My Fistulous Body
Emerging Writer Series
Every two weeks or so I am publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week, “My Fistulous Body” by Mayookh Barua. Mayookh is a North Carolina-based writer from India who identifies as a proud queer man. His areas of focus mainly lie in and around queerness, art, cinema, and the politics of a family. He has previously published at Crooked Fagazine, Mezosfera Magazine, MAP-Bangalore, and kal-FICTIONS.
The thing about death—like love—is that it reshapes the way we think about the world around us, especially relationships.
My father was unhappy with my decision to go under the knife. I wondered what his reasons were all the time. I didn’t know how to explain it to him that my fistulous body was incapable of having gay sex. When he referred to all the married men who have lived twenty years with their fistulae, I wondered how many were like me— young, queer, and alone. I didn’t know how to tell him that because I feel lonely, sometimes I want to have a body beside me, someone who looks at me with wanting. That my fistulous body was incapable of that wanting, and the only way ahead was to go under the knife. I didn’t know how to tell him that his very encouragement to live with it made me feel more alone.
Despite his disapproval, I went into surgery. It was 4:30 in the morning. The swarthy night sky coddled the yolk of the sun in the warm June New Delhi air. I woke up in bed thirsty. I believe I was thirsty precisely because I was asked not to drink any water. The nurse had informed me twice about this and even mentioned that the anesthesiologist would ask again in the morning. From the constant check-ins, I assumed I was not allowed to swallow my saliva as well. I had no recollection of what Trisha had mentioned about saliva. Trisha is my high school friend in med school who currently serves on my board of health advisors because doctors are too expensive, and Google just provides a cancer diagnosis. Two days before being admitted to the hospital, I called Trisha frantically and asked her what would happen if I drank some water before going under anesthesia. She told me I could die.
I didn’t care what the surgery was like; all I cared about was what being on anesthesia would feel like. I had received local anesthesia on my gums before. I liked how it made my lips swollen, like I had a lip job. But this time it was serious business. The night before getting admitted, my friends and I discussed the skeleton of my anxiety.
“I mean I don’t get it, you'll be knocked out completely. How will you know what happens?” Samarth said.
“I don’t know. What if I don’t knock out? I mean, I can handle my alcohol, you know,” I told him.
“I have heard that sometimes people might be half-awake during surgery and then they have PTSD,” Ambika added. I had heard of this, and it was one of the reasons I was scared. But another reason was— what would it feel like being gone for that brief period of time? In uncommon parlance, it is called an induced coma. During a coma, the brain is at its lowest stage of alertness. It is unresponsive to external stimuli. To me, it sounded like dying.
I found the questions around my mortality uncomfortable as I faced it once again in just a few weeks. It seemed no amount of binging reality television helped in escaping reality. As I prepared to go into surgery, Delhi’s air was still flecked with grey ashes, and its ground brimmed with bodies in rigor mortis. The COVID surge in Delhi was making headlines, and the only evidence I had for how bad things were came from the unending ambulance sirens. Not long before, I had been COVID positive as well, which was my first brush against death. Every time I exhaled, I told myself I was alive. Any kink in my breath, and I would press SOS. It was a time when if people weren’t thinking of their own mortality, they were thinking about those around them. All of us were losing some sleep over it.
It was my third day in COVID isolation when Ratna called to ask how I was doing. She was checking up on people who were positive, making sure she appreciated them while she could hear their voices. She also told me she did not want to talk about who had passed away during the surge. I told her my SpO2 percentage was above 95, which meant I was doing well. She said she was relieved and needed to go back to sleep. It was 10 in the morning when she called.
I was cooking dinner when I lost my sense of smell. I poured some pepper and red chili powder into the pot, but I didn’t sneeze like usual. My studio apartment had an exhaust, but the fumes would swarm in the kitchen and tease my nose into a reaction. Having cooked chicken butter masala so often, I presumed I was immune to the spices. But then I couldn’t taste either the sourness of the lemon or the heat of the peppers. I sprinkled some salt into my palm and licked it. Nothing again. They say that the loss of one sense heightens others. The only sense it heightened for me was my loneliness.
I called my mother up and told her “I have lost my smell.”
“What have you done to yourself?”
“It’s probably just a cold,” I said.
“Can you get tested now?” she asked.
“Maa, who will give me a COVID test at ten in the night?” I shouted.
