White Nights

By Samruddhi

Picture a scrawny scarecrow being tossed about in the wind- that was me at four. Hair sprung up in a wispy halo because no-one had the time to oil it, really. Two hand-sown frocks repeated throughout the week, spasmodically washed. Buried knee-deep in mounds of soil and stone on the construction site, searching for I don’t even remember what…

Faces of passersby would sometimes morph into a monstrous pity but their sentiment was so shallow and fleeting that in another glance, they giggled at fate’s cruel joke and walked on from it’s recipient. In this strange place, there was no home to belong to really- a fact I absorbed and digested even at that tender age. My family’s refuge to survive natural elements was a small room underneath a building under construction- one so tall that when I gazed at it’s summit, I thought the sky plucked me off and arrested me into it’s body.

My grandfather migrated to this city- a speck in the yearly rural exodus, as a construction-site worker through a builder from his village, who struck fortune in the city. After the building interiors started being polished, he begged this builder to allow him staying on as a watchman even if it was under the constant threat that he may be replaced at anytime.

My grandmother, though her age hardly fit the title, worked as a cooking lady for five of the most magnificent bungalows in this city. Grandfather owned a two wheeler but she insisted on getting everywhere on foot. That’s why on top of mopping, sweeping our home, washing heaps of our utensils and cooking five enormous feasts for nuclear families, she despised preparing dinner in our kitchen. She had to because my mother avoided every chore like it was a personal inferno. My grandmother didn’t dare ask the men to cook.

My father owned the most expensive item out of all of us- a motorcycle. I’ve never been allowed to travel on it yet. He only permits mother for rides when she whispers something in his ear and they giggle like they exist alone in the world. Maybe if I please mother enough, she might let me ride the roaring beast and experience wind in my hair, eat ice cream in colourful cones or empty a glass of jewel-toned sherbet. Things that mother tells us she did after coming back from their motorcycle ride. Pleasing mother is a task- a twisted coir rope. When she’s been in the room for days and her high reedy voice carries through the house without much response, she finds me. Whether I’m playing with other kids in the colony or running with stray dogs, she calls my name and I respond as a slave or a soldier. If I dare have a smile, it slides off like sweat and all thought turns static, vanishes off in an instant. It’s always that same expression etched over her face. Lines of her face have been inscribed on my wrist. They spell what is to come. Everything shrinks into blankness. Each cell of my body is immobile, waiting.

The blows come out of nowhere. Never just the one or two. No matter how far back I rewind, the moment when she first hit me, is elusive. Maybe the aftermath of her blows causes amnesia… I’ve tried counting each swing of her raised hands- they seem endless. A barrage that may come when I’m eating, shitting, urinating so that for awhile I want to stop doing anything. My hearts’s rhythm, in an attempt to inoculate itself from the agony, matches itself to the tempo of her blows but the heart itself might just escape in hops and leaps out of my back. I know holding my arms up only constrains her to break their crossed shape and strike me with much more vengeful a strength. Her blows rattle my tiny universe. My mind’s static refuses to pixelate any thought whatsoever.

Grandmother sweeps a glance across the scene, pity overflowing like a tap left open over dirty utensils. I can’t hold on against the barrage much longer and need to resuscitate my breath. Grandmother wipes her forehead with a soapy hand and mutters a half-hearted plea to stop but my mother is possessed by her own needs.

Everything quietens after evening falls. My back rings hollow while everyone eats dinner. Grandmother with her soft tired words, changes to the face of pigs loitering around open-faced gutters across the city. Mother divides rice in everyone’s plates when only hours ago her eclipsed eyes had resembled the yowling bitch that roams our neighbourhood and ruins most nights with her inorganic canine sound. Giggles slip out uncontrollably while I stuff a mouthful of rice. Everyone stares at me.

