“… with the temperatures hitting a record 42 degrees Celsius,” the reporter on TV said “and that is a staggering one degree more than yesterday. Up now, we have meteorologist Dr. Neena Gupta to…”
“Goddamn it, Vijay, are you listening to me?” The lawyer banged his fist on the table. I looked up. “Hm?”
The lawyer sat back in his chair. “I can’t. I just can’t take this anymore.”
I smiled wanly.
“Listen,” The lawyer sounded angry. “I’m trying my best to save your life. So, you better goddamn listen to me.”
I sighed. “I’m sorry, go on. I’ll listen to you.”
The lawyer leaned back again. He pulled out a gaudy purple handkerchief and dabbed at his forehead. He was a plump man, given to angry outbursts every five minutes, and he sweat like a pig. In the extreme heat of that time, a river of perspiration flowed down the left side of his face, along well-defined contours.
“You’re only out on bail,” he said. “Remember that. If they get any evidence to reopen the case, you’re done for.”
I nodded. “I know that.”
“I’m going to ask you one last time. Do you really want to press charges?”
“If I don’t, then people are going to think I’m guilty. I have to do it.”
The lawyer sighed. “Okay, your choice. Let’s do it. Now, I have a plan ready,” He riffled through his leather bag and pulled out a folder, “This here, it outlines all the things you need to get ready. It starts off with,” He flicked it open and pulled out a single sheet of paper, “this. This is a-”
My phone hummed in my pocket. I glanced down; it was an unknown number. “Sorry, I’ll leave it for now.” I shut it off. “Continue.”
“Okay, so, as I was saying, this here is a-”
The phone rang again. The lawyer threw the paper down, looking defeated. “Take it. It seems to be urgent.”
I muttered another apology and left the room.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hello, is this Vijay Das?”
“Who are you?”
“I am Dr. Vinodini from Jeeva Healthcare. Your mother has suffered a heatstroke. She is in a serious condition. You were listed as an emergency number.”
My mouth went dry. “Where?”
“Mr. Vijay Das?” asked the lady behind the desk. “Yes,” I replied, “Where’s my mother?”
“Last room down this hallway. She might be sleeping so…”
“I’ll be quiet.” I raced down the long hallway, stopping only when I reached her room. I waited for a moment to regain my breath, then pushed the door open and walked in. The room was small, but not cramped; spacious enough for a few visitors. My mother was lying on a long blue bed. A few wet towels were placed on her forehead and armpits. She was fast asleep.
“Mom,” I whispered. I looked around for a chair and dragged it up to her bed. Hearing the noise, she woke up. “Doctor?” she croaked.
I gripped her hand. “No, Mom, it’s me. Vijay.”
She seemed to smile. “Vijay. I knew you would come this time.”
“Of course,” I said. “How are you feeling?”
She frowned. “Better than before, I guess,” she said. “But still not up to full capacity.”
I laughed. “Can you- can you put a number on that?”
“Of course,” she laughed along with me. “Would 81.28 percent work?”
“81.28? Why that?” My mother was a mathematician. To her, everything was numbers, and she normally spoke only that way. I was used to these little tid-bits she would drop on me, since childhood.
“8128,” my mother said, stretching a finger out and writing the number in the air. “127 multiplied by 64.” She looked at me. “Now do you get why it’s special?”
It dawned on me. “Euclid’s formula,” I said. “8128 is a perfect number.”
“It’s better than a hundred percent. Hundred is such a boring number.” My mother laughed. I heard voices from out in the hallway approaching the room. The door swung open and two people stood outside. One was the doctor. The other was a young woman, as tall as me, with shoulder length hair tied back into a ponytail.
“Excuse me,” the doctor said, looking at me. “Who are you?”
“I’m her son,” I replied, still not taking my eyes off the other woman. “The nurse showed me the way.”
The doctor looked from me to the woman by her side. The woman’s cold eyes bore into mine. A heavy, awkward silence filled the room. It was finally broken by the woman. “Well, well,” she said. “The prodigal son returns.”
“Vrishni,” I said, nodding curtly. The doctor shifted uncomfortably, then, obviously trying to lighten the tension, said cheerfully, “Why don’t you both sit down? I have to talk to you about your mother’s condition.”
My mother, seemingly for the first time, caught sight of Vrishni. “Vrishni,” she said. “You came, too!”
“Of course. Unlike certain other people, I actually care about my mother enough to visit her when she’s ill.”
Color rose to my cheeks. “Hold on, now,” I said angrily. “You know why I couldn’t come the last time!”
“Vijay, please-” my mother began.
“And who asked you to come, anyway?” I continued, ignoring my mother’s please to stop and the doctor’s efforts to calm us down.
“Our mother did!” Vrishni shot back. I stood, stunned for a moment. “You asked her to come?” I rounded on my mother.
“Mom! Why did you ask her to come? You know what she did!”
“What I did?” Vrishni laughed scornfully. “I’m not the one who went to jail for cheating a goddamn casino!”
The outburst came from the doctor. Her eyes were blazing. She took a deep breath and continued in a controlled voice. “You’re disturbing every patient on this floor. So, either shut up and listen to me, or get out and resolve your fight. Come back when you’re calm.”
