Anaesthesia Dolorosa

Seven years ago, it was early spring and my mother was having her (now) triannual domestic staffing crisis. Her maasi of three years – at the pinnacle of her career at our home, a butler of sorts – had suddenly disappeared, plunging the house into disarray and catapulting all of us into the differential jobs of sweeper, cook, and collector –of –TCSes from the gate.

Excluded from recruitment into our chore force was Abba, who came home at increasingly later hours from the hospital, listening with questionable interest as Ami quibbled about the no-show of her most prized employee and all the trouble it had precipitated. Intermittently Ami stopped to confirm if he was listening, and the affirmative nod of his head was so gallant one would almost believe him.

For many days Ami clung to the conviction that Nadia would return, because she was the eldest of five sisters and had an ailing mother, and nowhere else would she find a job that paid so well. Most importantly, she had left off at the end of the month and she would return to collect her salary.

I hadn’t interacted much with Nadia. Our paths had crossed but never overlapped. My mother hired help for almost everything but had never outsourced parenting. Ami checked our homework and braided our hair in the morning, kept tabs on our showering schedule, which at its most relaxed had to be every other day. From Abba we inherited an entire medical vernacular that permeated all our consultations, at home and outside. It was really not extra-ordinary for us to read Ahmed a story, stop at a page and ask him for a provisional diagnosis of what would happen next. I still often refer to a hair plug in the bathroom drain as a thrombus that needs to be retracted, waiting for Abba to crudely yield a hand pump to remove it in a very extravascular and decidedly non-physiological way.

I remembered Nadia from the dinner table, where she used to eat with us, but on a stool, not a chair. In the months before she left, Abba sometimes remarked how Nadia must be bilking Ami, because she worked less and less and rested more. We saw the transition of a near-anorexic Nadia to round and heavy, a change she would dismiss with a toothy smile. All that remained constant were her bright green eyes that seemed to turn aquamarine at dusk, when her work finished and she left.

There was, finally, a candidate for the vacancy, two weeks later. But she had a disqualifying weakness: she had been recommended by my father’s sister. My father’s family was all a conniving clan that would much rather install a spy than a household helper. They had made more overt aims at infiltration before – namely coming over for an unannounced visit and refusing to move out, even two months later. We had become alerted to these ploys – and Ami sought to nip one as soon as it started to take shape.

To a large extent this impression of that part of the family, religiously and explicitly re-inforced by Ami, was true. We could all very much believe that Dada would stage an illness to ruin her honeymoon, or that phuppo had once singled out my mother’s cooking as tasteless and possibly poisoned. Even now phuppo rarely called on us on birthdays or anniversaries; she called on us only when she was in need, mostly of the financial variety. Ami’s retelling of these stories was like a vaccine and its boosters – in large doses when we were younger, less frequent as we grew older. All, she insisted, in good will, to fortify us against any future evils they may execute.

Ami found a replacement soon enough – but replacements remained impermanent, none with the tact or diligence of Nadia. They were all part of a palliative care package – none curative of the housekeeping void Nadia left behind. Our household function adjusted to these transient sets of workers. Abba said it was like immunity – we developed coping mechanisms eventually; before exposure to such a circumstance we hadn’t known we had the potential to keep the house clean and running in the absence of a full-time do-it-all.

Seven years on, my Dada fell ill – this time for real, and terminally so.  Obviously, we didn’t know either until it came to pass. There was a renewed attempt to relocate my father’s sisters into our house as Dada underwent treatment at a hospital in Karachi. We resisted till the end, till his body stopped one day in his sleep, surprisingly swiftly, four months after a bypass stent had been inserted to temporarily alleviate the symptoms of his pancreatic cancer. Doctors, even the best ones, my dad’s friends, had said that a removal of the tumor could mean he died on the table. His body functions crumbled, step by step, like slow dominos. For him, I heard, it was like a maceration – a slow corrosion of resistance – but for us it was a massacre.

Our reality upended. Abba worked longer nights; Ami accused him of spending all those hours with his other family. This was worrisome on the premise that, in keeping with tradition, they were focused on wedging him away from us – his real family. Over the years Abba had reached equipoise of sorts about this. For us, his family’s influence shrank to his phone, which we remained aware had all the influence in the world. They stopped overwhelming our lives and home, but they continued to overwhelm him.

Phuppo suggested she would take over the household work if she were to move in. It was an adroit card to play, because we were perennially out of maasis. To block this proposition a maasi was hired in haste, and was by all means of even more outrageous origin. She was only seven years old, and from a welfare institute. Nobody knew of her parents, only that she had been abandoned in a roadside jhoola.

Her name was Afreen. She was diminutive but efficient. Ami announced three days after hiring her that she was settling well, tuned to her tastes and needs. The announcement was of course necessary – even if, in this case, not entirely untrue.

I noticed very much how we were all caught in a gradual degeneration – like Dada’s body. We had sought to stabilize a makeshift arrangement that was now crumbling, like we should have known it would. Abba had long learned to be silent in quarrels; the volume had been Ami’s and the ominous brooding his. But he unlearned it all fairly quickly. All of us four siblings struggled to reacclimatize to a new dynamic – fights that refused to diffuse, louder arguments, long periods of us having to inconspicuously order food because there was nothing in the kitchen. Hopping around in this midst like an excited animal was Afreen, keenly aware of the erosion of our household fabric, her eyes round and green like a cat’s, absorbing everything.

