I first saw the word ‘severe’ chiselled into the lines arranged on Baba’s face. Until then, all I had wanted to see, was ‘here’ or ‘fire’, maybe ‘revere’ instead of ‘mere’. What I received after ten years, just as I was getting to know myself, was rejection. I had never stared at a blank grey slate of wall— like I had nothing better to do, like the drool slowly leaking out of my mouth’s corner was welcome. Nobody actually adopts this vegetative state of their own accord. Isn’t it always thrust upon you? The arrangement of ‘severe’ was on his face but it severed me. So many things became clear then. The world was nothing as I had imagined. Baba taught me this lesson thoroughly. Guileless as I was, his words became both the holy word of the Veda and the sentence that incarcerated me. Aai’s odhni fluttered in his hands, the material so tender and transparent that I wanted to risk snatching it back. Baba had returned home before I could remove Aai’s odhni and ‘nausea’ crawled over his face at my appearance. In that moment, it fought the lines of ‘severe’, before emerging victorious. I could not decide which word was worse. My mouth burned with the red stain of lipstick. Long clumps of twisted hair, which some people called luxurious, shivered on my shoulder, a drooping rose still stuck somewhere in it, one twist hanging along my left eye. I wanted to find it annoying but couldn’t. My ankles hurt in their raised position inside the awkward shapes of outsized heels. Aai’s metallic belt which she only wore for her Bharatnatyam performances (an expensive borrowed item), pressed diagonally across my chest. Some loose thread from holes in my vest caught the sharp edges of metal. I was afraid to remove it. Would his nauseous disgust not turn into uncontrollable rage?
Before that day, I’d had an indifferent relationship with my body. It existed and as long as I could do whatever I liked, I couldn’t care less about this subjective object. It was just a thing I was born with, like our surname. Upon hearing it, people turned their heads to the side and spat (Aai said it was the ‘jaat’ – our centuries-old meaningless burden. I thought it was all the same). I haven’t bothered to know when the definition of this relationship between the object and the self began to change. Maybe it was always there or it started years back. The lines on Baba’s face said none of that mattered. Did I matter? I suppose not. Is this the lesson he wanted to teach? Either way, this is what I will take with me as long as I live. Decades have passed and the cement of this lesson grows like a living thing, indifferent that it might be killing another living being – the one it resides in, on it’s metaphorical rise. I thought I knew then, what ‘severe’ meant but now I can write a Master’s thesis on it. You are surprised I know what that is. Isn’t it common knowledge – a thesis? If ‘ordinary’ people like you know it, so do ‘others’ like us. You never asked. But then, in my experience, ‘ordinary’ people think they are the only ones making up the world. I would call them naive instead of my ten-year-old self. Have I changed my surname? You ask. I did, years ago but there’s no shame in admitting it. Your mouth presses like you can’t decide your opinion about it. But I know that these small shreds of self I share in my tiny square-metered room, demand a certain toeing of line from you. My silences, the set of my brows, the line of my mouth, the twitch of my tongue and palm, the movement of breath in my chest, all demand it. I don’t get to act out this luxury – negotiate my worth – very often. I won’t admit this to you though. As it is, I never have the upper hand except in these minutes between seven and eight on the clock’s face. Sometimes, when you don’t want to give in, you look around the recently painted blue walls which appear gloomy and gagging. An easy lone bulb hangs in the center, always still because the single-hand-sized window hardly brings a breeze to sway it. In your ‘generous’ moments, you say I am like this stationery filament in glass. I can tell now when you will say this. The first time it was an enormous struggle to hide my hurt. Now, I cover it like pulling up a sheet before sleep.
I keep secrets from you as well. One day, I walked barefoot to the Elephant-headed God’s temple. I complained of the blisters as I stood in front of the idol adorned with gold and sweets. I whispered a wish that my troubles would melt like cotton candy instead of lingering like rotten pigeon droppings or the water that refuses to drain from streets during the monsoon. I pleaded in the cold silver ear of the still mouse whose eyes had glazed after hearing so many wishes and cavils. And then I left my faith at the temple’s doorstep.
Once, I brazenly walked inside a mall, with the privilege of the word ‘ordinary’, past a conflicted security guard and snatched ordinariness for myself. I tucked the belt of my purse delicately, my limbs flirted with delicacy in your absence. I marvelled at my figure reflected in each ceiling-length mirror that passed. I entered a store branded with a neon-pink sign and the person floating about in this perfumed place demanded all my attention. Their lips were violently purple, eyelids violet and glistening, cheeks moister than mine on a sweaty day, and smart black heels matched with a lacy, ruffly skirt! I think I fell in love! Not with the person but… their presentation? Their air? Their naturally upturned cheeks? They were a person from some dream I had never dreamed, a dream I had but forgot. I go there as a treat. I went there the day I heard Aai, my solace, had passed away. I went there once just because. I don’t think I like ‘that’ world more than ‘this’ world. Maybe because we live the same everywhere. I remember many people before you admitting reluctantly that I had special powers. That I could read what they thought. You laughed when I confided this but I have caught your uncertainty flitting from brow to chin. It doesn’t matter. Baba’s lesson taught me much more than he intended. It granted me my power, or maybe it only awakened the power’s nerve. This power courses in my vein when I give sincere blessings to strangers on streets in exchange for money even as they tumble out insults or rejection gruffly. It surges when I am waiting in a queue for my turn in some degraded role at a village Tamasha, yearning that the audience has come to watch me perform. It percolates underneath the layers of my skin when I swallow the insults borne by the man inside me, seconds ago. It cowers when I see children directed by their families to recoil at my presence, women desperate to become pregnant gingerly placing money over my palm. They stare and stare some more. How did I become so soft and plump, they wonder. Am I not supposed to have hardness all over me? The Goddess knows I have enough in my heart.
