I was born old, skin leathery, wrinkled, folded into a million furrows and solid ridges.
When they saw me there was a collective gasp.
My mother’s hand quivered when she reached out to touch me. She didn’t want to, but the maternal instinct is strong and primal. Even a beast likes its young, so my mother learnt to hold me and let me suckle. My dried lips bruised her.
They tried all kinds of remedies to soften my skin. They plastered me with turmeric and soft cream to smoothen it. They used homemade scrubs to polish it. They let me soak in oil but it dribbled through the furrows and dripped.
When I opened my mouth, instead of saying goo ga, and sounds babies are wont to, I rattled off Sanskrit chants – the Gayatri Mantra. ‘Om Bhu Bhavah Svah’– ludicrous when they were trying to teach me to say mama, dada. ‘Row, row, row your boat’ – they sang. Tat Savitur Varenyam, I shouted back. My voice loud, feral, I couldn’t bring it down to the level they wanted. I couldn’t whisper.
They clothed me in silks and ruffles and suits. They tamed my straw hair into oiled plaits. They taught me their alphabet and genteel whispers.
They tried for years. They told me my story over and over again. That babies are not born old, babies are babies because they are new. They have to learn about life, blossom in the rules of society. They told me and they did more. They brought their machines to mould and form me.
Perhaps they succeeded.
Now I wear purples and brocades and my hair is in faultless chignons. My skin is baby smooth and shining with the moisturiser and glimmer sticks they coat me with.
When I try to speak however, it is a whisper. Garbled, my mouth mimics what it was taught. The chants do not form.
But with that, they are happy.
The question may be simple to articulate but the answer, surely never that simple. Diasporic literature seeks to explore and answer this in its many forms. Post-colonial theories try to understand the behaviour of the colonised and the colonisers. I don’t need to however think of the history, the geography, and the various opinions and views: when asked the question, forgetting my many characters in the stories I’ve written, forgetting my words in my own poems, let me try to answer.
But in trying to answer, I find it is easier to ask more questions. Another country, a foreign country? For how long does it remain ‘another country’? Will it always be so, even if you have lived a significant part of your adult life? Have had children and are raising children in this other country? Even if you speak the language? Does the country of birth always mean more than the country you live in? maybe even die in? Are the ties with this other country, meant to be as easy to sever as easily as a climber’s thin roots, easily uprooted, growing elsewhere? Is the family you are born into always more important than the family you have created? And is it that impossible that you can love both fiercely.
Read more in Setu.
Rukmini wills herself to stay lying on the sofa. Om, Om Shanti, she chants. The ghosts dance, screaming in a frenzy, wild shapes tearing at her eyelids, at her mind. Voices calling out as if to say, ‘Come with us. We have come from far; we will take you away. Come….’ As if a great breeze has whipped into the living room and is tugging at her hair, her clothes, as if the cushions will start to float soon. She keeps her eyes shut. Calmness, Om, Om, Mo. Slowly they disappear, the anger in the room passes. Outside it is still dark.
It is November. Rukmini wakes at four in the morning in England, in her daughter’s house, just like she did at home in India, except here the darkness lies deep and heavy. By the time the sun breaks through the greyness, and shines in its typical muted manner, Rukmini has done her pujas, showered, cooked the breakfast, and read a few pages of the Gita. Then Prasad wakes, and she makes some more tea; they like to drink endless cups of Earl Grey sitting on the flowered sofas in the conservatory, warmed by the electric heaters.
Read more in The Asian Writer.
“Is it already morning?” Ram asked. Sita was shuffling to the bathroom.
“My morning,” she said, as she fiddled with the doorknob, “you can keep sleeping.”
He watched her as she twisted the knob one way and then the other. She leaned against the door as if to push it, but not with any force. Her movements were slow, as if she could not hurry anymore, even if she wanted to. Such an imperceptible change. When they had got married thirty years back, she used to be so fast and energetic that even he’d found it difficult to keep up with her.
Read more in Muse India.
After I Vanished
It took me a while to realise that people weren’t able to hear me. I would be standing with a group of friends, and let’s say we would be discussing holidays. I would start, ‘I’m going to Tuscany this summer. Anyone else been there?’ but there would be no answer. It was as if I hadn’t spoken.
I started speaking louder. I started seating myself at the centre of the table. Still, that didn’t help. They talked to the ones on the right and the left and my words stood frozen in the air for a second until they were swallowed by it. Once I screamed, and even though I heard myself, they didn’t. After a while, it suited me. I could mutter about them or swear at them, and they wouldn’t know. They continued talking about their families, their glorious children, their devoted spouses, their bucket lists, all the perfection that was their world.
After some time, I noticed that I could step on someone’s toes and they wouldn’t protest or cringe from the pain. I could reach out and pinch them, yet they would continue talking, smiling, beatifically.
I sent messages to people on Skype or lync and there was no response; Are you there? I would keep saying. Though their status said online, they remained unresponsive, almost as if my messages weren’t getting through.
Then I noticed I wasn’t showing up in pictures. A friend posted a group picture on Facebook, and when I looked at it, I saw that in the space I was standing — surely, I had been right there, between J and J — there was nothing. Nobody. When I looked harder, I noticed something else: some scraps of brown from my skin, some pink from my necklace, slivers of black from my hair, just an impression of a person floating over the other heads.
In the mirror, I could see myself, still the same.
I stepped out of my room, where the windows opened out to a vastness of blue sea and sky, and went outside where the roads were narrow and studded with green. The flowers were lush and rainbows dazzled my eyes. My fingers formed colours on paper, the piano sang new tunes, and my mouth spoke poetry. I had to tell someone. I almost pushed a solitary passer-by and said, ‘Look, just look at this!’ but there was no response. They moved on.
I had vanished irrevocably.
I dug deeper into my duvet, covering my head even. As I slept, the Gods from my land rose up around me. As I slept, the green of the land I live in, grew over me.
Then I realised that without a voice, without a force, I could melt into anything and anyone.
I could become them or make them become me.
Read in Apocrypha and Abstractions.
Bones are solid, but there are sections where a single stroke is enough to severe a femur from the rest of the mass. Lessons from the days of serving in the army. Memories flood back and you get quicker, more efficient. Within a couple of hours, you are halfway through. The dinner lies untouched; rotis, chicken curry, fried green beans and salad. The phones have been ringing all evening but you’ve ignored them as you persevere, hands bloody, mind a whirl.
Read more in Muse India.