I was born by the river Ganga, in the northern city of Allahabad where two rivers meet. I was born in winter, a year after mid-century, four years after Indian independence.
The photograph with the Mexican hat on my head was taken in Allahabad. In the photo I am standing next to what seems to be a banana plant. I am squinting into the sun, and the hat doesn’t help that much. I have a knitted sweater buttoned over my chest. At my feet, there is a bed of flowers.
My parents lived at the outskirts of the city, in Bamrauli, a small township close to the Civil Aviation Center where appa worked as a meteorologist.
My first home was the converted army barracks that the government officers were given. It had long, white-washed walls and rooms running all in a row with cement floors and plain rafters for a ceiling. The floor shone after water was poured on it, bucketfuls of water to cool the heat of summer, the season when mustard bushes sprout golden bloom and hyenas howl in the outer garden. We did not have much money to spare, and there was no family car.
When you were born, your father rode thirteen miles each way, on his bicycle, to see us in the hospital, amma said.
I imagined appa, his trousers neatly clipped so they wouldn’t catch on the bicycle chain, riding in the circling winds of the northern plains, through fields edged by broken shacks and wild mustard, to be with his wife in labor. He was young and vigorous, and daily bouts of tennis, played in the morning hours before the sun rose, had strengthened his leg muscles. The sun played on his cheeks, and wind fiddled with his rich, black hair. As he bicycled on through the crowded side streets of the city, he was filled with sensations he could not name.
And amma, how do I imagine her at the time? Young, lovely, filled with a fierce pride at having produced a girl child, but fearful, too, lest the world take over, make her surrender her child in some way she could not yet tell.
Amma brought me way down south to the Tiruvella house when I was ten months old. It was Christmas time. The floor tumbled and shone in pointed waves, waves swarming and clashing, dark red tiles, the color of the inside of a pomegranate.
Tiny feet. Little dark boats, those feet dangling over the edge of the couch. The floor was thousands of miles away. The feet were covered in leather shoes. Soft red leather. Tiny red shoes.
I stared and stared. Amma was making cooing noises. Then words.
Come down, little one.
I heard the voice but didn’t know how to say.
Saying was afterward.
In the beginning was not saying.
Somewhere a firecracker burst. Catherine wheels spinning out in the night sky. A tree on the veranda bristled. Our Christmas tree, a branch cut from the casurina at the edge of the compound.
Her hands were very close. Cold, cold hands. My mother had cold hands all through my childhood. I could smell the Cuticura powder she dusted under her armpits, the rosewater she dipped her handkerchief in.
Come down, child, down, down.
I stared at my shoes. There was laughter. Great Aunt China.
Look at her, she'll never get anywhere.
And then a deeper voice, grandfather.
Let her be—What does it say about children in the Bible? Unless you become a little child you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.
One of the servant children started to dance in and out of the bristling leaves on the cut branch stuck in a pot. I stared so hard I almost fell over my toes. It was Bhaskaran, the cowherd squatting at the edge of the parapet, who leaped up, drew me down, set me on my unsteady legs.
December, the first year of my life. I was ten months old. Refusing to walk. There is a photo of this time of my life, sitting at the edge of the bed, staring at my shoes.
A few months later, back in Allahabad, I am standing near a short banana plant, a Mexican hat on my head, squinting into the leaves. The new shoes are on my feet. Polished by ayah. I am squinting hard into the sun.
The sun follows us, everywhere.
This is the beginning of things.
Things that were very hard to understand. Hard even to remember.
A monsoon cloud covered the sun. I could see the cloud behind the jackfruit tree, through the high window in the bathroom.
Cousin Thoma was singing, and I heard him through the gurgling water. His chin was as smooth as mine, his skin was the same color as mine. He had a bad scar on his knee. He was singing about our hen.
How did he get a song about our hen? She had a lovely black coat of feathers, a bright red beak and a funny eye, a green eye that wobbled as she picked up her throat and called.
I called her Tunni, the same name as ayah’s daughter. But I didn’t let ayah know, in case she grew sad. After all, amma might tell the cook to catch hold of our hen, and then who knows what could happen?
Cousin Thoma’s voice was hoarse from singing too much. At church he sang songs of Baby Jesus and Jesus on the Cross. In the bathroom with the cloud all around him I couldn’t see his body at all. I could only hear his voice. We all liked to hear Cousin Thoma singing. Even ayah stopped shouting at Sophie to open up her braids.