I know my grandparent’s stately announcement that babies arrive from heaven, is farcical. I’ve stumbled on my parents at night countless times to not realise it. That’s why I stopped sleeping inside and burrowed underneath grandmother’s cot aligned to the outside wall. So I knew where the baby came from when mother returned with her stomach, a deflated balloon- it swaddled in their arms. I imbibed neither my grandparents’ joy nor mother’s jealousy. They made me play with the squirming lump for awhile but I laid all my toys in front of her, looked outside the door as she banged them against the floor or each other, then I put everything back disinterestedly upon the adults’ orders.

Cousins from grandfather’s village descend after a few days and I help grandfather assemble a makeshift tent out of grandmother’s oldest saris and leftover wooden construction poles hidden in our room. When we’re sipping bitter tea with the guests, mother shifts the conversation to her struggles after marriage. She lends scandalised whispers of how a new baby is born yet there have been no traditional naming ceremonies let alone gold necklaces made for either of them. The guests squirm a bit but manage to mostly offer sympathies and move on. I think their facile attempt at polite charity lands well in our room because she’s an orphan. Mother knows that any subtle arrows shot to force my grandmother’s earned money in her own hands, will be reprimanded in this company. She reserves such acid-encrusted wires with colony aunties or friends.

All power manifests and resides in mother. Watching her, my grandparents jumped on the wagon to ‘discipline’ me. I tried being a tattle tale but mother only stops them from caning my shins or cauterising my skin with hot tongs, once in a while. She need only pull a string and we act to the stimuli. Sometimes I wonder if I’m an outlet, an object to inflict their frustrations, furies and displeasures. If so life must leak outside my body to bear their abstractions.

Since mother is placated to an extent today, I skip outside the room running the length of the boundary wall, touching the clothes hung on the line. A moustached man barges across the foundation columns, barely stopping himself from throwing the parked cars aside. I remember he lives on the second floor. He begins yelling at my grandfather that the water tank of the building is already empty and accuses us of harbouring outsiders and using up the water supply. He screams that they aren’t paying ‘paani patti’ so that people like us can waste it however we like. He declares that from now on, we’re to be designated two water drums and any taps will be removed from the room. The guests filled with colours of shame, assure grandfather of their immediate departure.

Grandmother prepares a feast for their last night here but I know it would fall short of the spread at one of the bungalows she works at. Because she brings the leftovers they have from their feasts and they’re enough to satiate all of us. As a rare gesture, mother allows my cousin and I to play. I snatch what I get and yell on a run to the compound. Somebody’s shush follows me but it disappears in the wind I leave behind. We play so much that we begin fighting over who won more and she slaps my hand. I don’t know what expression slides over my face but she giggles while stepping back. “Don’t do that!”, my hoarse screech tumbles out. She comes closer only to slap my other arm harder. It’s sound is worse than the sting. I retaliate at the same spot on her body. It satisfies me that her giggles stop and the grin slides off. Another and another. When I realise, I’m sitting over her and though she’s two years older, my slaps are overwhelming her. I stand up above her still body and between heavy pants, a bellow tears out of my chest, “I win!”.

I run out of the compound. When I return from the street, mother is waiting. Her lines of expression inscribed on my wrist start to prickle, as if they might come alive into rattling shackles. Everyone sneaks glances from outside as mother’s blows intertwine with short wails of ‘did I raise you to beat others?’ Or ‘did I teach you to raise your hands?’. By now, my heart does leap out the chest. It doesn’t matter how many people witness, the wheel of this cycle isn’t stopping.

I sit outside knees-to-chest and ants enter my line of sight. At first I only disrupt the neat line by flicking some bodies off course. It’s amusing to see that they continue walking albeit with pauses, searches and scrambles. A short cohort carries the dead husk of some insect. Their gentle movement begins frustrating me and I take one and immediately crush it between thumb and finger. Is it that easy? There’s not even any blood…My stomach gurgles. One second and no more of hexapods walking, searching or in confusion. By the fall of dusk, the entire line of ants across this compound is buried, bits of minuscule ant legs blended into cement dust.

