Unfamiliar Creatures by Avni Doshi
The doctor’s voice is muffled by his mask. He says I need to be careful, more careful than the average person. So much about Covid-19 is unknown, particularly the effects on a fetus. I ask him if I should be isolating from my husband and my toddler for the duration of this pregnancy. The skin around his eyes wrinkles. I imagine he is smirking behind the mask. I don’t want you to overdo it, now, he says. I ask him to articulate what he means. He tells me to use common sense. I have heard rumours of this and that. Will my husband be allowed in the delivery room? He says it’s too early to know what the protocol will be in a few months, but at the moment, that would not be a problem. A tacit understanding passes between us—he has no idea what to tell me, and I shouldn’t ask any more questions. I am grimacing and he knows it, but the paper covering our faces makes it possible for him to pretend otherwise. I leave his office and neither of us have acknowledged this emotional asymmetry.
My mother calls from New York and tells me not to think so much. I had planned to return home to deliver my second child, as I’d done with the first. But plans have unraveled. My husband and I have decided it’s best to stay in Dubai.
I’ve already Googled everything that can go wrong. In a study out of China, with a sample size of ten, two babies born of Covid-positive mothers suffered complications. There is some reference to organ failure, but the descriptions are unclear. Some readers indicate that it isn’t possible to link those complications to Covid-19. There are abuses thrown back and forth in the comments section. Another article mentions damage to the placenta. There is some uncertainty about whether the virus makes it into the amniotic sac. A doctor who is interviewed says that a little damage to the placenta is no cause for alarm. There are plenty of safety features in place – like in a clever German car – and the pregnancy shouldn’t be affected. I look through her statement for how much damage the placenta can take, and how much damage the virus can do. Nothing is definitive.
At home, my son waits for me by the door. His hair is unkempt, well below his shoulders. What seemed stylish now looks feral. My husband nicknames him Mowgli. We go for walks on the streets surrounding our house. The summer is about to descend on the city, but being cloistered is unbearable to the child and therefore to us. Our son asks us the name of every plant we pass, and stops to collect fallen flowers. At first, we make up names, and then chide each other for damaging the boy. My husband downloads an app that claims to identify every plant by picture. The walks become longer and longer as we stop to photograph every bush and grass. We realise from this exercise that a plant in our garden is a species of oleander—and extremely poisonous. My son brings along a red bucket, once intended for the beach, to collect organic refuse. Dried leaves. Pods. We arrange what he collects in a vase like a freshly picked bouquet.
A lockdown is announced, officially called a national sterilization program. We laugh at this term, and wonder if the government knows what the phrase might mean to the millions of Indian nationals residing in the country. We are not supposed to leave the house except in an emergency. If we feel any fear, we don’t express it. We spend the cooler hours outside, in the garden, and pity our friends and family who live in apartment buildings. Our house has a boundary wall eight feet high. Outside, the world doesn’t exist. We focus on our plants. Bougainvillea. Frangipani. Aloe Vera. Ficus. Agave. Bismarck. Growing them, naming them, renaming them.
The danger is at bay as long as we don’t know anyone who is sick. My cousin and aunt in London tell me they have tested positive but are asymptomatic. I am calm and cheerful when we speak, but I cannot sleep that night.
My son gets used to his father being at home and mealtimes together and teatime breaks in the afternoon. We eat dessert after every meal. He tastes sugar for the first time and is delighted. He doesn’t watch the front door anymore because no one leaves and no one comes in. We begin to fill the entrance of our house with things. A stroller lies across the floor. Some brand-new sandals my son has outgrown. We do this without thinking though perhaps we are trying to forget there is anything beyond our home.
I sit on a rocking horse at my son’s request. It groans under my ever-increasing weight. The next day, I become a rocking horse. My husband says this is dangerous, too much pressure on my narrow back, but my guilt makes me deaf and I neigh and force a laugh. My son is pleased with this sacrifice and tells me he loves me.
My friend loses her father to the virus. He was in Mumbai, she lives in New York. Because of the lockdown, she cannot be with her mother. They both grieve alone.
I do domestic tasks that once seemed repugnant. I bake. First cookies. Then chocolate cake. Some is edible, delicious even, and we ask ourselves why we haven’t been doing this all along. Such simple pleasures, look at us, so wholesome at last. Back to traditions and existing in a state of grace. Other times, the cake tastes foul. We gag at the banana bread and I realise I have mismeasured the butter—and I ask myself how long we will be in this mess. I look at the wasted sugar and flour as though they are being rationed. What if the world stops and this was the last banana bread we will make? What a pathetic attempt. And to think I come from a lineage of great cooks. The shame burns my insides. I decry the whole species. We have spoiled the earth.
Why did we have children? We wonder if we’re making a mistake. On the internet, many people think we are. We’re the problem, with our thoughtless reproduction. What are we leaving them? Has having children cut me off from thinking about the rest of the world? Or will I work harder to make a change now? So far, we are going about our lives the same way our parents did, stuck in the past, in our terrible ways.
