Sampurna Chattarji: Mouth

She noticed his mouth, for the first time, though she had known him many months, when they were eating at the Chinese restaurant. There must be prawns in this, he said, stopping suddenly and putting his fork down on to his plate of fried chicken noodles, I can feel my mouth swelling. There can’t be, she said peering critically at his mouth, instead of at his plate, where the offending prawns may have been lurking. It’s chicken noodles, remember? Ya, but they must have fried it in the same wok in which they fried your noodles, I can feel my mouth swelling. It doesn’t seem more swollen than it should be, she said, wondering why she had never noticed before the curve of his upper lip, the swerve of his lower. My brother gets this too, she says, unable to take her eyes away, only he breaks out in hives. I know someone who died, says Simran, thoughtfully. At China Garden. He had instructed them to be careful, and they weren’t. He took one bite of his hakka noodles and his tongue swelled so much he stopped breathing. Died on the spot. Didn’t they sue the place, says Akhil, indignantly, bloody negligence. No they didn’t. Or at any rate, I don’t know, says Simran, chewing at her steamed asparagus with an abstracted air. All I know is that he died on the spot. Thanks very much, he says, makes me feel a whole lot better. Is it swelling inside your mouth, she asks him, continuing to wonder why, more than ever before, his mouth seems so much closer to her, so abstracted from him, as if all he suddenly is is his mouth, which she has never noticed before.

Ya, he says, running the tip of his tongue lightly along his upper lip, it feels kinda swollen along the edge of my lips. Can’t you see it? No, she says, wanting to lean a little closer and look, but not needing to, really, his mouth is so close already, it fills her vision with its succulence. Can’t see a thing. It’ll be ok in a bit, he says. That’s good, she says, wouldn’t want you to pass out on the spot. Does it feel scratchy, she asks, your mouth, I mean. Ya, kinda, he says. Not my whole mouth, just the edges, the edges of my tongue, kinda ticklish more than scratchy, the far bit on my palate, you know the bit where the tonsils are? She nods her head, wondering why the inside of his mouth seems more mysterious than a cave in a painting.

It is as if she has no prior knowledge of what a mouth must be, no sensation she can relate to the words that are coming out of his mouth, words like ‘tongue’ and ‘palate’ and ‘tonsils’. All she can see and understand for the moment is that shape, those lips that he has begun moving again as he eats another potato wedge from Simran’s plate, she is watching to see if she can, finally, see the swelling that he speaks of, the subtle enlargement, engorgement, puffiness, so many words that are uglier, and here it is, his mouth like a presence in her life, seen for the first time, with a beauty that is detachable and ownable, though what is happening to it, secretly, is disfiguring, worrying.

And slowly her own mouth returns to claim her, with its history of ailments, its flayed mouth ulcers that she tongued worse as they refused to heal, its bitten-on-the-inside-of-the-cheek bumps, its essential saliva. The painful sore throat, the redness of inflammation. But she pushed it away, this intrusive memory of her mouth with its history of ailments. Right now only one mouth exists and that is his. Tomorrow she will have forgotten what it seemed like, at this moment, this mouth that she will never see in quite the same way, once it recedes, reattaches itself to the topography of which it is but one more feature. But thinking of the tickling, the tingling, the disturbance in his mouth, she begins to feel a tingling and a tickling in her mouth as well, a sprouting of tiny invisible nodules all along the edge of her upper lip, she feels an abrasion on the surface of her tongue, as if a very fine peeler had peeled away a sliver of skin fine as the peel of a single garlic pod, she feels an urge to address the thought of scratchiness, not yet manifest, in any number of unspecified ways. He would know what to do, and she may ask him, one day, when she has figured out what it was that made his mouth travel towards hers in such a secret, succulent, subversive manner, through the prawns that she loves eating above all other foods, and which she is, right this minute, chewing, and about to swallow.

Sampurna Chattarji

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