All we have left is words #rehash

At half past midnight, the veena sounds.

I try and tune the radio, but we are too far south to hear anything but white noise. I heave and pant and soon enough I’m crying, because the last time I heard those strings it was in the car on the way back home, dusk falling over New Town and the chants from the temple drowning any thoughts I could have. The dusty orange of Aruna Maam’s home and the pungent smell of her filter coffee are ghosts in the hostel rooms of bare white walls.

Do you remember the sky that night?

It was painted a dusty maroon and yellow at the horizon, and the eucalyptus trees were silhouetted inky black like in the Mughal miniatures on your room’s walls. I never believed that an evening could be so surreal, forever born and trapped in paintings from five hundred years ago. Then again, I never believed in many things being real, like the pain in your throat you kept complaining about. You should have seen it, the way the lake shimmered saffron and blue in the dying moments of the day and how the mosque’s lights lit up next to it. The drums from a temple behind the building broke the stillness of the night. There were no winds and no clouds in the sky, except for the gradients of grey rising from above the trees. The crescent moon was perfectly aligned with Venus, gleaming white together in a water-washed background.

Only then did I accept it was all real, because such a sight would have had to have been real to be painted so exquisitely. It was pathetically real, the way you were being swallowed into the depths of your own hell. Suddenly, words written in text messages every evening were hard to read, not without my stomach curling at the thought of yours eating away at the rest of you. It takes so much not to scream and want to shake you back into normalcy because its killing you and I cannot do anything but watch.
I can’t watch.
I was in the car on my way back, listening to the first programme on the government classical music station – a Tyagarajada-kruti again. The town centre was bustling below the many textile stores, sarees draped over mannequins caged in glass, sarees which would look sublime on you regardless of whether you can feel your hip bones or your 53 kgs, but I know its not about your weight or frame, its about something else, something more putrid and like ash. It is something I can’t fix as easily as I turn away from the shops’ blinking lights and clothes of silk.

You are one of the watercolour wonders of the world and more precious than the dusk today. Sometime last December we realised that wanting to die so young was not okay. Maybe this December we’ll believe it.

I heave and cry because only now when the veena sounds do I see that I am made of memories from current-homes and once-homes where my parents argued about how the door got jammed, and how my mother couldn’t lock it. It ended as all arguments end – that one of us wasn’t trying hard enough.

My voice is always loud and nasal, like background noise as people’es eyes roam to more important things, but it is not loud enough when they ask for me to say it again. I can’t see anything through this mask in which my face grows hot and my head pounds, the sound of my breathing and gasping roaring loud against cardboard.

(They said that this place would make me more, instead, I find that I am nothing at all.)

Tonight there are no red lines on my arms. It is too dark for it to seem right, but you tell me to wait till when the light comes in the morning.

It rains a little later.

They tell me not to lose myself, to hold on to what makes me, me. They speak as though I ever was anything at all.

But they don’t know, so I let them make the mistake.

Suddenly, we are all not trying hard enough when it becomes only about the best.

7 is when I don’t feel. 8 is when I feel too much.

My hair is falling. Pulling the strands and coiling them around my finger in the shower, I think that if I wash my hair long enough this afternoon I won’t have any left.

In the rain hitting the earth I couldn’t hear the voice in my head change to the voice screaming – Sanjana is going to Berkley and a ghost of her sits here – here open this flap behind my ear and you will find it.

Life is an exam where the syllabus is unknown and question papers are not set. Yet, today I write the last end-term paper for Torts-I and head north before I can feel like I have. I tell myself that this is the end of term, that people do go home after law school – there – your seniors are in the next car.

It feels too much like running away again.

The city was to treat us the way it had two years ago- with China rose hanging over ladies in the street with jasmine in their hair. The white Indica taxis were supposed to be familiar, but the car smells of something between coffee and cigarettes. So then, I think my memory is failing because the city is the calcium in our bones now and the life throbbing in it is bitter behind the teeth. With the sick cold of pretty mornings, they seem to be all the city is anymore.

It is still raining when I pull into our old neighbourhood. Bangalore has changed as we have. The airport is too far away from law school, so I stop over at your place for the night. None of the old suspects can be found on the streets. You’re driving down for the long weekend tomorrow but really, between morning flights and traffic jams at Mekhri circle, the city doesn’t leave us with much left.

There’s something about here that feels dead now. I almost laugh when I name it ‘adulthood’.

At times in the mirror I stumble across short, stocky eyelashes projecting from a rim and a soft white ball with brown and black circles in it.
Near it I find a round lump with two smaller casings moulded on either side, and below it soft, thick flaps-
ah.
This must be the face.
I pull on the lower lid of the eye and see red underneath.

It’s been seven years and that little tint of disgust on your mother’s face hasn’t gone.
Just like that I’m twelve again and the sun is beating down on my face while we wait for you in the bus yard.

Maybe its me who smells.

Your house is white and green, decorated like an IKEA catalogue left open.

So I think- ah, this is where you come from.

