This is a story for people with siblings.

Years ago, I had a patient whose older sister was dying, and we spent many sessions discussing the meaning of absence. Back then, I kept a snail farm in a glass aquarium by the window, and the young woman liked watching the snails, which were the small, edible kind.

How do they choose which snails get eaten, and which ones get taken to the laboratory, she once asked. The doctors couldn’t save the dying sister, but they could transplant her memories to my patient. She wouldn’t need to be emptied out as such, merely hypnotised into believing her sister’s memories were her own.

The young woman’s emotions were transparent, like syrup. She had always been kind to strangers, didn’t have any physical deformities, and spoke just enough to be forgettable. I told her some children cope with loss by destroying the absent object, but she didn’t get it.

The dying sister had a missing front tooth. She had been a corporate lawyer before illness became her full-time occupation. People thought the dying sister was an only child. They thought she might have had a twin once. The dying sister was named Anam, and my patient’s name was Mana.

Growing up, the sisters shared clothes, and boyfriends, until the younger sister decided she preferred women. I got a manta ray tattooed across my back because my mother promised me that I was named after her favourite sea creature, Mana said.

Mana wanted to know whether she was a good person for sneaking chocolates into her sister’s hospital room, or a bad person for hoping her sister would get diabetes.

Diabetes, if left untreated, would only cause her health to deteriorate years into the future, I suggested.

Everyone dies eventually, Mana said. She brought me baklava from a Persian restaurant called Anam.

Months passed, and no one died. Diagnose me, Mana pleaded.

I’m not that kind of bird, I said.

Nothing changes, she complained. She thought therapy would give her life a clearer plotline. She imagined having a surrogate child with her girlfriend. She imagined adopting and raising a child, or getting two cats instead. Mana tried to get me to say which option would lead to the best outcome, the most securely attached offspring of two mothers. She wanted to know how it would work. I knew the answer, but I didn’t give in.

She brought her girlfriend to therapy, and insisted their relationship was flawless. The girlfriend looked bored and apologetic. The kind of person who would break up with someone over a text message.

I assigned homework. I asked Mana to read about the mating rituals of various species of birds because I wanted her to question why all creatures don’t follow the same script. Instead, she returned bewildered. I don’t feel comfortable saying the F-word at my workplace, she admitted. She made designer candles for a boutique hotel, which was a full-time job because the scents were matched with the personality of each room.

You can say anything here, I said.

Feminism, she said, in a voice like someone announcing the arrival of a fast train.

I didn’t want Mana to get sidetracked from her sorrow so I gave her a novel about twins separated at birth, but then Mana’s girlfriend left her because she wanted other things.

She always over-ordered at restaurants, Mana complained.

The dying sister still hadn’t died, and Mana wondered whether coming out to their parents made sense while she was single. I’m like Schrödinger’s kitten, she said, I could be straight or gay while I’m still in the closet.

Mana brought me a basket of strawberries, which I couldn’t accept. She ate the strawberries during our session, and kept asking whether I was sure I didn’t want any.

No no, I said, but didn’t offer a clear explanation because I wanted to frustrate her.

The ex-girlfriend came to my office one morning, wanting to know whether Mana still loved her.

She doesn’t, I said, making an executive decision for the greater good. I didn’t believe in love, despite believing in beauty.

Mana still loved her ex-girlfriend, but her sister remained dying.

We spent our time thinking up palindromes, but Mana accused me of cheating by knowing the rules of play in advance of the game.

Avid as a diva, I said in response.

Mana didn’t like the novel because she kept reading the same line over and over.

If you read the same sentence twenty times, have you read one or twenty, I asked.

We watched a promiscuous snail throw love darts at her mate, and Mana finally understood what I meant.



Anushka Jasraj’s debut short story collection, tentatively titled Drawing Lessons And Other Stories , will be published by Westland