A Hundred and Fifteen

I am 17. And I have found the words for my resentment.

I am not defined by what I want to be. I am defined by what I most don’t want to be. I do not want to be the image of my father. I hate our common dimples and the endless galaxy of moles on our bodies. It is fittingly ironic that it is a muscular defect and cellular malfunction that connects our dysfunctional family. I am odd and inarticulate, my mind froths with delicious young cynicism. I hate it when the bathroom floor is wet. I fling half-empty coffee tumblers to stain an inadequately scrubbed wash-basin. I snarl at my mother when she touches my things. I do not want to be like my father.

I am 7. I have short hair set in a side hair-parting. I look like a girl boy. My first permanent tooth has grown out fully – a gnarled incisor. It flashes when I smile. My mother hates it. She hates it when I wear my watch on my right hand. My father used to do wear his watch on his right hand with its face down, scratching it against every surface his hand met. The glass recovered with a thin white patina, a scab. He could only read the time at only one angle when it was only too late. My watch is digital because I cannot tell the difference between 7:30 and 8:30. I am weak in Maths. I am not like my father.

I am 38. I am at a holiday resort with my pregnant sister-in-law. My stomach is no longer contained by the drawstrings of my salwaar-kameez. I am aware I’m morphing from a woman into an ambivalent. I am losing control of my body and I have mixed feelings about having children. The women happily tell my sister-in-law this is the best decision she has made, her husband will become closer to her. Our eyes meet. Look where your closeness brought you, I think. She is afraid. I don’t hold her hand. Why would you bring something into this world, I think. Will you mother, and father, your child? I think. She looks away, and smiles at someone else.

I am 14. My belly button distends like a mouth in a self-conscious moan. My waist is thinning. I am becoming an hourglass. Memories of my father slip and leave from my bare feet. I am not my father. I am a woman. How can I be my father?

I am 72. I am dead. I come back as ashes to my motherland, but it’s my father’s name I bear.

I am 29. My mother smells cigarettes on my clothes, and confides to her maid, I love the smell of smoke. The maid pauses, phrasing something carefully in her head. I call her away to help me pack my boxes.

I am 50. My father has died. I hang up, and wash the dishes. My nails are peeling.

I am 5. I am sleepy, but my mother’s hands are too tired to carry me. Where is the smell of musk, and the feel of evening stubble against my cheek? I am about to cry, but my mother pinches me.

I am 23. I visit the hills. The winter hasn’t turned yet. I am 23 only once. The bamboo shoots are 99 only once. They flower only once. The villagers are afraid of a plague. I scoff. They eye me wearily, the open mouthed, open shirt-collared, open minded woman. I walk till my breath stops misting. The sun warms a cold spot on my back. My hair smells of warmed shampoo. My shadow looks like a hunched man with puffy sweatshirt-sleeves. Is it like my father? Where is he now? Is he here now, because I am here now? A kitten runs, chased by two king-sized bandicoots. I smile and eat pork for lunch. The homestay’s mirror has speckled mercury spots. Maybe the villagers are right about the plague.

I am 66. My upper lip flourishes white with neglect. My voice deepens. But I don’t talk anymore. My mouth is set in firm discontent. The lines harden over my eyebrows, etching a graph of how life has panned out – a well-controlled flatline. My left eye has a veneer that I can never rid of, no matter how much I blink. I scrub at the windows of my house, willing the film of dust to go away. I polish the wine bottles with coiling creepers. I coax, then plead a shine out of my mother’s dulled steel plates. Every surface in my home frames my father.

I am 42. My mother climbs her first flight to tell me I have too many things. I tell her she never gave me enough. My mother says, I am sorry, I am not your father.

A Hundred and Twelve

Opposite the man with the pen, hung the man who watched his penis.

This man with the pen assumed that was the case, anyway. That man had his back turned, and was clad in a jibba, and nothing else. What else would a man with a pen and an imagination deduce?

This man with the pen, he liked to call himself a work in progress. His maker had bestowed him with a pen that he may complete himself whenever, and in whichever way he pleased. His maker had been the most partial to him – the man with the pen was the least obese of all those who hung on this wall, the least walrus-like. All of them were unsteady assemblages of rolls of fat, skins the texture of millions and millions of dot-penned fractals. There was one woman, buxom, in a Marathi saree. But any of her body parts could be described buxom, and it’s sort of hard to admire a bai with a man’s voice. She was four frames away, and it’s also hard to admire someone far beyond your peripheral vision.

So, this man with the pen was stuck finding a muse in that man with the penis, a mostly blank wall, and his own half-empty self.

A younger he would’ve named that other man other things. Man in a jibba. Or man looking behind his painting. Or man cross with his lover. Or man looking for his pants.

But the man with the pen had overheard some visitors discuss Freud. And he was convinced that in projecting that man as a pervert, he had satisfied his own destiny as a pervert.

So what would he complete the lower half of his body with? A koi fish tail? A throbbing snake? A ladder? An upended anthill? Eagle talons? A lateral inversion of his self so far, like he was the King of Clovers in a deck of cards? Given he had the option, would he have liked to be a freak? Would he give himself robot legs, tree roots, or a vagina?

What was his purpose as art? To be deformed? To reform? To perform? To conform?

He mused as he drew his thighs. Were they too thin to belong to his body? He eyed the man across and shuddered. He wouldn’t forget his bottoms in a hurry. He sighed and filled in the folds of his dhoti. Why had his maker made his top half a corpulent Brahmin with the janeyu? Was he doomed to believe in god? Why was he condemned to a diet of rice, lentils and ghee? Why hadn’t he thought of drawing pants? Or those comfortable drawstring pajamas the gallery keeper wore?

Once he was done with himself, what would he draw in his surroundings? Fat volumes of Literature? The Upanishads, Dostoyevsky, Don Quixote? A temptress Apsara trying to distract him from meaningful penance? More chest hair? Perhaps write something witty addressing the gallery visitors, “What exactly becomes more apparent when you tilt your head like that?”

A gaggle of young female giggles interrupted his meditation. He eyed the facedown, brown papered rectangles in the far corner. New neighbours, he grinned. They awaited a grand opening the next morning.

He’d be a work of art by then.

The man with the pen worked through the night. All that was left to finish, was his left foot. He reached around his thick thighs and shins, grunted, strained, and drew a shaky outline: artfully hidden heel, arched-eyebrow instep, toe after painful toe. Spent with effort, his heavy arms drooped with exhaustion and he dozed off.

The next morning, clinking glasses and escalating polite laughter woke him up. A dense crowd milled about, throwing phrases at each other: “up and coming”, “coming of age”, “marginalized voice”, “dynamic movements”, “fluid strokes”, “stream of consciousness”, “conflicted sexuality”. Through the shifting curtains of people, their swaying hands and sashaying saree pallus, their haloes and sheets of hair, he tried catching a glimpse of his new neighbours.

And then, he saw her.

The blackened-face beauty. Tresses, a moonless night’s tempest. Temptingly married to someone else. Contoured like a complicated, torrid affair. Dimple naveled. Shined-apple shouldered. Ripe breasts, glowing nipples.

Stunned, he dropped his pen. And became the man without much of a left foot.

Something fun I wrote in workshop.