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Posts from the ‘Fiction’ Category

What Happens In India Does Not Stay In India

by Mira Jacob

But where had her father gone? Now missing for more than six hours, Thomas had sent the house into tumult in his absence. Ammachy wandered from room to room, fighting with anyone who crossed her path. Sunil, having crossed her path twice already, found a bottle of toddy and was devouring it in the rarely visited parlor. Divya had tucked herself in a corner of the verandah. Itty ran circles on the roof. Kamala, Akhil, and Amina sat on the upstairs bed, playing their fourth game of Chinese checkers.
“Your move, Mom,” Akhil said.
“Yes.” Kamala glanced down at her watch and inched a blue marble toward a yellow triangle.
“What time is it?” Amina asked.
Akhil did an elaborate series of jumps, sliding one more marble into configuration.
Amina sighed. “I don’t want to play anymore.”
“That’s just because I’m winning,” Akhil countered.
“You win every game!”
“So don’t play.” Kamala rubbed her own forehead, smoothing out the lines that had settled into it.
“But there’s nothing else to do!”
“Enough of whining! Go see what Itty is up to!”
But Amina didn’t want to see Itty any more than she wanted to see the Chinese checkerboard, or the inside of her parents’ sweltering bedroom, or Akhil gloating for the millionth time in a row. She pushed off the bed, heading instead to the stifling, fanless stairway, and lay down at the top of steps, letting the marble’s momentary coolness slide into her. A whole muffled world rumbled under her ear, clicks and groans of the house, the shup-shupping of someone’s slippers, slow, whale-like moans that she imagined coming from the depths of a huge, cool ocean. Her hip bones dug into the floor, and she heard something else. Singing. Was someone singing? Amina lifted her head off the floor.
“. . . fingers in my hair, that sly come-hither stare . . .”
Music! It was coming from below. Amina peeked over the stairwell. She crept down a few steps, and then a few more, until she was able to see into the parlor.
“Witchcraft . . . ,” the record sang, and Sunil along with it, his eyes shut, his face shining. A record spun in neat circles on the turntable, and next to it, her uncle followed, arms cupping the air in front of him, knees bouncing.
Amina stared in dismay as Sunil pivoted from one foot to the other, his hips cutting the air in deft strokes. It was like watching a muskrat slip into the Rio Grande, all of its clumsiness turned to instinctual grace. His meaty upper half arced, dipping near to the floor, then back up.
“I know it’s strictly taboo . . .”
The lightness in his face was something Amina had never seen before. He was, she realized for the first time, a handsome man. Not movie-star handsome like Buck Rogers, not even tall and sharp-jawed like Thomas, but appealing all the same. He took one quick step back and twirled to the right, his hand guiding an invisible partner.
Both Sunil and Amina jumped as Ammachy appeared in the doorway, arms folded tightly over her chest, sniffing at the room. Amina turned and ran up a few stairs, so she wasn’t sure what happened next, whether her grandmother actually sent the needle skidding across the record or if Sunil had done it himself, but the quiet that followed hummed with potential disaster.
“This again,” Ammachy said.
Shuffling. The sound of liquid being poured. A glass slammed on a table.
“You’ve had enough already, Sunil. Go to bed.”
Silence. Amina leaned forward. They were switching rapidly between English and Malayalam, which always just sounded like argada-argada-argada to her, until her grandmother demanded, “And where exactly is your brother?”
“I already told you, I don’t know.”
“So? You can’t be bothered to look for him?”
A sigh, a snort. “Please, Amma.”
“He’s your brother!” Ammachy snarled.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Sunil loosed another sigh, but this one was forced, feigned boredom hiding anger. “It means that Thomas is Thomas and he will go where he wants when he wants. You of all people should know that.”
“Oh, stop it with that. No one is interested in your babbling.”
“Idiot! You’re drunk. Argada-argada-argada.
“I couldn’t agree more.”
Amina slid her feet over the edge of one stair, then another. She peeked around the wall to find her uncle slumped into a living room chair, all trace of music and movement sucked from him. Ammachy hovered over the chair, the bright green silk of her sari glowing.
“How dare you do this?” she hissed.
“What now?” Sunil shut his eyes, leaning his head back on the chair.
