Note: This story references the Punjabi folktale of 'Sohni Mahiwal'
Water was gushing from side to side. Amira flapped her arms about. She tried to scream, but the salty water was choking her. She felt it in her mouth, her nose, and her ears. It was seeping inside her little bathing suit. She wailed, but only bubbles released. She tried to stand, but her plump, tiny legs could not feel the sand. The waves were tossing and turning her about.
Sohni couldn’t swim. The pot split in her hands leaving behind just soft pieces of clay pushed about by the river currents. She fidgeted and squealed, but it only sped her drowning.
The tide pushed Amira forward. She squirmed. Her eyes were aching. Her head was dizzy. She felt the tide’s push again, this time harder. She fell forward and her hands touched soft dirt. Her knees bent. Water was still swimming inside her, still wedged inside her throat.
“Amira!” a voice roared. But the child didn’t hear it.
Baba grabbed her. Amira was shivering. Baba’s hands carried her away from the waves. She choked on the saltiness as Baba’s hand gently pounded her chest.
Her eyes stung as she pulled them open. The sunlight was ready to blind her, but Mama came in its way. Mama’s outstretched arms were before Amira and she crawled into them. Her ears were tickling but they were giving way to the sounds of Baba’s angry roars. She buried her face in Mama’s arms.
Later that night, Mama retold Amira the story of Sohni Mahiwal. It made Amira quieter but she pondered out loud, “Mama? Did I drown today just like Sohni did?”
A scarlet color rose to Mama’s cheeks. She carefully replied, “No honey. We saved you didn’t we.”
Mama’s back was turned, but Amira saw Baba was standing at the door. She smiled at both of them before finally drifting into slumber.
Amira picked up the clay pot. It was the smallest of the lot but resembled a football in her tiny hands. Her fingers rubbed its rough surface; she despised the brown color and her second wish was for her paints to appear next to her. The first wish was that her mother would buy it.
Instead, she asked, “Mama? How does one use a pot to cross a river?”
Mama didn’t turn. She was scouting the larger terracotta pieces in the shop. They were scattered in towering layers, the biggest at the bottom and the smallest peeking out from the top. It was a marvel they didn’t topple over.
“The pot doesn’t sink,” she said, “You use it to float in the water.”
“So I just have to hold it? Like this?” Amira held the clay football higher in the demonstration.
Mama glanced for a second and smiled. Yes, just like that. Amira was thinking about the size of the pot Sohni had used every night.
Sohni floated across the river, using the pot to keep her steady, as she traveled to the other side to meet her beloved Mahiwal...
It was the third shop they had visited. Ahead of them, lay nearly a dozen others of the same kind. Vendors were standing next to towers of terracotta pots, marketing at the top of their lungs in the midst of the deafening traffic behind them. The market behind elicited hues of every kind, but the smoke from a motorbike that raced past dulled them briefly.
Mama lowered an eye to her watch. Baba will be here any minute to pick them and she still hadn’t found a piece to her liking. Her eyes crawled over each and every one of them. They stopped at the tiny piece in Amira’s babyish hands. In her head, she predicted the conversation in the car: Baba would be rough, chiding her for wasting time and she would ignore him by cosseting with Amira. It was a technique; if she paid Amira enough attention, she would never notice. But few things went unnoticed by Amira’s curious eyes and ears.
He came as expected. Amira went home empty-handed. She didn’t like that football that much but her hands pined for it now. She had planned to experiment with it during one of her long baths. Or, maybe, whenever Baba fulfilled his promise of taking her swimming. Amira witnessed he wasn’t too angry today; he barely spoke.
Back home, Mama changed the mood and invited Amira to paint the six pots she had bought. Amira was euphoric, but her mood soured after the first pot had been conquered.
Mama almost chuckled when she saw it. The pinkish browns of the pot had been covered with layers of dark purple paint. A yellow spot on one side looked like an eye poking out but it reminded her of the silly horse drawings Amira had made on their living room walls years ago.
“It’s horrible!” Amira cried.
“It doesn’t look that bad,” Mama said.
“The purple Mama!” Amira squealed, “I ruined it!”
“No one will know.”
“I will plant roses in that pot: Long, beautiful red roses that no one will even notice the pot!”
But Amira wasn’t satiated and whimpered. That night, she asked Mama to repeat the story: The story of the potter’s daughter who painted beautiful pots and used them to swim across the river.
“Her name was Sohni” Mama laughed.
“I want to paint pots like her!” the child announced.
“You already do!” but Amira disagreed.
“Do you remember the end?” Mama asked. Amira, obviously, did not.
When narrating a love story to a child as young as Amira, substitutions had to be imposed. Baba scoffed at the idea of discussing issues like ‘epic or forbidden love’ but Amira loved listening to stories. Almost as much as she loved painting and swimming, and Mama’s creativity was limited to retellings. The tale Sohni Mahiwal was one of Mama’s favorite stories; why shouldn’t her daughter have the luxury too?