Two months after being a COVID patient, I was in the hospital for my fistula surgery. In my case, the fistula was located on the rectum extending to the outside of my buttocks. The nurse came to my bed right at 5 minutes to 12. I was put in the disinfected dormitory with seventeen other beds. The overhead lights pierced through the hallway, trying to keep everyone alive and awake—as hospitals are meant to do. Metal and rubber scraped across the cold marble floor like seals whistling to each other in secret. There was just one circular window that allowed the light of the adjacent building to come into my cubicle. Only curtains and the fear of witnessing something too impressionable stopped me from peering into the neighboring cubicle. But I could eavesdrop. Someone on the far right yelped. It sounded like something was being injected into or scraped off his body. I asked the nurse why he did so as she got my thermometer.
“That’s because he can’t pass his stool,” she said. The pain that accompanies our healing was something I hadn’t accounted for. Scared, I began listening to Hanuman Chalisa, the antidote to all dangers that desi Hindu families rely on, that Ambika had selected for me.
When I recovered from COVID, my friend Ambika had asked me if I could donate blood because I had antibodies. I said yes. In return, when I was admitted to the hospital, she sent me a playlist of religious hymns. It included verses sung in praise of various Hindu gods. She did so in order to give me strength. She did so because I had agreed to be one of the donors for her father who was in the hospital ICU. She laughed in her newfound croaking voice, a result of being positive as well. I thought she had gone mad. She said it made her laugh that everyone was positive.
“Why are you laughing?” I asked her.
“I don’t know. I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t believe we are dying together. That has always been the case. We just know it.”
I have, in the past, shied away from listening to any of these hymns because it would remind me of organized religion, whose oppression I could not bear. My aunt gave me a small booklet that fits right into my palm with the entire verse of Hanuman Chalisa written in it. The saying goes that singing it out loud 108 times helps with warding off any evil. I hate to admit it, but I did try to sing it quite a few times when I have gone through difficult times, but then the moment I get out of it, I become an atheist. However this time I needed it. Nothing matters in the face of supposed death, especially our identities. I was going under the knife, and I played the music and tried to fall asleep on the firm hospital bed.
But before relying on God, I was relying on Trisha. I called her every so often to ask for unwarranted medical advice. I could only grab her at 11 in the morning because she was so busy interning. She told me that the only way to get rid of a fistula is to be operated on. My parents had been campaigning against this operation for some time. When my MRI report arrived, they put forward a possibility: It seemed that some neighbor of my aunt has lived with a fistula for 20 years now. I could too, they suggested. I wondered if it was the right time to tell them that I needed to have anal sex. To live with a condition that prevented me from intimacy, especially when I could find ways to treat it, felt like some kind of punishment. I wanted to work out of this shame of wanting intimacy. Of this sincere fear that if I couldn’t have sex, I wouldn’t know what it meant to be intimate. So I was in the hospital like the man who could not pass his stool. Like all the folks whose life had halted because something important went dysfunctional.
The morning of the operation, my second assistant anesthesiologist asked me if I had water or food. I shook my head. He asked me if I had been knocked out before or had any dental crowns. I shook my head again. I asked him why he was asking me all of this. He told me it was to ensure I didn’t have a bad experience. I wondered what a good experience looked like and what he really meant.
The only good experience I had had till then was Karan. I had called him into my queen-size bed that lay empty as cremation grounds and cemeteries overflowing during the second wave in Delhi. I hadn’t known about my positive status then. The loss of flesh around me in turn amped my want for it. I did not understand what the tongue could do until I met Karan. Karan slithered into my mouth, but he wasn’t looking for my tongue. He was looking for something else. I realized that the tongue is the soul of the mouth. But his tasted like smoke. I never knew the tongue could have a character. How could one even know what it tasted like when we have lived intimately with just one tongue? It is like seeing someone else’s soul leave, but can we feel ours as it walks along? So his smoke-touched mouth was absurd to me. I remember when a guy who had recently turned to veganism to save his soul asked me to not eat any animal products if we were planning to get close. I called him a fanatic in my head and vengefully lied to him when we made out. How would he know what meat tastes like? I told myself to escape the moral binding my conscience might put me in. When I was with Karan, I had no conscience. That’s what his tongue searched for and took with it.
Two days after Karan was inside me, I lost my sense of smell. I contacted a diagnostician in the afternoon on the third day. A lot of people would ask why I didn’t contact a testing place right in the morning. I guess I didn’t want to know even though I knew it. Also if I knew it, why did I have to spend money to know? I guess having something on paper matters. Visibility matters. Being able to attest your claims matters.