“Feeling sorry for yourself again. Today of all days!”
“I don’t know what—”
“The house! You finally got him to give it to you.”
There was a moment while this sank in, Sunil’s bid for detachment redirecting. He sat up. “You think . . . you think signing over the house was my idea?”
“All the time he is giving you things, feeling sorry for you! Poor Sunil didn’t get the same opportunities, poor Sunil doesn’t have enough! And now you’ve taken the house!”
“He gave it to me.”
“Because he is always taking care of you.”
“Because he wanted me to take it from him.” Sunil rose from the couch. “You think he wants to live here?”
“He doesn’t know what he wants yet!”
“He doesn’t . . . You believe that, Amma? That Thomas has been gone these ten years because he doesn’t know what he wants?” Sunil laughed, but underneath there was tightness in his voice. “You think he wants to sit and rot every day in this place instead of running off to America and sending checks?”
“He sends the money for you!”
“He sends it for himself, Amma! He sends it so he doesn’t have to come. My God, you must know that by now.”
If she did know it, Ammachy gave no sign, choosing instead to wrap the end of her sari tightly around her shoulders. “Go to bed!”
“You think Thomas would ever give me something he actually wanted?” Sunil shouted as she walked into the hallway, and Amina covered her ears, suddenly understanding that she had heard too much. She felt for the step behind her with one foot, then the other, hoping illogically that if she walked all the way to her parents’ room backward, she would unremember the entire conversation. The knob was cool against her palm as she twisted it and shuffled into the bedroom.
“What’s wrong with you?”
Amina turned around to find her mother frowning at her.
“Nothing.” Amina sat on the bed.
“You’re feeling sick?”
“Did you make BM today?”
Akhil rolled his eyes. “Sure you did, poo bag.”
“Akhil,” Kamala snapped. “Enough. Your move.”
“Helloooo, Mom, anyone home? I won already.”
“Fine, so do something with yourself.”
“Like what? Make Amina poo?”
Amina rushed at him, digging deep into his belly with her nails so that he shrieked, knocking over the game and the marbles, which spilled across the bed, providing an unlikely torture device as he slammed her on her back. He twisted his head to spit on her, and Amina grabbed an ear, pulling as hard as she could.
AMINAKHIL! STOP THIS BUSINESS AT ONCE!” Kamala pushed between them, sharp hands collaring their necks. She forced them apart.
Amina kicked at him again, and her mother squeezed her throat. “Ow!”
“My God,” Thomas said from the doorway. “What is all that about?”
The family turned to him, panting, and Thomas walked into the room, a sweet and funky cloud of toddy on him. He smiled his lopsided smile, and no one knew what to say.
“You missed dinner,” Kamala finally said.
“I know, I know. Sorry.”
“Where were you?”
“Out where? Doing what?”
“Well . . .” Thomas looked at them, as if considering something. “Making plans, actually.”
“What plans?”
“Well . . .” He looked from Akhil to Amina to Kamala and back again. “Okay, listen. I have some big news.”
“You do?” Kamala’s hands dropped, and her voice was soft with excitement.
“We’re going on a trip!”
“To the beach! Sundar Mukherjee’s wife is a travel agent, and she booked us rooms at the Royal Crown Suites in Kovalam!”
“What’s Kovalam?” Akhil asked.
“Rooms?” Kamala’s face darkened. “What for?”
“Kovalam is the beach on the peninsula,” Thomas told Akhil. “It’s very nice.”
“But we don’t have time, Thomas! My sisters will be—” Kamala began.
“We’ll get to Lila’s on time. We’ll just leave here a little early.”
“Early?” Kamala asked. “How early?”
“Tomorrow midday.”
“We need to rest, koche. A real vacation.”
“Vacation?” Kamala’s voice dropped an octave, like she was saying drug binge or spending spree. “Thomas, what are you talking about?”
“A break! A little peace and quiet! You know, a chance for us to just relax.”
“I’m relaxed!” Kamala protested, looking anything but.
“No you’re not. And how could you be with my mother nagging you all the time?” Thomas raised his hands into the air. “Impossible! She’s made it impossible. It’s not fair to you or the children. No wonder everyone is fighting!”
“A beach like Hawaii?” Akhil asked. “Does the hotel have TV?”
“Yes, I believe it does.”
“Does it have a swimming pool?” Amina asked.
“It has a very nice pool,” Thomas informed her. “I believe there’s even a bar in the middle, where you can swim up and order a fizzy drink.”
Amina gulped, dizzy with possibility.
Thomas,” Kamala said sharply. “We can’t just go.”
“Why not?”
