Halfway up the Mountain
by Kiran Khalap

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YOUR ENTRY INTO WOMANHOOD is quiet. Your mother whispers to the brothers that the crow has touched you, that you need to sit separately for three days, in a corner between the bathroom and the kitchen. The corner is darkened by the smoke of the fire that heats the bath water, its wall heavy with the smell of ash, copper and steam. You get used to the simultaneous roughness and wetness of cloth between your thighs.

By some unknown signal, Dada understands that he can no longer come and hug you from behind, or lie with his head in your lap, watching you sing ‘Songs of a Madder Soil’.

One sense out of many pulls its shutters down. Your body will wait patiently for a few years before it reopens those sluice gates.

Your father’s departure has dismantled the fence of fear that protected your family. Priest Chintamani’s glance leaves strands of saliva on your breasts, his attempts to bury them in the humus in his mind fail.

In his sleep, he touches soft fair flesh. His crotch becomes a muslin tent.

Your mother now forces you to wear a sari. The one you wear when the boy comes down from Bombay to ‘see you’ is bright yellow. It is 1956, less than a decade since the first man in your life left without a forwarding address. Now you have to tie your fate to another, a stranger.

You peek at your husband-to-be while he slurps tea from a saucer smelling of Lifebuoy soap. Pockmarked face, sharp nose, thin body, caterpillar moustache, thick curly hair. "Ravindra," your elder brother whispers his name to you. Your father-in-law, Shantaram Patil a.k.a. Nana, in Terycot trousers and nylon shirt, with big gold ring warmed by the beedi held upright between the last two fingers, mixing tobacco smoke and air for a better kick, snaps his fingers to encourage the ash to submit to gravity, and mother-in-law, Mai, in a nine-yard-sari, splayed toes with toe-rings and high-pitched voice, encourage him to ask questions of you.

"Like to live in Bombay?" Ravindra asks, not interested in your reply. You nod. Bhai brings them three dry-palm fans with cloth trimming. Father and son enjoy the novelty of the huge swing in your porch, cold iron hook screeches on iron loop, while in the half-light of the kitchen your mother and you sweat over the woodfire.

The wedding is heralded at dawn by the ruthless whips of cane on skin. The drumming wakes up green-eyed priest Chintamani, his subconscious heavy with the knowledge that he’ll never again dare to dream of biting your nipples. You belong to another man.
By now, suspending your reactions has become a habit for you. You halt every emotion in mid-swing.

You are made to play wedding games. First, Ravindra, your husband, and you, search for a coin submerged in a plate of turmeric water; a game invented to enable two strangers to touch fingertips and exchange electricity.

The second game shakes you out of the exile of your senses: A sliver of coconut flesh has to be nibbled at from both sides by bride and bridegroom. His moustache tickles your lips, you cannot help bursting into laughter.

An ancient culture, despite being colonised, has remembered well its job of gently stoking the fire of the skin.

You remember your ungainly mother, sniffling, whispering, as she makes you wear her only pair of gold bangles. Two bands of solidified sunshine, her last legitimate possession, your last female-to-female bond, now shine around your wrist. The previous night she had smiled, "See, I had promised him, your father, that whatever happens, I will make sure you enter a good home. See, it is happening. If he were here, he would have cried more than when he abandoned you… you were the centre of his life. But don’t worry, I will be here, always, for you, that was my promise to him."

Unfortunately, human promises have a habit of being subject to the laws of nature. Neither of you are aware that the next time you see her, your mother will be trussed up like an ungainly reindeer.

Your husband has already confirmed his bond with you by tying a necklace around your fair neck. A necklace of black beads ending in four tiny cups of gold that clasp your breastbone. A four-chambered stethoscope listening to your four-chambered heart.

Your mangalsutra, the auspicious thread of belonging.

‘I am yours, for better or for worse.’

You touch your mother’s and Bhai’s feet when you leave home. Dada carries your dowry trunk in his right hand and clutches your right hand with his left. The trunk contains your mother’s gift of bangles, a few saris that came as wedding presents from relatives, some books, and deep down, hidden by it all, the tiny parkar-polka that you had worn when your father departed. Green shot with blue and crimson capillaries. Your secret tapestry of pain.

You remember your Dada clutching the bars of the State Transport bus window till his knuckles turn white, his eyes pleading for an answer, ‘Why must you go, why must you go, why must you go?’

All you can do is push your hand through the iron bars, horizontal this time, and cup his face.

‘Why? I don’t know. I am the last person to understand why anybody leaves.’