Borrowed Skies – Gurleen Judge

Illustration – Aarushi Periwal

It was the hottest summer the village had ever seen, or rather, remembered. The earth was dried up and no one, not even Heli, could help think about leaving to look for other work. Although her reasons were not entirely the same. Heli was young but not too young. When they first saw her, she was covered in the customary red, blue and green but her eyes, they said, her eyes were like the mouth of an ocean that ran deep underneath. As she walked out of her home today, the ocean in her eyes had drained. She was dried up.

Heli was walking straight through her history – a history she shared with her mother and many mothers before her. Since the village consisted of merely twenty odd families, her birth was witnessed by all. She was born on a hot summer afternoon in the middle of the sugarcane field that was owned on paper by those who were never seen in these forsaken lands but lived forever only in people’s subconscious. On paper the land didn’t belong to Heli or her mother, but as has been realised with time, truth runs deeper than ink on paper , and at the very bottom it says -to love is to own.

So in this way the land wasn’t much but it was hers; theirs. She was born here, tilled by this piece of land. Her figure sculpted from this soil, her voice traced through these cracks. She had soaked in her rain, rested under her patch of sky. She was as full, as fertile. This was her acre of universe. She was made in her image. Or perhaps, the land instead was her reflection. Because no one could tell where the ground ended and her feet began, to us it seemed as though Heli was just a vertical piece of her land, an extra arm. But today, when she walked on this land, she asked herself. Can she still lay claim to this history? Her heart pulled heavier than the heat, that afternoon. She continued to walk.

In a few minutes she had walked ahead of her land. The land, lay still, watched as her Heli became a part of the vast stray fields, farther with each step. With each step, the land lost herself – only Heli could know what land was hers and what wasn’t. Now as she walked away, there was no difference between the two – Heli’s land and the stray fields, they were both barren and both orphaned. There is a difference! You have my Heli now, the land moaned. Her history continued walking, away.

Actually, this morning, before Heli left her home to never return, she had been sent a notice- its mine now. Not yours anymore. Her heart had stopped, she couldn’t breathe. Dry. Dry. Dry.

The land wailed- I’m only of heli – and only heli of me. But nobody could hear her. The earth never speaks on behalf of one part but only always as a whole and this, as has been aforementioned was only a tiny part of only about an acre.

Heli looked back, she is hers alone now, she decided. She could see her land under her patch of sky. She looks up and then she is beginning to stare, fiercely. Don’t react. Keep Calm. Speak calmly as always. Nobody in your history has looked up at the sky – your bodies eternally bent towards the ground, tilling time together, minute by minute, day by day. Good work. She continues to stare. Don’t panic. Then she resumes walking on the barren ground. Sigh.

Our history is carved on our body – although some would say it’s what makes up the soul or even that it’s what surrounds the mind and perhaps that’s true but our skin, our skin carries the most definitive mark of all. We carry the history of our people (the voyages, the marriages even the wars), we carry it all in the colour of our eyes, in the darkness of our hair, in the red cheeks or blue cheeks or green cheeks, in the length of our arms, legs, nose, in the coarse palms, in the clean knees, mud filled toenails. History to the discerning mind writes itself in this way.

She has been walking for hours now. She pauses every now and then, looks around at her life as she has known it so far. Soon the forest arrives. She finds her way to the river inside and drinks from it. She rests. The sky fades to black.

 It started with a few sounds in the distance. Something eerie, unidentifiable about it, at least from afar. Then one hears footsteps, not human – no, a quadruped definitely. It has moved closer to Heli. An odd shaped figure in the darkness. Not anything like us, but not too dissimilar either.

Heli wakes up with a scream on her tongue. Her face shines in its golden eyes. She wants to run away but she can’t, her legs won’t move. It’s too late. The creature puts his mouth on her ears and whispers “Who are you loving these days?”

She collapses.

The moon stands silent tonight. The night sky is remarkable in these parts, a white darkness. On most nights, if you listen carefully you can hear it too, the night. It’s not silent as the nights in the cities. Here, the river speaks at night and so does the moon. But tonight, the moon is silent and the river alone.

 The ‘creature’ with Heli on his shoulder is walking through the river; a half broken wing trails behind. The water is cold; Heli’s hair is trailing in it too. She is cold and dreaming of her mother. Her mother’s hair was very long, longer than hers too, stretching all the way to the ground and she had a very wild, uninhibited laugh. When Heli would come to play in this river with her sticks and leaves, she would often hear that laughter faintly gathered in the winds. She would run back home then, to see what her mother was laughing about.  Heli could hear the wind again in her dream tonight but the moon stayed silent.

The sun hits her straight in the eyes, interrupted only by the shadow of the mob that has gathered around her.

Heli opens her eyes. They all bend to look at her, about 50 women, occasionally moving back to shriek or gasp and look at each other and then back at her. They do this a few times until suddenly the crowd parts to make way for a bucket full of mud. The bucket is rushed through and thrown straight at Heli’s face in single breath. This time, Heli lets out a loud cry. The women break into a roaring laughter. Heli stands up covered in this unfamiliar sand and starts to argue with the women. Of course we can’t pretend to have understood exactly what they said but this is a close approximation of what might have transpired.

Why did you do that! Your face is tattooed with strange black lines. Yes, it is to say we are free. No need to be free here – at least not in the open, it will only mean trouble not just for yourself but for us too.

They talk about a few other things such as where she is from, fight over the existence of a river. We haven’t seen a river here in ages. But they can’t talk forever or somebody will complain, one of them warns the rest. They quickly forget about the stranger they have encountered and start to pick their bags full of stone. They are all going towards the hill. It’s a steep hill – coarse and piercing, not a patch of respite on it. Put this on your head and climb, you could earn enough to buy three inches of sugarcane if they like you. The women are of all ages – some even children still and some very close to the end. Their history like Heli’s has been buried under the indistinguishable sand.

For the first time in her life, Heli follows.

Gurleen teaches drama at  various schools and after school centres across Mumbai. She has also been working in theatre for 6 years now, as a stagehand and light technician, designer and director.  She has written and adapted several plays for children and is currently writing her first children’s book about body image and how it impacts girls.