“You know why not!” She raised her eyebrow at the bedroom door, as though it were Ammachy herself. “Have you told her?”
“Don’t worry about that! I will explain tomorrow. I’m sure she’ll understand.”
“Tomorrow? Understand? Have you lost your minds? Besides, what will the neighbors think? Everyone will talk!”
“Who cares what the neighbors think?” Thomas scoffed.
Everyone cares what the neighbors think!
“Kamala,” Thomas sighed, rubbing his neck. “It’s not such a big deal. We’ll be leaving a few days early to go to the coast, that’s all. Don’t make it into a federal case, okay?”
Kamala got off the bed and opened the bedroom door. She looked at the children. “Out.”
“What? No, Mom, this is a family discussion, right? We’re entitled to—” Akhil started.
Akhil and Amina scooted off the bed as quickly as the marbles and bedsheets would allow, walking straight across the hall into their own room. They waited exactly five seconds after Kamala shut the door to slide out onto the verandah, where they could watch their parents but remain hidden in the dark.
“—can’t. It’s just not done,” Kamala was saying.
Thomas opened his mouth to protest, but she cut him off with the flat of her hand.
“Bad enough the son leaves for America, then he comes home and stays for all of three days only?”
Thomas sniffed. “Don’t let’s start with all that.”
“I am not starting anything! You yourself started this business!”
“Enough, Kam. I am warning you.”
“You don’t warn me when I’m warning you!”
“She lied to me!”
“So what, now you want to run away? All because Dr. Abraham came?”
“She told him I wanted a job!”
“And you told her you would come back after studies! So? You are two liars! So what?” Kamala spun toward the window and Amina ducked, but her mother wasn’t looking at her. She was scooping up loose marbles and placing them in the game box.
“I did not lie, Kamala. It’s not as though I planned this.”
“No, of course not, His Holiness of Sainthood and Angels! You would never do such a thing!” Kamala shoved the top onto the game box. “You just studied the one branch in all of medicine that would be difficult to practice here and were shocked to death to learn that you could not practice it here!”
Thomas’s mouth hung open. He blinked several times before answering. “You saw me, Kamala. I asked at Vellore. I checked in Madras. I even looked in Delhi, for the love of God!”
“Yes, you said.”
“And what? You think I’m lying to you now?”
“No,” Kamala said, uncertainty creeping onto her face.
“The technology is not here yet! What do you want? You want me to work some miserable job just so we can be here?”
“I am just saying—”
“Answer me! Is that what you want? How about if I become a dentist? We can live right here, upstairs.”
“That’s not what I—and anyway, what’s so bad? So you don’t do the surgery! You are still a doctor! We could still have a good life.”
Amina had not known, until that very moment, that her father could look so bloodless, the color draining from his face until it looked like an angry husk. “What is so wrong with your life, Kamala?”
“We are not talking about me!”
“What is it that you long for? What opportunity have you not been given?”
Kamala fumed at the floor. “Nobody is talking about that.”
“Is it the house? It’s not big enough? You don’t like your car?”
“Don’t be a silly.”
“You want to come back here, is that it? After all these years, after everything we have built for ourselves there, after all that I have tried to give you, you want to uproot the kids from their entire lives and just move back here?”
Kamala’s lips clamped shut.
“What can you have here that you can’t at home?” Thomas took a step forward. “Really, tell me! You sit here like some pained mermaid longing for her sea, but what is it, really, that you don’t have back in the States? Your sisters who live in all different towns here anyway? Your independence? Enough help around the house? Someone to—”
Myself,” Kamala said.
Thomas swayed a little bit, as if slapped.
“Myself,” Kamala said again, her eyes filling with tears she wiped away hastily, and Thomas’s arms dropped in their sockets. They did not look at each other then, but at the floor. A moment later Thomas turned and left the room, shoes heavy on the steps. Amina leaned over the verandah’s edge a few seconds later, watching him cross the yard, heading back to the gate. Akhil tugged her arm.
C’mon, he mouthed.
The lock screeched open again, letting Thomas back out to the street, and Kamala sat on the bed. Something round and hard moved from Amina’s throat to her gut, making it difficult to breathe. Akhil frowned at her.
“Let’s go, stupid,” he hissed, and she turned and followed him back inside, glad to have somewhere to go.