Our room has towers of odd things in every corner. A rolled mattress over an upturned stool precariously hanging, some paper sheaves spilling out between them, an odhni slung over the stool’s leg and some toys scattered over the stool’s underbelly- on and forth… During an afternoon where I’ve escaped from this belaboured clutter, I sit on a mound of soil. An old building in our neighbourhood had just been demolished and I move around the rubble to see if anything interesting can be salvaged. But what remains in demolished buildings except neglect? I bury my toes in the mound and stare at the glass shards planted in cement around the boundary wall. Before I realise, a stray dog has gone to sleep beside me. His wound around the neck is hideous, bald skin and oozing pus spread down the back. My stomach gurgles. With a piece of twig, I poke at it’s wound. His teeth snap at my hand and his dry mouth quivers with growls. I manage to avoid his teeth but something fights gravity, crawls up my throat with bile. I slap the dog’s jaw hard. He yelps, shoots up and bolts away all in a movement. His tail between the legs fills my vision. I realise I’m heaving and panting like I’ve been racing towards the sunset. Tremors move intermittently over my hand. My palm still remembers the shape of the canine jawbone, the texture of it’s fur- everything courses through my skin and blood.

The next day they said the dog was tossed into a nearby dried-up river because someone stoned it to death.

This is the last I remember of my childhood.

*
Mother married me at eighteen when they changed the legal age of consent for females to twenty-one. In effect, it shifted her power over to my husband. Grandfather consoled me, gently stroking my back that I should be grateful they waited this long- the best hand of marriage for me had arrived two years ago.

I had no tears to shed at my bidaai nor do I ever miss home much even though it’s barely two hours away from this city. Grandmother finally managed to buy a plot and build their own house after years of saving. The house was almost removed from civilisation of the city but she seemed proud. I hadn’t even gotten used to living under her new walls when I got married in Aurangabad. I insisted on working and my husband acquiesced that in today’s age money was always short. I got lucky- working for one of those posh department stores here. My supervisor scolds me for one bad habit apart from the usual tirade. She reminds that I shouldn’t giggle so much when the customer yells at me, regardless of whether I actually made a mistake or not. It’s a reflex though and try as I might, the habit refuses to be erased. The worst are Sale days. Men, women, children come in a stampede, leaving stained clothes, hangers, spills, crumbs, lint and ripped tags in their wake, surfaces stomped and desecrated.

I imagine picking up a hanger and hitting the horde in a barrage until they’re motionless. A crest of shame builds and crashes in me. I carry on picking up each item cautiously off the floor.

I reach my husband’s home and rage against my hungry stomach to first prepare dinner.

The walls of this house are white. Bare furniture, mattress on the floor. He says we’ll buy more as our life builds. The doorbell startles me. I don’t know what he’ll be in the mood for, this evening. Restraints in bed that leave scars on my wrists, disregard for my mewls of pain or something else. I wonder if I have some sign stamped on my forehead that people like my mother and now my husband can specially identify. One thing remains constant whether it be my old life or after marriage: the blackness, the pitch dark of nights refuses to retain it’s natural colour in my nights. They’re all white nights bleeding into white days. Each shred of emotion has been bleached and they stretch endless like a nightmare- a white which allows nothing to exist within itself. Like Antarctica. A documentary they showed on television said that. The existence of white becomes comfortable: this thought singes my core. I fear some nights that I’ve settled into the white nightmares a little too well.

I open the door to my severe executioner. Today, as well, his expression spells there shall be no mercy for me.

*
I can’t remember when they began, the scenes. Scenes of my hand carving flesh. Scenes of using something, anything around me to paint actions that slipped into brutality. They seemed little in scale at first so they slyly invaded my dreams but over time, they grew sharper, saturated, even-toned. With every scene, I immersed more and more into the acts, a tree of terror mutated larger and larger and the colour white bled from each scene, then flooded into my skin.

