by Malini Mohana
At the age of 15, my sister disappeared. It wasn’t a big deal. Girls disappeared all the time. As pretty and inconsequential as butterflies. Spring in Kerala would bring out the big ones; reaching feelers and lurid wings. My sister would grab at them with her tiny hands, plucking them out of the sky. Each time she would be confused as they crumbled, wings broken, unable to fly when she sent them free. Each time, she would return to our mother, full of remorse as she recounted hurting God’s creature. And each time, our mother would only sigh. Butterflies were never of much interest to her. They were silent and beautiful. They lived silently and beautifully and died the same; remnants of their carcasses blown off consciences as quietly as their lives had been. No one noticed, no one cared. Least of whom my mother, who had always watched the fate of silent beauty from afar.
My sister’s turn came during a power outage. She had left to ask neighbours for matches. The light eventually came back; she never did. In-laws and distant family were concerned that she would come back raped — a cold body would be preferable to a virtueless one. As the years passed, my family reveled in the posthumous honour of her absence, relishing in the hypothetical futures of their demurely dead daughter. I, however, was considered either demanding or perverse, depending on who was asked. I spoke out of turn, smiled too seldom, laughed too loudly. My personality was described as ill-fitting. Unnatural. In fact, the whole of Malabar Street in Mannar remembered the restaurant incident as an example of what happens to unnatural women — the incident that had pushed my parents to feel that my disposition could pose another health risk to their depreciated family status. On the eve before Christmas, houses adorned with gaudy paper stars and off-beat Christmas carols booming from cars, I had been sent to pick up puff pastries and vada for guests at Mannar’s least popular bakery — Amazing Restaurant. On my way back, two men sporting matching slippers on the back of a Bajaj scooter offered an unoriginal opinion of my breasts. I picked up a brick and flung it in their general direction — an apt opening for a barrage of ripe insults. The public stepped in before the men could beat me up for hurting their feelings, and I was punished for disturbing the natural order of things. Two months later, days before my 17th birthday, I was married to a 40-year-old man. I went silently, beautifully, as dead as my dead sister.
I was reminded of her when I watched them paint my face, powdered bits of sindhuram falling with my wedding dress. I felt the weight of it crumble, and I understood then why my mother didn’t care about butterflies.
I would tell you my full name but you likely won’t remember. Not for any fault of your own, of course, but for the same reason that people don’t remember covers of famous songs. You skip the finer details, the ways in which they’re different and develop an impatience for its predictability, right before you find yourself switching stations. Skip me when you find that you’ve heard me before.
I am 25. I haven’t found Jesus. I haven’t taken up meditation. I haven’t written a book. I have done very little in the decade post-rape. I’ve had the money and the resources for countless shrinks, a supportive family and a formidable self-deprecating wit — the currency that funds my active and vanilla sex life.
I have long since found what I needed to survive. Can you cold turkey trauma? I don’t know, but I sure as hell tried. See, when there is no cure, you search for the morphine. Whatever form it comes in. When you can’t afford that legally, you find a way to live with the disease. Except, once in a while, you start to scratch at the breakouts. Eventually, you start to scratch into your chest for hours every day until the skin gives way, until you feel the flesh congealing under your nails and the curve of your bone. You scratch until you’ve excavated a little hole, a tiny space for the quiet to pour into you like a car under water. A personal reservoir of silence, a vacuum that swallows each memory whole before you have a chance to even glimpse it anywhere close to your periphery. Stripped of meaning, of faces, pushed into the gravitational singularity, disappearing faster than it appeared. The beauty of it, is that it’s quiet in there. It’s thick, viscous, and plastic. It’s the silence between the screams, the breaths between the pleas, the spaces between these written words. I live in those echoed spaces now.
You see, I have found resilience. I found it a long time ago. Resilience is just another word for emptiness.
My husband was a usually a decent man, albeit a simpleton. We moved to South Africa after marriage, where he started working at a car manufacturer. He combed a side path over his balding head, wore deodorant that would clump in his armpits, provide boisterously stupid political commentary that I’d quietly nod at. I learnt to accept him.
For the first year of our marriage I passed the time by reading everything I could find. I watched the news every day, I often asked the neighbours for their old newspapers, old books they no longer read. Three years later, in 1994, my husband once spoke about the failing economy because of ‘blacks’ in South Africa — I told him the old system was unsustainable and that he too was ‘black’. He slapped me.