You have always walked with stars girdled around your waist and eternity crowning your temples, and from my seat in the third row I have only ever clapped you in and clapped you out again. The ink I was meant to scribble down the astronomical equations of my future with slips through my fingers and leaves a trail on the runway behind the clicking of your heels.

The masked glass is splattered with the stardust of the first monsoon showers. The sculptor’s urban hut of blue plastic and brick on the highway is close to collapsing, straw and jute left unmoved at the feet of a clay woman, hands raised in position.
“Food?”
“Raagi dosa, you want?”
“S’okay.”

Your mother hands me a plate of toast and a cup of tea. Looking at the trunk of the almond tree outside your window, she says,” the barbed wire really takes the charm away.”

I lived two storeys above your ground floor flat, and when the robbers came one night in the summer we went up to my balcony to see their footprints on the ledge above your window. Now, the vines of the money plant crawl over the new paint and into your neighbours’ house, neighbours who know nothing of when the white paint was still the first coat on these buildings and when the fences didn’t have barbed wire over them.

I’ve told your mother she doesn’t have to worry herself with tea, that I had lunch at college, but she insists I eat. As always, she has her way.

Sometimes I wonder how far two floors could be, when every two years we throw out our things and fold memories and sobs caught in our throats into cardboard boxes.

Its the small things, like how the floor to ceiling nets don’t fringe and stick out of their frames and how the books run in series along the walls of your house.

There’s a peace in the silence here, and I wonder how many times in that silence you would have heard the shouting from two floors above.

When it rains your mother makes tea and sits me down on the white canvas chair, and hopes I enjoy it.

I’ve never enjoyed the rain before, but I’m willing to try.

All we have is words, and for once, I have the prerogative to choose what they will be. Today, I write words which don’t have to mean anything in this world. In that, I think, we are allowed freedom. In that, I think, we might find something we like.

Somewhere else, the flowers in my grandmother’s balcony bloom, and she can’t contain herself. She limps into the room and reverentially places the three small flowers before the framed pictures of her blue god.

All we have is words, and with these whispers I sing my prayers.

 

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Refracted

You told me to fuck off, so I came here.

 

Two weeks ago I flipped a coin. Today it came out heads.

Maybe this is the hard part.

 

My hair is falling. Pulling the strands and coiling them around my finger in the shower, I think that if I wash my hair long enough this afternoon I won’t have any left.

 

By the fifth seven minute, I’ve had enough. There’s only so many times I can go up against anyone and lose in a day.
Tonight I carve a six into my thigh and hope it won’t happen again on a paper handed to me.

You’re lonely in the hills, you say. That when people from the lowlands call, you cry and cry and can’t stop.

There’s an emptiness in the chat that means you expect me to say something.
You cry all the time, you type.

So I ask, “from the loneliness?”

 

I always knew studying in the best law school in the country would be hard, I always knew I would cut everyday. I had the luxury of knowing this, it is a privilege.

If lawyers could sit in the hills like scientists, I wouldn’t cry at night.
I cry for wanting to be lonely.

Today you said we can’t help each other anymore, that there is no point of us.
Today, I say there will be one tomorrow.

You tell me to fuck off.

Ritwik was bronzed in the afternoon light, before the tube lights blinked on and pulled a blue evening behind the windows.

If I had my pastels I would draw him, who I would never be.

They forgot me again.
I retreat into my cave in these hills and forget that I actually do exist. Here in these walls my body is yet another thing that I’ve invented for myself, that my conversations with those who’ll have one are just simulations inside my head.

You can never know, with the constant clanging.

I cannot be sure of any merit I have because I alone didn’t have to prove it to be here, I cannot think of anything else but the walls of the academic block screaming at me, that I don’t deserve this, that I shouldn’t breathe unless I earn it, that I should not speak until I am allowed by those better than me.

 

I do not know what I am doing here, what I am working towards, why I walk into this class of the country’s sixty smartest of my age and still want to try, even if I finally don’t. (Its that my father has already paid so much-)

I cannot speak.

After four rounds of lost debates, I forget how.

I muster the courage to ask a question, and suddenly I can think of nothing but fog. Words come in broken spurts.

I fear being one of those we hear about, those pitiful names who leave this place because it was simply too hard. I hate them, and I grow sick to think that I might be one of them.

My father says its only been a month, that I don’t have to do well – just pass. That they have my back and they’ll support me – but my mother’s eyes are more tired with each time she video calls, and I see bruises behind a pixilated screen.

“Don’t come back,” she says, “there’s nothing left here.”

 

(I want to leave, everything.)

 

I study and read and work, yet the class has answers that I do not, I don’t think what we need to. I cannot understand the words, I cannot recognise the sounds.

 

dontspeakyoudontdeservetobreathe

 

LnD took me this year, but they won’t next year.
I wonder if they’ve figured out I am excellent at pretending to be better than I am. They’re some of the very smartest here, among the smartest. Surely, they have.
Each time I’ve spoken in committee, I was proved wrong.

 

 

I like to think it’s not that I’m not trying.
Its just something I can’t convince myself of.

LnD sent two teams and both won the debate tournament. Grabbed best, speaker too.

I am scared that if I start to get real, I’ll find out that I am not.