I don’t know about my siblings, but I don’t blame Abba. He had sought to strike a chimerical balance, trying to pacify both legs of his family, keeping his transactions with one hidden from the other. There were only so many secrets a phone could hold. He did not realize choosing both sides was not an option.

One day he called me to his clinic alone – something he had never done before.  I was tense; I didn’t know what had become of Dada’s illness, was ignorant even of the nature of his illness. I hypothesized this was going to be another first – Abba was now going to emulate Ami, pontificate why she was wrong, counter her disdain for his family, and expect me to reciprocate the sentiment. I had always found this undercover campaigning against one’s spouse – or their family – somewhat contraindictive. I was prepared to maintain strict, diplomatic probity and decline to comment. Then I planned to dash out into the anteroom, where I would be lost, and Abba would resume his clinic instead of following me.

“My Abba is sick,” he said instead, when I walked into a consulting room, “if you have a couple minutes, would you mind seeing him?”

Dada looked sick, with tubes and processes running in and out of him. I don’t think he recognized me, but I stood and smiled anyway, unsure of what to say, if he could even hear anything I said. My phuppo, his attendant, explained his plethora of age-related conditions to me. I listened attentively and spoke nothing of my visit at home.

In the house we were on Ami’s side by day and convenient bystanders by night, when Abba was home. It was suffocating to behave like a caricature all my waking hours, and I saw – unprecedentedly – that the only person with whom I could shed my charade a little was the agile, suspiciously reticent Afreen.

Meray tou hain hi nahin.” She used to tell me with a shrug, when I complained that, contrary to popular belief, having both parents living together could be a burden and not a blessing.

It was at this juncture that Nadia re-appeared into our lives, ringing the doorbell early morning. Ami dished out a few notes from her bag – Nadia’s uncollected salary – and invited her in. Before Nadia had pronounced the purpose of her visit, Ami had assumed she was here looking for employment, and her shoulders were already drooping guiltily, because she did not have an opening available.

Nadia was thinner than she had ever been. Her head was covered but I saw how the henna-tinged mass of her hair – now streaked with white – had receded an inch from her forehead. After the pleasantries, Ami instructed Afreen to bring in a cup of tea.

“Why did you leave?” Ami asked, almost jovially. Her question co-incided with Afreen entering, carrying a stable tray of tea cups and a sugar pot.

Nadia’s eyes shuttered, and then opened wider than usual. For a long time she sat still, her fingers opening and closing around each other. She seemed to be scanning Afreen, trying to match her form to a known prototype in the database of her head. I could see that Afreen sensed the attention, and that after a minute it made her claustrophobic, like when one is in an MRI room. Even my mother noticed it, but I imagine she attributed it to professional rivalry.  Afreen was, after all, in the place Nadia was probably seeking.

Ami voiced her question again, puncturing the mildly hostile ambience that strung the room.

Nadia deterred from answering, instead looked at her splayed hands in her lap. At her hesitance Ami instructed both of us to leave and close the door behind us.

I forgot about this quickly, and not intentionally. The very taut string of familial cohesion that had been holding us together snapped as Dada passed away in his sleep, his monitors showing a perversely smooth, final lapse of his heartbeat.

I expected this to catalyze a complete disintegration of our household machinery, but Ami proved to be an excellent knitter. She yanked the ends of the string together and stitched them. Like any stitches, they left marks, and itched a while before they healed.

Ami and Abu attended Dada’s funeral in Islamabad – a messy, unnecessarily extravagant affair, as Ami later told us. Phuppo returned to her home, and our house, once splintering, retained its gestalt-like function. Some nights Abba sat in front of a muted TV after everyone had gone to bed, his eyes blank as the changing colors of the screen danced off his face, his phone in his hand.

A couple weeks after this I remembered, out of nowhere, Nadia’s surprise return. She hadn’t come again. I asked Ami what that had been all about.

“She asked me a few things about the girl we’ve hired, who she was, where they found her, her age.” Ami was dismissive, almost evasive.

“Was she looking for work?”

“No,” Ami shook her head, “She was looking for something else. She has been working in some other capacity for some years, she told me. Not sweeping and cleaning anymore.”

“What capacity?”

“I really don’t remember,” Ami shrugged in a way that suggested she remembered very clearly.

“Why did she say she left?”

Ami, who knew everything, said she didn’t know.

Of-course this occupied my headspace for a long time. I wasn’t a child anymore, like I had been seven years ago. Most things fell neatly in place – the irrational weight gain, the sudden disappearance, the bright green eyes.

What didn’t make sense was why she had acted the way she had upon her return. Her incensed stillness from that day reminds me of something Abba once told me about. In medicine there is this rare condition called Anesthesia Dolorosa. It is like a de-afferentation pain, paradoxically felt in an area that has been desensitized. Nadia, Abba, all of us, programmed to be numb, sometimes still yearn to feel, are worn down by this painful loss of feeling – all a seemingly idiopathic case of anaesthesia dolorosa.

Editor’s Note: The editor found this site helpful for a glossary of Pakistani names for family relationships.  Also, thanks to Google Translate for the meaning of the one line of Urdu dialogue that the story contains. The reader is encouraged to look up any unfamiliar words. At 19 years old, Alizah Hashmi is probably the youngest writer we have published.  Litbreak requires a minimum age of 18 for all writers. 

Photography Credit for Cover PictureJason Rice

Portrait of the author provided by the writer

Alizah Hashmi’s short stories have been published online in the Young Adult Review Network (YARN), RIC Journal, Five on the Fifth, and in print in The Aleph Review.