Jahan and Adar
Everyone laughed and Cook came in with a large platter of tender, savory lamb while his helpers brought the dal and rice. The table filled with excitement and the delight sounds of a good meal. Everyone was happy.
Except Bapsi. She looked at the clock. An hour had passed since when Jahan and Adar were expected home. She couldn’t eat. She couldn’t sit. She hurried to the open window, squinting to see who was coming down the road, listening for her phone to ring. Mother had said Bakrid had begun. Could something have happened to Jahan at the festival? Is Adar safe? There was so much acrimony between the Hindus and the Muslims. What if a hooligan caused trouble? Started a fight? What if Adar was lost in the crowd? No one would know the boy was neither Hindu nor Muslim. No one would know he’s a neutral Parsi.
Dastan Uncle paused for a moment from his lamb dinner. “Aban,” he said to Father. “What was that headline about the bomber? You said she was different.”
“She was Canadian,” Father said. “She destroyed an oil-producing facility.”
“Was she one of those Black Widows?” Dastan Uncle said, referring to the female suicide bombers in Moscow.
“How could that girl be a Black Widow?” Father said. “They were Chechen. This woman was Canadian. She wasn’t even Muslim!”
Still standing at the window, Bapsi snapped at her father. “Not all Muslims are terrorists!” Father stared at her, shocked. Everyone was shocked. She’d never spoken disrespectfully to him or any member of the family before. Bapsi winced as she checked her cell phone again. No calls. No messages. Tears filled her eyes. “I apologize,” she choked. Father went to the window and embraced her.
“Jahan switched off his phone,” he said. “That’s all.”
“They lost track of time,” Mother said. “They’ll be here soon. Bapsi, please, come and eat. Your dal is getting cold. Cook made it just the way you like it.”
Father returned to the table and Bapsi followed. She picked at her meal as Goolrookh gave more details about the woman bomber in Canada. “Everyone at school was talking about it. It’s all over the internet.”
“I heard she was a red Indian,” Auntie said, placing another large spoonful of dal on her plate.
“Native American,” Goolrookh said.
Auntie looked confused. “How can she be a Native American if she’s Canadian?”
Goolrookh rolled her eyes. “Red Indian isn’t PC, Mother.”
“PC? PC? What’s PC?” Auntie said, shrugging and waving her hands. “It makes no sense.”
Goolrookh sighed. “Politically Correct. I heard she loaded a pickup truck with fertilizer and fuel, and BAM!”
Mother jumped. “Incomprehensible,” she said. “How could a woman do such a thing?”
“That woman was clearly insane,” Dastan Uncle said.
Bapsi checked her phone again. Nothing. She called friends asking if they’d seen Jahan or Adar. They had not. She called the zoo. No one answered. She called the police. The police told her other matters of greater urgency demanded their attention. When Bapsi told her Adar was only three years old, the police told her to fill out a missing persons report. Bapsi hung up frustrated. She hated waiting. She looked at the clock. Three hours had passed since Father and Dastan Uncle had come home. “Eat,” Mother told her.
Bapsi moved lamb about her plate. She nibbled on lentils. She thought about the two babies she’d delivered recently, a healthy girl to a happy mother and a sick boy to a worried one. Why do some have so much good fortune and others have so little? Bapsi had sought the counsel of Dr. Sharma, the hospital’s senior pediatrician.
Bapsi hesitantly tapped on the revered physician’s door. Dr. Sharma invited her in and offered her a seat. Dr. Sharma wore a traditional sari and her gray hair hung long down her back. Bapsi politely addressed the reason for her visit. “Have you noticed an increase in the number of babies born with birth defects?” Bapsi wasn’t prepared for the answer.
Dr. Sharma nodded. “Of course,” she said. “Fifty percent.”
“Fifty percent!” Bapsi exclaimed. “I had no idea. So many. And the diagnoses?”
Dr. Sharma’s eyes darkened. “Brain tumors.” Bapsi winced. Dr. Sharma sipped her tea. “I suspect we will find tumors in the boy you delivered on Wednesday. He’s already had one seizure.”
“Horrible,” Bapsi said.
Dr. Sharma cocked her head. “Now let me ask you a question. When was the last time you delivered a girl who wasn’t healthy?”
Bapsi could easily remember each newborn. “All the girls I’ve delivered had apgar scores of at least eight or nine.”
“And the boys?” Dr. Sharma asked.
Bapsi thought for a moment. “I can’t remember the last healthy boy.”
“Exactly,” Dr. Sharma said. “The girls are robust. Full of life. But I haven’t seen a healthy boy in months. Researchers in the United States have already named it. They call it Y-Chromosome Linked Tumors.”
“They must be mistaken,” Bapsi said. “Humans aren’t the only creatures with Y chromosomes.”
Dr. Sharma leaned back in her chair. “You are Parsi?”
Bapsi hesitated. “Yes,” she said.
“I’ve had many Parsi friends in my lifetime,” Dr. Sharma said. “Most have passed, their bodies taken to the Tower of Silence. I’m sure you’ve heard about the vultures.”
Bapsi nodded. “But that’s different. The vultures are dying from kidney failure, not brain tumors. Livestock’s treated with an anti-inflammatory drug that’s toxic to the vultures. The livestock dies. Vultures consume their remains and —.”
“Expire,” Dr. Sharma said. “Some blame the drug. Others suggest DDT. Next time something else will be the cause.” She pulled one of the fragrant flowers out the vase on her desk and offered it to Bapsi. “Remember the gas leak in Bhopal.”
Bapsi took the flower. “I’ve read about it. I was three years old when it happened.”
“When I was a girl,” Dr. Sharma said. “Before the Union Carbide plant was built, Bhopal was the City of Lakes, founded by the Parmar King a thousand years ago. One of the most beautiful sites in central India. Now that image is forever brutalized.” Dr. Sharma closed her eyes, her voice rigid as she described that December, 1984, when a methyl isocyanate gas leak triggered the worst industrial accident in the history of the world. Forty tons of the gas used in the manufacture of the popular pesticide Sevin spewed from the plant. Ten thousand people died within the first seventy-two hours.
“My sister lived in Bhopal,” Dr. Sharma said. “With her husband and three children. The gas hovered low to the ground, attacking the smallest first. Her son was five years old. Asleep on his cot. The gas filled his lungs. He couldn’t breathe, his sputum pink and frothy. My brother-in-law died too.”
“I’m so sorry,” Bapsi said. “But what has that to do with —.
“A bad as Chernobyl,” Dr. Sharma said, cutting her off. “The suffering lasted generations. Cancer, blindness, genetic defects, hormonal anarchy in girls, physical deterioration in boys.” Dr. Sharma stopped to take a deep breath, her voice weary. “Barrels of pesticide and mercury are still there. Left unattended by companies and governments. How many monsoons have passed since 1984? How much poison has washed into the groundwater and rivers?” Dr. Sharma looked at Bapsi, searching her eyes for understanding. “What does it tell us when even the creatures that eat the dead are disappearing?”
Bapsi shuddered. “This current malady, this horror that’s destroying infant boys, how do we stop it? What’s the cure?”
Dr. Sharma pulled a petal off the flower in Bapsi’s hand. “How do you unpluck a rose? You cannot. All you can do is wait and hope that it blooms again.”