I was half asleep when Ma whispered into my ear that it was time to go. The sun had not yet risen, but light crept into the room from the half-opened window. I pulled off the chadar—the thin blanket we use in the warm summer months in Palakkad—an extra layer of skin that embraces us even when we don’t need its coarse cover.
At 5 in the morning, I wondered if there was a single person who didn’t use blankets. My mother yelled at me to get in the shower, interrupting my thoughts. I turned on the heater mechanically, and climbed back into bed. Under the sheets, waiting for the water to heat up, I touched my breasts. I had been watching them grow by the day and was saddened.
My mother came in and slapped my hand and hissed through her teeth, “Chee, Amu. Why do you keep putting your hand in your kurta and touching? It’s not nice. Now take off your clothes and go shower. I packed your bags and put them at the door. And, don’t forget to wear your training bra.” I obeyed, walked to the pile of clothes in a half-opened suitcase and pulled out my pastel pink training bra. It smelled like our blankets.
From the slit of the curtains, I could see the sky lightening. As I stepped inside the shower and took my clothes off, I remembered how, when I was younger, I would keep the bathroom window open and sit on the floor in my underwear. I used to sit there for ages, mixing the hot water bucket with the cold. Every once in a while, hearing the goat-herder, I’d step on the little stool by the window and watch the goats walk by right outside on the fields. They walked freely, played with each other and occasionally ran out of the file. I’d watch the kids suckle, often pulling violently at their mother’s nipples. Recently, my mother had been instructing me to hide my body. As I took my shirt off one hot summer afternoon, she had said “Amu, you are becoming a woman. A lone woman is like an open chest of gold. You have to protect yourself.” I did not understand what she meant at the time, but raised my hands so she could help slip my kurta back on.
To avoid unwanted gazes at my naked body, I no longer sat by the bathroom window. My lavish bathroom time had turned into a chore. I quickly used the mugga—the jug—to pour water out of the bucket and onto my hot body. I did not like to waste time mixing water and instead chose to bathe myself with hot water, singing my skin to numbness. Meditatively, I let the soap run down my left arm, left leg, my little belly, my right arm, my right leg, my breasts. Vivi etta, my cousin, had recently taken to telling me, “Di, you’re as big as a show horse.” I wondered if his comment had anything to do with my breasts. I poured three more muggas of hot water, washed it all at once and stepped outside.
I pulled my tightly wrapped towel over my goosebumps and made a run for the clothes Ma had arranged on my bed. It was my favorite pavada—light lilac, skin tight, wrapped in golden embroidery—clearly reserved for this occasion. Slipping into my training bra, I tried to hook the top of the pavada, but it wouldn’t fit. I decided to pull the bra out and hide it under the bed. Facing the old mirror in my grandmother’s house, I put on my black bindi and the new earrings Mutthi, my grandma, had gifted to celebrate my becoming a woman.
As I lined the kajal on my lower eyelid and observed my reflection between the mirror’s corroded black edges, I could see that my body was growing—that I looked like a woman.
Ma banged on the door. “Amu, get out right now. The car is at the door! You have to eat your breakfast fast.” I could not tell if she wanted to get rid of me right then or just accelerate the process of goodbye—to avoid the full range of emotions between our goodbye’s beginning and end. I decided it was the latter. Every summer, my parents and I flew down from Mumbai to Palakkad and stayed at my paternal grandparents’ house. From there, my cousins and I would often go over to my uncle’s house in Vaikom, leaving our parents behind for a few days. I was going away for less than a week, but I knew how much it bothered Ma when I left her alone at grandmother’s.
The car stopped and I saw my favorite chambakka tree in the backyard. The chambakka clusters nestled in an embrace of the large dark leaves, the young fruit white and ripe ones rosy pink, bell-shaped. Overripe fruits were strewn around in the garden and on the pond, where they floated like islands.
Appupa, my grand uncle, came out to embrace us. He embraced my cousin Gokul and me. We both clung only half-heartedly for this obligatory exchange, then ran over to the chambakka tree. We hung around pretending to play husband-wife and house-house. Sometimes we would switch to playing servant-master. Gokul, being older, got to decide the roles, and I was always the servant.
After dipping our feet in the pond and watching the guppy suck on them, we were summoned for lunch. The smell of fresh pepper and fried dried coconut filled the air. Edti Amma, my aunt, was in the kitchen making dosas. All the women in the house were there. “Crispy for me,” “Less Enna for me,” “Can I get mine fluffier?” “How many?” “Coming out in one minute.” Little phrases were exchanged between the kitchen and the dinner table. The men and children sat in their regular spots, leaving only one chair empty for the five women in the house.
