Prose | The Face Reader | Bhaskar Caduveti Rao

It was my third session with Peggy, the Psycho-Freudian/Jungian analyst with prescription pad, who charged two hundred seventy-five dollars an hour for chitchat. Sitting in her cold, minimalist, all steel and glass office on a stark Bauhausian black leather couch stripped of all edges and meaning made me shrivel and so I took a deep relaxing breath pulling in the prana and spreading my arms along the length of couch. Peggy returned from the kitchenette and handed me a steaming cup of coffee - its warmth was comforting - and sat across from me in a rectangular leather armchair with a polite plastered smile.
Last session, Peggy asked me to write down five rules, spoken or unspoken, that was obeyed by me as a child at home.
“Let start,” she said while I fidgeted around my five denim pockets looking for the list I had scribbled on a torn sheet on the cab ride over here.
Peggy was in her fifties with brown hair, grey dispassionate eyes and the voice of a strict Catholic pre-school teacher. She was dressed in a black suit with a brown-striped top underneath and a golden bracelet with tiny oval watch.
“#5 Do well in school.”
“Was it spoken or unspoken?”
“It was not unspoken,” I replied after some thought.
“Next?” she continued.
“#4 Eat everything on your plate.”
Peggy just nodded. She now seemed as bored by this exercise as I was. I should have prepared better, I thought. I am wasting money by not taking this seriously.
“Your mother enforced it right?” she asked.
“Yes, she did. Where is your mother now? Do you speak to her often?”
“She lives in a small town in South India. Yes, I do still speak to her but not often.”
“Why not?”
“I could never stand the way she looked at me, as if this was my fault,” I pointed at my ankle. “Her pitying, helpless, dog-eyed look. She was so afraid for me. So afraid of me. I couldn’t understand why she just wouldn’t let go. And treat me like she treated Vishu.”
“Why do you think that? Why was she afraid for you, I mean.”
“I don’t know. I just can’t stand pity. It was worse than the taunts of the kids of my colony. So sad, so solicitous. It drove me away.”
“So you left,” she said.
“I did.”
She went back to scribbling in her notebook.
“#3 Avoid bad company.” This was turning out be a snoozefest. I could spice it up, I thought and told Peggy about how my father discouraged my friendship with Sapan because he visited video game parlors that were fronts for gambling dens.
“He was right as usual, father always was. Sapan flunked tenth grade twice and soon after we drifted apart.”
“Your dad mellowed since, you said last time. Where is he now?”
“He is dead,” I snapped. Didn’t she know this already?
“I am sorry,” she said lifting her arms and sat further back in her chair.
“No, no, no I am sorry.” The apology came out as soon as I saw her recoil, ”I am just angry remembering how I wasn’t even allowed to attend his funeral. My visa had expired, and I couldn’t leave the country, if I did I couldn’t have come back.”
There was an awkward paused before we moved on.
“#2 Be disciplined.”
“What do you mean — oh! was your father very strict?” she said.
“Yes, he was like a drill officer.”
Peggy just nodded when a face floated before my eyes. Large swathes of silver hair, shining under an airplane’s reading lamp — the Face Reader! It took Peggy three sessions and 925$ to get where the Face Reader took three minutes.
It was the summer of 1993 —  I was in eleventh grade. I remember father coming home one day with a surprise: three plane-tickets to Madras to visit Grandma. It made Amma smile for the first time in months. No more twenty-four hour train rides in the Madras Mail in the heart of summer. But I loved the Madras Mail. I liked staring for hours at the barren rice farms, at the dry riverbeds and the brown trees coated with dust, at the telephone poles with lines of black crows. I would see the skin of the earth broken under the harsh scrutiny of the sun, the mighty Godavari river that had shriveled into a stream. But not even the sun, hotter than the devil’s cauldron, could stop the peddlers at the railway stations; the chai-wallahs, the bhel-wallahs, the juice-wallahs who would besiege the passengers. Each station had a different specialty, a different treat for me — masala chai in earthen cups, icy watermelon juice and my favorite: sugarcane juice with lots of ice and a hint of lime. As the train progressed into the heart of south India, the treats would change. Now they became brown vadas with red and green chutney, coconut water, curd-rice with red pickle, sweet-meats, and all of it downed with cold buttermilk spiced with green chilly and cumin. The treats shortened the train journey and our full stomachs put us to sleep.
All of that was replaced by the Bombay airport — a giant white building with pockmarked ceilings and gleaming floors ablaze in white fluorescent lights. In the Madras Mail local villagers, fare-dodgers, would hijack our seats with impunity; but the airport was full of policemen with rifles. I remembered the air-hostess, who perhaps sensed my anxiety, flashed me a pearly-perfect smile. The brass name-tag pinned on her orange blouse said: Ranjeeta Nair.
“You know, I can read faces,” she had said halfway through the flight after some small talk, “Can I try?”, she was sitting next to me while Amma was across the aisle.
“Sure? Is that like palmistry?” I remembered Saurabh claiming he could read palms. I didn’t believe him. I thought it was an excuse for him to hold a girl’s hand. All Saurabh said after looking at my palm was that I would have a long life and become rich. They all say that. Astrologers. Palmists. Numerologists. Mother has seen them all.
“Your father is very strict, isn’t he?”
“He isn’t strict anymore,” I retorted turning away as if hiding my stripped self.
“I am sorry, I am sorry,” she mumbled a few words of apology while I wondered what else was etched on my face?
I asked Peggy, “Do you think someone’s past can be reflected on their face?”
She was silent for almost a minute, while I began daydreaming about life back home, before the money, before the planes.
“Hmmm. I don’t think so,” She finally said, “Perhaps in case of serious trauma. But even then I doubt it — Okay, so, what’s number one?”