And then I receive the call I have dreaded from the beginning. My mother tells me she has tested positive. At first, she is stoic, but begins weeping when I ask about my father. He’s fine, but she’s scared she will infect him. They are sleeping on different sides of the house. She puts her hands together and wants to pray. She tells me I should too. I tell her I will, but we both know she has raised me godless and neither of us knows any prayers. I don’t discuss what is making me anxious, but I know if anything happens to my parents, I’ll be too far away to do anything, and their deaths will feel like a distant dream.
My due date approaches and we take a tour of the hospital where I will deliver our daughter. The hospital has been declared a Covid-free zone. The woman who leads us around says everyone who enters must be tested. We have not been tested but decide we won’t draw attention to this. I ask her what the protocol is if a new mother is found positive. She says the baby will be put in the care of a nurse and the mother will be removed to a Covid ward until she tests negative. I ask her if that isn’t cruel and unnecessary. She says those are the rules and looks at me with suspicion.
The baby comes at thirty nine weeks. I have my first contraction at six in the morning, and by seven, we are at the hospital. The roads are empty. We live in a ghost town. By the time I reach the maternity ward, I can’t breathe. Moist air collects in my mask. I feel I’m hyperventilating. No one mentions a Covid test. An hour later, I am looking into my daughter’s face. She has the appearance of a baby that has been squeezed through the birth canal. Her nose is flat and her head a cone.
The baby neighs like a foal in her sleep, struggling to pass gas. Her face crumples and turns red as she strains. Her mouth searches wildly until it finds what it’s looking for. Sometimes it feels like she’s biting through my nipple. She’s just like you, my mother says on Zoom, watching me through the night, her voice calm, as I struggle to make the baby latch.
Change positions, my mother says, try lying down so you can rest.
I cry that it won’t work. She stays on the line until my phone dies. I kick the tripod and it falls to the floor. I’m tired and cannot pretend this is normal.
The sheets are stained with colostrum and lanolin. I’m anxious, yet resigned. The first month is hard, but this isn’t my first rodeo. Any hair I can’t see in the mirror is matted. And it’s starting to fall, earlier this time. Thyroid or anemia, my doctor says. Other symptoms emerge. Tingling in my body. Swelling in my fingers. Heart palpitations, temperature fluctuations, night sweats, nausea and headaches. Paranoia. Sometimes I think I am going to die. The doctor says it could be something neurological, autoimmune disorders can pop up after birth. I enlist an army of doctors to prod me and draw blood. They all agree I seem nervous.
My son is trapped at home with me. He isn’t interested in the baby. I don’t blame him, all she does is sleep. I suggest we should send him to my in-laws. They live nearby after all. But my husband’s family isn’t isolating anymore. Dubai has opened up, and so have they. I tell my husband to ask his parents to isolate with us but he says he would never ask anyone for that. We have hired help, he reminds me.
Our tempers flare before we come to the crux of the matter—he doesn’t believe our need is great enough to ask his parents to sacrifice their freedom. I am astounded. If this isn’t our time of need, I don’t know what is. I tell him I would ask my parents without hesitation and I would do this for my kids without thinking twice. I begin to shout, to cry, not knowing what I’m trying to prove. I cannot accept that our families are different. He says when he hears me fight with my mother, he cringes inside. I tell him that when he says family is a safety net, he must only mean financially. He looks at me like he wishes we’d never met. I expect him to leave the room but he stays. Still, I feel alone.
The first month passes, and we begin to go out again, to let in some light. Relatives and friends visit, and admire the new baby at a distance. Other parents tell me the last months have been the hardest of their lives. Homeschooling while trying to maintain a career. The burden has fallen mostly on mothers. My closest friends share their fears of not knowing what the future holds. There is talk that another lockdown is imminent. Schools may close again. How long will it go on? I wonder aloud if we would have had children if there was no way to ever escape them. The question hangs in the air.
On the surface, things seem back to normal, but I notice my son watches other children like they’re unfamiliar creatures. He prefers the company of adults. He doesn’t want to wear clothes, his feet are unused to shoes. I force him into a pair of sneakers and he throws himself on the floor in misery. Everything about the old life hampers him. I watch, knowing he will eventually be civilised, but wonder if his rejection of it all is the thing we should be encouraging.
Avni Doshi was born in New Jersey in 1982 and is currently based in Dubai. She won the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize in 2013 and a Charles Pick Fellowship at the University of East Anglia in 2014. Her debut novel is published in India by Fourth Estate under the title Girl in White Cotton and was longlisted for the Tata Literature Live First Book Award, one of India’s biggest literary prizes. Elsewhere, the novel is published as Burnt Sugar, and was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.
This piece is published as part of the Queen Mary Wasafiri Global Dispatches series, where six writers will send dispatches from around the world – writing from Tasmania and South Africa, the UAE and Argentina, England and Canada – and reflect on themes of Climate, Justice, Childcare, Racism, Futures, and Isolation—all in the context of Covid-19.
Read Professor Kiera Vaclavik’s response to Avni Doshi, and the topic of Childcare and Covid-19 – Covid Kids – here.