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Nature of Clouds

January 2004
Nature of Clouds

Medha was not sure what surprised her more, the fact that a lump had been found in her left breast or that Navin had been the one to discover it. After all, she was unlike her sister, Neela, who would not know if her eyebrows had sprouted crabgrass. Medha was famous for her attention to detail, and if there was one area she focused on, it was her own body.

Everyone who knew Medha compared her to those perfectly made-up models on TV Asia, ones who served up ten-course meals with packaged pungent masalas, draped in expensive silk saris and sparkling gold jewelry, their carefully made-up faces showing no trace of the effort involved. In fact, that's how Navin had first spotted her. It was not her striking complexion, pale and luminous against the background of brown skin of the other guests, or her unusually light, almost green eyes that had caught his attention. It was her tranquil presence in that chaotic household at the time of Neela's wedding that had drawn Navin. Her serene demeanor and complete confidence in her appearance had radiated around her like a halo and trapped him.

After the initial shock, Medha endured the necessary tests and examinations. She silently suffered through doctor's appointments, multiple mammograms and consultations with specialists. It must be age, thought Medha that was making her react this way.

In her teens, the first sign of a pimple had caused her agony. Imperfections and blemishes did not belong in Medha's vocabulary. She remembered the day the optometrist had pronounced the need for glasses. She had been distraught at the thought of going through life sporting owl-like glasses. Poor Baba had used his annual bonus to buy her those imported hard contact lenses. Neela had never forgiven their father for choosing to pander to Medha's vanity instead of buying her the much-needed medical textbooks.

Navin had not mentioned the lump to Vidu, yet. She was away at college and he didn't want to unsettle her before the biopsy. The relationship between his wife and his daughter was a mystery to him. Sometimes it seemed like Medha was still surprised by Vidu while Vidu assumed she was nothing more than a huge disappointment to Medha. When Vidu was a baby, times had been simpler. Navin had taken over the practical aspects of parenting like feeding and toilet training. Medha had preferred to buy frilly frocks and braid Vidu's hair into works of art, impervious to the child's protests. Now he was unsure about his role in his own house.

From the day of the lump discovery, Medha started scrutinizing her body in even greater detail. With clinical detachment, she observed herself in the full-length mirror lining her closet door. At forty, Medha looked like a young bride, fresh and glowing, not like the mother of a teenager. There was something to be said about the benefits of monthly facials and rigorous night-time beauty routines.

Medha had wished for Vidu to look like her. She desperately wanted people to comment on her youthful looks by presuming she was Vidu's sister. But Vidu was like Neela, with her plain looks and boyish temperament, choosing to read a book rather than accompany Medha to the beauty salon. Although disappointed at her daughter's contrasting looks and personality, Medha was secretly relieved that Vidu had not acquired Navin's looks. It's funny how life turns out, Medha thought. If it had not been for that chance meeting at Neela's wedding, Navin might not have entered her life. Then there would be no Vidu, no life in the US, no exotic vacations and no social rank and prestige as the doctor's wife. To think that she had almost refused to marry Navin because of his acne-scarred face!

Navin hoped Medha would talk to him about the impending biopsy, not just in his capacity as an impersonal clinician but as her husband. In some ways though, he still felt he was a stranger to her. Every day he was amazed to see her enduring physical beauty, the sight of which continued to excite him, almost two decades after their honeymoon in Mauritius. In general, Medha was not particularly vocal. Like her ethereal beauty, it was a quality that distinguished her from other women and simplified his life. It allowed Navin the luxury of burying his face in medical journals or newspapers in the few hours that he spent at home. His beautiful wife and tranquil household had been the envy of his friends.

But there was an unsettling quality about Medha that was almost impossible to define. Vidu had come close to expressing it one day after a visit to the Monterey bay aquarium. The display of hand-made glass sculptures inspired by the color and variety of ocean life, especially jellyfish, had fascinated Vidu and Navin. "Doesn't this remind you of Mom?" Vidu had queried. The beauty and grace of the transparent, seemingly helpless jellyfish had been painstakingly transcribed to these man-made artworks but there was something cold and sterile in the sculptures, an unreal, other-worldly quality that was hard to describe. Ever since that night when he had first felt the lump, Navin had unsuccessfully attempted to gauge Medha's feelings. Her stoic silence left him frustrated and helpless. He decided to call Neela.

The morning of Neela's arrival, the day before the surgery, Navin found Medha tearfully eyeing herself in the mirror. He put his arm around her wondering if Medha was finally cracking under the stress. She confided the cause for her distress in broken sentences, punctuated by gulping sobs. She had noticed her first gray hair! Navin left for the clinic shaking his head at his inability to understand the mysteries of Medha's mind. He could not believe that she continued to surprise him to this day. He met Neela in the driveway and wished her success in getting Medha to understand the seriousness of the situation.

