On Being an American Bitch – 1
The good thing about a room with no shelves is that there was no need to unpack– I could simply feel at home, even without my normal rituals of sorting, hanging and color coordinating. Though it was a scarce hour since I had reached the rural health center, I was restless enough to crave a walk. I had just ended an argument before the car had pulled out of my grandparents’ house, the journey required tiring conversations of a forcibly positive tone, and the room smelled like wet, dead rats. I opened all the windows, prayed for some air circulation and left the clinic with no sense of direction. I was perhaps hoping for the sort of self-analysis that long, solo walks in the kind of nature people write poetry about would bring and yet, wasn’t entirely disappointed when my phone rang and a cousin’s name flashed on the screen. We were the same age and for the most part, along similar wavelengths, and unlike the vast majority of my relatives, it never took us forced effort to make conversation – not even in our shyness-suffused childhoods. I talked to her as I walked, taking in all the landmarks I could.
Two turns and a railway crossing. I made another right there. Mental notes for the way back. A man sits underneath an old red flag. Boys play a game I do not recognize on the street. There isn’t a single girl in sight. On the phone, my cousin was asking me too many questions. What went wrong back home – nothing. I tell her that I like it here instead. It’s pretty. There’s water everywhere. Kaayal. But their names are funny, I laugh. Anchuthengu – five coconut trees. Well, there are way more than five, I make a lame joke. The road has gotten quieter now. It follows a railroad track but I see no trains pass. What happened with them, she asks me. I sigh and sit down on an ashy half-wall on the roadside. Behind me, there’s a small stream and what seems like nothingness. I answer her question somewhat honestly. Behind me, there’s a dark-skinned woman in a light-green nightdress with her grass broom paused and her ears sharpened. I do not see her. I only see the seemingly endless rail tracks in front of me as I, somewhat ironically, tell her – I do not care for stories that are not my business, especially ones that have nothing to do with my generation. But there are other things I do care for. Like love and blood and friendship. I expect the people I love to respect those I love. I’m an idealist in that way, I laugh. I do not want to be stuck in a battle waged before my time and I refuse to play the role of a pawn- that was my childhood. Why can’t everyone just get along? Blood, water, everyone. We make plans of meeting that weekend. I tell her I want to settle in and explore this place too. I’ll keep the city for another week. Maybe you can come here? I ask. She hums. Maybe.
There’s a slight wind now. The lime green shawl of my purple-green churidar was simply thrown on my neck. It flutters behind me and I hold on to it against my clavicle. I wish my hair was out, I tell her. This is some movie scene, dude. Wind, shawl, railway tracks, nature. She laughs. I only finish my laugh after the call ends, when I hear a voice call out,
Daughter! In another life, I would think about how moley is used, as baby often is in the other world I belong to, to be politely patronizing. Come here, baby. Let’s see that smile, baby. Moley, why do you say that? Baby, why do you think that? Moley, that’s not how is. Baby, calm down. How it turns a suggestion into a command in just two syllables. How anything I might have to say afterwards is immediately devalued. How both my age and my gender can be denigrated in one word. That too, a word that is also a blessing and therefore, cannot be critiqued without significant backlash. Address your opponent as moley in a debate and she’s done. Hide your insecurity in a word and the threat is over; the status quo is safe. But now, as I turn to look at her, I do not actually think any of this; the commentary comes with retrospection. In fact, I do not think of anything other than how I failed to see her earlier.
She pulls out her hand and gestures. Come. I near her yard. An old man, presumably her husband, is chopping the leaves of a diseased banana tree. He does not acknowledge me and I bring my eyes back to the woman. Her skin is wrinkly and spotted. Her hair, a respectable gray. Who were you speaking with, she asks as if I was her daughter. I freeze for a second. I did not expect that question. I do not know this woman.
“Moley, which house are you from?”
“I’m not from around here,” I manage, “.. from the hospital.”
“Oh! So you’re a doctor from the Medical College?” she exclaims.
I shake my head. “No.. uh.. just uh research.” She dismisses this with the slightest twitch in her eyebrow. She had already gotten the answer she needed- the details are irrelevant.
“So who were you talking about?” she asks, obviously about my phone call. I’m confused on what feels like a huge invasion of privacy. How do I respond to a stranger my grandmother’s age casually barraging her way into my life? The art of politely gliding over uncomfortable questions and that of lying are both foreign to me still; it’ll be weeks after the jetlag subsides that I truly harness those life skills.
“Well, don’t keep walking that way,” she gestures to the right, “this area gets dangerous from here.”
