10/11/20

New | Short Story | Invasion | Anna Lynn

 






 

 

It is a cold morning. Wet like Monsoon clouds. I pick up my deep red sweater. My bodily warmth stays in it. Like coffee in the morning – burning your tongue, smarting your eyes with tears as the brain-fog lifts. Warmth like the burnt edges of a cigarette. (I’ve only seen them. The back-bencher boys tell me that I shouldn’t start the habit, because they now regret it.)

My body fills the gaps of the sweater and I watch a fat woman stare at me in the mirror.

To whom can I say, “I hate my body because Pa always said I had fat thighs?” Who will not look, and still love me anyway? There’s a loss here – cold like the clouds and discarded cigarette butts.

Today is a side-saddle-bag-day. I like that college days can be assigned type-of-bag-by-the-feel- days. I like that my powder blue coloured jeans hold the fat in. Makes me lithe. Or what I imagine lithe to be – a woman in tassel earrings, hunched over a book in a calming corner made of stones – hidden by the college corridors because the architect suddenly thought of the water tank. And the milling students hide the flaw in the architecture. The bag hangs at my side.

How do you make mistakes like that, always? Choosing impractical side-saddle bags because you feel like it accompanies your casual, insecure outfit. Unable to hold the heavy books I will have to borrow from the library. Op Amps and Linear Integrated Circuits by Ramchand Gaikwad.

I hate being a science student. Electronics is still somewhat interesting (electrons and their relationships are polyamorous and exciting), but physics is a pain in the ass (especially because of the judgemental teachers (AF!)). And math? That was a shitty breakup. Now we tolerate each other exactly three days before the exams. BSc. Mathematics 1st Sem, 2nd Sem, and now, 3rd Sem. By G. K. Ranganath. He is not so bad. The teachers are even better – especially when they give us the solved problems in the exam so we can throw up what we already know. But it bothers me. I want to be a literature student. 

I imagine it sometimes – old dusty books come home with me from their lonely shelves in the library. Yellowed pages hold secret promises; someone ate a samosa while reading Elizabeth and John’s adventures and misadventures; it was the first time I was reading an entire novel in rhyme – sonnets to be precise. It was also the first time I was reading details about homosexuality (in rhyme). I was curious, because there was something about it that felt natural, but also forbidden.

 

I picked up The Golden Gate because Vikram Seth wrote it. (More for the surname of the author than for his fame).

Someone else went on a marking frenzy on the pages of Multiple City: Writings from Bangalore (I read it only to find out that I hadn’t been to any of the most important places in the city I have lived my whole life in and so returned the book, feeling a little depressed). 

Heart of Darkness depressed me even more. I hated the book. Hated reading it. Hated the dehumanisation. Hated that I just could not understand this “self-other colonization dichotomy” bullshit. Maybe, if I were a literature student, I could pretend I understood. But that’s not why I loved reading. I loved it for the image in my head. The image of a woman lost in the art of reading.  The femininity of it, somehow. There was grace and sensuality in the moment of reading.

Feet curled under each-other, head nestled in your palm, even as the elbow protests lightly. Your eyes travel across space. You exist where pain is yours, but accountability is not. When you’re there, you’re not aware. Everything around you dissolves into the words on a page.

 

When you see the word “engrossed” – this comes to mind. What is it about women’s bodies – their hips, their arms, the book and a face lost in the pages? Does the other Seth – the one named after the author of The Golden Gate, the one who may be my boyfriend – think about women’s bodies like this? About mine? Probably not.

That day, two books are cradled in my palm. Electronics and Mathematics. The bus from Town Hall to KR Market is crowded. I should wait a little, but some days the evening light just reminds you, you have 15 kilometres of public transport commute to bear with, a boy-friend like a question-mark (who is not answering your calls currently) and a home that waits for you outside the city. There are other college kids as usual waiting to board. Aravi and Samir also get in with me. Aravi is doing her Bachelors in Chemistry, Biology, Zoology (CBZ) and Samir studies Visual Communication.

 

We know each other from college corridors. Through silent smiling nods exchanged in between easy or brisk walks – depending on how late you are to class. These friendships are easy. Unlike the groups I hang around. Girls and boys are always having serious conversations about Game of Thrones and “What is a Classic?” and “Religion and Atheism.” When I’m among them, I am always missing Rcahel and Revu. How we hooked arms and sang random pop songs out loud in the school corridors. How we created a world with just the three of us and no one bothered us too much. Because they probably thought we were crazy. But it didn’t matter. With Rachel and Revu, I never had to think a million times before having a conversation. I didn’t have to be afraid of teasing and how it made me feel stupid. Now Revu is doing engineering. She is happy. Rachel is studying B. Com and regretting it. Like me.

