by Sharanya Manivannan
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
Sharanya 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