“#1 Never hit Vishu. Unspoken.”
“Oh! interesting, Why? Did you bully Vishu a lot?”
“Then why was it a rule?”
“You see, when we were young, Vishu was devoted to me. Vishu followed me everywhere and did anything I asked. This made my parents worried that I would take advantage of him.”
“Did you?”
“No, wait yes, a little; but nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Ok, can you elaborate further on what you exactly understood this unspoken rule to be?” I caught her gaze flickering at my gimpy leg.
“It was understood, time and again that if I ever hit him, I would suffer twice as much. And I did.”
“Did you often suffer the consequences of violating that rule?”
So now we finally come back to my parents, I was dreading this not- your-fault-your-parents-fucked-you-up psychobabble.
“Well not often,” I replied, “but sometimes, but what he did was normal. Parents hit you, it’s not a big deal. I was hit aat school as well.”
“You know,” her voice sounded indignant, “the trauma is the same whether you are Indian or American.”
No it's not, I thought. We are not the same. I thought. I was sick of being fitted into their little boxes. How many Indians, Chinese or Africans did Freud treat before he came up with his ego, superego, Oedipus crap?
“Tell me about a time that he hit you,” she continued
“Any time?”
“Okay, I just want to say, most kids in my colony got beaten up by their parents much more than I ever did.”
“Just tell me one incident.”
“Well, there was this time he beat me with Mom’s powder puff.”
“A powder puff?”
“Yes, but this one was pink with a long plastic handle, it was used for applying talcum powder on your back. We found one in her room that evening, and started hitting each other with it. With the puffy side, I mean.”
Peggy still looked confused.
“We then powder-puffed the walls of the bedroom making fuzzy six-inch white circles all over. The harder we hit, the more distinct the circles got.”
“I then convinced Vishu to take off his shirt, so I could powder puff him. I will make the perfect mark I told him.
 I saw Vishu’s naked back. It was soft, and unblemished — like him. As I swung something perverse, an anger, a tamasic impulse, took over and I hit him harder than I should have trying to make the perfect circle of powder.”
“With the powder puff?”
“Yes, of course with the puffy side hitting his back; the branding came out perfectly on his back, a distinct circle of white talcum powder on his dark skin. I smiled at my success, but then oooooooooOOOOOO Vishu started wailing. Sshhh shhhh I said, afraid that father in the other room would hear. It only made him cry louder. He was mad at me, he wanted me punished. Our parents rushed into the bedroom. Father took one look at the scene, and his eyes turned red. He grabbed the powder puff from my hands and began beating me with it.”
“With the puff?”
“No. With the plastic handle of powder puff. I was on the bed, my hands and legs were up in the air, I kept saying: I am sorry, I am sorry. But the blows didn’t stop.”
“And then?”
“Then, what?” I said.
“What happened next?”
“Nothing. That must have been it. I don’t remember anymore,” My arms came out from somewhere. I looked at them like they were some strange appendages. I folded them neatly into my lap.
“No, tell me. This is important,” Peggy eyes will drilling into me.
Suddenly a dam within my head. Images crowding my skull.
Amma was trying to stop him. She couldn’t; his rage volcanic.  Minutes passed, perhaps hours. The blows kept coming. Amma finally managed to grab his hand, “You will hurt him!” she said; Meanwhile I leapt out of the bed and fled out of the house. Out of the gates, into the main road. Running as if he were pursuing me, pink powder puff in hand.
“I fled the house,” I finally replied to Peggy.
“And what?”
“What happened next?”
“Then it happened.”
“Oh, nothing,” I said, “I don’t remember, I was really young.”
“How young?”
“Like thirteen.”
“Then you must remember.”
“I don’t”
“You do. What happened next?”
The room felt colder. I could hear the rain start anew. I could hear it drum against the window, like Peggy’s words drumming against my skull — prying it open.
“I hit a bus,” My breath began to feel constricted.
“A bus!”
“Or something, I don’t remember, I ran into something, and woke up in a nursing home the next day.”
“What happened?”
“I don’t remember, like I said, I hit a bus or something.”
“Why were you in a nursing home? Is that like a hospital?”
“Yes, it’s a mini hospital run by a single doctor.”
“Why were you in the hospital?”
“It wasn’t a hospital, we call it a nursing home,” I snapped.
“Fine, nursing home, what else do you remember? What happened?”
I was in her grip. Her gloved hands were tearing into my flesh, like a surgeon with a knife, probing, cutting open the flesh to get to that ulcer, that rotten tissue, that cancerous tumour, that boil needing extraction, irradiation or cauterisation.
“I just remember my leg in a cast. That’s all I remember.”
“Your leg, which one?”
“Does it matter?” There was a glass wall inside of me was trying to push her away,
My head began spinning.
“It was not his fault.” I cried.
“I never said it was.”
“You did, but it was not his fault, I was born like this. I am this.” I pulled my pant up, to display my banged up ankle.
The rain had stopped. Peggy began scratching in her diary. The room seemed to echo her words. The patient hit a bus. The patient hit a bus.
“You mentioned meeting a Face Reader,” she said, flipping back a few pages.
“I was careless as usual. Never looking around, irresponsible, undisciplined. I ran into the bus. It was my fault.”
“The face reader,” she continued as if she hadn’t heard me, “Was that before or after this incident?”
“It wasn’t a bus. I would be dead if it were one.”
Peggy got up from her seat and walked to the kitchenette.
“I don’t remember what it was that hit me.” I said to her back as she grabbed a glass.
“Would you like some water?” she asked. The bitch. I hated her for sounding smug.
She poured herself a glass. I took the one she offered me.
“Do you feel better?” She asked after I gulped it down.
“I feel fine,” I said, “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.”

 (image credit: societyforpsychotherapy.org)

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