“Will they play musical chairs to sit there?” I announced loudly, repeating what I once heard my mother tell my aunt when we came down to Palakkad in the summer.
Appupa gave me a stern look: “They will eat after the dosas are all here. Because your Edti Amma loves you so much she wants to make sure you get hot dosas.” My mother did not like the smell of coconut oil or the kitchen but none of the women wanted to take the seat, and adhering to politeness, neither did Ma.
Appupa chewed his beef and continued talking to Unni Etta, my uncle. They were locked in a conversation about Muslims and circumcised penises. I did not understand the word “circumcised,” so I asked Gokul if it meant anything to him. He squinted and confidently told me the word meant round genitals.
Fascinated by this discovery, I approached the empty chair by Unni Etta and Appupa and sat down. The conversation has moved beyond circumcision—they were now discussing Muslims’ positions in the government. According to Unni Etta and Appupa, they were multiplying too fast.
“Chee,” Appupa spat in disgust. “And the government wants to reserve jobs for THEM? If they get any power in the center, they will destroy our culture, marry our women and make us the minority. You know they sleep within their family!”
Gokul and I played house-house and were husband and wife all the time. Two weeks ago, when he bought me chambakkas from our house in Palakkad, I had decided that I was going to marry him.
“What is wrong with family loving each other?” I asked, confused about this attack on Muslims as part of my mother’s family was Muslim. I sometimes wondered if my other relatives forgot this.
“You will have kids who have no thoughts and look like ugly chambakkas. Amu kutty, my child, you don’t want that I tell you,” said Apuppa.
I listened carefully while chewing my beef, repeating his words in my head, then spat out half-chewed beef on the plate in disgust. After we were done with lunch, I rolled onto my back in the grass and lay in the sun by the pond. I could feel the heaviness of beef in my stomach. I wasn’t used to it; real beef was not available in Mumbai. So when Edti Amma prepared her coconut pepper beef, which was real—not buffalo or bullock like in Mumbai—I ate until I could feel my stomach rise to my lungs. The lack of breathing room induced heavy breaths. While my body worked hard to digest, I fell asleep.
I woke up to distant bells, sleeping by the side of the pond, away from the house. Back inside, mirrors were occupied by the women dressing up in semi-colorful saris and small bindis. I remembered it was time for our visit to the Vaikom temple. If you liked red, you wore brown, if you liked bright green you wore olive instead. The temple was a place of worship, not attraction, which is possible with tying your hair. Loose hair is kama-sutra. Just very loose. In accordance with this, my semi-womanly body was stripped of my lilac pavada and offered a peaceful, off-white kurta. My aunts’ voices joined and called out, “Sundari Kutty”—pretty child—“Come here, I will comb and plait your hair.” They took turns slathering coconut oil on my hair so not one strand would enter the wild territory of loose. I looked at myself in the mirror and turned away. I no longer looked like a city child.
Outside, the car awaited and Unni Etta pressed the horn twice. The slow dressing up now turned into quick dots of bindi and mismatched earrings. One of my eyes was left unlined. “You need to line your eyes with thick kajal to ward off the evil gaze,” Ma had cautioned me once.
The adults were the first ones in the car, and then the kids picked their favorite adults to sit on.
Some of the adults would call out the names of kids they wanted; we did not always have a choice. This left Gokul and me to pick between Edti Amma and Appupa.
Naturally, I yelled “Edti Amma’s lap.”
“Di, I am heavy and Appupa’s legs cannot take my weight. You should go sit on his lap,” Gokul stammered.
I thought we’d decided you will sit on his lap. I silently protested, my eyes searching for Gokul’s. Appupa planned on sitting by the window, so I stuck my tongue out to Gokul and said, “I get to sit by the window.”
But my victory did not make Gokul envious.
From Appupa‘s lap, I watched the scenery shift out the window, my breath accelerating in anticipation of the temple I knew was coming. Everyone was talking. The women began to gossip about the neighbor’s daughter and everyone leaned in to pick up on the details.
As I bent my upper body forward, I began to feel a lone hand creeping under my off-white kurta. It went up my belly and over my breasts, surrounding my nipples.
I turned to see Appupa’s other hand. It was wandering under his own shirt, playing with the sacred cow locket buried in the jungle of his chest hair.