To be a Girl.

 

All you need to do is learn how to fly.
All you need to do is learn how to fly.

A monologue. Partly true, partly fictional. I imagined myself performing it.. at a “feminist”s monologue night. But I don’t think I will. Maybe one day, I’ll get the courage. Maybe, maybe not.

And the stage lights rise. A spotlight focuses on that figure in the middle..

I found out when I was four. My grandparents had argued a lot that day. After it was all over, Ammachi, my grandmother, was sitting in the kitchen muttering something. At first, I couldn’t make anything out. I was just sitting there and playing “teacher” with my teddy bears. But then, I began to recognize words- especially one of them.. rape.

I had learned the word a week before, when I was watching a Malayalam movie with that weird balding guy with the long hair.. I forgot his name. Well, he was hugging and pulling a girl on a bed and then blood started to come from her mouth and she was crying and then, she died. I asked my cousin what had happened and he said that she was raped. I thought it was like a gun. I knew a lot about guns. Dishoom!

My Ammachi had been raped on her wedding night. By my Appachen and another grandpa who had given me lemon-candy the day before. But she was alive and that scared me. The word scared me. So I didn’t tell anyone.

I didn’t tell anyone until I was eight. And then, shivering, shaking and full of guilt, I broke down in front of my mother. For four years, I carried this.. this weight and telling her took all the strength I had. But she.. she yelled at me!

“How dare you say such a thing, Maria? Haven’t I told you anything about Orthodoxy and being a Keralite? Malayalees shouldn’t do these kind of things. What are you thinking? You’re a Malayalee girl! Has one year in America made you forget our values?”

I was confused. I was telling her with all my might what was essentially my deepest, darkest secret. And this was what she was telling me? I knew about Orthodoxy. I knew I belonged to the Indian Orthodox Church, founded by St. Thomas in AD Somethingoranother. I knew I was a part of this “rich and cultural heritage.” I knew my prayers. I knew my songs. I knew the meaning of the Holy Qurbana, His Body and Blood, placed on my tongue. And each Sunday, I partook in it with utmost respect. And I knew Malayalam! I knew my songs and my dances. I knew how to read and write, and I even knew how to drape a settum mundum.

But I was still confused.

What goes on in the family stays in the family.

And there are those of you, sitting here, looking at me, thinking that this is silly. Maybe this was misinterpreted. Because oppression happens only in villages and history textbooks that haven’t yet been updated. Because when someone tells us that Indian women are oppressed, our blood begins to boil. Yes, each and every one of us is guilty. Well, let me tell you something- this is not my story but my friend’s. But I figured you had a better chance of believing me if I said it was my story. Wasn’t I right?

Maria is my 15 year-old friend. She is.. a genius. Her mother is not an uneducated village belle. No, she’s a graduate of Yale Law. Her father is a professor of Actuarial Science. What do you say? What do you tell a girl like her when she bursts into tears as she shares this story, with grief of course and mostly, shame? What words of comfort can you offer her?

It is blasphemy, you see. It is blasphemy to share stories like these. It is blasphemy to admit that this occurs in our extremely cultural, civilized, traditional, orthodox world.

Blasphemy.

“Qul lan yuseebana illama kataba Allahu lana huwa mawlanawaAAala Allahi falyatawakkali almu/minoon.”

My name is Ayah Hussein and I learned the real meaning of that word.. yesterday. I never thought it would be like this, you know. I never knew I’d be here, today, on the day of my nikkah. Every girl dreams of this day. I did too! A bright red lehenga with three gold chains, simple ones. I like simple weddings. I am wearing bright red today, the best of them. But I am… this is.. not my dream.

I am eighteen years old, as of yesterday. When my family threw me a party, I was ecstatic! I didn’t know that my uncle would pull me over later and tell me that I’ll be married the next day! No, I am sorry, not “married”. It’s only my nikkah.

I had screamed. I thought I lived in the United States of America! You can’t do that to me! I live in the 21st century in this country! You can’t do this to me! I had screamed.. but there was no one there to listen. Don’t speak such blasphemy, my mother said. You should never forget your roots.