Baba’s face in the shape of ‘Severe’, should have cut everything from me, even all forms of love. I had believed this until you daintily held my pinky. You still do at the beginning, middle or the end of our meetings. You declared I was Bahuchari Devi in earthly dimensions, a child in her reflection. The ten-year-old self in me awoke from slumber then. Sometimes I wonder how or why it is that the things they shrink away from, you touch and taste and explore. How do you do it? Can you show them how to do it? Would it make an easier world for me? Would I no longer need the sword or trident? You touch the hoops around my ears in reverence. I remind myself that I am a being of one gender attracted to another being of a different gender. I permit myself to place the lines. Over my face, yours, our bodies. The glistening freshly harvested grapes that are our skins. Thick matte hair curling up, where I please. You caress the marks on my skin made by ‘severe’, which blend into scars left after my skin stretched. You say you can’t understand beauty, but this is something close. I know what it cost, so I think it is. The shock of parts which ought to be there, absent in reality, this surprise of yours recedes with every meeting. You are still trying to understand me, but I want to scream “take me as I am!”. I wonder if you have the courage. I dare not ask. I’m damned to this shrunken state no matter how much ordinariness I have stolen- that is my greatest fear.
My more slender counterparts get away with metal tinkling at their ankles, necks and ears. They receive stares when they move in numbers. Chitra who lives beside me in the same narrow smothering box, has frequent call-ins from different men on different dates and hours of night. I get insecure when I see her carefree smile. That long flowing hair and delicate frame of bones is very attractive nowadays. Her face isn’t heavily set in gloom or cursed like mine. I know she, like everyone, must have their share of sorrows. Until I see it, I can’t feel sorry for her. But Chitra gives me strength. On days when my body refuses to get out of the tangled sheet, I listen to her coming and going out of her room. I stare at the long lengths of my fingernails. Sharp little swords. Sometimes red, other times pink. Currently chipped, uneven. It takes a lot to maintain their length. In times like these, the power unique to me, vanishes altogether, but I know I have only to call on it. I wonder what would make it stay permanently. It doesn’t act upon me or dare to surge when I look at how ‘affection’ falls on your nose. It only comes when I am alone. Is that a good or a bad thing?
Today, I am back to Baba’s lines spelling ‘severe’. Baba, the people from the chawl I grew up in say, has become obsessed with the lethal white powder that he deals people. I imagine Aai’s horror-struck body rustling. Her grey ashes adulterated by wood, have long since absorbed into soil, cloud and ocean. Someone politely alleged that I have a mental illness. A week ago, this white collar man nervously brushed his moustache and called me an animal roaming on his streets. Ex-lovers hang under my lone window and instead of ever singing a song of pining or yearning, their words lash and whip my back- ‘Hijada Whore’- Eunuch Slut. In all these decades, I haven’t gotten used to this. I can’t pull up a sheet like I do before sleep.
Now anger drives fatigue out. My powers might be stronger. I want to yell and fight with Baba’s face spelling ‘severe’. A chromosome gave me the body I have. Neither Aai nor Baba asked what I felt like. ‘Ordinary’ people change their bodies on a whim. This body isn’t my body until I claim it. If my self can’t unfurl and fill every crevice, is it really mine? Baba shouted that the world will laugh at me. I want to scream right back at him- why did you work, vote for and make a world that will mock me?
A journalist has asked to take my photos and when I meet them, they enquire about my real self and this way of life. They ask if they might be present when I make love to you. They hastily assure me they will pay me for it, but I feel apprehensive, hesitant. They gently murmur that I wouldn’t be the only one, they would ask Chitra for consent as well. ‘Consent’, suddenly I hold the word and turn it over like a treasured coin. That is how you treat me differently, how I have unwittingly reclaimed the oldest self of my past. I take the tiny relief and freedom and tell myself to make do with what remains of living. I comfort myself that the ten-year-old had always been right because a world that doesn’t let people discover and assert who they are, becomes an unlovable hell. I wrap saris, tighten petticoats and blouses, slide over kurtas and salwars, draw bindis, weave flowers and wear thin anklets, slip into peeling heels that fit better- each act in defiance of Baba and ‘his’ world that is just ‘a’ world. I sit on the Goddess’s rooster as another incarnation, hair flowing, limbs swinging. I whisper to the figment of Baba that the lesson he wanted me to learn was never learnt, lost and buried in that memory. I have seen the shape of ‘severe’ but now I cut and pierce the meaning. The power flows and speaks more clearly than ever. I make words mine.
For you. My lover, it is ‘I’. For the world, it must be ‘she’ and ‘her’ but they only see ‘he’ and ‘him’. Baba wanted me to sacrifice myself so he placed a word that meant it-‘Samarpan’ – over me. I scratched the first name out and wrote ‘Sumaiyya’- pure, high, exalted. I sacrifice to no one but myself. This is the legacy I create for myself and ‘my’ world, so that Baba’s patrimony eats itself, erodes with the acid borne of my reclaimed body, and vanishes out of existence- like it was never there.
SAMRUDDHI is a bibliophile and manga otaku since twelve and knew she wanted to become a writer when her teacher said her school essays were too outré. She writes short stories and literary reviews and is currently working to publish her first novel. Her literary review has been published in the ‘Verse of Silence’ literary magazine. She practices Japanese Calligraphy for inner peace and loves dogs.