back.’
‘Selvam? What kind of a name is that?’
‘His mother was a Tamilian. Foh!’ Pradip scowled and licked his singed thumb. ‘I ask you, are there no girls of good family in Gujarat?’
‘Maybe they do things differently in foreign lands.’ Priya went back into the kitchen to hoick more samosas out of the crackling oil.
‘Well, they certainly have more sensible laws. None of this sex selection nonsense.’ Pradip scooped the filling out of the samosa and left a messy pile of fried pastry crumbs on the side of his plate. ‘Suno ji, did I tell you I am writing a book?’ he called to Priya in the kitchen. ‘It will be titled Future of the Child, and in it I am going to explain all my ideas on how to save the planet and mankind.’
Priya reappeared, holding a spatula, worry creasing her brows. ‘Is that wise? We don’t want to draw attention to Humane Choice.’
‘Attention?’ His voice was incredulous. ‘There are Humane Choice clinics in every major city in India. Five right here in Chandigarh. All built on a framework of trust and known only by word of mouth. My clients are the most loyal in the world. Now, I want to go global, and I will do it with or without the help of these Ramdhunites.’ He waved her back into the kitchen. ‘I was going to ask you to read it, but you are too busy keeping the accounts and running the factories. So Lesley is reading it now.’
Priya turned off the flame and brought the last of the samosas to the dining room. ‘Is he still disappointed at the birth of his daughter?’
Pradip’s brow creased. ‘I explained to him, it is not a failure of the process. Some of us must take the hit and raise the next generation of mothers. And whatever he says, he can afford it. Ramdhun is promoting him to Head of Engineering.’
She nodded. ‘Smiti is such a darling. I am glad Lesley has learned to love her.’
He shrugged. ‘Very few of the senior execs at Ramdhun have children. Lesley is a traditional-minded man, which is why he and Reshmi get along so well. The others care only for career and parties.’
Pradip’s phone rang. ‘Jai Ramji ki,’ he said, clapping it to his ear with his left hand as he crumbled another samosa with his right. He listened and paled. ‘Oh my god!’ He listened some more. ‘Just paint?’ Someone spoke at length on the other end, Pradip nodded and hung up.
He looked at her sombrely. ‘Some hooligans threw red paint on one of our downtown clinics. And they wrote “Murderer” on a patient’s car: no one important, thank god. I am going down there now to make a police complaint.’
‘No! Don’t do that. It’s nothing, and we don’t want the police asking what we do in our clinics.’
‘Why not? We are not breaking the law. Let them ask.’ He got up to go wash his hand, then paused. ‘Why are you always so scared, Priya?’ he asked. ‘You have so little faith in me?’
‘I am beginning to suspect that what we do is wrong!’ she burst out.
‘Wrong!’ He smiled at her indulgently. ‘The planet is dying because of women’s unstoppable urge to bear children. Alone of all scientists, I have stepped up to find a solution. I am a saviour, if I am anything.’
‘Women don’t have to bear children. I mean, I like them, I spend my days healing them. But I don’t want to produce one of my own. I thought of adopting, but you hate the idea.’
‘Adopting is just playing at dolls. You can’t really care for a child unless he is your flesh and blood. I have seen this even with surrogate babies. The parents are never quite free of suspicion that the child is not theirs.’ He patted her shoulder with his left hand. ‘Anyway, that is not the point. Saving the planet is the point. It is cruel to expect women to forgo their essential biological function, ergo, we must have less women. Simple.’ He headed to the washroom. ‘I will take up this topic again at dinner.’ She heard the sound of the water running as he washed up.
She poked the cooling samosas. She wanted her anger to simmer down like hot oil taken off the fire, but it would not. When he reappeared, she said without turning, ‘I know about the blog. “Priya Shankar Writes”, it is called, but it is not written by me.’
‘Oh that? Eh. I am just avoiding Himmat Singh. Surely you do not mind.’
She turned to face him. ‘I forbid you to use my name to promote your ideas, Pradip.’
