One summer afternoon in Bengaluru, a young woman with wild hair ran out of her home chasing the whispers of adventure she heard in last night’s dreams. The sun glowered down upon her town, desiccating any object or being left under open skies. She stepped out of her home and on to the gray streets, desolate, except for parked cars. With a sudden hiccup of thought, she remembered her feet were bare. It was not a good sign. And it did not feel like the weather presaged soul-altering adventure. Her right elbow suggested she return home to her mother and father. She agreed, and walked cheerlessly back into her fenced home, and across the wild garden her mother tended to. While the country prayed for early monsoons, the sight of the half-dead leaves on her mother’s plants touched her deeply. What strangeness exists in the world, she thought as she looked down onto the lesser unspeaking beings, that I can know only if I watch in silence.
That summer was spent observing a caterpillar feast on the most expensive plant at home. It was a fat, bright pink creature, as long as her middle finger, with skin that looked like velvet and shivered when touched, with blue false eyes. She marvelled as it chomped down determinedly on every leaf and flower within reach, leaving behind a gory trail of botanical massacre. At night, the caterpillar rested in plump sleep, but the young woman lay awake in her bed thinking of the bats that were known to visit their neighbourhood. What if they are not fruit-bats? What if a snake surfaces? And what could she do if a bird swooped down from the mango trees towering over the house, plucked the hungry caterpillar with its beak with the unerring aim of a predator and flew away to feed its family? The young woman wept silently, knowing she could do nothing to protect her new friend from nature’s ways.
But blissful sleep drove away all thought of trouble, and she was happy to wake up to a beautiful morning with the smell of flowers and trees wafting through the house and the birds chirping away as loudly as they could for creatures with such small lungs. She stretched luxuriously in her bed, listening to her mother make filter coffee when the memory of a pink caterpillar with an insatiable hunger returned. Without even washing herself, she sprinted in her nightclothes to the most expensive plant they owned. The caterpillar clung on to the bare stems with a stern expression in its false eyes. Where did you sleep, the young woman asked it. The caterpillar said nothing. She watched it wiggle to the last clump of leaves left at very bottom of the plant, almost by the roots, and begin feasting on them. By lunchtime, there was no more of the plant left alive for the caterpillar to eat. That afternoon when she wasn’t looking, the caterpillar went away forever. She was left standing by a naked plant praying desperately it was not eaten by birds, too desperately to be heard. The plant failed to recover and had to be replaced. With nothing left at home to marvel at, the young woman took to wandering the streets, feeding cows that the owners of illegal dairies let stray among rubbish heaps and parked cars to save money on cow feed.
When her mother moved two young palm plants, still in terracotta pots, to the entrance of their house to make it seem more welcoming, the cows languidly ambled over and picked at the tender leaves. Some of the cows became regular visitors, even when the trees were relocated to the back of the house where crows, spiders and rats thrived, which are less harmful to growing trees than hungry cows. She fed them other things when they came. If the young woman was late in her offering of fruits and vegetables stolen from the kitchen, one of them, a young brown cow with smooth skin and small blunt horns, would bellow at the gate until she ran out and said hello. Sometimes larger herds would wander on her street and end up in front of her gate; families with large male protectors and young newborn calves that would tremble at pet dogs and car horns. She tried to feed the little ones apples but they were too young to be able to bite into them. They liked eating tomatoes instead.
On one early Sunday morning, she was in the middle of her street in her nightgown trying to feed a calf that was alone when her dog came bounding out the open gate toward her. Her dog froze in shock at the sight of the calf. The calf trembled with a whole fruit still in its mouth. No one knew what might happen next. Such an encounter was unprecedented; one involving her, a calf, an apple and a dog. They stared at each other in complete bewilderment until her dog lifted a single paw. This was enough to terrify the calf, which dropped its fruit on the dusty street and scrambled away on unsteady legs, bleating. She ran after it, shouting out words of comfort, begging it not to be scared of her dog. The calf ran away toward the busy main road. Strange men on the street corners stared at her figure, visible through the thin nightgown.
She walked home with a strange throb inside her chest that felt like the colour blue. Her dog followed her. The months passed calmly, she grew taller, her hair grew wilder, but the blue throb did not dull.
