Words by Malini Mohana
Photography by Punam Dave
He took my hues, my spectrums of being, left an unwashed pallor on my skin. Can you see me, between the seconds that I blink? The part of me that unfolds and contracts in limpid pools of molten. This is my reservoir of silence, my vacuum that swallows each memory whole before I glimpse it anywhere near my periphery. Stripped of meaning, of weapons, disappearing faster than it appeared. Devoid of thoughts. The beauty of it, is that it’s quiet in here. It’s thick, viscous, and plastic. It’s the silence between the screams, the breaths between the sobs, the spaces between these written words. I live in those echoed spaces now. I worry that you will suffocate in it. So I look away.
In the silence of the mornings, I would pluck them from the ground, my words. A little less than a thought, a little more than a dream – wispy and sibilant, parts of it picked up by the wind. Some days they are drenched in silence, glistening and stuck. Other days, they are feathers in my hand. I hold them out. Translucent and reflective, mirrors of the colours you show me. If you look hard enough, you’ll see them. You usually don’t. Still, I hold them out every morning, and hope that you will see.
Remember it, they said. Talk about it. Hold on to it, it will make you stronger. So I held on to it, tighter and tighter. I wanted to break it at first, to snap it in half. But one day, you’ll find the sting hurts less than the memory. I did. So I didn’t break it – instead I squeezed tighter. I pushed into the hurt and claimed the calm as I watched myself quieten.
There are days that it rots, those words. Blackened and veined, shrunken into itself, a slow implosion before it maligns. I stare at it on some days. Watching my own death. Watching the things that make me dance and laugh and look at the sky, die a little. I called a funeral but no one came. So instead I hold in my hand that part of me, prickling the edges of my thoughts as it crumbles into ashes. Sometimes I use the ashes to draw myself, a charcoal sketch of what I think I am. I colour in the parts that had died, filling in shadows that fold in on themselves, holding out a hand to catch the shades that fly.
Lines and curves. That is what the world is made of. So I drew them with my ashes. The trees and the stars and the house with a chimney. I drew them so elaborately that I can walk into them now, this full dark forest of mine. Lines shot into the ground, as though by force. I put my name on it, etched into each tree. I want it to be remembered. I want the next person to see, to be able to walk in and paint it with the ashes they find.
I waited for a person. Sometimes it’s you. I can see you in the corner of my eye. You’re lit up by the sun. Your hair turns bronze and copper and I know you’re seeing me too. It hurts to move closer to you, it tears at my clothes and into my skin. So I wait here. I once heard that you tried to walk to me too. That it ripped into your flesh so you walked away. You asked me to come forward but I said couldn’t. You didn’t understand why. You turned away for all the pain. I understood you; I would turn away if I could too. I guess I’ve forgotten you now, as I sit here. I see someone else on my periphery and watched them walk through the tears. They didn’t ask me to come forward. They gave me their hand and made me stand.
Stay within the lines; don’t wander. Leave the skirts, the saris, the khangas. Bits of you will disappear over those lines if you breach them. But I walked, wandered. I went to retrieve those bits. I remembered where he stole them, where I shed like a snake, over and over until the rawness made my skin hum. So I walked, my ashes afloat, making me unreal as I put my feet on the ground. I know he’s out there somewhere; I can hear the tracks rumbling. Still, I will wander.
I cross the lines, even when I hear the ground shaking. Death is not frightening for those who have already died. The road falls away, and the edge of the earth waits as I pick up my body. It looks a little different. Opalescent, untouched. I know you wanted me to be the same, but it looks like I’m not.
It’s translucent delirium, the way the skies open up when you’re left alone. I reached for it every day, the way I would as a toddler. I remember my polka dot dress and my hands sticky from strawberry ice pops, jumping, jumping at the sun. Dewdrops fell from the trees; on hot days I would stand under them, my arms wide open, giggling for the light.
I found something different. It’s strange and beautiful and steeped in sunlight. I can feel it seep into my laugh lines, the corners of my mouth. When my words lift on the wind and my ashes blur into the horizon, I can smell it like new rain. It’s warm and airy and whispers my name. I wish you could see me on these days.
I had wandered out the lines. I stepped over boundaries assigned by madmen. I walked the contours, unknowingly in polka dots, and I crossed them, unknowingly in saris, in skirts, in khangas. They shoved me back within those lines, and told me to stay. To behave. To be safe. To be quiet. I was never good at listening, so I never did. Instead walked with my ashes, alongside a body that looked like me, feathered thoughts and tumours, between the trees I drew and the rumbling in the ground. And sometimes, just sometimes, I found the sun spilling onto my face. You will not recognise me anymore, and I don’t care that you don’t approve.
"This project was sparked by the 60th anniversary of National Women’s Day in South Africa: 9 August 2016. The public holiday is historic in highlighting the strength and courage of those 20 000 women who marched to the Union Buildings to protest the Urban Areas Act (“pass laws”). The actions of that day rippled through the years and brought about several significant changes for women throughout the country and the world. But there is more rippling to come as the fight for respect, justice, equality and freedom is ongoing. Mal and I understood this and so I approached her with my idea of commemorating the 1956 march and its ripples through a form of art: photography and writing. I am the subject material in the photos and these were all taken by me. Mal weaved her magic with her thoughts and wrote a caption for each of the photos after seeing them.
We each have our own lived experience of what it is like to be a woman but those experiences never stand alone, they culminate and resonate. These are not just Mal and my experiences but a culmination of ours, yours, your sisters, your mothers, your daughters, your friends. We wanted The Wanderers to resonate with every woman’s story in some way. Despite the hardships we face being women, we will continue to wander, to rise, to fight, together."
- Punam Dave