He has a sweet voice, amma said. She did not often say nice things about people. It’s wasted on a boy, that sweet voice, amma said.
This is the song that Cousin Thoma sang in our big bathroom near the jackfruit tree.
Jungade vitile karatha kozhi
Velutha mote itu!
Thoma baby kandu.
The chowkidar bangs his stick in the dark when he makes the rounds of our house. This scares the robbers who want to steal my dead grandmother’s gold, saved up in boxes all over the house, though most of it is in the bank, amma says. It also scares the foxes who want to steal hens.
When I went to school in Khartoum, I had to translate the song my Cousin Thoma sang when we were in the bathroom. This is how the song came out in English.
O black hen in our house
Black hen who made a white egg!
Papa saw it
Mama saw it
Thoma baby saw it.
Orange mouths of flame were sucking at everything. The cauldron was black with soot, glinting in bits where metal showed. Water made gurgling noises like sugarcane when it’s crushed on a stone.
Outside the bathroom window was a jackfruit tree. Blackbirds came and pecked at the smooth bark. They pecked at the fruit, trying to make holes in the thick skin. The fruit was as heavy as a cow’s head and about the same size.
One bird was lodged on the fruit, pecking at it, and another bird on a branch above, with glossy feathers outspread, was looking straight at the bird that was trying to make its way into the jackfruit. One bird was pecking at the fruit, the other was watching it.
I stood on tiptoes in the bathroom. A stone hit a bird. Then came a softer plop. I stretched higher on my toes. Was it one of the boys who fetched water from the well?
A blackbird made a mess with wings stretched out, neck skewed. Above it was another bird, claws glowing in sunlight. It spun above the fallen bird, wings beating, gone mad.
Which bird had fallen, the one that was pecking at the fruit or the one that was watching? I couldn’t tell. Both were gone from the tree. One lay dead. The other fled into the cloudless sky.
Each afternoon Thoma, Sophie, and me, we returned to the bathroom.
We could have crawled into the cauldron filled with bathwater, it was that huge. But none of us dared touch it. The water was so hot it could have scalded a rhino. Steam came up in heaps. I chose the biggest heap of steam cloud to hide in.
Cumulus, the word for cloud, means “heap.” Cumulus = heap.
Ten love, my Cousin Thoma sang in his squeaky boy’s voice. I was glad I was in the steam heap and couldn’t see him. I didn’t like to see his funny boy-thing flapping in front as he ran across the bathroom floor, ayah chasing him. She was chasing him as he raced after us, Sophie and me. Sophie yelled at ayah, who yelled right back.
Undo your braids! ayah cried. It’s bad for hair to be tied up in steam. But Sophie didn’t care. She still had ribbons tied in her hair. Sopping wet.
Ayah had a bar of soap in her hands, bright red soap that takes germs away.
Takes germs away, amma said. That’s why we buy it. It stops worms, too.
We were all smeared in coconut oil. So our skin wouldn’t turn dry like parched earth.
Remember the missionary who came for tea? He asked us to give money so that the poor children who live in the hills would have oil to put on their skin and hair, so their hair wouldn’t split and their skin wouldn’t crack. You don’t want to look like one of those children, do you?
Ayah caught hold of my arm as she said this. Her hands were wet with coconut oil. The oil rubbed off on my arm, on my thigh, too. I shut my eyes. Ayah’s hand was passing over my face, rubbing in the oil.
Out of the bathroom we came, us three, wrapped in thin cotton towels. Each towel had a red stripe. We were soft and wet. Like baby foxes.
Look! Sophie shouted.
She wiggled out of her towel, ran down the kitchen steps to where the bathroom fire was stoked from the outside. The fire was stoked by Bhaskaran the cowherd, when he wasn’t taking care of cows.
I hated it when Sophie shouted so close to my ear. I went up and looked.
She held it in her hand. A black egg.
Wrapped in his towel, Cousin Thoma yelled, Our black hen has laid a black egg! I touched it with my finger, and the color ran. My finger was wet.
Silly, ayah said, just ash from the bathroom fire. That’s why the egg is that color. The stupid hen laid her egg at the edge of the ash by the bathroom fire. It could have smashed so easily, I could have swept it up and tossed it into the ash room.
Oh oh oh, our black hen has laid a black egg!
