Walking was starting to become a difficult task for Puri Kapoor.
Her dupatta kept her wide awake, as it seemed to have a need to hug the lit lanterns that sat at the tip of warmth or kissing her hands to leave a swollen mehndi-colored mess. The Ganges pecked at her feet, bringing along small creatures she didn’t want to call fish.
The chand admired its tall, thin, scattered reflection in the water, he wasn’t hiding this night. It defied all the science and research she read in her grandmother’s books. She was a crazy woman, her Nani. She had told her once: light is something that could form solid. Puri told herself that she was wrong, but couldn’t help it, her grandmother wrote about the hidden; the chand’s light had this wonderful power to make something look as if it were worth millions, and on that night, Puri’s eyes were pearls under the glow birthed by her chanda mama.
Among the sound of the waves and her own breath, there was a deep cough from a short figure against the dim light. Short, because this man was sitting. His gray hair clustered above his head (some still waved down his chest and arms and back), and his arms forming a large angle. His fingers hovered above his knees, and he breathed inhale, exhale, inhale… each lasted for a few seconds; in sync with the roars of the river.
His sun-colored garments glowed in Chanda Mama’s light, rising and falling with his breathe, with the waves.
One second, Puri was watching this Baba continue his efforts to connect to god, to faith, then the next there was a sight of a broken lantern and the child of fire and water’s kiss: smoke. The moon was hiding now, as if scared from the sudden sound, a flock of birds flew past and the clouds’ efforts to hide the moon rose.
Kids laughed, the Baba yelled and complained. It was too dark to find humour in their expressions. Puri could only react with disappointment, her lantern’s light had tucked her amuse to sleep. It was another dark, cloudy sight; a beauty too natural to imitate. The least of a rupee couldn’t name the darkness that came, stealing the priceless sights away.
Puri let the water embrace her feet, protecting her from the land where her lantern’s shards created its own sharp imitation of the stonehenge. The smoke traveled with the wind, hitting her with the scent of ghee -- the butter she used to light the lantern -- almost fooling her to think she was home. The small creatures traveled with her, crawling over her toes but never daring to crawl further. She began to walk home, blind, the only sounds were the soft gasps of water hitting water and the hiccups that ruled her throat.
When she was near her home, the moon’s courage returned, it shined and once again made Puri’s eyes once again worth thousands. The sound of the Ganges and her hiccups were replaced with scuffing hooves and occasional calls of moo. As she reached her home, she could hear her roof sharing secrets about the wind. They shifted away from the breeze, huddling closer, whispering softer as the gust departed.
A secret is a strange thing.
To the unknowing, secrets were playful fish, swimming and lining up to spell a maybe without a promise. No science could describe the thick paste it made out of the air for the knowing; it deserved it's own phase of matter. It could be carried, but it was no solid. There was no shape, no form, no sight to point at, but this was no gas. It had the power to steal breathe, to make the air go thick once free from its cage; this was no liquid.
But Puri defied all this; she held this secret in her hands: it was a case of burning fake leather from its days under the square of light her window allowed. Inside, there were pages and pages of scribbles and equations and arrows that held a shout of her dream. These pages were filled, they swelled and crumpled, begging to be flipped through. The pages rustled at the touch of Puri’s fingers: a purr.
Her secret had allies.
The first one was a building. This ally did not burn under the sun, it did not crumple and swell at Puri. There were voices inside, voices that strived to overpower the waves’ roar. The owners of these voices wrote on boards and chastised clusters of boys that were all laughs and limbs.
Her last year of school was an easy one. The year was over as fast as the rare breeze in the village day, and Puri balanced this opportunity on her head like a new wife balancing her husband’s water from the rivers. This was what she wanted to do. This was what she held in the cluster of brown leather and the black and white of an unfortunate tree’s offspring.
She brought home papers and ink and she wrote, and wrote, and wrote. She sent it off, selling foods for money for stamps, and it would always boomerang with reds. There were claims of her education being of the “weak,” a fact that was anything but a fact: her location was weak, her gender was weak. The process was blind to scores and success. The process evaluated the grounds she slept on and the greens she owned, not the greens birthed by their soil, but from the miniscule stash her family hid behind their cabinets.
Her father had entered the room the next day, his eyes spotting her secret. He asked what it was.