I didn’t wish to recollect them at first. Finally, exhausted with denial and the constant effort of pretence, I went over them again and realised the relief flushing inside after reliving each barbaric scene. At my acceptance, the white horrors and nightmares only spread expansive – a metamorphosed alchemic chimera only too pleased as it conquered my mind.

Meanwhile Aurangabad has become a city engulfed in a cloud of dust as traffic trails through it’s arteries everyday. The street hawkers cough and stop announcing their wares. Shops have half the shutters down throughout the day and still layers of dust accumulate on their shelves. The public works department wanted to widen the main road before G20 delegates would arrive and camp in the city. Whereas other walls have been strengthened and decorated, these houses had heir facades ripped off and their nakedness doesn’t even attract lizards to bask in the sun. They appear to have all their hidden secrets exposed but I can’t comprehend why the remaining third or quarter sections of the houses still stand instead of being razed to the ground. Since they went through all the trouble to demolish anyway, why leave things halfway? And where did the displaced people go? I wave away at the questions like persistent flies. Now the sections merely expose the absence of humanity and exist like Pandora’s Pith with a shattered hole where the contents broke out.

In one of these sections, over the remnants of stairs that may fall apart any moment, I enact my vicious scenes soaked of the colour white with a rusted metal pipe. The cement has begun to expose parts of it’s metal-wire framework that strengthens the structure, the twisted skeletons gleam vicious after my visits increase. People can smell abandonment from far away so they avoid objects and humans cursed with it. Thus I remain secluded in my deranged theatre.

After months, a hole finally emerges on the wall and the white within me empties out. Sometimes, while I sit in my ruined theatre, wind passes through the hole in moans and howls, caressing the salt that slides down my cheeks. Old bruises and new, wounds buried deep in my skin, ache fresh in such breezes. I slap water over them, from the puddles formed after unseasonable rains to soothe the itches and gnawing retained in these lesions. Every ant and insect I’ve subdued, comes crawling out from them and the water merely burns instead of any expected relief. I lay on the crumbling floor, and let the water that drips from the metallic skeletal network that used to be a ceiling, pound my face. Every little impact of my hands hitting the pipe on the wall, every water droplet disintegrating on my skin is bleeding the first colours in my white nightmares. The colour red. Red of ants, red of my sindoor, red of chillies and red of my menstruation blood.

*
After my last visit to those building ruins, the decisions that have been fermenting underneath every scene of brutality, become easy to act upon. Something has changed. But I set aside the yarn that is to be unravelled. It’ll be too late if I let the chance to act slip away. At twilight, I’m waiting at the bus stop. In a few hours, my husband will call for, scream then yell my name with only the echoes of his voice as answer. Perhaps he’ll rifle through his cupboard and find the jewellery and my papers gone. Perhaps he’ll regret underestimating me, he’ll wonder- was I not well-trained in wifehood? Those are the last thoughts I have of him and doubt they will ever haunt me again. I choose a window seat and ask the conductor to tear a ticket all the way to the last stop.

This bus rumbles down a small section of the National Highway artery, sending up clouds of dust behind. I inhale out of the rusted bars of it’s window then cough violently, clutching my dilapidated backpack close to the chest. The strongest star barely twinkles and fades into the coming light of dawn. I remember the documentary ending- In Antarctica though the landscape is white and unforgiving for life, there exist penguins, seals, whales, lives over and under the icebergs. I remember that along with the worst ills now loose in human society, Pandora’s Pith burns yet with it’s last tenant: hope. Since I have no home to call my own, I take ownership of every road and smile at the now invisible star.

Samruddhi is an aspiring novelist and short story writer. She likes to explore gender and identity through her writing. Currently working on her first novel, she writes book reviews. Her short stories and literary reviews have been published in ‘The Inklette Magazine’ and ‘Verse of Silence’.

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