When the story ended, Amira closed her eyes and Mama exited. But Amira was still awake. She heard the sound of Baba and Mama from the next room.
“It’s inappropriate” Baba was yelling, “Those sickening love stories you’re telling my daughter!”
“She’s not just yours you know” Mama replied.
“She would be much better off if she was!”
“She’s alive! Isn’t that enough?!”
“And I have to watch her every second of the way now! Because of your carelessness!”
Amira wondered why they feigned being fine the next morning. It was one thought she never wondered out loud.
Sohni was upset. She did not love staying inside the haveli. Everybody was mean and rude to her, and there was no escape. Then one day, she looked out to see a cottage that was separated from the haveli by a river passing in between. It was empty, except for a familiar face watching her with a passionate smile…
Amira was much older, and a much more technical painter, when she found out: The real reason why Sohni swam every night to the other side of the river and why the name of the story was Sohni Mahiwal instead. Her mother had told her it was because Sohni wanted to be free from the chains that had bound her for life.
Mama was not wrong though, and she felt a gush of affection for her when she realized; lover or not, everyone needed an escape in life.
Amira wanted to go to the beach but Baba had declared it forbidden. He never even took her swimming. But she wasn’t afraid of the water. If she had been, she wouldn’t have stared longingly at the aqua hues whenever their car slid past the coast. She was angry when Baba forbade her, to the extent that she almost asked him out loud: “Just because you’re always mad at Mama doesn’t mean you have to be at me too!”
She was happy she never asked him. The next day, Baba had woken early and made a cup of her tea for her too. She rested her head on his thigh, and he caressed her head. Even then, Amira didn’t ponder out loud that he patted her the same way Mama did every time she spoke of Sohni.
Sohni missed her father, who would let her sit in his pottery shop to paint. Her father had doted on her and laughed in her. It was a paradox, how someone who treasured her would send her to a place where her smiles were butchered…
Once, Amira romanticized the idea of rebellion: she would wake early in the morning, take her friend from next door, and they would both drive to the coast. She would take the ugly purple pot with her. It was still in the house, but much too small to carry the whopping number of roses Mama had grown. She could use the pot in the water, as a practice. Even if it didn’t work, she would leave the pot out there.
She had planned it the night Baba bellowed from the next room for the pot to be thrown out.
“It’s been sitting around here all these years. What good is it doing?”
“Just because it’s worthless to you doesn’t mean it’s worthless to me!” Mama protested.
“Maybe you’re just keeping it to spite me!” he said.
Mama didn’t answer. Amira wondered why she insisted on keeping the pot. Its unattractiveness had only built up over the years, like algae in an unattended pond.
Baba had been in the hospital for five days now. Heart attacks seemed to be a thing of routine, Amira supposed. Even the doctor was nonchalant about it. “Just a simple surgery, nothing more” But some things never sounded simple.
Like how, for five days, Mama breathed and smiled more. She barely cooked and overslept. Amira mused how her house could feel relieving and empty at the same time. Yes, it was a relief to go to sleep without the sound of shouting in the yonder. But her heart quivered every time she prayed that Baba would be okay.
Today, Baba came home. Two days later, the yelling resumed. Four more days and her friend suggested going to the beach.
So, Amira did go. The sun was drowning; blue dyes of the evening were following it. She had left Baba and Mama alone; no doubt they’d be doing what they always did best.
One wave hurled in, but she was standing a good distance away staring at it. Her feet sank into the fine moist sand.
People always said magnificent things about the sea. They labeled it ‘freedom’ and ‘adventure’. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Salt, she thought.
Amira opened them to stare at the gossamer of the wave hurling towards her. She remembered the six-year-old child who was almost buried within it.
Her feet sank into the moist sand. She felt stiff. But it was not the chilliness of the ocean breeze that froze her. Baba flashed in her head and she wondered whether he felt this cold when he was in the hospital, or when he was with Mama?
Amira took a step. The soft sand cushioned her foot. She took another, but something jabbed the underside of her toe. Maybe it was a tiny shell, but she didn’t look down. She moved further; now the wave plunged up to her ankle. She squeezed her eyes shut. She wanted it to salve her, but it’s only water.
Saltwater, her mind speaks; it’s not good for the wounds.
The chains at Sohni’s ankles had wounded her every day. So every night, she crept at the riverbank and dived in feet first. The water soothed her feet as she floated to the other side.
Amira felt as though she was burning on the inside. She wondered if Sohni felt this way every night. She continued to take step after step. The water was rising now. It drenched her jeans, her cotton kameez glided in it and the sharp cold tickled her skin. Her mind was still flooding with memories.
She wanted the glacial water to numb her head too. Her head tilted back, and she lifted her eyelids. The stars were coming out earlier than usual on the mauve sky. Mama mentioned stars the last night Sohni went into the river, with the raw clay pot. Amira wonders whether they were there to celebrate her final escape; Or to mourn the coming denouement.
Seawater slid over her. It oozed into her mouth. Amira should have brought that awful purple pot with her.