That’s when the man looks up from his leaves and finds my eyes still in shock.
“Yes,” he echoed loudly, “I just saw the usual group of boys going that way. Don’t go there.”
His stern words betray the tired resignation in his eyes. I do not hold his gaze. I am not quite offended as much as I am embarrassed. My cheeks are too hot for 4 pm. I politely nod and walk back the way I came. In yet another retrospective analysis, I would wonder why I nod repeatedly to the same structure I stab on paper. Some days, it’s respecting tradition, culture, and the rest of the Lagaan dialogue. On other days, the answer is cowardice.
I could feel the two pairs of eyes on my back. I imagined laser rays leaving their pupils, tracing the anatomy of my walk, my churidar tearing, burning eye-shaped holes on the lilac cloth. As I turned the corner, this time, without the shield of my phone, the roads seemed longer and drier. The first landmark was a series of red flags around what was presumably a memorial for a CPI martyr, perhaps the one stuck in between parenthesis. Across the street, there was an old run-down building with layers and layers of torn flyers over faded blue walls asking for votes and support and prayers for leaders whose names are no longer readable. As I neared, the little shirtless boy looks up from the soccer ball and moves his fingers in a choreographed sign lifting his chin to his masters. Isn’t he too young for gang signs, I think.
Three teenage boys leaning against the poles lift their torsos, cigarette butts rammed against red walls. Seeing them move, the old man sitting on the ledge with red paste in his mouth makes eye contact with me – perhaps with sympathy. For a second, I sincerely wish I were deaf. I somehow manage to tune out the words of a familiar language but their tone rolls into my ears, and the crudeness settles on my heart. I instantly become a smaller person, my eyes automatically touching the ground. One rock, two rock, three rock, black rock, red rock, tan rock, taupe rock. My walk had the rhythm of a Dr. Seuss song and by then, the heat in my cheeks had moved up to my eyes. Condensation within my eyelids. Each blink, blurrier than the next. I do not know how this land and its men are so good at making me so aware of the woman I am.
I did not look at them. I did not tell them the words I wrote for them. Most importantly, for myself, I did not remember then that their gazes had nothing to do with me not belonging and everything to do with me simply existing. It was not because my American mascara gave me away. But these notes were also inked in later. For now, I didn’t remember my personhood’s insignificance. I yelled in a voice that wouldn’t leave my head that I belong too. That I’ve never actually read Dr. Seuss. That if I could, I would belong to the run-down building with the board I could not read because I do not look up. I would chant the same words in rhythm. I do not look up. I see only increasingly blurring brown and red and tan and brown. A sea of pebbles I use every bit of self-restraint to not kick, to not let the anger leave my flesh.
At the next turn, the man standing below a bright blue sign claiming “Tea Shop” nods in my direction. I half-smile back, mainly remembering how our car had stopped for tea at this shop earlier and the man casually said they only had coffee. The woman at the next store looks me up and down, and does not smile. I accidently smile back.
Last turn. The fruit vendor is getting ready to leave but most of her cart remains full. She smiles a sweet smile and wipes her face with a small towel she leaves around her neck.
“Do you want any oranges?” she asks me.
I shake my head and walk. The same road is darker now and I am heavier, smaller. A plethora of words run through my head. At the tea-stall right across from the health center’s gate, four men stand, each with one hand on various parts of their bodies and the other on a glass of tea. When they make eye contact, I politely smile back. This was yet another lesson to learn later – the politics of smiles and how to ration them.
The dog, who spends his days scouring the hospital yard for food walks to me calmly. I smile at him too. On the walls of the hall where we sleep, some wise soul had written instructions on taking care of him – “Don’t forget to feed our superstar!” it said. As I reach out to pet him, the resident’s voice from earlier in the day echoed in my ears. He had told me not to touch him. Why would you touch a stray dog, he very pragmatically admonished me, you never know with things like that. I couldn’t argue that. I thought of how, to my dog-loving friend back home, I could later justify- it’s not like they didn’t care for him. There’s a new group of residents at the clinic every month and yet, each group remembers to feed him. He looks healthy. One left a note, spanning an entire wall, for him. Isn’t that worth something?
Later, as I lie down on the terrace and see stars brighter than any I had ever seen before, I rerun the entire day in my head, treating the wounds and brightening the laughs. The dog was still barking as I fell asleep on a single thought.
– Different people have different ways of expressing care.
(This is the start of a series of posts that have been in my drafts for two years now. I started them when I was doing a research project in rural Kerala and I’m finally getting around to making somewhat of a memoir out of it.)