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.