"UFOs over the sea," shouted the headlines of Mumbai kiosks. I didn't care; I'd landed seven hours late; too late to see my sister? I dove from the terminal into a sea of rain and scrambled into a taxi drenched.
"Is that all your luggage, miss?" the turbaned old driver demanded, squinting.
"Yes. Drive me to the Merciful Heart Hospital, please, on Malabar Hill. Be quick."
"Very well, miss." He pulled away, pumping the horn as a van cut us off. "I hope you are not in the family way. Last week a young woman like you gave birth in the back of this cab."
"I'm fat, not pregnant," I said, irked, "but I might die of the heat back here. It feels like a tandoori oven. I've lived in Toronto seven years."
"I am sorry, miss, my fan has died," he bellowed over the chorus of horns, while windshield wipers slapped uselessly against the torrents of rain. Tin-roof slums encroaching on the airport made me feel even more depressed. Mumbai was choking on its own growth, swelled by millions of farmers leaving the land.
"Why didn't I call a radio cab?" I mopped rain and sweat from my short-cropped hair with a tissue.
"And waited two hours for it to fetch you? Nothing works in the monsoon."
Sinking back, I closed my eyes.
"And it's worse since those UFOs started hanging around above the sea."
"Thousands of people have seen them, miss. I saw them myself while fishing with my son, and they shimmered like blue jewels, like three new stars added by the gods."
"We're all entitled to our delusions," I cut him off. Gazing out at the heaving traffic, I felt crushed by dread and guilt. My older sister, Surya, lay dying of our family curse.
"What are your frowning for, miss?" asked the driver. "You are young; you should enjoy your life, not hack off your hair like a sour nun."
"Just drive me to the Merciful Heart, OK? You are not my guru, sir."
"Very well." Switching on the radio he found cricket scores and turned them up. Now I couldn't hear myself thinking. Maybe just as well.
I'd always envied Surya: the teacher's pet, the graceful devotee of yoga; I'd envied her circle of friends and paintings of butterflies, even her name (it means "the sun"). Until she got cancer and lost her breasts.
About halfway to Malabar Hill our creeping forward stopped, and then -- although we couldn't budge an inch -- the drivers kept on blaring horns. I felt my head would split. Suddenly I noticed water dribbling in, from the bottom of the door -- foul, brownish water.
"Oh now we are flooding," the driver moaned. "It must be high tide." Maybe the gods were punishing me, for my reluctance to fly home? "Miss, we cannot continue together; you better flee to higher ground." All along the flooding highway drivers were abandoning their vehicles. Shaking my head, I pushed open the door and water slopped inside. "You should pay me a portion of my fee," he complained. "I have brought you as far as Worli." Without a word I pulled a wad of rupees from my purse and threw them at him.
Then I stuffed my high heels into my trolley's outer pocket, and joined the refugees on the shoulder. I just had to follow the coastline south, as far as to Malabar Hill.
Soon my linen suit plastered my body, and warm rain trickled down my thighs. A bent woman offered me a smile; at least I was young, well-fed and strong, since there was no help for any of us.
Would I see my poor sister alive? Safe inside the Merciful Heart, on its fashionable hill, at least she would perish cool and dry.
Thirsty and famished, I tipped back my head and gulped in mouthfuls of streaming rain. And that's when I saw them: three blue lights, floating over the Arabian Sea. They formed an equilateral triangle hanging like a mysterious sign.
I squinted, and they vanished. Was this what the driver had gabbled about? If these were really UFOs, why show themselves above Mumbai, in the middle of the monsoon?
Stubbornly I kept dragging my trolley, which felt heavy as a corpse. I'd brought expensive jewelry, to give my sisters ... Suddenly I stumbled, ruining my new suit with filth and scraping both my knees.
Sloshing along then, like a water buffalo, with my pride hurting like my knees, I felt a wave of rage at my younger sister, Devika. She'd summoned me home, when my jewelry store needed me. Linda, my partner, needed me too.
How selfish of me, when Surya lay dying ... Truly I was a primitive creature, no better than a pig. I remembered mother scolding:
"Why can't you be like your sisters, Priya?" Sometimes I hated both my sisters.
Three apples floated past in the murky water. Darting down, a gull pecked at one and swooped away. How I envied his strong wings. I wished I could fly away from Mumbai. Instead I slogged along with my load, like a beetle rolling a ball of dung.
After trudging for hours, in a foul temper, at last I caught sight of Malabar Hill. Though the rain had abated, the stinking flood rose almost to my knees.
Arriving at the tidy hospital, perched up safe in its manicured gardens, I paused inside at the reception window. A dainty nurse gawked at my melted makeup and frizzy hair; my ruined suit of beige linen; my torn stockings, bloody knees and bare feet.
"I'm here to see my sister, Surya Ramakrishna," I said slowly, distinctly, as if speaking a foreign language. "She's on Ward 6, I heard."
"My dear, have you had an accident?" the nurse asked kindly, and I lost it:
"I was born. I never asked to be born -- not into a family with cancer karma!"
"Please, do not lose your temper, miss. The other patients --"
"And I flew all the way from Toronto today, enduring seven hours of delay -- and in Mumbai my taxi broke down, in the flood -- and I had to hike here, rolling this suitcase all the way from Worli ..."