It wasn't fair, thought Medha, to find her first gray hair the day Neela was coming. There was no time to schedule an appointment with her trusted beautician to apply henna to condition and cover her discolored strands. She knew Navin wanted her to talk about the biopsy, if not to him, to Neela. Why was he making such a big deal about this? Medha did not care to discuss personal issues with others, specially Neela. By revealing private matters you just opened yourself to public ridicule, like Mrs. Joshi who had described her hysterectomy in excruciating detail at the Diwali party last week. How could Neela help? She would just bombard Medha with complex medical terms and make her feel stupid.

Like that summer day when she was about ten, sitting with Neela on their porch swing watching the fluffy clouds swirling like froth above their heads. To the young Medha, clouds had been the perfect symbol of unchanging beauty, pristine and serene, rising above the petty inconveniences of life. If she kept totally still and reached out on her tip toes, she could reach the clouds, feel its softness, she could live there, she had confided. Neela had instantly proceeded to give her the scientific explanation for how clouds were formed and how these balls of moisture fell apart at the slightest change in temperature and humidity. That conversation had foreshadowed the pattern of the future, she and Neela, dreamer and pragmatist, divergent lives, conflicting philosophies, not destined to intersect.

Neela watched her sister unselfconsciously apply lipstick in sure strokes, masterfully outlining the full lower lip, completely oblivious to her presence, showing no visible response to the words she had just uttered. To her dispassionate eyes, Medha looked as though she was preparing for a party not a biopsy. It was clear that Medha did not want to discuss the issue, as always. Medha had glided through the years showing no scars or even signs of age or stress. The only time Medha had seemed upset was when Vidu had refused to wear braces. Neela had supported Vidu, it was not a major physical deformity, in fact her slightly overlapping front tooth actually made Vidu's smile all the more endearing.

But this lump was serious. There was a fair chance that the growth was benign. Neela hoped for the best but she knew that even the remote possibility of a malignant growth might lead the oncologist to suggest a mastectomy. How would Medha deal with that? The same Medha who had cried at the loss of her first baby tooth, assuming it would never grow back. "How will you deal with having only one breast?" Neela had practically shouted at Medha, hoping to get a reaction. The eerie silence had frightened Neela as she accompanied her sister to the hospital.

The young resident had clear, blue eyes, Medha noticed, as he repeatedly tried to insert the needle into the vein on her left hand. On the fourth unsuccessful attempt, he asked the nurse for help, furiously wiping the blood from the back of her hand that now resembled a war zone. The unisex hospital gown felt sack-like but comfortable. Medha was aware that the faded teal fabric made her look anemic. She thought about Neela's words as the fluids slowly seeped into her body. Neela had always been the excitable type. All this worrying and excitement would only cause wrinkles. Neela, with all her education should know better. It was clear that her family, including Navin, considered Neela to be the smart sister. But what good would come of all this worrying? All of Neela's medical knowledge had not helped her to become a mother or shown her how to keep her husband from straying.

Both Navin and Neela wanted her to talk to them, as if talking about it would change the outcome of the biopsy. After all this time, Medha saw no reason to bridge the distance she had worked so hard to maintain. The secret to her beauty was rooted in her ability to maintain an impenetrable aura of mystery. Like that beautiful actress who had recently undergone a mastectomy. While watching her gorgeous figure on screen it was impossible to guess the enormity of her physical defect. Distance gave the viewer perspective by creating a sense of magic around the object of beauty. Confessions and confidences would dissolve her carefully constructed image of perfection.

The resident escorted Medha to the operating room and helped her on to the table. Medha recoiled from the intense heat and excessively bright lights. She squinted into the glare, at once reminded of the trip to Maui. They had started driving to Mt. Haleakala in the brilliant Hawaiian sunshine. The peak had seemed impossibly high and unreachable, shrouded by white clouds, wrapped in thick scarf-like ribbons at the apex. The visibility dropped noticeably with every mile. Medha had excitedly lowered the window, eagerly reaching out for her first touch of the clouds. She wanted to feel them, to see if her childhood intuition about the nature of clouds had been correct. She asked Navin to stop the car and stepped out into the silent haze. The clouds did not have the wooly softness of fleece or the springy firmness of a mattress that she had expected. Now that she was surrounded by clouds, all she felt was a slight wet chill. The clouds had been a flimsy, indefinable artifact, a product of her imagination. Gazing up from the ground, separated by the vast expanse of space, the celestial clouds had held a special attraction for her. Up close, the magical mounds had turned out to be as disappointing as most things in life. Did that mean the clouds were no longer beautiful?

"I will give you something to relax. Can you count backwards from 20?" The words sounded slurred and distant. Distance was the key thought Medha, from a distance everything is still beautiful.

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