She flipped to the rare pages, empty. It wasn’t her first time being caught, and for a while, her answers were diverse, now there was no room for diversity. A lie had its years, its limit.
“I lost it a week ago, I just found it.”
She watched the lines in her father’s face deepen. She watched the lie’s funeral show in her father’s face.
It wasn’t working.
Her father was in his uniform, his gun was just glossed, his back stayed straight, as if still at work. He took off his hat and nodded, eyeing the book, then he left the doorway with no door. He announced that he was going to the river for a while with the neighbors. Their son had come back from America, his parents wanted to show him off by keeping the Indian in him. She could hear neighbor’s mother, “come on,” she said “uske pairon chhoole.”
Puri heard her father giving blessings to the boy, then his mother said “say something, say something in English!”
And he did. Cheers followed, and eventually, the door closed.
The sun was travelling to the West, just like the neighbor’s son. Rajinikanth waved his goodbyes and watched the parents wipe tears and say their own goodbyes. He wondered what was so great about America, technology? Yes. Opportunity? Yes. but could you drop an apple’s core and grow it’s tree? Were there lands and the rivers of god? He didn’t know. That was why he stayed.
He held his lantern high when he entered the house, he didn’t want to repeat the mistake of hitting his wife with the door again. He realized she was now sleeping far from the door.
There was light in his daughter’s room, the lantern’s flame wasn’t burned out, it’s light danced against her child’s hair and book. It was the first time he had seen the book out in the open, unprotected. He pocketed it and left the room, went to sleep.
He dreamt of his child, the beauty she held when she was smiling was something he missed. He watched his daughter write in that book he hid under his pillow, and that was all. She smiled, but he wanted a laugh. He wanted to see her jump and run to her parents arms like she did when she was young. His daughter wanted something, this secret she held, that she put into this book, and now he wondered.
He wondered if he could bring his child back.
Rajinikanth as a child was a little boy, standing in front of a mirror, on his toes, trying to reach for the hat he saw above. His sisters were in a play, one was a police officer and the other was a crook. The black and white pattern of the crook’s hat sat on the floor, next to his feet.
But he stayed on his toes, desperate sounds slipping from his mouth from the effort. The police hat sat mockingly on the top corner of the mirror, swinging every time Rajinikanth lost his balance and knocked into the mirror.
Eventually he had dropped the mirror whole, and, picking up the hat, placed it on his head.
And that was how his sisters found him, their braids swinging, from looking at each other, then their little brother, only three at the time.
He stood there amongst the shards, barefoot, wearing worn pants and the hat.
Years later, he wore a real police hat, of a lower rank at first, and he stood in this hat at his sisters’ weddings, a knife through their careers. He stood straight in a higher ranking hat through his parents’ funerals. First his father then years later his mother’s. He had cried more at the weddings than the funerals. He fought with his parents about the wedding, one of his sisters had joined the force with him, she of a higher rank. He didn’t like the absence of her at work when she was married. He still shivered when he remembered the tears his sisters had shed. They were overwhelmed, being thrown losses that they had never asked for. Nudged into a sari and veil they didn’t want.
He had married late, rebellious to his parents for what he had witnessed before, he sat with his sisters on the phone at night, perplexed that they urged him to go along with it. You’re not going to be at loss, his sister had told him, so if she doesn’t have any plans for herself, just do it. Get it done with.
And so he had. Puri came a year later, and he was the little boy again. Shards of glass pointed and glared at him, he simply stood there, holding the infant against his chest. He had an idea as he did when he was that little boy, and he simply stood, as if bare of all else, with his dream.
The book was filled. Rajinikanth read it on his way to work. He put it down for a moment to greet the officers that surrounded his desk, but he continued reading after sending them to their jobs.
He felt this odd mix of joy and despair. His daughter was so unlike himself, she wanted facts, she never believed until she saw something herself. His job was to infer, to believe, it was shards of glass, the facts came later. It taped the whole thing up.
A man ran into the room, short, holding a hand to his hat to keep it from falling off. “Sir!”
“Where does your son go?”
The officer smiled, one of pride.
“College. A very good school.” Then he added: “biochemistry.” and his smile grew.
He told the name.
Rajinikanth wrote the name.
Every village held a myth.
And so did Puri’s. She found it hideous at first, she’d scrunch her face at the thought of it and would laugh at the thought of that myth becoming a reality. She would hear this myth’s approval from voices both high-pitched and low, and the owners of those whispers would jump, frightened by the sound of Puri’s sudden laugh.