 

In the midst of this uncertain loneliness, corridor friendships are soothing. Simple. No judgments. No efforts made to know another. I remember Karthigayan Sir telling someone he taught the Natural Sciences batches, while I was at the Department Staff Room. And from the one conversation I’ve had with Aravi, she mentioned that Karthigayan Sir was a great teacher. So, we have English Teachers and the college corridors in common.  To make us smile-exchangers.

An old uncle also gets in. He occupies the space between the books I tightly clenched to my sweater-ed chest and the silently nodding college-mates. It’s funny, isn’t it? You can hate your body, but you still protect it. It still tells you when something feels wrong. Will there ever be a time, when I can just be? Without that gaze measuring and deciding upon what makes my body mine, and how much I can own it? Probably not.

Probably only within the fantasy of the reading girl.

I turn after nodding to them. I am thinking about easy friendships again. Sometimes, you see these people with their close ones. Laughing. Swearing. Hitting a boy. And you are surprised. Smile-exchangers have their own personalities with their friends. You never imagined them like that. They ceased to exist beyond the shared public space. That’s what made you strangers anyway. Argh!

I thought it was the strap of my bag. Nipple pinched against the heavy books, jostled like the people in the bus. Funny. How you don’t want to admit certain strange invasions. But in college corridors, strangers can turn into smile-exchangers. And you’re not thinking about your self-loathing or your fear of molestation in the college corridors. Funny. How self-loathing becomes moral policing becomes disgust becomes sleep paralysis. Except now, you’re fully awake. The old man’s fingers are slowly leaving. He stares into a distance as though his hands have a mind of their own accord. As though I will brush this away as just another incident. WHY DID I WEAR MY JEANS? WHY ONLY THE SWEATER TOP? WHY NOT A PRACTICAL BAG TO PUT MY FUCKING BOOKS IN? WHY THE FUCK DID I GET INTO THIS BUS?

 

Later, in a less crowded bus, the tears evaporate before they fall, and a black puddle in the middle of the road that curves onto the flyover (that will go all the way until Rayaan Circle) swallows some of the shame. And then I scream at the man in my head.

NOT YOURS. MINE. MY BODY. HOW FUCKING DARE YOU?

He looks a little scared and a little ashamed.

(But I did not believe in feminism then, so maybe that’s why I couldn’t shout at him, when it happened.)

Aravi saw. Samir did not. Thank God. Maybe Aravi will tell me a story like this, and maybe we will become more than smile exchangers.

 

No. I was wrong.

Samir had pushed the man down the cold steel steps of the bus when it stopped at Market. Then Samir got down and waited. I think there was concern in his eyes. Aravi had patted my sweater-ed back. Sweaters don’t protect you from prying fingers. They should put that on the DO NOT WASH DRY CLEAN ONLY slip of cloth.

Are you alright? She asked.

Drink some water, she said.

I nodded. I smiled. I’ll be okay, don’t worry, I said.

Then we went our separate ways. Aravi took a bus to Chikpet. Samir to Girinagar.

I wonder why we tell people to drink water when something bad happens. I want to ask him this. It’s been a bad day. Maybe he’ll know and reply. And he will comfort. But I was still scared of a rejection on call, so I texted him. When the bus reached Rayaan Circle.

I feel horrible, I type. What words describe an assault? Pain? Anger? Shame? Powerlessness? I feel empty and horrible. I wish you were here, with me.

(As if that would change things)

Back home, I bathe for the second time that day. Can soap scrub away bad memories?

I cry a little.

He would dilute this nauseating sickness. He would negate it.

(That’s what they do in the dark young adult fiction that Rachel is always reading.)

No texts. The minute hand on the clock counts the number of times I check my phone. It slowly turns into an hour. Then there’s a message notification.

Oh, it’s okay ya, it happens. Especially bus and KR Market that too. Forget it.

How do you forget. It. I want to ask him.

 

***

 

Finally, Ma does it.

Was it my fault?

No, sweetie no.

Her face is the colour of a monsoon cloud.

A blinding fury and pain hits me like the storm outside. Wet. Hot.

I will ask the boys to teach me to smoke tomorrow.

Ma lets my tears burn through her sari.

 

________________________________________________________________________________

*Artwork by Nicoline Tuxen, Portrait of a Woman Reading in Bed, courtesy Wikimedia Commons 



No comments:

Post a Comment