Did she ever know love? It is hard to say. No one had asked her this; her heart’s metaphorical journey remained undocumented. Her dog developed cancer, and after a few good months, succumbed unwillingly to that beast. It was painful, but not crippling because she knew he would have never left her if he had a choice. Unlike people who exited her life with incredible ease. She loved her dog and her little family, but she wasn’t sure if she loved any real person because no real person had ever loved her. She thought of marriage and children often, to imagine a world in which she could love, be loved and be free. All the pebbles she collected on all her walks and the all the stories she wound around her heart to keep it from falling apart, and all the clues that came to her in dreams, all this, would be her gift to her daughter. In the giving of the souvenirs from an entire lifetime, she would grow to be more than an individual trapped in her own tendencies. And the daughter would grow to be stronger and better than her. Years later, the gap that would emerge in her life when she would no longer be needed as a mother and her redemption would be complete, would be filled in gently by her husband who would sense her loss of meaning, unspeaking and unsummoned. They would travel to every land with a name, grow old together, so old that they would forget the existence of the parts of their lives when they were separate beings with aching dreams of love (her), riches(him) ,happiness (both). Her daughter would be on her own search for fulfilment. One day she would find it, and on that day no matter how far apart they all were, they would smile in unison.
If she had a son she would find it difficult to love him.
Another possible future whose shadows she felt follow her with stealth, the future she feared the most, showed her walking the streets singing songs of ancient lament with an untamed joy. Here, she was the same as the person in the present, but for an older, used body. This future represented the terrifying truth that in her struggle to escape anything but true freedom, she was inching, nail by fingernail, into the traps of illusion.
On moonlit nights of an eerie, silent charm, when the teasing pale face of the moon was bright enough to turn the most beautiful woman invisible, she was so deeply entranced that she would settle atop a hill, perfectly still, having forgotten to worry about everything she wasn’t. She felt the moon deeply, as did hundreds of thousands of others that very night unbeknownst to her, that for the entire duration on the hill, she was not herself. For a few impossible hours, she was free.
When the secretions began, no one was more shocked than her father. He called in favours from forgotten friends in high places to locate the best doctor for his daughter’s condition. Mid-telephone conversation, he discovered that this endeavour would require him to confess her condition and hastily terminated the phone calls after making appropriate excuses. He then sat in a position congruent to his anguish, hunched in an office chair, head in hands. Meanwhile, the young woman suffered and her mother suffered and the old kitchen maid suffered. Yards of linen had to be procured to soak up the fluids escaping through every pore in her body. The local store eventually ran out of fabric; new stock wouldn’t arrive for another week. To survive through this week, curtains were pulled down, carpets were torn up, clothes and towels sacrificed to the cause were piled in soft mounds that she would have leapt into had she been well. This was a flurry of activity performed in haste and secrecy lest the neighbours know what runs in her blood.
It began with innocence. She awoke one morning to find her pillow soaked. She tried to recall if she had had any night terrors to cause such profuse perspiration. When her ears remained wet hours after a bath, she grew suspicious. As the day progressed, the fluid was expelled from both ears, flowing down her neck and arms. The wetness spread over her blouse turning it a shade darker. An appointment with an otolaryngologist was procured immediately, a miracle in itself, then being a weekday evening. They drove to the doctor with her ears in bags. It distressed the patient endlessly that the bags did not match.
While they waited to be called in by the receptionist, the young woman felt a stirring inside her. She could not hear over the crinkling of the bags and anxious beating of her mother’s heart. She could not see beyond the grinning faces of jealous aunts. She felt something occur. She felt the fluid withdrawing inward, into her ears, and down her throat. The bags hung limp and strangely dry. She tried to talk to her mother, who sat to her right, sobbing. She tried to catch her father’ eye, who sat at her left, staring at the wall as if it were a long-lost brother or a football match. So she stayed quiet, feeling her ears dry, marvelling alone at what the human body is capable of. The doctor dismissed them within seconds of examining the soft flaps now free of their mismatched bags, determined to not let the family’s paranoia affect his judgement. There seemed absolutely nothing wrong with her. Nobody said a word on the way back home, each sipping identical cocktails of bewilderment, humiliation and helplessness.
What her ears refused to continue, her eyes commenced. She wept for thirty hours without pause. And as only a woman can, her mother wept with her for company. Four eyes wept ceaselessly. The young woman let out a shuddering sigh in the end when it was all over. She wiped her eyes with her fingers and saw that her mother’s were red, raw. Her own were merely finally dry.
What her eyes could not do any longer, her mouth continued for seven days. The young woman vomited clear fluid even at the peak of her dehydration. She was diagnosed with everything from suspected malaria to suspected evil eye. The symptoms withdrew like a timid pet each time she visited a doctor. Her father, seeing that she was alive and sane, returned to work.
