Sunaina Ruth Priti Mudaliar
How much can you tell from a picture? How much from the surface of scarred skin above bones worn down with the weight of the life they survived?
How much can you tell from a voice not big enough to carry the largeness of feeling?
Nothing. You can tell nothing.
My hair is brown, not naturally. My name is a bit of a mystery. People can’t tell where I’m from, and these days, I like to keep my accent a neutral tone of ‘could be from anywhere.’
Do you know who I am yet?
I am sitting here, writing. The mind swims in the ocean of all that hasn’t been described, and I am trying to collect the shells that will sound the loudest when they reach your shores. I don’t have to give you the whole picture, only the pieces that resonate, and I know you will make up the rest. Because that’s what minds do. See patterns. Connect dots. Even when we shouldn’t, we weave patterns out of love and hate. Intricate knots that are hard to open ourselves out from again.
It has taken me a long time to love someone I used to know. It has taken reliving memories, turning them over and over on these pages, looking at them from all angles, from this safe distance in time of having survived them.
I suppose I should begin with her death.
Strength can be a terrible thing to have; not dying taught her that. Because it causes one to endure suffering for far too long, longer than anyone should have to bear. When the whole point of it was to not survive it. To break. To finally come out of the illusion of who one is.
The first time she should have died, she woke up half-naked on the floor of her kitchen, her pristine white-cabinet, marble-countertop kitchen with its layers of luxury she associated with having ‘made it’ in life. As her blurry vision focused itself on the flawless woodwork, every edge and corner felt like a weapon left behind after a fight, and her insides pulsated with the memory of the previous night.
She closed her eyes again. All went into darkness again.
Shall we go back to the start?
Once, she loved a boy. They were still in school; they were young. Was it coincidence that the day he’d told her she had a way with words was the day the source of her words would be taken away?
She had blushed all the way home. Not because of what he’d said, or even in the soft manner he’d said it in, which was one of her favourite things about his disposition, but because his hand had brushed against hers ever so slightly during their walk back, and she just knew it hadn’t been an accident. But that would be one of their last encounters.
Because when she reached home, the front door was wide open, waves of intonation escaping; it was the sound of a significant meeting, one that didn’t happen often, or had never happened before. The door was usually left open like that when they wanted the whole neighbourhood to know what was going on, a cheap broadcast tactic of sorts. As she crossed the threshold, she may as well have been crossing a very clear line between childhood and adulthood, for the man she was to marry was waiting on the other side.
You see, her family thought they’d met the solution to all their woes in a man twice her age, simply because he’d been to parts of the world they could only dream of. In one swell swoop, they had hit the jackpot with social status, a wealthy son-in-law, and someone to be responsible for the girl who was starting to get too curious with ‘that boy she was always with.’
It was better for her to be a husband’s problem now than theirs.
It goes without saying, school came to an end.
Is there a harshness in my tone about them?
Maybe it was never so simple, and maybe it was never so cruel. But it is hard to know what people without voices are thinking since they never tell you. Do they simply not have the words? Or do they not even think the thoughts?
Human beings have a tendency to place their worth in the strangest of places. Sometimes this worth was defined for us, but many times we defined it for ourselves. Her worth had been pre-set for her. Before she’d even had the education, it had been placed in her vagina (though no one ever spoke the word), in the fact that no man had been there and that there was a man of certain status who wanted just such a ‘clean’ girl.
And nobody asked her what was in her heart. She could have been as wicked as they come, but it seemed that was a factor they were very much willing to overlook.
And nobody asked what was in her mind. How even in the acceptance of this common fate, she still had anxious thoughts flooding in. Thoughts about what her body could do, and what his could do, and not having the clear answers but not having the voice to put forth the questions either because the ears they would reach belonged to people who didn’t speak of such things.
They gave their daughters away to men to do with as they pleased, but they didn’t speak of such things.
I look back and I think of her foolishness. She believed the things she was taught. That was her first and biggest flaw. She forgot even her lustful young love for a fantasy she was taught to have. Through the local folktales, the soppy movies, the traditions in her family, and the whole community in general, she’d been taught she was made for a man. To prepare herself for a man. (And I have often wondered since then how the men around there were never prepared to take on a woman.)
The naïve girl had placed her own value in her flesh, confusing a lack of experience with the face of purity, and then giving that flesh up to be tainted in agreeable ritual…
I know better, how true purity is a spirit, one that’s been tried and tested. One that has tasted bad fruit but then spits it back out because it wants more of itself.
