A Mirror That Looks Into The Subconscious – An Excerpt From Instruments of Torture by Aparna Sanyal

He was so tiny, this little red infant. All infuriated wails and clenched fists in a wrinkled old man face. Handed to the eager couple, wrapped in a threadbare yellow paisley blanket, his greeting was an immediate loosening of the bowels that spread all over the new mother’s chest as she tried to clumsily embrace him.


Inside the dilapidated, paan-stained building, on a rusting corner cot, the birth mother cried softly with pain and with relief. The heat and sun hit her directly through the dirt-speckled mesh-covered window, and for once, she welcomed their assault. After seeing the cavernous inside of the delivery room, where stray cats mewled outside the windows anticipating the treat of hastily thrown afterbirths and the nurses slut-shamed the mothers-to-be for opening their legs to bastard male-kind, she felt cold. So cold that a strong shiver went through her rhythmically every few seconds, not letting her rest. Finally, her family would take her back, now that her shame was gone.


She would soon be repackaged as a shiny-faced near-virgin and married to the highest bidder. The child was just a stain that would eventually scrub itself off the skirt of her youth. She would forget—already she had started forgetting—the lump in her womb. It was now just a phantom feeling of silky kicking limbs and hiccups. She was smooth-faced once more, no outward signs of this misadventure visible apart from the slightly loosened skin and parallel red marks on her belly and the old-woman look in her young-girl eyes. Her breasts would dry quickly, as surely as her tears would. The child had suckled just once and then been taken from her—handed out in a hasty bundle. The separation was instant and complete.


Outside, in the crumbling corridor, families wailed for their loved ones, half-fed children gawked at vendors selling old fruit covered with soggy newspaper and fruit flies, and bustling orderlies pushed steel-covered coffins on wheels past the harrowed crowds. The young, newly made father pulled away from the child, wrinkling his nose and refusing to hold the infant smeared in turmeric-yellow newborn poop. The mother tried to keep the mess off herself, finally squatting awkwardly on the floor to remove the sodden blanket from around the baby. This made the baby scream even louder. If you listened closely, you could sense the loss conveying itself in the baby’s full-throated blats. Longing for a safe warm place, for a familiar smell, for a heartbeat he could no longer feel, a tearing, wrenching feeling of bereavement and a visceral fear for its safety made the baby inconsolable.


The mother carried the baby over to the nearest tap, opened it full force, placed the baby’s bottom directly under the cold, stinging spray and let it do the cleaning that her soft hands should have done. No one had warned her that a baby’s poop was so smelly. Unprepared for the nasal assault and already wanting the infant to stop his wretched wailing, the mother brought the baby back to the father and asked him to fetch a new blanket. The father scampered away, more than eager to get away from the racket. Until he returned, the mother held the baby akimbo and at a distance from herself, unwilling to soil her sari further, averting her face from his wailing and from the miasma of poop and need that emanated from him. This was a harbinger for the days to come.


The baby found a home with the couple, but could never find their hearts. The three of them cohabited awkwardly, never really fitting in with each other, and at the best of times, only tolerating each other’s presence. The baby was all nervous limbs and shaky temperament, his feeling of displacement never quite seeming to leave him. The mother wished for a different life secretly. The father, now working two shifts to accommodate the needs of an infant, wished for a different life too—only not so secretly, but in a belligerent, drunken way. The only people who were happy with this strange and nervous sudden-family were both sets of grandparents, who sent their love and bits of money in twice-used envelopes. ‘Good’, they said to their progeny often, ‘at least the neighbours will stop gossiping about you two being childless.’


As the baby grew, a name had to be decided upon. In the six months since his birth, the couple had taken to calling the infant ‘it’, never really settling on a name. A name would, after all, bring with it full ownership, claiming the baby out of anonymity and firmly, finally, placing him into their fold. But once again the grandparents bore down, and loath as they were, the couple found an auspicious day on which to hold the child’s naming ceremony. On the day of the naam-karan, as the grandparents and several relatives gorged themselves on pedas and bananas and drank rose sharbat from steel tumblers in the outer hall, inside their cramped, shared bedroom, the mother struggled to dress the uncompliant baby in holy reds and yellows. Using liberal handfuls of coconut oil, she pasted down his stringy hair, then marked his chin with a dot from her kajal pencil. Using the same kajal pencil, she lined the undersides of his eyes, the rough act making the baby bawl his head off. Exasperated, the mother shook him until his crying subsided. Emerging into the hall, she handed him over hastily to the pundit, just as his blatting cries resumed. The pundit, unnerved by the child’s sheer bellicosity, strove to place the baby on his lap and hold him there, all the while chanting mantras and feeding the small holy fire that sputtered away in the cast iron trough in front of him with ghee, slivers of wood, wedges of kapur, flower petals and raw sugar in turns. As the ritual clumsily proceeded, the baby didn’t relent for a second. The pundit hurriedly completed the prayers, summarily dumped the baby on to his mother’s lap and receded into the crowd, gulping down a huge quantity of sharbat as he sought out the father for his fee. And thus it was. ‘It’ now had a name: Raghu.


Raghu was not an easy child. Where his mother yearned for apple cheeks, chubby limbs and thick, straight hair, Raghu was spiny to the touch. His straggly locks clung to the nape of his neck in sweaty coils and his body reeked with a peculiar mixed musk of fear and need.


Excerpted with permission from Instruments of Torture by Aparna Sanyal 

Publishing/ HarperCollins (2024)

You can buy your copy here.



Aparna Upadhyaya Sanyal holds an MA from Kings College, London. Recipient of the 14th Beullah Rose Poetry Prize by Smartish Pace, she was shortlisted for the 2018 Third Coast Fiction Prize.