In the nights, I let him climb on me, touch me, enter me, with a type of resignation associated only with gratitude. The gratitude to live in quiet, to read in rooms drenched in sunshine, to walk alone in the streets, eat heartily in the kitchen on my own. The gratitude to say yes to the inconvenient things, so that I could say no to the horrendous ones. I have seen the horrendous in my mother. I have seen her with blood and enamel, with eyes that held that disease; the one that rots women from the inside. I know what horrendous looks like. This is not so bad.
Did you know that I have also raised a girl? She was perfect. I had taught her to be outspoken. To be different to me. I had raised her to say no, loudly and unapologetically. When she was a toddler she grinned in brazen defiance, asked more questions than necessary and had a habit of kicking boys. At six she wrote a letter to a boy in her class stating: “Tim, you are grate even thou your forhead is big. Bring me your mother’s sanwiches at braketime”. I stifled a snort.
The teachers called her aggressive. I expected it. Her obstinacy was my salvation. She was why I said yes to him. She was why I was grateful.
When she turned 16, something had begun to change. It felt as though it happened overnight, but perhaps I just wasn’t paying attention. She asked me to help her shave her arms and her legs. I refused. So she stopped playing sports and she stopped wearing skirts. Her interest in her favourite subjects waned and she became quieter and more agreeable. She straightened her curls for three hours every second day. She shortened her name to an anglo-persian twang. I fought against it. I hit her, I yelled at her, out of frustration and panic. A few months before she turned 16, she would come back from school in tears, showing me a photo of her and a boy, posts on the internet that others had written about her. Words that curled into each other, like barbed wire in garlands of roses, dripping blood and enamel.
The word started to look odd to me. Just shapes on a phone shooting out shrapnel. I started to speak to her but she couldn’t hear me, even though she nodded, lost in the tumults. When she finally emerged, she looked across at me with familiar eyes. For the first time in 22 years, I saw my mother.
They worried that we would remain quiet after the attacks. I wasn’t. I spoke of it at women’s shelters, in columns, in books, on TV. I spoke continuously, angrily. I spoke of it in townships across the country, in my own community with my sisters, in universities with old, white men. Corrective rape. This is what it means. I gave it validity with academic rhetoric, meaning with genuine emotion, with irreverence. I found out that rape has no meaning and no entertainment value without it — no click-bait closure.
Over the course of this process, I have been called a flurry of favourable words: “Incredible, amazing. What an inspiring story, what a moving experience.”
I am a painting to them. Dark avant-garde, bought and sold and bought again. Sitting in rooms of widened eyes and tentative nods; a melting Dali, a cloying Munch. A girl in a black coat walking a cobblestone path. How we walk the same line in the abattoir... Stupid, stupid girls. I am a decorative casualty.
This is what I say to them each time on a podium. And every evening when I walk off that stage, I see her. Perhaps she is the one who I do this for, but it’s hard to tell where she is in the painting. She’s always there waiting for me. With her almond eyes and her white smile — the one they couldn’t touch. Every evening I go to bed with her, the curve of her hip under my hands and the sheen of her skin through the light from the windows. Every night with our legs entangled, she looks at my face, my pain just a layer of skin away — marks of violence immortalised in the pale language of scars. I don’t think she sees them.
She was never into paintings.
I once loved a man who lowered his gaze and smiled as he asked for my name. A man who listened as though words were melodies he’d heard for the first time. I once loved a man who turned molten under my touch, his smell still permeating my dreams, wafting into the early hours of the morning. I once loved a man who picked up a distortion mirror, and changed my face into something else entirely. A man who was admired and adored, whose voice spoke of old books and sweet temperaments. I once loved that man, who stood over me one night, who pulled his zip down and stepped out of his skin, and splayed my insides across his bed without asking. I once loved a man, a gentle, beautiful man who left infected holes in me, who walked back into a haze of normalcy as the sepsis crept into my bones. A man who stepped back into his skin, tightened the belt, and smiled at me as I lay on my side, staring into his mirror at my distorted face. I kissed him anyway.
I once loved a man who was perfect and kind and brilliant, who had said that it was ok that I hated myself. Hated myself for gathering my splayed insides, for walking home quietly. I hated myself the words I had chosen to keep locked in old drawers. For smiling at a man with zip-up skin, for lying there silently on his bedroom floor. I hated myself because I once loved that man.
Maybe you once loved him too.