"Priya," chided a sweet voice, and lurching around I saw my younger sister, slender and lovely as a gazelle. Devika should have been a model; instead she works in a yoga bookstore. "Why didn't you call me?" She hugged me close. "I would have met you at the airport."
"Devika, you've done so much already, taking care of Surya for years. I caught a flight at the last minute; I just can't face losing her."
"Don't worry; she is resting, with morphine for the pain. Oh you are drenched -- and you hurt yourself. Come, let's clean you up."
Ever-patient Devika -- I couldn't stand her when we were kids -- helped me to clean up my battered knees. She begged some plasters from the nurses, and zipped me into a pale green dress. Only then, as we left the ladies room, she warned me:
"There's something about Surya you should know."
"She's dying," I said bitterly. "Our family cancer is taking her, like it took mother and our aunties. That is all I need to know."
"Priya, dear, we need to chat. Let's have a snack in the cafeteria."
The large, oval room reeked of wilting flowers. Borrowed from the dead? I wondered. I chose a cup of black coffee, and a chicken sandwich, and Devika -- a vegetarian, like Surya -- frowned but didn't say a word. She nibbled at her salad while the dry, salty meat stuck in my throat. A gulp of coffee burned my tongue.
"Priya," she began. "Surya -- maybe it's the morphine -- has strange ideas."
"What else is new?" I wiped my lips with a flimsy napkin. "She always preached to us about nature."
"Now it's all about the UFOs, and what you call our 'cancer karma.' Surya has visionary dreams."
"Any new theories would amuse me."
Setting down her fork, my younger sister fixed me with luminous eyes: "Priya, why are you so hard-hearted?"
I twisted my napkin, tore it in half. "I guess I'm afraid of the family curse. I'm afraid that I'll be next."
"Maybe the cancer will skip you. And treatments get better all the time."
"Our risk is over 80 percent," I insisted, and a withered woman eating nearby, wrapped up neat in a glittering sari, gaped at me as if I'd come to collect her for the funeral pyre.
"My risk is," said Devika quietly. "I had the gene test done, remember? The one that you refused."
"I don't want to know. It's too scary."
"Surya is peaceful. What's so scary? All of us have to die some time, when these bodies of flesh wear out."
"I can't believe you! Dying is horrible -- and Surya is only 32."
Stiffly the lady in the gold-threaded sari got up and shuffled away. Devika reached across the table and stroked my cheek. I was behaving like an ass. Tears of self-pity filled my eyes.
"Let's go to Surya," she said.
The bleary-eyed nurse who opened the door to her room fetched in a second folding chair. My poor sister, bald and breastless, and wasted away -- she looked like a devotee who gives up all her possessions to serve her gods, even her long, thick hair -- lay on the bed with a sheet like a shroud drawn up to her chin; and one arm exposed to the IV that ran from a stand to the needle in her almost transparent hand: the precious, precious morphine drip that keeps the tigers of pain at bay.
"Surya," Devika murmured, bending over to kiss her pearly forehead (Surya's eyebrows and lashes were gone). "Priya is here, who flew from Toronto to tell you how much she loves you." Choking, I knelt beside the bed on the clammy tiles.
"Priya?" Surya whispered. "Happy ..." A silence like a century fell. Then she asked, "Aren't they beautiful?" motioning with her dull eyes to the open window. There, in the twilight, hung three blue lights, winking slowly, winking together like children playing some mysterious game.
"So Mumbai is under alien assault?" I cried. "It's not enough our slums have spread all over like cancerous tumors; not enough our roads and bridges are collapsing into the swamps of corruption here."
"We do what we can." My sister's eyes focused on the blue and blinking lights. "Our teachers think we could do more."
"What the hell is she talking about?" I asked Devika behind my hand.
"She thinks these aliens want to teach us."
"That's right." Faintly Surya smiled. "Our family cancer is a sign."
"Have you lost your mind?"
"Don't be so harsh." Devika pinched the fat of my arm. "Just listen to what she's trying to say."
"Think about it," Surya went on dreamily (it didn't matter what I thought). "Cancer starts in bloated cities. We should go back to nature, to balance. Or, like cancer, we will kill our precious host, the Earth."
"Cancer is a disease," I shrilled. "Tumors are stupid and greedy; they spread all through the body, demanding blood and food. They devour and disrupt us and break us down, and kill themselves as well."
"Our teachers think us a primitive race, a danger to ourselves and to gentler beings."
"And what has that got to do with cancer?"
"We never listened to other lessons."
"Sister, dear, you are spouting nonsense."
"People run around in a frenzy, Priya; they cannot learn; their minds are locked. Don't live or die like that, my dear; those of us born in a cancer cluster ..."
"How can you be so patient, Surya? Still trying to teach me, even now..."
"I am fine; there's hardly pain. Thanks to the morphine; thank you, doctors." Fluttering the fingers of her IV hand, she repeated, "I am fine. Priya, it's you who are falling apart. Soon I will leave this scarecrow body. Maybe I will join the teachers?" A mischievous smile played over her lips. She shut her eyes and squeezed my hand, and then -- like a petal carried away by a rapid stream -- she was gone.
I wrapped my arms around her, I cried like a baby. Gently Devika patted my hair. "Hush," she soothed. "Hush, Priya. Look." Three blue lights fluttered over Surya's face, like dancing butterflies.
I don't know exactly what we saw. The UFOs have not returned. I did see something that evening, though; and it has taken away my fear, a portion of my fear.