(From the book The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob. Copyright © 2014 by Mira Jacob. Published by arrangement with Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC)

Mira_photoMira Jacob is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, which was shortlisted for India’s Tata First Literature Award, honored by the APALA, and named one of the best books of 2014 by Kirkus Reviews, the Boston Globe, Goodreads, Bustle, and The Millions. She is the co-founder of much-loved Pete’s Reading Series in Brooklyn, where she spent 13 years bringing literary fiction, non-fiction, and poetry to the city’s sweetest stage. Her recent writing and short stories have appeared in Guernica, Vogue, the Telegraph, and Bookanista, and earlier work has appeared in various magazines (RED, Redbook, i-D, Metropolis, STEP), books (Footnotes with Kenneth Cole; Simon & Schuster; Adios Barbie, Seal Press), on television (VH-1?s Pop-Up Video), and across the web. She has appeared on national and local television and radio, and has taught writing to students of all ages in New York, New Mexico, and Barcelona. She currently teaches fiction at NYU. In September 2014, Mira was named the Emerging Novelist Honoree at Hudson Valley Writer’s Center, where she received a commendation from the U.S. Congress. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, documentary filmmaker Jed Rothstein, and their son.


by Sharanya Manivannan

Image credit: © 2014 Sharanya Manivanan | “Corvus” | acrylic

When we went to lunch the day before the moon turned into a white crow, I slid a foot out of its slipper and found his toes with it. We were at a Chinese restaurant neither of us had been to before, a place I think was called Sunflower; or maybe that was the name of the parlour beside it, with its posters of Shanghainese beauties from another era in the window and hanzi characters above its entrance. I sat facing the door, which opened rarely. The restaurant comforted me, its small red altar in a corner some sigil of what was real amongst its own exaggerations.

The bottom of my belly thrummed pleasantly, sated and hungry at once. K?ma examined the menu.

“How do you say thank you in Chinese?”

“Xie xie.” In those days I took pleasure in knowing I could thank, swear and say “I love you” in a handful of languages—everything I thought I needed for at least one affair in a foreign land.

But he spoke to me mostly in Tamil, and I spoke to him mostly in English, and in bed the two merged: the latter for commands, jokes, smut. The former, always, for tenderness.

The waiter came and took our order. K?ma handed the menu back to him and said gravely, “Xie xie.”

I broke into an aghast laugh. He looked at me and I looked at him and I shook my head but couldn’t look away. I had let him get away with worse.

The food arrived and we disengaged our toes at the same moment. He scooped the fried rice onto my plate. I carved a portion of the Mandarin fish for him. I wiped two sets of cutlery with a tissue and handed his to him, feeling a pang of regret that I had never learnt how to use chopsticks, which an ex-boyfriend had called elegant. I watched him begin unhesitatingly, without waiting for me, and once again the question of what drew him to me more flickered in my mind briefly: the glamorous patchwork of my history, or the simple fact of my face, its unambiguous nativity.

I had known him for a much longer time than I had been sleeping with him, but sex has a way of setting back the clock. Everything before those few months had faded into irrelevance. He had re-entered my life like a changing season: without omen, a single door opened onto a transformed landscape, rainfall from a cloudless sky, a tree that burst into ripeness overnight. I prepared for him to leave it the same way.