Last year, in my AP English class, my teacher had made a big board with yellow construction paper. We all made fun of that color! Each student went up and drew their future college’s logo. I didn’t go up when it was my turn. I hunched over and pretended to be hard at work. The next day, when my teacher reminded me, I said I’ll do it at the end of class. The next day, I “lost” the marker. The next day, I literally ran out of class. The next day… the next day, she didn’t ask.

I had plans. Or at least, at one point, I did. But my mother told me about planning. “It’s your husband’s choice,” she said. But what about Abba? I had asked. He wanted me to go to college! I’m sure he did! At that, my mother lowered her gaze. Ayah, in a woman’s life, you have two options- your father’s name or your husband’s name. Your father is no longer here to protect your name. You need your husband’s. He is the one to choose.

It is second semester of freshman year. Not mine! But my classmates’. Today.. today is my wedding day. I’m happy. Really. Look! I’m smiling! Today is my wedding day. I am a little scared. I don’t think the groom is though. He.. He has gone through this already. If my sister was alive, I wonder what she’d think. If my sister was alive… this wouldn’t happen, would it?

I.. I want to be a lawyer. I hope.. I hope I have, with all due respect, his.. permission.
“Marriage is paradise,”  in one of those AP English books, the protagonist had said. The Holy Qur’an has eight names for paradise, for that garden, that beautiful beautiful garden. Eight names that are said to be eight levels of jannat.  I hope I see at least one.

Eight.
On my eighth birthday, I want a cake with eight layers! Hiiiiiiiii! I am Anjali! Three years before I was born, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai came out! Amma and I watched it 83 times. I can’t count to 83 yet but Amma told me that so I know it’s true. But you know, Kishen uncle’s son? That motu, na? For his fourth birthday, uncle bought him a cake with four layers! Chottu and all the other boys were just running around and screaming about it. Boys are soooooooo annoying, no? But they’ll see; on my eighth birthday, I’ll be the star! uhmm On my seventh birthday, I want a bicycle! A pink one with a basket in the front. Like the one Chottu’s didi has, except better!

My Nani told me that I shouldn’t ask for things. Agar tumko kuch chahiye, tumhe mil jayega.  Blah blah blah! I mean, how are they supposed to know what I want if I don’t tell them? Fair, na? Fair. Uhm where was I? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.. Six! On my sixth birthday, I want a new set  of bells! My Bharatnatyam teacher got me my bells this year but they’re not as good as Lakshmi’s. She said that her aunt got them all the way from Chennai and it was made just for her. I want one made too.. from Chennai!

On my fifth birthday… well.. I don’t think I’m getting anything today. Everyone’s sad, you see. And angry too. Mummy’s still crying in her room, shhh. And I am tired! I just want to go to sleep. But I won’t. I am a good girl, you see. I haven’t slept the whole night. Nope, not one bit. I sat on the floor and colored all my barbies’ hair. I drew trees and colourful circles. But most of the time, I just sat there and… cried. I was afraid, you see. What if today, Papa burns Mummy? He said he would. My aunt- I hate her!- my aunt had told him to. And he had pointed into the room at my huddled up mother and yelled that he would burn not just her but the entire house, while I ran, scrambling, between them.
I didn’t understand. My parents were always fighting. Something about land and house and pr..pro.. properdy. But.. I know that I don’t want to burn and I don’t want Mummy to burn. So I had stayed awake. The whole night. I won’t let her burn. I will protect her.
But Papa didn’t come back to our room last night. He went to work this morning. Mummy is still crying. Today is my fifth birthday. I won’t sleep. I am a good girl, you see. I should practice my Bharatnatyam. Did you know that Lord Shiva can dance on fire?

I am not scared! Nope, not at all. I’m a good..

.. girl. As she looks up with tears looming in her eyes, the stage lights fade and the curtain begins to draw. The audience are unsure about whether they should clap or whether they should cry. A mixture ensues.

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12 thoughts on “To be a Girl.

  1. It’s funny and painful reading this. What the hell are you people doing in America, the great USA… teaching malyali values which meant nothing to anybody at any time? Or American values which means exploiting anybody anywhere at any time?

    Kudos to your writing style anyway. You’ll do wonders one day.

  2. This would make an excellent performance, especially with the narrative viewpoints flitting around and the tone changes.

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