“You were an eccentric child, always crying to be bathed.”
It’s a memory snippet of my mother, who was a teenager when she had me, always brought up while oiling my toiled black hair. Married at nine, pregnant at twelve, her fondest memories were of me growing up, stumbling over the hedges and thresholds, shattering porcelain items and priceless silverware of the towering haveli in my wake. I was the grand-daughter of a zamindar, an upper-class landlord of Calcutta, and a friend of the East India Company. My father, Rajkumar Roy, was a vigilant soldier, often armed and suited in a red patented British uniform. He was a young and angry man, an aspiring apostle of the rich community.
From all of my childhood, my most cherished moments were of me treading across the community pool, brimming with bright turquoise, icy-blue flickering pellets of water, almost too perfect for the human eye. It was a false picture, built and presented to the world, to the early flamingos, or the aspiring seagulls flocking in and out of the big tiled hall room—a calming image to ease the children of mighty Englishmen in, motivating them to dip their ankles in the waist-deep pool.
I loved speeding down to the depths of my chimerical ocean, filtering away the images of sparsely dressed white men eyeing my flat chest wrapped inside a tight black second skin. Their eyes were pearly white, sometimes red from an unknown need, their palms flattened on the wet floor and their feet fidgety, their minds restive and faces vexed by the surrounding. They waited on their pale blonde children, little bratty boys, all battered and moist, tearing through the perfect ocean.
My father, now retired, scarred from battles and civil wars, coached the British soldiers’ offspring to swim. He spent his post-service days directing the tiny clones of their fathers, instructing them about human anatomy, the power of lungs, the mechanism of mastering the ocean.
We watched the group from afar, my little brother and I, the two browns amidst the contrasting gang of whites. We galloped across the pool, punched the thin blue surface with our knuckles, and splattered the water around, marking our victories with a fit of laughter and an invisible trophy. My brother would chuckle out loud, his teeth would clinker, and two round dents would form in his cheeks.
Our voices echoed and turned our father’s head, who silenced us with his stony expression. My brother and I never joined the group of boys about and around; we didn’t need the directions. We knew our ABCs, the angles of our blistered pink hands and our salted feet, the beats of our hearts, the ticks of the watches on us, the bass of our chlorine-filled breath. We knew our trained bodies and our blue ocean.
“Mira is nine-years-old, she must start veiling herself and stay at home,” my grandfather chided one day as I jogged inside the house, wet from the swim, covered under the shade of a thick woolen coat.
My feet stumbled, at the start of the staircase. I panicked and ran upstairs, doubling over the bed. The mattress had always been warm and cozy, the quilt was handwoven.
My mother tried to cajole me, “It’s for your good. Don’t you want to make an obedient wife?”
I wailed, “No, I don’t want to be a wife, I want to swim!”
Years passed, and this time he said, “Mira is fifteen now, your wife had borne two children by this age, Rajkumar. It is time we found her an honourable husband.”
I didn’t cry or wail. I was a good woman now, a dutiful lady of the house, always veiled, with my eyes directed to the ground.
I opened my eyes, one of them hurt, an ant had made itself comfortable under the hood of my right eye. I tried not to kill it, I assumed that it killed itself by narrowing its way under the eyelid. There is a depression on the other side of the bed but no presence of a human body. I slid myself off the red sheets, patterned with flowers and leaves, embroidered on a pin-prickling fabric, threaded to perfection with sparkling beads and golden threads.
The sheet was spotted in the center, beautified by the spill of my virginal blood. I eyed the spot vacantly as I shrugged off the red saree enveloping me. A mirror, kind of extravagant with its golden finishing, watched me slither the garment off my feverish skin. I moved round and round, squirming and freeing myself from the silk hound, deliberately avoiding the crack of the bedroom door.
There was frantic movement outside the room.
A man hovered in the hallway, tall and broad, in a white kurta and dhoti. He was combing the curved tips of his thick mustache, his eyes fixated at the light from the narrow opening of the bedroom door. He was tapping his toes and cursing under his breath. I could hear the sound of the carpet crunching under him, the constant clicking of his tongue, the impatience in his stride.
He was waiting for me.
I stared at the foreign latticed carvings and the bare specks spread across the wall, the archaic paint was stripping away to match the irregular shapes on the crusty ceiling.
The red fabric was now hurdled and twisted around my henna-garnished feet—the colour of which was bleak and orange—‘A bad marriage’ a negative omen my aunt had snottily pointed out to an avid female-only audience watching me roll into my bridal saree.
The gold ornaments from my family hung low around my neck and wrists, detached and broken from a lost fight. My ears burned sourly, remembering the jhumkas that lay severed on the bed, the sound of the sharp rip, the gnawing and the twisting, the surreal feeling of blood dripping down my neck.