‘You forbid me?’ He laughed. ‘But it is not your name, it is mine. If you insist, from now on I will sign my blog posts “P. Shankar”. Is that good enough for you?’
Priya felt her right hand clench in an unforgivable gesture of rage and quickly hid it in her dupatta. ‘Everything you do is based on the idea that women are—that I am—inferior to men. But you can’t have it both ways. If I am nothing but a baby-making machine, how is
it that I am running Humane Choice?’
Pradip burst out laughing. ‘You! You just do the books and scold the staff. And answer the emails from clients. And make the schedules. I have the vision and the technology. I bring home the food, you cook it. You are labour, I am capital.’ He flapped a hand. ‘Put away these samosas, Priya. I have work to do.’
Rani turned into the narrow lane that led to her hut. It was nearly 2am and even the dogs were asleep. The one curled up just inside the mouth of the noisome alleyway pricked up her ears, saw who it was, huffed and went back to sleep. Rani hoicked up the two-kilo sack of potatoes that was slipping from under her elbow yet again and managed to get an arm round the bottom. Thus burdened, she shuffled along, occasionally scraping the rough brickwork and cursing. As she passed the only lightbulb in the winding alley, a shadow moved. Rani’s breath hissed sharply through her teeth. ‘Bappa? Get out of my way or I’ll break your fucking nose.’
‘It’s me.’ Priya raised the dupatta covering her face. ‘I had to see you, Rani.’
‘Doctor Madam!’ Rani dropped the sack of potatoes and rushed to her. ‘Is something wrong?’
‘Yes. Everything.’ Some of the potatoes had fallen out and were rolling towards the permanent streak of mud and filth in the middle of the alley. Priya quickly knelt and began gathering them up. Rani followed suit. When the sack was full again, Rani said, ‘Let’s get inside. It’s dangerous for you to be here. If Sudha sees . . . .’
‘I was careful.’
Rani looked her up and down. ‘Even with that faded salwar-kurta, no one would mistake you for a slumdweller. Come on.’
Inside the tiny hut, Rani lit a hurricane lamp and set it on a shelf. ‘All right, tell me.’
‘I’ve stopped helping him. Natwarlal has convinced him he needs professional managers, so he has let me go. I came to tell you.’
‘You didn’t have to. It has gone beyond what one person can or cannot do.’
‘I know. I should have listened to you when you first told me. But . . . I was brought up to be obedient, to treat my husband as a god. Even though I knew before I married him that Pradip is no god.’
‘Urgghhh! Finally!’ Rani rolled her eyes.
Priya’s eyes filled with tears. ‘I loved my father. When my mother said he was an avatar of all that is good in the world, I believed her. I wanted a man like him to be my husband. For a while, I thought Pradip was that man. But now I think . . . now I think they are all flawed. Even Bapuji, who bankrupted himself for us.’
‘God, you upper class women. All this education and you have less sense than silly little Radha. I want to bang all your heads together till your brains start working again. If they ever did.’
Priya smiled sadly. ‘I deserve that. So I came to tell you, he is launching that vile book of his on Sunday afternoon at the Bollywood Book Nook on Harpreet Singh Avenue. Raya Advani, the movie star, will be releasing it, and all the famous people of Chandigarh will be there. I won’t: I’ll find some excuse. They will start at 5pm. There will be private security hired by Natwarlal Nehra, but they will be watching only for Himmat Singh’s goons, not your girls. If you want to make the world pay attention, this is your chance, Rani.’
Pradip Shankar faced the glittering crowd that thronged the upmarket book cafe. This book launch was his big move to get Ramdhun Corporation to notice him, and he intended to make the most of it. Such a pity Priya had contracted a stomach bug.
Beside him on the dais, Raya Advani, Chandigarh socialite, rising actress and successor to Reshmi Arora, had just unwrapped a virgin copy of Future of the Child. The rows of social butterflies, suave intellectuals and well-heeled wellwishers drawn from his star-studded patient-base clapped enthusiastically. And now someone had asked him a question. The question didn’t matter: he barely listened. He knew what he wanted to say.
