I woke from nightmare into the vast bed. The magnificent coral bed carved into figures of men and dogs, with four dolls as legs. At night, the dolls broke away, ran far off, and returned to tell of the scandals and marvels they had seen, to the sleeper, as dreams. My grandmother told me this story to persuade me to back to sleep after my nightmare. Instead, I struggled against the currents of sleep, until oblivion pulled me down.
In the morning, I was exhausted. I held on to the covers as Tara the maid tried to pull them off. “No!” I screamed. Tara swept under my bed, muttering that the black scorpion must have bitten me, its poison fanning through my blood. Liar, I said, sticking out my tongue. I knew the cook had killed it with her slipper last night.
Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed, noted my mother. Sitting on the balcony, she was combing her long black hair. She held out the ivory comb in a long pale hand, an invitation for me to come to her,
but I turned away. It was a bad morning. When the istry came with our freshly-pressed clothes that smelled of the steam iron, my dress was missing. My beloved crimson silk dress. “I only want to wear that one!” I screamed at her. The woman looked at me, shocked, like the idol of the black goddess who puts her hand over her mouth when she sees a woman misbehaving in the temple. “Behave yourself!” shouted my mother, her white face aghast. “What’s gotten into you?” she hissed. I lowered my head, butting my mother hard in the belly. She slapped me on the cheek. She had never hit me before. My father had, once. He was far away, in our other home, in an icy country, over the sea. It felt the same, the slap, as if it had left a red handprint burning on my face. What stung was not the pain, but the betrayal. I fell onto the divan, crying. The istry began complaining about her own rebellious daughter, who, like me, was also eight. “She’ll turn out badly,
I know it––I got sick from eating green mangoes when I was pregnant with her,” she rued as she left.
“You’ll be infamous for this,” my mother warned me. “That woman will carry the story to every house and soon the whole colony will know what you are truly like.” Alone, I burnt in the flame of my shame. My mother exiled me from her love, her embraces, her perfume and warmth, and even her conversation for the rest of the morning. I skulked through the labyrinth of the house, sitting on its stairs as if they led to an ancient temple where I was to be a blood sacrifice. “Why can’t I stay with you?” I had asked my father before leaving him. “Because your mother needs you,” he said, and then pointed to my reflection in the dark mirror. “Or shall I send that girl with her, and keep you here with me?”
Parrots scissored their long green tails across the skies. Otherwise, everybody slept after lunch. Kantha, the cook, was in the kitchen, snoring and mumbling as she sat on the floor, propped against the wall. Lately, she was in as bad spirits as me. And I knew why. I had seen her fighting with one of the other servants, all because he had been looking at the next door maid drying her hair in the sun after her bath. What a thing to fight about! But it had made Kantha cry until he had kissed her. “Really, he’s young enough to be your son! Can’t you control yourself?” Tara spat at Kantha who was much older, but whose husband had long ago run away. When it was only the two of us, Kantha took nips out of a bottle she hid on a shelf behind the brass vessels. Cloudy and tarnished, the pots were supposed to be poisonous to cook in, so no one ever touched them. After she took a few swigs, Kantha would say things in a tribal dialect I didn’t understand…
Thirsty, I crept softly into the kitchen, hoping not to rouse her. But the tinkling bells round my ankles gave me away. Kantha’s purple face glared at me. “You! You should be happy! Look what beautiful ghunghroos your aunt gave you––no one ever gave me jewelry like that! What an ungrateful little slut you are! Torturing your poor mother! Isn’t it enough that she has so many troubles with your father’s wicked family! Can’t you hear her weeping half the time? You had better hope no monster comes to get you––why are you so bad?” I didn’t know why, but I was. It was my nature.
I left, my ghunghroos clinking. They were my consolation. A silver band round each ankle, with a frill of small round silver bells, each with a tiny slit. It made them look like fish, mouths agape, hungry. They were beautiful, musical and I had refused to take them off since the evening my aunt had taken me to buy them, in a narrow little shop in Chandni Chowk. “Ah, we’ve belled the cat” my uncle said, somewhat sadly, as I danced ahead of them. “True,” sighed my aunt. “They used to make the daughter-in-law wear them so they knew where she was, and if she was where she shouldn’t be!”