I stepped away from the revolting fabric and my bloodied reflection in the mirror. The chafed skin of my thighs shot up with searing pain as I moved towards an opening that led to the bathroom. A white tub in the centre of the room seemed familiar and inviting, deep and warm at the same time.
I poured in hot water from the buckets and twisted open the golden tap. Cold water erupted from the end of the mouth, grazing the sides and accumulating in the rusted tub. I dipped my ankle, testing the water, as the reds of henna and dried blood let loose.
It burned greatly but I continued to push my foot down, into the depths of my saving ocean before plunging myself completely. My skin numbed and treated itself to the high temperature of the water, my swollen face barely wobbling above the surface.
All my brain could register was the steamy smoke, or that is all it wanted to register.
Suddenly I felt impenetrable, unhinged by the masticated skin between my thighs. I felt free, unaffected by the unexplainable song, probably a song of danger, that clouded over me. It played in my ears and rang through my brain, coercing me to stay in the bathtub.
Somewhere between midnight and dawn, the downpour had throttled the roof of the house, compelling the occupants to gather in the main verandah. My mystic green saree and headcover mingled with the moss green of the outer walls, camouflaging me from the crowd in a way. The villagers had rushed inside the gates of the big Sahib’s mansion to find a cemented shelter from the storm, sparking chaos across the village. The water was flooding the huts, miscreants started looting the roofs were being torn down, the children sobbing, agitated mothers were reasoning, and abled men shuffled with handmade weapons to fight the thieves and bandits.
My rich husband was down-south buying land for the Englishmen. Some say he was looking for a second wife, some even say that he was having an affair with a courtesan, some say there was a virgin priestess involved. I turned a deaf ear to all the alleged rumors; I had no worries, I didn’t need any assurances. If anything, I would be relieved to learn if my husband had preferences for another woman or women.
I remained barren. Five years and my stomach was as flat as it could be.
I had fallen prey to the vestiges of forced pregnancy thrice, but each time God had pulled out of the plan and left me crib-less. I didn’t feel sad, and neither did I shed a tear while the handmaiden took the green-lifeless-slob of flesh away from me. I watched and I absorbed. What was I going to teach the child anyway?
A loud cry for help broke out; it was a child, a girl, as young as I was when I swam. She was holding on to a tree trunk, her feet inches away from the dangerous waters coursing on the ground. The mother of the child, dressed in a saree torn at the edges, hammered her chest with her palms loudly, demanding someone, anyone, to jump and save her grappling child.
The men stood by, their faces sunk with fear and cowardice, and restless hands pulling the sides of their dhotis.
Nobody helped. I stripped away the green hood covering my head. My long hair revealed, the red sindoor decked on my hairline began to drip down my forehead.
There were a lot of oohs and aahs from the men and women. There was a flaring of nostrils at this, some mutterings of disapproval. The men gawked at my full bosom in fascination, their eyes a shade of crimson, same as the old Englishmen who watched me swim as a child in my black swimwear.
I shed the saree and threw it over my head before diving deep into the water.
It was cold, very cold. And it was dark.
I struck out my arms and my invisible webbed-fins, pushing and pulling, striving to cross the distance between me and the child. My head broke through the surface to draw in some oxygen, I struggled to inhale due to the lashing rain. The shower was heavy and powerful, forcing my body to stagger under the bed of water. I skimmed through the uprooted plants and floating furniture, breaking past unknown objects.
“Help…” The weakening sound of the child prompted me to dive back under the ocean and swim the remaining length in a matter of minutes.
I clawed up the trunk, pulling the child above my shoulders. She had lost consciousness, and her spine was close to teetering off the edge. I climbed over a seemingly strong looking branch, setting myself and the child against the trunk of the tree. I cradled the little girl’s head in my lap before breathing into her mouth, following it up with soft slaps to her cheeks.
She woke up with a start and almost fell off the branch. I enveloped her body with mine, pulling her close to my chest, I could hear her tiny heart beating up a crescendo. She opened her eyes, and blinked for a few seconds.
She smiled. The arch of her bruised cheeks curved in to form two explicit dimples.
A The Bombay Review Creative Writing Workshop piece
Mariam is a Content and Communications Specialist based in Hyderabad. When she is not working on her debut novel, you can find her exploring historical sites or devouring a cup of piping hot Irani chai at Charminar. She draws her writing inspiration from the Urdu tehzeeb, Hyderabad’s food and culture, and the city’s still-standing old ruins. She is also a poet and runs a poetry page on Instagram @zulfyina.