We were all there, by the bathroom stove in front of the kitchen steps staring at the egg. The jackfruit tree was in front of us with huge, prickly fruit still intact.
I thought they had cut down all the fruit with a sickle tethered with rope to the end of a long, bamboo stick.
I stared up at the sky, next to the jackfruit tree. It was blue with a cloud floating.
I saw a child in the cloud, the same size and shape as me. The child’s skin was wet, she had just had a bath. She had a red ribbon in her hair.
I told Cousin Thoma.
It’s an imaginary child, that’s what it is, he said to me.
I shook my head.
Look, she’s waving at you, Sophie said.
Sophie still had the egg in her hand when she said this. It was as big as her hand and so smooth. Ash was running on the outside, making drops of grey and black, and the shell shone through.
We heard funny noises coming from the stable, grunts, louder than the crackling fire, moans, something sharp, cutting. Sophie lurched forward, then set the egg down carefully in the ash by the bathroom ledge.
From the house amma was calling. I thought she was crying as she called. Come in, come inside, quickly!
The inside is filled with blood, the outside with skin.
But this calf was born without skin. Someone was calling, calling me.
It was all bloody, Bhaskaran said. Your amma wants you to go inside. She doesn’t want you to see. The calf won’t survive.
Hard to tell if it was bleeding from being born or bleeding from having no skin. Both, ayah said.
She chewed hard on a garlic clove to make her tooth feel better.
The stench of the garlic made me feel better, too.
It’s good for circulation, ayah said, winking at me.
Your amma didn’t want you to see it, ayah said. She wanted to shut you up in her bedroom.
Are eggs ever like that? I asked ayah.
No skin to them. No shell.
I got no reply.
They buried the calf in a hole in the earth by the pepper vine that trailed on the old mango tree. The bark of the mango tree was filled with dirt. The leaves of the pepper vines shone, small flags of green.
Bhaskaran the cowherd dug the hole. He wrapped the calf without skin in banana leaves, and carried it in both his hands. I could hear the koil cry in the mango tree as he dug the hole.
He put the calf without skin in that hole, and covered it with his hands.
There was calf’s blood on Bhaskaran’s hands.
By the stable I saw the mother cow crouched on her haunches, her eyes open, huge, wet, just as all the parrots in the jackfruit tree started pecking at fruit, pecking so hard, making funny noises in their bird throats.
I heard amma calling, all over again, Come inside, Meenameenamol, come inside! I was afraid she wanted to shut me up in her belly all over again. I would have choked up inside amma, no skin on me.
Perhaps that’s what happened to the calf, I said to ayah. The mother cow shut her up, didn’t let her go.
Don’t be silly, ayah said.
Ayah stroked my hair. How dry your hair is, she said. Soon, if we’re not careful, you’ll be like one of the poor children in the hills.
She cut up a juicy mango for me and let me eat it with the juice dribbling down my chin. I sucked up the mango flesh in my teeth and thought about the calf some more. Its eyes were wide open when it died. I knew that.
No skin, and eyes wide open.
After the calf died, they brought in the bull.
The bull was black with gold streaks where its shoulder bones reared. A snake leaped out of the bull’s belly, a big snake, and then, as the dust rose by the stables, in tiny shimmering sparks, the bull bellowed out.
Hot and heavy as the ground we stood on, the bull leaped, making a sound like the waterwheel.
The bull’s haunches spun, with black and gold glinting in bits.
A thousand snakes leaped out of the arms of the mango tree and clung to the bull’s skin as he humped the cow, the poor brown thing, Susheela cow, and her flesh melted into the mouths of the snakes licking with long, forked tongues. Parrots in the jackfruit tree opened up their wings and started cackling.
Parrot wings made a canopy of light over green leaves. The sun sliding in and out of the clouds made sharp arrows. Rainbow arcs above the canopy of fluttering green light. Ice clouds streaked like the bull’s tail—a storm was being held back with great, electric force
A crowd of children by the gate came running, staring with open mouths, and Bhaskaran the cowherd with Aparna, the tailor’s daughter in her tight, red blouse, came running. He pulled her by the hand through the rickety back gate.
Did she cover her eyes, Aparna, in her red blouse? Not at all. She kept staring as the bull worked his hot, heavy burden, and the cow reared up, tail running wet, with the hooves of the bull on her, and her pelt marked for days with that fury.