Ajji used to make everything a game. The most fun one I can remember is changing the piece of plastic stuck over the stitches on her stomach, so that they wouldn’t get wet. This was done by slowly, gently, removing the surgical tape around it. It would give me unimaginable joy to help Ajji out in this way. She would always praise me, and call me brave when I didn’t know what that meant. Sometimes, she would stick tape on her body randomly just so she could ask me to lovingly peel it off.
Ajji was our mother’s mother. When we visited Bangalore in the summers, we had to split our time equally between the two sets of grandparents. It was a badly-kept secret, whose company we enjoyed more. Even when Ajji got sick and it became clear that she wouldn’t really get better, my sister and I would still spend all our time with her. She would let us cheat at carrom, she would let us ruin her antique furniture with stickers, she would pat our heads and tell us everything would be okay.
Coming back from a blood test one day, Ajji brought home a surprise. She had told the lab technician about her two young granddaughters who loved to play. As a gift for us, she brought back home a syringe, but without the needle.
The hospital was a frequent scene in my life. There were pockets of time when it seemed as though all the senior citizens were ailing from some disease, some stroke, some fall. My parents had to rush there seemingly frequently, and my sister and I were often forced to go with them. That hospital was small and homely, and the doctor in charge was a family friend. Soon, the topography of the place became familiar to us. A message would come with the relative’s room number, and we could immediately say which floor, which wing, which corner it was in.
In my childhood, I was fascinated with medical equipment. Rolls of gauze, special shiny scissors, IV drips, bedpans that looked like Aladdin’s lamp. But I had only seen these things at the hospital, where I wasn’t allowed to touch anything. Here was this serious-looking syringe from the blood test lab, something that the adults called an “apparatus”, in the house! I didn’t even know such a thing was possible. I was free to touch it, to push the plunger down and bring it back up slowly, without anyone yelling at me for doing so.
The syringe smelled like the hospital. The cold metal chairs in the waiting area, the smooth floor against which my shoes squeaked, the curtains which shielded the sick from the curious young girls whose grandmother was in the neighbouring ward. The nurses’ white coats, the doctor’s bald head, the grey walls. That is what the syringe smelled like.
I wasn’t too excited with this new toy, because in Ajji’s hands, I couldn’t associate it with fun and games. But when it was transferred to the care of my sister, I knew something interesting was going to happen. She weighed it in her hand and waved it around like a sword, before zooming up the stairs and shouting at me to follow. My sister was always the engineer of our hijinks. She came up with the plan, and then how to go through with them. Even though she was the one who did most of the work, she always used the word “we”. My role in this transaction was to make myself amorphous, going and doing wherever and whatever my sister said. This time, my job was to fill a mug of water and bring it to the window on the first floor. My sister brandished the syringe that Ajji brought for us, and started giggling uncontrollably, to tell me that we were going to do something the likes of which I had never seen before.
She set the mug of water precariously down on the windowsill. She held the syringe, a finger on either side and her thumb on the plunger, just like we’d seen the doctor do. She placed it in the water and drew the plunger back until it was full. She held the full syringe at eye level, squinting one eye and tapping the body, as though administering a life-saving vaccine. And then, she stuck her skinny arm through the bars of the window and pushed the plunger as hard as she could, sending a stream of water flying through the air. It barely went beyond the compound wall, but the way we squealed, one would think we managed to send that stream of water to the moon.
I wanted to try too. My sister had to give me careful instructions—not to fill the syringe too much, to stick my hand out all the way out the window, to squeeze the water out all at once. Believing the words of this 10-year-old as hard science, I followed them with much concentration, and soon we were fighting for control over the syringe.
The main road used to be quiet and empty. For a long time, this house used to be one of just two in the whole neighbourhood. The only neighbour used to be a snake that lived in a large anthill next door, which is now covered with cement. This part of town used to be a hill, and was considered as hinterland. Amma says that, when they moved into this house 30-something years ago, you could see the Savandurga hill from here. When I think about how much this neighbourhood has changed in the few years we have lived here, I wonder what Ajji would have thought of all the new noises of honking vehicles. I don’t even remember enough of her to know which part of her daily routine the sound of rush hour traffic would have disturbed.
That fateful afternoon, we could not see anyone through the bushes full of flowers that used to thrive in Ajji’s garden. Our neighbourhood was not crowded, but was full of life. Most faces were familiar ones, and somehow, Ajji was friends with them all. But the occasional stranger did pass by, as one happened to that afternoon. He was obstructed from our view, but it wouldn’t have mattered to us even if he wasn’t. The little sitting room on the first floor which we occupied lifted itself up and started to fly. Soon, it was a floating, leaky box filled with stifled laughter and rapid shushing. Amma didn’t know what we were up to, and we didn’t want to know what would happen if she found out. We were aware the outside world existed, but it held no importance to us. As it turns out, there was a victim in our seemingly harmless activity. A man walking down the street got his clothes wet that day by a flying stream of water.
Amma doesn’t remember much from that day, and if we had known that the consequences of our actions would be so casual and flippant, we would have spent the rest of our lives accosting strangers with syringe water.
But no one knows what happened to the syringe.
Picture: Aditi Kumar