The reports came in within the next three hours. It took me time to process the information and before I informed Karan or anyone else of my status, the lab had reported to the government, who in turn informed the colony I lived in. By 8 that night, my landlord asked me to leave the house.
“I run a business, not a charity,” he said.
“Where do I go in the middle of the night?” I asked him.
“I don’t care. You can go wherever they are taking the COVID patients,” he said.
“I have paid for the next three months. I don’t think you can just throw me out,” I said as my body became breathless. The rumor was that the COVID camps were death sentences. There was no food and no human contact. One just had oneself.
He told me “You will have to move. I will call the police.” Somehow after enough back and forth, I struck a deal with him. I would go to the isolated house in the neighborhood which might or might not have electricity or water.
“Don’t worry, there is a stove and a fridge. It’s just a matter of 14 days,” he told me.
At midnight, I stepped into my one-bedroom house. No one came to meet me for two weeks, and I was glad. I got food handed over to me through the slot on the gate. There were no windows, so I had to sneak into the patio when people were not around. I refused to kill the two sickly spiders in my bathroom as they were my only company. So I assaulted their sixteen eyes with my naked body. My mother called me every three hours asking for my SpO2 level and informed me how people were just passing away without any warning. I told her “it just doesn’t happen like that, things get worse before people go down,” and then I would mention my normal SpO2 level to end the conversation.
Later on, my landlord asked me to forgive him. He had to do something to save his business, he said. I told him I would meet him in hell.
My father came to Delhi one day before my surgery. He wasn’t supposed to be here. I had arranged for three friends for each week who could take care of me while I recovered on bed rest.
Five days before my surgery, my father told me over the phone: “What do you want from us? Do you want us to die? We just recovered from COVID. Why do you want to do this surgery so fast? Your mother’s lung literally has fibrosis.”
I told my mother “You don’t have to come” because I can’t talk directly to my father. Talking to him feels like eating glass. I don’t know how to digest it, but I am still doing it.
I texted my friend Zarina that my parents wouldn't come. She told me “I will be there by your side.” I knew she was lying to me. But I wanted to believe her. I sobbed in my taxi back home. Her beauty rested in the fact that she knows the right thing to say at any given moment. People say one should not make promises one can’t keep. Sometimes, the promise of something is better than the bleakness of silence. Her words were a consolation, one I needed even with the knowledge of how those words would fail to become action. I sobbed because I did not trust her reassurance, and the coldness of my sentiment made me feel alone.
Zarina was at work that day, but she texted me throughout. I told her that the knife was scheduled at noon. She texted me “next time you will have a beautiful bum.” I wasn’t beautifying my derrière. I was getting it back to normalcy. The symptoms of my fistula appeared as a pimple that wouldn’t heal before I was sexually active. Yet somehow it was seen as a consequence of my sexuality.
“What a gay issue to have!” Samarth told me. “Do only gays get this?” he asked.
“No, a fistula could be between various organs like between capillaries, the heart or the intestines. And straight people can get my fistula too,” I informed him.
“Straight men you mean?” he asked in his hetero voice.
“Yaas,” I told him in my gay voice.
“But they don’t get butt-fucked” he said.
“Well, they do sometimes. But it can happen regardless of that,” I said.
“Don’t you think gays might get it more often? Why don’t they categorize this according to sexuality and race like other things?” His genuineness appalled me.
“I wonder why,” I told him.
I also wondered if it mattered when and who got the fistula. If those things mattered more than treating it and healing it. Sure one can prevent it. But can we tell that to someone who already has it?
On the day of my surgery, Samarth texted me “Good luck bro.”
I texted, “Next time throw yourself off the building if you have to call me bro.” He spammed me with 31 bros. By then everyone had wished me well, and I was prepared. But the nurse came in to inform me that the surgery would be delayed. I was fourteen hours into my fast. Fasting is not a big deal. I, like most lazy people, end up doing intermittent fasting, which is also known as skipping breakfast in the morning. I had begun a habit of skipping food to save money in college. My logic was that I would rather have KFC once in a while than watery soup every day. Besides, eating less would keep me as twink-like as possible. In hindsight, maybe inculcating such logic was worse than fasting itself.
The isolated place where my landlord sent me while I had COVID had no spices to cook with, so I got takeaways. To get two meals in the budget, I had to skip the third. Usually, if I don’t have any food in my system, I become a bit foggy. So when Karan texted, “Hey I just had a test done and it turns out I am positive,” I was happy I didn’t have to tell him I gave it to him.