I suppose you could say that every experience is an education. Though I loathed her for a long time, I learned to understand her better. I know now, I should have been kinder. I was too hard on her. I expected her to be perfect even when she wasn’t equipped for it. I expected her to know better even when she lacked the knowledge.
I couldn’t help her live. But I did help her die.
He was not a man who wanted to speak to her; that became clear very quickly. But some things don’t need to be said to be made known. Like the first time she was touched by him, the rough grasp of his hands gave away how experienced they were. They knew what they were doing, and they didn’t stop to ask if she knew what was being done. They didn’t slow down.
‘Open your mouth, wider.’
But I know what hurt her the most: it was all he didn’t know. All that he didn’t bother to ask about her. How that first time he helped himself to her, he did it like it was the second time, or the third time. Any time but the first. He’d wanted a porcelain doll but then he’d held her like one made of rags: carelessly. His so-called love became something she learned to endure and break under, again and again. Because even pieces remain fragile, breakable.
And after these lessons in love came the lessons in a change of culture. The experiences were quickly being layered with various substances in a world far from the one she’d known, one trying to intoxicate itself senseless.
Most days, she woke up feeling sick, the kind of sickness that makes itself known when one has eaten too much, taken in too much. And the body convulses trying to throw all the excess out. The body rejects it. The soul falls sick.
Many times, she tried calling home—oh, how she tried—but home was just a place now that didn’t want the responsibility back.
I remember her at twelve. She had a dollhouse. It wasn’t new, probably handed down to her by the more well-to-do relatives in the family, but she quickly fell in love with it, missing window frames and all. The rooms remained empty to the naked eye, but the furnishings were in her mind. She knew exactly what she wanted, where it would go…
But the most vivid thing I can recall is the fact that the child who played ‘house’ for hours on end imagined herself in that house alone. I think most children do. It seems such an insignificant little detail, one that slipped away. Yet one that reveals so much about true desire. Don’t you think?
The push over the edge came in the form of news one day that her sister too was engaged. Her younger sister, the one who had yet to bleed, the one who would not be able to comprehend what marriage entailed any more than she herself had, though at least she’d been a little older. And she felt like an animal, like all of them were abused animals, caged and lined up for hungry beasts that fed on them slowly, throughout their lives.
But communication was still unheard of in this circle of life; words that actually spoke were never used, and her own sister did not listen to her pleas, because ignorance is a confident bird in a cage, believing the buyer to be its freedom.
‘Run away, please, listen to me!’ she offered wild suggestions.
‘You’re just jealous because he’s more handsome than your old grandfather,’ came the childish response, because that’s all she really was: a child who didn’t know any better. And there was nothing she could do to get through to the little one who thought a dream was coming true.
She was trying to make sense of her own wrecked life; it was much like the aftermath of an accident: someone was dying, someone else got hurt, things broke beyond repair, and the scene still held the stains, but life around it had already begun moving forward, almost indifferently. She finally decided there was nothing to be salvaged. Her mind made up, a plan laid out, she booked a room in a hotel close-by, convinced this was the end.
The moment she entered that lone room is etched in my mind. While it was the end of her, it was the beginning of me. She was going to die anyway; I simply made her an offer to use what she was throwing away. She had a gift, and I had her experience. Sometimes that’s the only thing one can do to not waste a life: to finish it and not end it. To keep this vehicle running though the driver gets out. Or changes.
It wasn’t easy.
The first thing I had her do was undress herself. The clothes came off almost in relief, but that was just the start.
The second layer was a little harder to take off. One doesn’t really understand how to take that off. It’s the Who we’re born into: a name, a sex, a religion. But that too comes off, eventually. I can’t remember how many days it took her. Probably many.
The third was the hardest. It’s the layer we put on willingly, the Who we think we are, or want to be. It comes off screaming and bleeding. I think we were locked in for weeks for that one.
But she undressed finally.
She stripped down to the nothing, and all that was left was this: the I. The doll in an empty house ready for any part and any life.
Do you see it now, what I am? Is the picture clearer now?
She is only the apparel; she always was. I am the witness inside, the being that shamefully survives every bout with life. I still put her on, as indifferently as clothes, yet I take care of her like expensive lace. For the sake of continuity, I use her name in the narrative of life, but I don’t live her life. I could live any life. I use her memories to voice what went unsaid, what still goes unsaid in lives like hers. I give the voiceless their words. But each day I strip her down and take off this smile-accessory, this survival tactic. It isn’t any less true; it’s just worn.
The price still remains of course. Though I believe that’s the price every storyteller pays, isn’t it? This survivor’s guilt… In how we always live to tell the tale.