‘Viruses are not our enemies,’ he said. ‘Do you know that up to forty percent of the human genome is genetic material left by retroviruses? And that some of these retroviruses have donated viable and even necessary genes to us? Mammals arose because of a viral infection that caused the eggs of certain dinosaurs to stick to the womb lining and suck upon it like parasites. That should have been the end of those creatures, and I am sure many died, eaten by their own children. But there were some mothers so generous, so willing to give everything to their vampire offspring that they grew a protective layer over them and let the place of implantation swell and gorge with blood and food.’
The celebrities’ eyes were glazing. This was usually the point where Priya would nudge him and murmur, ‘No more, ji.’ He ploughed on: Priya wasn’t here to stop him.
‘That was the rise of the placenta, and when the viral genome merged with the dinosaur genome and became an endovirus, it created a new kind of animal: mammalia, named for our ambrosiac innovation, the mammary gland, source of all beauty, sustenance and love.’ He paused for a moment. Raya murmured, ‘Shankarji, you are a true poet.’
He glowed. ‘There is no human gene for creating this magical connection between mother and child. It is only this endovirus that makes happy families possible. We arose to conquer nature because of an ancient, indomitable infection. Viruses are not our enemies. They are our creators.’
They clapped a little uncertainly. Raya said, ‘Shankarji, please tell us about your vision of the future.’
‘Yes. As a rational species in the order Mammalia, we now have a duty to limit our numbers, since war and famine and disease no longer do so. That is the “Humane” part of Humane Choice. To do this, I have taken the help of a harmless virus that is naturally found in human semen. It is like a high tech postman, and it carries a message to the eager sperm: the Y chromosome wins the race!’
He chuckled, and the crowd chuckled with him. ‘Not every time of course, because we must have some women. They make our lives so much brighter, and I might add, tastier. My wife, who is not here today, is a very good cook.’
‘Wonderful,’ gushed Raya. ‘I love how you focus on the positives. The world needs hope more than ever these days.’
‘Yes, my dear, there is hope. Friends, do not give your donations to the temples, go instead to the laboratories where the best minds of our nation are priests of the new—’
‘Thief! Liar!’ Girls climbed on chairs, wearing army fatigues with the words ‘KURI KOMMANDOS’ written in yellow paint on their backs. ‘Murderer of our future! We know what you’re doing!’ Rani shouted. ‘We demand to live! Let girls be born! We are not the killers of the planet. You are!’
‘Guards!’ Natwarlal’s musclemen moved in to grab the protesters. But more girls were spilling in, raising posters over the heads of the stunned socialites. ‘Down down Humane Choice! Down down Shankar!’ In the street, glass shattered as girls jumped on parked cars and kicked the windows in. Two burly cooks in saris were beating a security guard with their posters till the flimsy wood shattered in their hands. Then they used their hands. ‘Give us back our future!’ Rani screamed. ‘Give it now! Or we will take it!’
Rani picked up an encyclopedia and beat an industrialist with it. She cracked a baby’s board-book on a banker, and knocked the hairpiece off a has-been actor with a romance novel. Then the guards frogmarched her outside. She struggled free as a teargas grenade landed at her feet. She bent, picked it up and lobbed it among the fleeing celebs. They screamed and scattered, holding handkerchiefs to their streaming eyes .
Pradip slammed a fist helplessly on the podium. With this public relations disaster, the chances Ramdhun would ever buy his company were slipping away. ‘I am doing God’s work,’ he shouted, ignored by all but Rani.
She laughed. The guards fell back as she wielded a standee support like a spear. News drones swooped over the scene as the cops charged in. In the smoke and chaos, no one saw what dark alleyway swallowed her slim shape. The three girls who were arrested were all children of prominent police and IAS officers. They were out on bail in an hour. Their parents promised to marry them off at the earliest, but the damage, to both Pradip’s future and theirs, had been done.