“Don’t worry Karan. Just drink lots of water. My friend got it too. I can send you the list of medication,” I replied, still not revealing I was positive too. I didn’t want him to even conceive that I could’ve given him COVID. By the end of it, he told me to get tested. I chuckled. I was simultaneously texting Ratna about how he got COVID.
“I mean, he was down my throat. There is no way he didn’t get it,” I told her.
“I think you should tell him about it. He shouldn’t be in the dark, you know? It’s just the ethical thing to do,” she said.
“I don’t know. What if he hates me after that? I mean, I did feel an itch in my throat but I just ignored it.” She refused to convince me. I was glad I didn’t have to tell him. I texted him I will get tested and tell him about the results. He told me “We were safe so we don’t have to worry. I don’t want anything to happen to you.” Something about his concern made me weary.
“Tell me, where did you get tested?” I asked him.
“I just did my western blot test from the nearby lab. It’s the confirmation test for HIV,” he told me.
For a moment, I wanted to laugh hysterically. I wanted to laugh at how silly all of this was. Me— isolated in a room with COVID—learning that this man I was enamored with was HIV positive. The world was laughing at me all this while as I kept my silence from him.
“I am sorry about this. I really am. But I know I was safe, and I don’t want anything to happen to you,” he wrote. I kept quiet for some time. It was the COVID that was weighing me down, so I told myself. I took the oximeter and checked my oxygen. After all, I had to call an ambulance if things went south. It was normal. I replied “Yeah.”
He wrote “How are you feeling?”
“Nothing much. I don’t know what to say,” I replied.
“Hey I understand if you don’t want to talk to me or meet me ever.”
I wondered what this meant. I wondered who was on the other side. A man who had just been told he would need a lifetime of medication. Someone who won’t be able to watch a lot of queer movies from now on because it would be all too real. A man who was apologizing to me for being honest when I wasn’t willing to be. I felt like my life was at the edge of falling apart. But here he was consoling me, having fallen apart already. It broke me. I threw my phone, and tears gushed out of my eyes. My voice croaked as I whimpered. I cried because I couldn’t be angry. I picked up the phone now with a split screen and replied “Don’t worry if both of us are positive I will meet you sooner.” He sent me a smile.
“It is not a death sentence, you know. People survive.”
I needed to hear that and hoped he was telling that to himself too. It was dark, but the day hadn’t ended. I decided it would be an early dinner, and I had booked an HIV test for the next morning already.
That night, I thought about death a lot. I wondered about the thoughts that might cloud my mind when things were preparing to fall into nothingness. Would I know? Does the body get to know before the mind? Would someone whisper it to me? Would I see an apparition staring down? And there were the thoughts I had even for my anesthesia. Even though I knew anesthesia was a blessing. The idea that I would lose control of life even for a brief moment rattled parts of my mind I never wanted to touch. I moved around in my bed and again thought what it would be like seconds before the drug hit me and I was put to sleep. I would be by myself at that moment. I couldn’t bear it. From the landlord asking me to leave, my plight with Karan, my dad’s ignorance, everything manifested my anxiety of dying alone rather than death. That while I die, I would be reminded of that moment’s cold unbreathable loneliness.
The reports from my blood tests arrived right before surgery, which was now scheduled to take place at four. I was declared fit for surgery. Before surgery, they do multiple tests for diabetes, uric acid, thyroid, blood group and HIV. I presumed my HIV test came out negative. When I received the negative the first time, it didn’t mean very much. False negatives are common during the window period. This time, again, the negative did not mean a lot. Today I am negative, perhaps tomorrow I am not.
Things moved quickly when the time arrived. I was rolled into a surgery suite and into the observation room outside the operation theatre which was being cleaned for me. The lady who had just been operated on previously had gained consciousness. She moaned, “I am in pain. I am in pain.”
“We have given her two ketamines already. She is oversedated,” the nurse told the doctor. “Give her the third one in fifteen if she complains,” the doctor instructed.
“Where am I?'' the lady asked.
“Your surgery went successfully, madam,” the nurse said.
“Why are you saying this?'' the lady blurted out.
At that point, I only hoped and prayed that this was not how I came out to the world—with a bandaged ass and high on drugs.