After seven days, her skin took over the emesis. She perspired, under the fan and in the rain. Nothing could make the terrible deluge pause. They ran out of sheets. She prayed to every god of every religion to make the expulsion stop. One day, suddenly, it did. With one last belch, her skin closed up once and for all. But that night, other parts of her awakened and moistened. She dug her fingers inside those parts to touch the source of the wetness. Alone in her room, she felt things deep inside her she knew she mustn’t. Her mind wandered to those who had betrayed her love, in a far-off past that she did not believed existed. And though it was startlingly quiet when the night lay over everyone in the house like a thin cool sheet, her body sang and the dark listened. She moaned and cried out through a hushed hoarse throat until she the realisation came with a final eruption of fluid, that the past did occur and would never leave her. She changed the sheets and slept peacefully upon the damp mattress dreaming of the faces she could not bring herself to forget.
But she eventually did, if only in the cursory manner of distraction. Brick by brick her memory was replaced. So stealthily did time work his magnificent powers on her, she did not notice herself growing, her silhouette flowing into new forms, loneliness losing its music, wounds losing their sting, her roaring appetite diminishing so she could thrive on self-knowledge and a fruit twice a day.
When a brick crumbled, the fragments fell into the crevices of her mind, ensuring that certain feelings and certain faces were never disowned by a sepulchral heart. Not even forgetting could be perfect. The world does not exist in absolutes, or perhaps, absolutes do not exist in the world.
At the very end of a journey one expects a singularity of feeling, a moment to represent the finality of the experience, an epiphany representing the purpose of the travel. When that does not arrive, one’s experience feels unfinished, as if one were playing in the sand at the beach, building the perfect monument to a beautiful day, when in a single breath everything ceases to exist. One finds oneself with the exact disposition of legs and arms, in the same sand-ridden clothes, the same half-smile of creative satisfaction, in a black void. Other analogies to this sensation are: a reluctant sneeze retreating at the last second, missing a stair, running toward a dear friend and discovering half-way that your meeting doesn’t mean as much to him, waves crashing upon your feet without a trace of wetness, your tongue feeling a gap where a tooth formerly was, a hollow embrace, lies stuck in your hair like dead wasps.
Without a conclusion, the young woman lost sense of what was real.
There came a time, along with a dry winter, when a decision had to be made. To avoid searching her mind, the young woman ran away to the edges of the coast hoping the changing sea and fisherpeople could present her wisdom. She watched the skies erupt with every sunrise and sunset. She wondered if she was indeed the protagonist of her fate. One day, she realised that nobody had sufficient reason to sympathise with her. She walked away with her back to the endless horizon, hurt and rejected, till she came across an open door.
The door was rarely closed in its lifetime. The door, of an alluring silver colour, was a plate of aluminium with hole through which it could be chained shut at night. The door led to a theatre always short of actors, musicians, performers and help. She floated in driven by a need to belong, already having decided that this would be her new home. There was intensity in this air, the illumination of a greater purpose, the fragrance of art. She wanted to immerse herself in it so she could stop existing as herself and become another layer in its terrible beauty.
From the beginning she remained an outsider. The theatre was run by a small group of loyal artists, each proud of his or her independence, each just like the other. They were a collection of geometric shapes. One was too flat, one too tall, one too deep, one too smooth, one too thin, one too symmetrical. When she could not solve the mystery of her own shape she knew she would be an outsider forever. But she stayed for a year, distracting her dreams with the simple pleasure of manual labour. When she needed to speak, she swept the floor; when she wanted to act, she scrubbed the bathroom; when she could have sung, she made tea; when she should have written, she rearranged the library. The shaped-ones were occupied as ever by their shadows on stage. So beautiful, they cooed, so neat and mysterious. She laughed silently at their foolishness, but she cried because she knew her shadow belonged on the stage. It was her destiny she choked with her silence.
As had become habit, she ran away, back to the house where it all began. The journey did not occur at all. She was under the same roof as all those adventures ago.
Every morning she woke up looking for a caterpillar among the plants. She tasted some of the leaves that a hungry caterpillar might enjoy. Once she started, she could not stop. The leaves had to be eaten until there was nothing left but transformation. She watched insects and birds flutter about. What strangeness exists in the world, she thought, that I can know only if I watch in silence.
When she stood still she grew tired, and in her weariness she understood that perhaps, after all, observing was her true purpose.
Sesha is a writer from Chennai. Her work has been published under various noms de plume. Perhaps this is one of them.