What drew me to him was the same thing that has ever drawn me to any man, before or since: a latent brutality, an undisclosed yet evident vulnerability. An instinct for self-preservation, and the willingness to allow its breaching. The ability to deepen my capacity for all of these in equal measure.

Someone once told me about the sadness, a long time ago, before I would have imagined that sadness possible.

He said: “It will begin, as will all else that will follow it, already tinged with a sadness you won’t know what to do with.”

I thought he had meant the sadness of the past, the sadness I would enter a new entanglement—and all others that would follow it—carrying. But what he had meant, I understood eventually, was only the sadness of foreknowledge. Of seeing an end before it happened. Of standing at a window and looking at the sea sparkling in the afternoon sun, while inside your body something far less pacific shattered itself over and over, a tide you had come to know, recognize, call by name.

Because the man who had told me this had been neither among my lovers nor among my regrets, I could accept his words without introspection, the way one carries the fact of one’s childhood, or one’s own name. I thought of them often the season I was with Kamalesh. I would uncoil his arms from around me and go and sit at his window while he took his afternoon nap, and I would ponder those words, ponder that sadness.

It was always the same those afternoons. The leafless tree in the empty lot beside the apartment block would sway lightly in the breeze. The sea would darken. A murder of crows would flap their dark wings low across the sky. And I would think, already nostalgic, that this was what I would miss—the sound of waves and the cawing, that particular beach wind, the sense of being at a boundary and at a beginning all at once. I would go to his window so that I would always remember to keep the horizon in my sight, its approaching peril, its open, guileless face.

K?ma, he liked me to call him. The god of love expressed through lust. It wasn’t the name his parents had given him. But it wasn’t for either of us to question.

He would pick me up in his Maruti 800 from the back entrance of the Marundeeshwarar temple, which I’d walk to from the bus depot at Thiruvanmiyur. We would make love through the morning, and then we’d cook or go out for lunch. This was our routine, almost every other day, for months. I could have spent all my life that way, but the beauty of those present things was that they belonged only to their moment, their succinct and singular tempo.

We had parked right outside the restaurant. At the far end of the road was the church of the Virgin of Velankanni, and beyond that, the sea. It had not yet rained that year, and wouldn’t for months more, but this part of the city didn’t have the same suffocating quality the heat gave the rest. That would change of course, once the neighborhood had been thoroughly layered with his prints. I was trying to avert this. Emotional geography collects like plaque: a little carelessness and it’s there before you know it. He put his sunglasses on and looked at me. I smiled. He thought he was very sexy with his shades on. He was.

“My car needs to be washed,” he murmured apologetically, and pointed at the crow shit. I hadn’t even noticed. There was a lot of it, even on the front window. I had never noticed, though it now seemed clear from the dust that coated the rest of it that I must have seen his car dozens of times since he had last had it cleaned.

“Your ancestors are shitting all over your intentions,” I said, not meaning it at all.

“And yours?” Sometimes I wondered why my parents had ever left Madras when, decades later, my life was an ‘80s Tamil film anyway, all kissing on rooftops and curfews and the way P. Suheela’s voice rose with unhindered clarity from the watchman’s mini-radio downstairs during the scheduled power cuts.

Back in his flat, we spent the next two hours laughing and cuddling, with him insisting he was going to sleep, but always catching himself before he actually did. “It’s good to hold you,” he breathed into my ear. And although I knew better, I couldn’t help but recognize that what he meant was: he would rather hold me halfway, half-awake, and know it than slumber not mindful that I was in his arms at all.

That night I woke feeling like I was weightless in water, like the sea had come in through my doors and cradled me in my sleep. I let it lull me back to sleep. When I woke a second time it was 3:30am. Outside my window the sky was tenebrous, reddish. The silhouette of palm fronds wavered in the wind through the wrought-iron bars. I was thirsty. I was miles from the beach and I longed for it. I wondered if K?ma could hear the tides from his bed, if I would still be awake if I was there too.