It was finally my time. They asked me to walk onto the T-shaped operating table. Why did they wheel me in the bed in the first place, I wondered? Maybe that comes with being in a private hospital: the luxury to be comforted before a surgery. The anesthesiologist introduced himself to me before telling me not to worry and things will finish in a jiffy. My doctor entered the room like a lead character should and took a picture with me.
“It’s for your mother,” he said. Then he looked at the vein on my hand and tapped it. “It is such a beautiful vein. The cannula will fit in right away,” he announced. I had never been objectified this way before. As the needles slid inside my body, I sensed I had become too weak to feel anything.
“You will be gone in the next 20 seconds,” the doctor said. I looked up at the bright operating light as I felt the icy fluid make its way up through my arm. The anesthesiologist distracted me by putting the gas mask on me. He asked, “What do you smell?”
“Bubblegum,” I told him. Just then something had clasped my rib cage, as though it were the fingers of a ghost, and pulled me into the earth. I wish I could resist, but it overpowered me. I fell in.
After my surgery, I recounted the tale of my anesthesia to my friend Evelyn. They have been through multiple surgeries, including a kidney transplant.
“It never occurred to me,” they said. “I never notice the anesthesia or needles anymore. I guess the body has the capacity to go numb sometimes. That is both scary and relieving.” I guess we take our own things when we leave the operation theatre. It was a startling reminder that within the desire to live a full life, I also had in me the gravitational pull of the fear of dying. But after the moment in the theatre, it dawned on me that when the final call comes, there will be little to do but accept it with dignity. It relieved me to think that our loneliness was profound and could not be assuaged easily. Yet if to die is to be alone, to find humanity is to find life even in the most trying of times.
I was told that I would recover 14 days after surgery. On day 10, I was still bleeding. Initially, I resisted any kind of comfort and resigned myself to deal with pain by being in pain. But then I had to feed myself to heal. But more food meant more things to irritate the wound. And the more I bled, the less I wanted to eat. Thankfully, my father is a good cook, even better than my mother. He could grace a dish with oomph, and he didn’t want anyone to compliment him because everyone would eventually. But that kind of grace was lacking in our relationship. I was annoyed that he went around telling people how awful my doctor was. He complained about the cost each time I was called in to change my dressing. He told everyone that I had taken all these decisions like an adult. But the only other option I had was living with it. Mercury was in retrograde, and I forgot that anger was a means of communication that went haywire.
One day as he was telling my aunt about how it is difficult to cook and clean for someone, I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I went into a rage. It opened my wound. Blood gushed out. It trailed along the back of my leg and streamed onto the grey marble floor as I walked to my gauze. My father looked at me, angry, yet calm, and told me “You really don’t know how to talk to your parents.” As blood seeped out, I realized that we only care about what we lack, even in the face of rupture: respect or healing. After that, he went to clean the dishes.
I took a picture of my wound bleeding and then the dripping gauze. My doctor asked me to lie down and hold a towel on it.
“If nothing works, you will have to be taken to emergency,” he told me. I lay on the bed and Googled, ‘how much blood loss causes death.’ A hemorrhage occurs when the body loses two liters of blood. An average woman bleeds 80 ml of blood a month. That is around the size of my Head and Shoulders bottle. That’s a lot of blood. But then, I have been bleeding all along, so who knew how much more I had to bleed to meet the threshold? As the towel stained red, I heard the running water, the dishes, and the emptiness of the room.
I called my mother to ask her to stay with me instead of my father. I told myself that my mother knew how to nurse a body into recovery because she has birthed two sons. I presumed I needed to be told that things will heal, that there is no way out but in, and it is just a matter of time. To be asked heedlessly if I am finding some relief. Even if the thought of healing infuriated, hurt, and ached me, I wanted to feel it would happen.
But part of healing was figuring out how I make sense of life with the remains of a body that has seen death in some way, like we all do in our lifetimes. Do we realize it like Trisha? Do we distance from it like Ratna? Do we laugh like Ambika? Or do we deny that it happens like my father, which is to say do we deny transformation? Regardless of how we face death, if we do come out of it, I hope we recover. That we can take the morsels of our being that have withstood the rough ride and hold them in the palm of our hands—separate but together. That we nourish whatever we have with us, however we can. So even though the food my mother cooked was a bit bland, even though she missed out on salt sometimes, I was recovering, and I was glad.
My mother told me that healing happens exponentially. There is nothing, and then one day, you can feel the body take to itself. You can see it walk, leap, and trot. It is miraculous. It needs no witnessing, no preparation.
The Audacity. is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.