Last night’s forecast predicted clouds and rain. But the sun was out all day, today. Our professor brought coffee, cookies, and cupcakes to class. I drank the coffee even though it makes me anxious. I went to the library but did not revise my essay. I met therapy puppies who licked my face. A friend gifted me his favorite books because I love his book recommendations. C left a box of saffron on my porch because I don’t have any in case I make Biryani. L brought me the cookies K gave her because she knows I love them. That I should have them instead of her felt logical to L.
I do my best to wallow in the softness of this world. I touch the memorabilia for assurance. I borrow money, make library cards, and hammer nails in the apartment walls. I do things over and over, I try to fall into routines and familiarities. The memorabilia erodes from trying to reassure me. Still, nothing convinces me that this is real. Nothing holds down this ephemeral world. Nothing stops the drone of my mind – This is not mine. I am merely encroaching; I didn’t come to stay.
How does one make homes in places? How does one unpack bags, roll out bedding and trust the ground to hold?
All my life, mummy hated and refused to be happy in the places papa made our stay. Papa shunned the places Mummy romanticized. Mummy’s presence in my life changed, and so did papa’s postings. I was given new caregivers, hairstyles, clothes, and languages sporadically. Somewhere along 8 schools, 6 towns, 10 houses, changing bullies, friends, promises, and hobbies I gave up on Belonging.
In the hope of routine, I was taken to mummy’s family’s over the summers. I was sent to their big city to make up for my small-town deficiencies. And each summer solidified these deficiencies in my body like new organs. I was ugly, oily, stupid, dark, and repulsive. At 5, clothing became hierarchical, and Indian traditional clothes were put at the “point and laugh” end of it. At 8, my jaw was hideous. I learned that doctors could be paid to fix ugly but that I couldn’t afford one. At 11, bad English became contagious.
I was their measure of misfortunes and failings. The grass that’s always less green than theirs, phew. On better days, I was a personal project, a pole on which to scratch their itch. I was taken to see an airplane, given a notepad from a hotel in Hawaii, and some western clothes to widen my world. The best I got in such charity was a shiny bottle that could have fixed my broom-like hair. I tucked the bottle in my still-packed bags and waited for my Cinderella moment. One day I would use it and it would transform me. I would be rescued and it will be all up from there. The bottle introduced me to the humiliating side of hope.
My grandmother took offense at this treatment. She started taking my inadequacies personally. She pinched, slapped, and called me names but couldn’t fix my jaw, complexion, poverty, or stupidity. Then she started imposing bans – I wasn’t to sing her favorite songs or paint pretty things lest I ruin them. Reading was rewarded till I sullied it. Eventually I started self-imposing bans. “I can’t dance. I am not a writer. I hate cooking.” Self-deprecation is a weapon. “I could never” an armor, much lighter than shame. “I don’t care” is a coping mechanism. They help me leave before I arrive. They accomplish deprivation without suffering a Want. They keep me safe.
We misinterpret Cinderella’s story when we grant her emancipation at the end. She didn’t go to a writing program, on a killing spree, or become a bikini model as she had always wanted to. In the end, she is merely granted a reprieve from her everyday sufferings, a small freedom from the violence of home. A cinderella moment then, is not the fulfillment or even the realization of a dream, it is the momentary reduction in one’s drawn-out deprivation.
I had a cinderella life for 8 years – I got a liberal arts education against my parents’ wishes, a job with a narcissistic employer, and a broken mind that could afford psychiatric help. It yielded blinding gratitude, the illusion of normalcy, and denial of any ache from the now-emancipated past. I carried them diligently. But eventually buckled under their weight. I moved to my small-town home, quit work, became mummy’s caregiver, and surrounded myself with my triggers. I had always kept my world small but then it lost all external ties. It started falling in on itself, crushing my bones and digging into my skin.
I blamed my body as I did when it outgrew a pair of pants. How dare it rebel against the only world that ever held it? I starved and shrunk it. By the end of 4 years, I was entirely burnt out, hopeless, economically and emotionally broke. But at least mummy was well, papa wasn’t dying and I could breathe. It was more than what I had ever had. Mummy committed to her treatment and I started trusting the ground to hold. On the hierarchy of survival, starved is better than crushed, it is almost like belonging.
But belonging in no form has ever fit me. Every time I feel its fleeting presence, I get the rug pulled from under me. This time, I landed in the ICU, holding kaki’s hand, entertaining her paralyzed body, telling babyR what death is and who it can happen to. I took a suicidal X to the hospital because deaths cannot be consentual. I was holding our ground down when I got the email offering me a place in a writing program. People congratulated me, interpreting it as a happy ending. I wept and wailed in horror. An escape is not an end.
I went to the writing program as I did my aunt’s place each summer – with the attitude of a child being fed a vegetable she hates. Or that of a vegan/teetotler trying meat/wine for the sake of an argument. I feigned careful consideration, then swatted each offering away. I did things only people with a return ticket do. I frolicked, but only kept the Indian time on my phone. I got drunk and made fun of a professor to his face. I refused to give a racist exam. I quit teaching. To hell with building a CV! I would leave the consequences of my actions back when the clock strikes 12.
For aren’t all shiny things but pumpkins, rats and rags under a spell? During my childhood summer too, my fairy-god-aunt came back for the shiny bottle she had given me. It was too good for me, she had said. The humiliation I felt may have looked like the bottle but really, was the shape of hope; or the loss of it. I had imagined and lost a repaired future even before seeking it.
Life taught me that detachment is invincibility. Something that isn’t mine cannot hurt me if I am careful. Now I live small. I attend the program but I am not a writer. “I didn’t come to stay.” I only reluctantly enjoy the US. I crib about the food. I live each day of this metaphorical summer like it’s my last.
All the last days have now collected into a full semester. Over this time, I awoke when mummy, babyR, R went to bed. There were no midnight emergencies to disturb my afternoon workshops and bank runs. Life eased to make space for smaller booboos now that kaki wasn’t in a coma, mummy was well and babyR knew the truth. This became the first bit of life I spent not caregiving.
I used my spare time and energy to calm the alarm shiny things cause in me. I exchanged “I love you”s even when they scared me. I bought lamps and books, as if unaware of the permissible flight baggage. Thus, I spent a summer, a fall and an almost winter tending to myself. I chose the hard things I went through. Often it looked as simple as checking the forecast and setting out the raincoat, as if sure I’d live another day.
I lived. Today, I also finished a whole semester at writing school. Over the last 5 months, I wrote, cried, made friends, got drunk, fell, sprained my ankle, moved out, moved in, and bought a car. I did not want to write but I wrote and let people read it. I collected wrappers, notes, receipts, and beer caps. I incurred and sustained bruises from carrying used furniture home. I realised that I will never be completely safe or prepared. And that hope is labor and trust takes practice. But if I stick with them, I will see the seasons change. There will be rain, then there will be snow, it’ll fell on me and sometimes I’ll fell in it. But the sun will always came out, sometimes despite the forecast.