There were crows cawing even at that hour. I got up and retied my lungi, washed my face, poured myself a small glass of cranberry juice and wished there was vodka in it. I checked my messages. A friend on the other side of the world had recorded Szymborska into his phone, and I listened to his grave and earnest reading against the landscape of what I knew of his loss and what I knew of my longing and wasn’t certain what lines to send him, to travel back to him by way of thanks and consolation.

There was no sense in going back to bed, not when the night had coaxed me awake so many times, as if to say, like a ravenous lover, I belong to you alone. I watched the sunrise bleed over the sky and when my mother came out from the bathroom, her wet hair turbaned, and touched my shoulder and said, “It’s Saturday, will you keep the rice out?” I put on my slippers and went downstairs. On the stone wall at the back of the property, I placed the handful of boiled rice and mustard seeds she had given me, stepped away, and waited for the first black bird to swoop down.

Because my grandmother’s funeral had been on a Saturday, a small black chicken was tied by its feet to the front of her bier. Because as a woman I had not been allowed into the cremation grounds, I can only surmise that it would have burnt with her on her pyre, alive but comatose. It wasn’t comatose when I knelt before her pyre though. I had placed my forehead on the cement in our driveway and closed my eyes to its squawking.

I walked back down the same driveway and went back up to our flat, listening to the sounds of the crows behind me. We had started to feed the ancestors only after my grandmother had died. That was a love that was worth generations.

Asclepius, whose mother Coronis was betrayed by a crow, was carved out of his mother’s womb as she lay on her pyre. His name meant “to cut open.” He became the god of healing. His father, Apollo, had had so many lovers—yet he had not been able to fathom the idea that he was not her only one.

When I lay in K?ma’s arms I had neither wounds nor memory of them. Only the sadness, sometimes. He was the only one who ever adored me. To adore: to worship, without fear or plea. For this and no other reason, he has my loyalty for life.

Much as well as a little later, there would be men who mimed those gestures of intimacy that only K?ma, I believed, ever rendered sincerely. And as much as I loved, or wanted to love, them, it wasn’t the same—no one else stroked my hair that way or held my feet that way or eyed me across a room quite like he did. No one else didn’t know how to lie.
There was one man who seemed to discover the eloquence of kissing the hand only when I first kissed his, because the way he then took mine and did the same suggested unfamiliarity, wonder, the simplicity of imitation. I would later grieve thinking about the other women he would confer the same upon, this tenderness I had given him. As though anything in any of us is truly new, unclaimed.

That was Martand. From him I learnt the pleasure of the licked eyelid, what it means to paint the eye with the salt of the tongue. I, too, would give that gesture away, to an intoxicated lover who kissed even my elbows as we fell asleep, only to tell me the next day that he had no memory of having initiated the encounter between us. I said nothing. How do we do this—speak with our bodies even as we swallow our voices?

The crow that betrayed Coronis was scorched by the very one he betrayed her to. Its snowlike feathers turned obsidian. Silence is its own terrible smoulder. But truth-telling lacquers a darker, richer damage.

I betrayed Martand with K?ma. Neither of them will tell you what I did. Both of them will tell you it didn’t matter. But only I know what it cost me. Only I knew that incineration.

K?ma, the god of desirousness, was also incinerated.

All things are written. The gods already knew that only the son of the meditating Shivan could kill the asura who wreaked havoc on their rites. A son with a warrior’s temperament and six perfect jewel-like faces. But Shivan was an ascetic, a widower, turned inward through the falconry hood of contemplation. His wife, Dakshayani, had immolated herself. Inconsolable, Shivan had lifted her charred body to his shoulder and tried to obliterate his consciousness—obliterate the universe—in dance. Unable to bear his unbearable suffering, the other gods had her body dismembered—each fragment of flesh and drop of blood hallowing the earth where it fell. Every sacred space begins as a theatre of grief. Out of trauma comes transformation.

The dismembered goddess was reborn: comely, wiser, her heart cleansed by a different lifetime of tears, she laughed more freely and lived more fiercely. She was a deepened furrow. Emancipated this time from shame and obligation, having seen beyond the illusion of that which binds into the truth of that which is, she longed to once again be Shivan’s companion. And the gods longed for the son she would then bring into being. And so she stood there before Shivan in her dancing anklets, her pulse thrumming even in her throat, and watched as K?ma, parrot-rider, manifested an untimely spring in the cosmos. He moved in the spiral of a southern breeze, a hum of fragrant sweetness. He poised an arrow of flowers strung on a bow of sugarcane and took aim at the meditating god.