I oughtn’t have been going down to the dark stream behind our house, but that is where I went, eventually.
I was bored, restless, sad. All my books were read, several times over. I stood at the bedroom window, looking down. Below, behind the house, sagged a few yellow mud huts amid snaking trees. They tumbled down to a glittering stream. The naali, it was called. I was strictly forbidden to go there. “Dangerous,” my mother said. “Thieves,” muttered my grandmother. “Filthy,” they agreed. I stood, looking down from behind the veil of curtains. Nobody was about, not a soul.
But when I looked again, I saw a solitary figure, beckoning to me, to come down, to play. How could I resist? I took the key to backdoor out from my grandmother’s book. I slipped through shadows that hid me from Kantha’s drunken eye. I escaped through the maze of hallways, stairs and doors, through the courtyard. The door was crawling with heavy perfumed orange flowers nodding and glaring as I thrust the key in. The padlock dropped its jaw open, and I went through the door, into the sunlit haze.
There she was, waiting for me. A little girl with the eyebrows of a pretty, malicious demoness. She smiled at me, and I saw that she was as tall as me, as thin, but dark as a twig of vanilla, whereas I was pale, like the flower. The girl touched my shoulder then ran off, daring me to catch her. We ran amid butterflies in billowing sulphur-yellow gowns, or fantasy blues. She tackled me and I fell, gasping, not used to such roughness. We rolled together down the parched grassy slopes to the water. When she laughed, I laughed too, realizing we were having fun, even though it hurt. The last time I had rolled like this was with my father, after we had fallen down a hill. When we had stopped, I bit his earlobe. “Grow big,” I told him, “grow big like a giant so I can hide in your ear.”
Disentangling herself, the girl rose. I lay in front of a mudhut while she, glancing at me over her shoulder, disappeared within. The doorway was hung with a fringe of leaves, shrivelled lemons and chili peppers, to keep out the bad spirits with their numerous evil eyes. What was it like inside? I went in, after her. It was murky, bare. The girl was watching me closely. I felt nervous, shy, unable to move––I wondered if there was someone else there, but no, there couldn’t be, not in that tiny space.
She sat while I stood. Then she touched my dress, pulling me to sit down. She plucked the thistles and grass out of my hair, and while she was doing so, I saw some red silk between the piles of bedding. I tugged at it, and there it was––my missing dress that the istry had lost! The crimson dress. But how was it here? I didn’t know what to say. The girl pulled off her own dress––striped, dirty, torn. Her nipples were flat plum moons, her fawn body rising from her pyjamas. She pulled off my dress too, and I let her. I wasn’t going to let her have my precious dress, and she didn’t try to keep it from me. She helped me do up the buttons when I had slid it over my head. Then she put on the other dress that I had been wearing, and I let her, feeling sorry for her. I don’t know if she saw my pity, but her own mood changed. She pushed me down, crushing her hand over my mouth, saying what I didn’t understand. She smelled of sweat, of burning spices. Her tongue, her scent was utterly alien. She began tussling with me. Her hands groped, hurting me. I squirmed, struggled––unsure whether we were still playing, and if so, at what?
Our wrestling grew heated, uncontrolled, scary. She was stronger than me, and suddenly her black hydra limbs were suffused with something more than play, something violent. But then, she kissed me, on the mouth, softly. Her eyes looked down deeply into mine, into me. Stormy eyes, black with frustration, wanting––wanting what? She kept on, her hands like roots, burrowing between my legs. It hurt, but it gave me a rude shock of pleasure at the same time, confusing me. My body writhed in the currents, like the river itself, drawing her in, repulsing her at the same time. She was saying words, soft and harsh words, like stones you walk on in the sea. After the wave of thrill, came guilt and fear, covering me like seaweed, like shame––
When I tried to throw her off, she slapped me. I was terrified now, struggling, but she was too strong. As I thrashed, she deftly spun about, so her back was toward me. She had my feet in her hands, taking off my ankle-bells. She got one, but not the other––
My feet were silent as I ran, trying to run away from what I have not yet escaped.