 

(Annyeong, he said last October, and soon it will be October again.

All he has left is his voice to drown out mine and his long lidded eyes on sheets of drawing paper.)

B O D Y

i.
There’s only so much of yourself you can hide around here; there is only so much of your skin you can keep to yourself.

There is a limit in our words to the flesh-to-see freedoms of our female bodies, but there is the full length of your arms you need to flaunt, shoulders down, from the sleeves of kurtis and sarees and lehenga blouses.
You lift your underarms to the heavily-powdered faces of the ladies who wax them at the salon.
(Sometimes, when they don’t care for your ears, they even tell you how much of it they have to do-oh, my! You really do have hair everywhere, don’t you?)

There are collarbones and smooth chest that you don’t dare taint- because who knows how low or wide the tailor will cut the u-neck?
Maybe my breasts are my own, seen only by my eyes till now. So, perhaps I should think more of them. I wish I did, and not this general disinterest with which I consider them in the shower.
Is this how girls should think of their breasts? – as if I am not one of them. At moments like these I wonder if I’m more comfortable thinking of myself as not-female, but we don’t talk about things like that around here.

I would love, and do love my hips and waist, the way the hipbones rise and fall gently like dunes, and the pastel stretch of even brown that is covered by black hair. I would take more time to love them, if they were not so shared with my mother in her surveys and analyses as we tie a makeshift saree neither of us knows how to wear.

For a conservative culture that hides too much of the woman, there’s only so little of me that I can call private, my own.

 

 

 
There’s no rule against marks, but there are no rules against questions either.
ii.
Women are goddesses. They line their eyes with kohl and paint their lips lush.
I see those same eyes and those same lips, but mother never told me that eyes are to be carved out of skin with black and that maroon on my lips fits the shape of my jaw, not red.

Her mother never told her how the pleats of a saree should be tucked to fall, but she is long gone.

Then, there are some things my mother could not have possibly told me, for she never knew her it herself – how girls could have stark dark hair over torsos or a sheen of it on their face.
She didn’t inherit some things from her mother, and I don’t inherit others from mine, so she leaves me to explore this for myself-

 
Why? It didn’t come from her, did it?

 

 

 

iii.
At seventeen, today I stand with my classmates at high school graduation, but I find myself wanting.
(imnotthereyetimnotreadyyetimnotdeservingyet) 

The boys wear black suits, the sarees of the girls are blue this year.
Naomi has a nose ring on. Her undercut on one side shoes off her long neck curving down to square shoulders, collarbones rising magnificently.
Aditi- Aditi is as she is. Her hair falling long and straight to her shoulders, spindly thin arms and long fingers clasped over her clutch, smiling in her trademark Head-Girl way, one groomed since we all began here in these grounds, at the Chairman of the Board approaching her.

iv.
Women are goddesses. They line their eyes with kohl and paint their lips lush.
There is a power in their eyes and in the words from their mouths that makes the sky rumble as night falls and the earth smell sweet in the first rains of the summer.

I stand among the divine, stripped to nothing but this skin pulled over me, not knowing that no single woman can wear all six colours in the little used palette my mother has, which I am now to share; not knowing that my eyes are not hers, so the eyeliner folds into the large gap to my eyebrows, bottom lid naked and bare.

We spread out in the manicured school gardens, which the hundred and sixty five of us have once seen as barren soil toiled by gardeners when there was still only one building and a warmth that held us close. There’s a general understanding that one looks better at graduation than in regular uniform, but I’m careful not to catch myself in the reflections from and in cameras of this endless sea of phones- because I don’t.

Pictures are taken, but in the days that follow I don’t find any of myself among the many thousands that flood the screens of teenagers in the city on instagram.

 

 

It hurts. There’s no point in pretending it doesn’t.

v.
You forget that your shoes are not heels, that they cover your ankles and toes in thick black leather, bought in a hurry for some forgettable formal event. You try not to notice how much taller the other girls are in three-inch heels, but its not the first time you’ve felt small among them. The teachers mock the high heels and say you did well not to follow, but it is small consolation when you feel like you could drown right there in rolling tides of make-up and camera phones yet again, and no one would notice.

Your saree is falling and your shoes are loose. Your hair is rough and unruly and you’re seconds away from losing it entirely, barely able to keep the pressure building in your eyes from bursting and your lips from trembling and turning down.
The ceremony is on and you’re seated in the middle of the third row, so you have no option but to hold on tight to the comfort that in two hours you’ll be in your bathroom, and then there will be no light nor voices nor eyes to watch you breaking.

vi.
For all the ways in which I am different from her, I am my mother’s daughter in the detachment we share of our bodies from our identities. But, it seems she has learnt that white pearls suit the shape of her neck and cradle of her shoulders.
At times in the mirror I stumble across short, stocky eyelashes projecting from a rim and a soft white ball with brown and black circles in it.
Near it I find a round lump with two smaller casings moulded on either side, and below it soft, thick flaps-
ah.
This must be the face.
I pull on the lower lid of the eye and see red underneath.

 

I play around with it a few more times before I return to calculus.