At the moment of piercing, a furious Shivan opened his third eye and the fire of his wrath turned K?ma to ashes instantly.

And then he noticed Parvati, her turmeric limbs and luminescent eyes.

For his righteous intent, for the six-faceted son and the consort of variegated personae, for love itself, in its manifold dimensions, K?ma was revived. He was allowed to prevail. But formlessly.

Which is why the spirit of love is bodiless; only its performance is corporeal.

At that time, in those days when I would thirst for the sea because something was always burning, K?ma was my only lover. I was not his only girlfriend, though. She was nowhere in the vicinity, not truly, that other woman on a distant continent. We said her name between us sometimes in conversation, in order to put distance between ourselves.

Not long after it was over with Martand, K?ma and I went to the beach on a new moon night. Valmiki Nagar. The ocean sulking, holding her secrets closer than usual. We sat on the shore and he let me cry, holding my hand as I did. An aravani came to us and clapped in K?ma’s face for the rupee notes he promptly fished out of his breast pocket.

“You’ ve come with your girl, mapillai,” she said. “Don’t you want a good long life together?” She thought we were newlyweds. I giggled. In less than three years, he would be someone else’s husband. I was sure I was not meant to be anybody’s bride.

The sighting of a white crow is said, I would learn later on, to be an omen of a blessing that would come to be lost through greed. The white crow says: Look within. The white crow says: See, ahead, what you will be without.

I rarely spent the night at K?ma’s. It was too difficult to do often—the question of what I would tell my parents was one worth risking only with discretion. In my twenties and for a long time afterward, the city was still that sort of place. This didn’t mean it never happened. The first time I slept over had been impulsive: there are moons over Madras sometimes that eclipse everything else, all semblance of pretense or pragmatism. There had been one such moon that night, orange-flamed and balsamic. There had been no question of going home.

That Saturday, however, as I took the lift back up to my apartment after feeding the ancestors there was a definite whirr of plan-making in my mind. I intended to spend the weekend with him, to arrive a little before sunset and stay until after dinner the following evening. Somewhere there was a suggestion of a long drive, later that day or the following morning. We would trace the hem of the sea southwards, from his house on the border of the city to as far as we felt we could go without losing ourselves.

And then we would park the car in some semi-private enclave, behind a stone wall someone built to stake and divide land, and run into one of the hundred casuarina groves, through the trees, not stopping until our feet were in the water and our heads were in the clouds.

The casuarina beach was somewhere between the artists’ village and the temple of the eternal bridegroom. We had done this enough times before: turning off the road when the desire to seized us. Always a different beach along the coast. We were not always alone – in the near distance we could usually see others like us, pairs and sometimes small groups. We veered away from loners. They always scared us back to the car in some uninterrogated anxiety.

It was a full moon night: a perfect moon, gravid and gorgeous, already high enough in the sky to be an immaculate alabaster circle.

“In my mother’s country,” I said, “days of the full moon are public holidays.”

He kissed my hand as we stepped into the water. “When are we going there?” he asked, and I smiled at the moon because I’d already given away too much.

How small a crow can seem when it is still and how large when it takes flight toward you.

The moon was a coin. The moon was a compass rose. The moon was a crow: quickfire light, quills of ivory. She swooped right down toward us, mouth open, pink as modesty. Grandmother eyes. Primordial voice.

We’d been holding hands, lying on our backs with our feet in the foam and our hair full of drying sand. We both leapt up, gasping. We’d seen her, feathered like salt, heard that unmistakable cry. But when we looked up again, the words desiccating on our tongues, there she still was. Calmly unblinking, still brooched to the sky. Not a wisp of a feather, not an echo. Occulted moon, more enigmatic than ever before.

Because we had both seen it, neither one could correct the other, could say: trick of light, trompe-l’œil. K?ma was quiet on the drive back. It was I who, in the absence of all other sound, filled it with singing.