I said nothing. Vrishni said nothing. “Sit,” the doctor ordered. Vrishni walked over to the chair at the other corner and sat. I sat on my chair next to the bedside.
“Your mother has suffered a heatstroke. The normal symptoms of heatstroke are swelling of certain organs. The heart is among them, and unfortunately, that’s the one that has been affected in your mother’s case.”
The doctor stood silent for several seconds, glancing at the different instruments connected to my mother’s body. She adjusted a few wet towels and returned to her explanation. “With age, the heart becomes weaker. Your mother, seeing as she’s 62, has quite a robust heart, actually. Better than most her age. But I’m afraid that she was brought in too late. I have spoken to the people who brought her, and they said that she was complaining of headache and dehydration long before she collapsed. She did not, apparently, want to come.”
“She finds hospitals boring,” Vrishni explained. “There are no numbers.”
“Why, there certainly are!” My mother opened her eyes. “What’s the room number?”
The doctor glanced back. “153,” she said.
My mother cackled gleefully. “153. The sum of the cubes of its digits. What a wonderful little number!”
“Mom,” I said, grinning. “What’s 112 multiplied by 18?”
She closed her eyes, concentrating. “2016.”
“Do you need a calculator?” the doctor asked me.
“No,” I replied. “She’s right.”
“You see that, Doctor?” Vrishni spoke up. “He’s inherited the same genius gift that many would kill for. But guess what he used it for?” She grinned. “To rob a goddamn casino.”
The doctor looked exasperated. “I would like to spend some time alone with your mother to talk about her options on how, or whether, we should continue. Please, if the two of you would step out.”
I strode to the door and stomped down the stairs, earning angry looks from the nurses around. I threw open the hospital door and stepped out, taking a breath of fresh air. I tried to calm myself down. Regular breathing.
The heat was getting stronger. I regretted leaving the air-conditioned hospital. I was just unbuttoning my collar, when my sister walked out, next to me.
“Vrishni,” I said, in stark contrast to the weather. She didn’t look at me; she just pulled out a cigarette and lit it.
“How can you smoke that thing in this heat?” I asked, ready to snap at her for anything.
“Why didn’t you come that day?”
“Why didn’t you come that day?” She turned to look at me. I shifted uncomfortably. “I was on a job. I couldn’t leave my partner just like that.”
“That was more important than our mother?” Vrishni asked. “You know she was never too strong after that.”
“What the hell does it matter now?” I grabbed her cigarette and took a puff. “What’s done is done. And don’t act like you’re so innocent. You know what you've done.”
“And, pray, what is that?” Her voice was filled with contempt. “Do you know why I did what I did?”
I glared at her. “Well, do you?” she repeated, waiting for an answer. None was forthcoming. “That’s what I thought.”
She stalked back inside the hospital. I sat down on the steps, my body and mind heated, restless.
I walked through the tall doors, a suave smile on my face. The man next to me was dressed informally. He wore t-shirt and baggy green slacks to my immaculate suit. “Good evening, Sir,” a person to my right said. “How may I help you?”
“Yes, we’re looking for some good tables. Private, please,” I replied, handing him a card. He took it, squinting at the print in the dim light of the casino. Then he looked up and said, “Follow me.”
My companion and I were led to a much darker room stowed away inn the deep recesses of the casino. Four men and three women were seated around a table. Two packs of playing cards were left untouched at the center. None of the people was speaking; just staring into the glasses of a clear liquid in front of them.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” I said, sitting on one of the empty chairs. My companion dropped down next to me.
“Enough talk,” the woman to my right said. She wore a blue dress, with matching blue earrings that hung down till her shoulders. “Let’s get down to business.”
“How much did you say I would get?” the man opposite me asked. He was a thickset, grey-haired man, smoking a large pipe.
“And me?” piped up the woman next to him. I chuckled nervously. “Let’s enjoy ourselves for a while, at least, people.” I picked up one of the decks of cards and continued, “One game?”
“To hell with your game!” the man with the pipe exclaimed. “I want my money.”
“Hey, buddy,” I said softly, nudging my companion. “A little help?”
He put his feet up on the table. “Calm down, people. He’ll give us our money. He’s smart enough to pull off the job, ain’t he?”
“It’s all math,” I explained proudly. “I have a gift, you know.” I began dealing the cards.
“There are nine of us,” said the woman with the earrings. “And a hundred percent of the money Even we’re good enough at math to figure out that it can’t be evenly split.”
The man with the pipe closed his eyes, struggling with the calculation. “Don’t worry, Ma’am,” I said, smiling cordially. “I have calculated the total contribution of everyone,and not just money. It was a little taxing for so many people, especially after my brain was put to use in getting the money, but-”
“How much am I getting?” she interrupted. I glanced at a sheet of paper in my pocket. “9.2 percent.”
“Of five hundred thousand bucks, no less,” my friend said.
“And how much is that?”
I thought for a second. “Forty-six hundred.”
She dropped her cards. “What?”
The room went quiet. A single second of peace, before everyone erupted.