It took her awhile to realize that this myth was a ‘myth’ was a reality. It was a mix, like the bhel she would have at weddings, except this cluster didn’t taste like heaven. It was bitter, a truth-lie Puri didn’t want at her wedding… a wedding she dreaded the existence of.
Puri had made that stick-like deal with her parents long ago, to not have a wedding. This promise couldn’t be bent, but Puri never paid attention to the fact that it could be snapped.
When Puri was young, she had yelled to her mother: “I want to see mama!”
“Who?” Her mother had asked.
She remembered feeling the cold ice of embarrassment hit her, frigid, she watched everything around her dance from the waves of pure heat. She remembered the laughs, and the light nudge of her father’s hand on the back of her head. What was so funny?
She did not know.
Nonetheless, this was her secret’s second ally. This, was not hidden, but it hid. It made Puri’s secret a secret, one to shush when it’s existence is mentioned.
That was when she was six, Puri first learnt the fragility of this deal at her own house years later:
“So,” Tripathi Bhai said, “did you find anyone?”
Puri watched her mother squat down onto the ground, rocking back and forth as if hearing the next gossip, “for what?” she asked.
“Puri.” he replied. His brows were furrowed as if this simple question was one to be written on Puri herself.
Puri tilted her head at her uncle.
This was where the myth was no myth:
“Oh!” she heard her mother exclaim, “yes! It’s so hard now, aye? Puri’s one of the young ones. God knows how we will find someone her age… and to match her insanity! I’ve gotten so many complaints from the schools, saying her mouth isn’t one to stop.”
Eyes watched Puri in the dark room, she peeked at the disapproving stares. Her father sat on the floor in front of her, he didn’t nod, he didn’t speak. His mouth was firm, he held a barrier against the thoughts only him and his child held.
Puri made a note to find a new home for what she hid. The black lines against white, decorated with an inky blue. The numbers and letters and scribbles that only she and the chand and the Ganges knew.
She left the room in a cluster of Namastes and forced smiles.
Why was this a secret?
She did not know.
Secrets were even stranger when missing.
Puri searched for a while, she sat and thought until she felt her heartbeat in her head, then she searched again.
When her father came home, she was washing the dishes.
“Did you see that book I found yesterday?”
There was silence for a while, then the window’s light stretched her father’s shadow to her vision.
“There’s some interesting things in there.”
Puri’s hands froze, then she continued moving her hands, but she didn't know what she was doing. It felt awkward, the wet glass plates against her hands. Her father was behind her dangling her secret, while her heartbeat roared in her ears every time she saw the burnt leather.
“It’s not mine.”
“It’s your handwriting.”
“Do you want to go to college?”
She didn’t answer. Her father waited, it was a cruel method, where he pulled at words without moving a centimeter.
“Mom said she found someone for me.”
“I’ll say no.” He flipped through the pages again, his arms felt light, the idea of his daughter being responsible for the ink on these papers made his eyes tear, “Hindu College. You want to go?”
Puri wiped her hands on a towel, she didn’t speak.
“Puri, if you want to go to college then just say yes.”
“You showed them the book?”
“Yes I did.”
“Did you tell them?”
“Tell them what?”
“I’m not a boy.”
There was the cherished myth. It was one so praised, so applauded, it was almost true. It sent boys to the prized America and girls to their houses. It told Puri to wear a sari around her head and blush. She never listened to the myth, but that didn’t stop it from blurring her eyes.
“You know,” her father sat down against the next to her, “people told your mother to get an abortion.”
Puri stayed quiet.
“It was illegal at that time too, to ask whether the child is a boy or a girl. But back then the doctor told us. The doctor told your mother and I that you were a girl. Then he offered abortion.”
“What happened then?”
“He didn’t know I was an officer. And we didn’t care what you were. It doesn’t make the world fun, if you’re constrained. I was told to go to America. I didn’t want to be told to do anything. And I didn’t want you to be told either.” He coughed.
“Now,” the word was barely audible, her father continued coughing, drunk water, then asked: “do you want to go?”
The nod of her head birthed a new girl. No, not new, his old girl. His child that drew on the walls and climbed on the roof and jumped in the river without the burn of judgement on her.
His child was back.