For a while, we were lucky. For a while, we were happy.

Beautiful K?ma, with his godlike body and his childlike folly. Beautiful K?ma who set all the rules he thought he lived beyond. Who tested the waters not knowing—poor baby—that water is volatile. That you cannot measure a depth. You can only measure a distance.

At the time, it had ended painlessly enough. I had walked away from that apartment, with its sea view and its sun-cartridged afternoons, and hailed an auto—I will never forget this—driven by a man who wore a pendant around his neck that was shaped like the skeleton of a fish.

Most of the pain, that sadness that had tinged everything (I came to realise later), had been in the effort of keeping it from meeting its denouement, but once I allowed it to happen it slipped away cleanly, without residual rawness. Amputation is simple, a question of the correct knife. Resurrection requires more subtle energies.

I would return to that apartment in so many guises. Adulterous, armed to the teeth, my body an arcana of alibis. I don’t know what it is about infidelity that makes it so damn hot. I don’t know how it was ever worth it. No, that is not true. The problem is that, in my most profoundly honest moments, naked of spirit and windswept of heart, I do.

But that evening, willful and self-possessed, I walked out believing it was over, that I had seen the last of those seaward windows. They were over, those days of rhythmically uncomplicated pleasure. What I didn’t know was that there would still be other kinds. Of complications. Of pleasures. I took flight with such certitude.

And like a winged creature blotting itself out onto the sun, I scorched right into Martand.

The one thing I know to be true is not that love is all there is, or that everything dies. It is that everybody has want. It’s a tiny nerve, a vein of gypsum, that runs through everything—everyone—and sometimes I see someone else’s so clearly that it catches me by the throat. In every place I have been in the world I have looked at people and seen right through into their lives, into the one true thing for which this wretched bittersweet is worth enduring, and I have broken into pieces at the recognition of it. It’s the smallest thing. The smallest, smallest, smallest thing.

K?ma brings his children to me for my foreign folktales and the seer fish curry I must stop making for them when they become old enough to decipher the recipe from taste. The boy comes up to my hip, the place on my body where a phoenix would be inked onto my skin, if I were capable of that kind of lifelong allegiance. The girl, like her father, presses herself to my breast when she hugs me, and always needs to be coaxed to let go.

It is astonishing how strong you become, when you’ve spent a lot of time being other people’s weaknesses. I could never find the kind of responsible love that most people had, if they had it at all. I fell hopelessly for maladroit men who took the ‘cage’ in ‘ribcage’ to heart, and admired women who had never known what long-married love was like. I was always the object of desire, the souvenir, the receptacle of memories of wildness, a parenthesis in their experience of an unexceptional world.

Because I could not find slow love, love that could age, I grew into the evanescence that others sought me for. After a point, I could no longer withhold—and I could no longer amputate. So I began to adore simply, not loudly, and always in the awareness that those like me must live like flowering trees. We are who we are, prosperously or otherwise. And our lives are crowned, now and then, with moments of exaltation—each held and breathed in deeply, and then let go.

Some nights I still wake to the sound of crows crying. And I think of Kakabhujandi, the raven in the tree of life, who listens to the ancient stories and tells them again. Always adding his watermark, his song that is also the first syllable in the old alphabet—Ka. The same word as the question Why.

And depending on where I am, I will stay in bed and look at the bruise-bitten night through the skylight or the undraped window. Always, this sky. And I’ll sigh, calm my breath and listen, and wonder.

Why why why

SharanyaManivannanBio-pixSharanya Manivannan’s first book of poems, Witchcraft, was described by The Straits Times (Singapore) as “sensuous and spiritual, delicate and dangerous and as full as the moon reflected in a knife.” She has received a Lavanya Sankaran Fellowship and an ELLE Fiction Award, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice. She wrote a column, The Venus Flytrap, between 2008 and 2011 in The New Indian Express, and her fiction, poetry and essays have been widely published internationally, including in Drunken Boat, Wasafiri, Hobart, Killing The Buddha, and Superstition Review. Twitter: @ranyamanivannan