“That’s too less!”
“Are you giving us that much too?”
“What the hell? We’ve got a right to more!”
“Ten percent each!” announced the man with pipe happily.
“You cheated us!” the young lady next to my companion shouted.
“All right, all right,” I said. “Calm down. I’ll do my calculations once again. I’ll see what comes up.”
“To hell with your math!” thundered the man with the pipe. “I need ten percent.”
“That’s five thousand bucks!” someone reminded.
“I need fifty percent!”
“Oh, yeah? Then what’s left for us?” sneered my companion. “My fists, if you want.” The man held one up.
My phone began to buzz. I excused myself from the mayhem and went to the corner to take it. What the person told me made my heart sink. I darted out of the room, pushing through the large crowds of people milling around the casino, till I burst out of the entrance. I spotted my car parked a little way off and sprinted towards it, fumbling for the key.
My companion ran abreast of me. “Where the hell are you going? We have a riot on our hands back there.”
“My mother,” I said. “She’s ill. Hospital.”
“But, wait.” He grabbed my hand as I opened the door. “Who’s going to take care of the mess?”
“You can do it.” I wrenched my hand from his grip.
“Vijay, I can’t. Listen, they’re screaming everything back there. If the casino authorities hear what they’re saying, they’ll get wind of our little plan and we’ll end up in jail.”
“Yeah, well,” I started the car. “I have to get to my mother.”
“Vrishni’s in town, right?” he asked suddenly. I nodded, praying for him to let me leave. “She’ll be there,” he continued, "for your mother, while you help me sort out this mess.”
“What the hell? What are you saying?”
“Listen! Think objectively.”
“It’s my mother. There’s nothing objective about that.”
“If Vrishni goes, your mother has support,” he ploughed on, “and you get to stay here, collect your cash, and use it for whatever treatment she needs! It’s a win-win!”
I scoffed. “You know I’m right,” he said earnestly, “Don’t scoff like that. Listen, what’s more important?? Your mother, or two fifty grand?”
“Two fifty grand that you can use to pay for her treatment.”
I sat silently. “Come on, man, it’s going to take just a few minutes. You can still see your mother.”
I shook my head, cursing myself for listening to him, for delaying so much, yet something held me back. “You’re killing me, man.”
“We can split it fifty-fifty,” my companion said. He was a real businessman. “The others can get nothing.”
I chuckled. “They’re not going to like that.”
“Yeah, but I have a plan. It’s going to involve a lot of your math, though.”
“What is it?” I asked. He grinned toothily. “Sometimes, book-smarts isn’t all you need, nerdy boy.”
I laughed. We walked back into the casino, but didn’t get far. A man in police uniform stopped us halfway inside. He had the seven other members of our gang too, who were still arguing.
We were arrested for trying to defraud a casino.
I shook my head and wiped the single, salty tear that crept down my cheek. What the hell was I thinking? Vrishni was right. My gift was a waste. I strode back into the hospital, up to my mother’s room. Vrishni was talking to the doctor just outside.
“… maybe nothing,” the doctor was saying. “I’m sorry.”
Vrishni put a hand to her mouth. I frowned and broke into a jog. “What happened?”
“The heart, as I was saying before you two began acting like children,” the doctor said pointedly, “has swelled up. If she had come a little earlier, it would probably be okay, but…” she trailed off. Vrishni pushed past me and ran down the stairs. I heard the patter of her feet fade away.
“I’m sorry,” said the doctor. “We can give her some sedatives to ease the pain, but otherwise, there’s nothing else we can do.”
I swallowed the bitter taste in my mouth. My vision clouded up, as though I was in a dream. “Can I…” I couldn’t get further. I didn’t need to.
“See her once?” the doctor said kindly. “Yes, of course.”
I pushed open the door and stared at my mother. She was sleeping, but woke up when she heard me come in.
“Did I- did I wake you up?” I asked, walking unsteadily to the chair. She shook her head.
“Mom, I just want to say I’m sorry,” I sniffled. “Sorry for everything. Sorry for being a terrible person. Sorry for-”
“It’s okay,” she said softly. “I have some regrets too.” She paused to hold my hand. “Listen, I don’t have much time. I don’t want to spend it crying over spilled milk. You made a mistake. That’s fine. What’s important now,” she took a deep breath, “is that I love you. That’s all matters.”
My eyes blurred with the tears. I had to look away. The sphygmomanometer caught my eye; the pressure was 141/85.
“Hey, uh, Mom, what’s 141 times 85?”
“11985,” she replied, almost instantly.
“How about 226 squared?”
This time, she thought for a second. “51086.”
I laughed. “That was fast.” Then my smile faded. “Mom, what did you say?”
She had noticed too. “I’m wrong, aren’t I?" She sighed deeply. "62 is not too young. Anyway, Vijay," she smiled brightly. "Did you know the first three digits of 62 factorial are 314?"
I frowned, not sure where she was going with this.
"What's the date today?" she continued. "14th March," I said, smiling back.
"I wouldn't have it any other way." For the final time that day, Anjali Das, social activist, mathematical genius, and my mother, closed her eyes.