Her heartbeat is a history folded into a vessel. When she is born her mother counts three beats where two should sound: an arrhythmic omen embedded in a baby’s chest. She is born black, not brown, and on her first full moon she is offered the sweet-sounding titles of fair-skinned goddesses. Her mother smells her skin in kisses and calls to her: Papa, my Papa, Chinna Papa, Kutty Papa, my Darling Baby Girl. When she is still small her mother rubs her with turmeric powder and coconut oil, callused hands stroking soft skin, till her body buzzes with the softness and the brightness of a woman whose existence depends on erasure. Her mother’s hands snap chicken necks, pound rice, and pull her hair. Her mother’s hands hold the cash that comes in her dowry, tie the collar of the cow in their yard, and slap her face a thousand times to rid it of its ugliness. Her mother’s hands are bilingual: to her face, which they seize and smack and spit, they are hammers against nails; but to her hair, which they comb and braid softly before bed, they are the Amma whose eyes refuse to meet her own.
She is sold to a man twelve years her senior.
She is sold with the promise of cash and a cow.
On the day of her wedding her heart beats twice.
Her husband is called Vasu and he carries the face of a bull. He is wider than she expects, but also taller, and a gash sits square in the seat of his chin. A round ring of plated gold hangs from the sliver of flesh between his nostrils. Red, infected, and oozing, it clanks against her teeth as he pushes into her hips at night. He does not drink or smoke or gamble. He does not wash his mouth or clean his teeth or kiss her in the dark.
She spends her days reading Filmi magazines that she pulls from the next-door neighbor’s trash. In the evenings, she prepares dishes she knows he will eat without complaint. When he relishes a meal, he eats in thick silence marred only by the steady smacking of his lips. When the food does not suit his taste, he asks her where she learned her cooking, and laughs before she can answer.
“I knew you were a good woman when your father told me you stopped school in the third standard,” he says often. “Good women learn when to stop learning.”
Before the monsoons they go to the movies. He takes her to see Singari at the theatre behind their house one night, where he buys red-buttered masala popcorn and holds her limp fingers in his wide hand. “Padmini is the greatest actress of our time,” she tells him as they sit, “but you can still hear her accent when she speaks Tamil.”
“Too many movies will make you lazy,” he says.
She does not take any of his popcorn.
When the movie is over, he takes her to a newsstand outside the theatre and points to a magazine with Padmini’s face. “If I buy you this,” he asks, lilting his voice toward her with the promise of affection, “will you enjoy the pictures?”
She takes it from his hand and pretends she cannot read the title.
But he is sweet sometimes, too, sweet-speaking and eyes dancing with yearning looks. His house is her first home without a mother, and in the night when she uncoils her hair, it is he who sits behind her with a comb, murmuring soft stories in her ears as he layers her hair in threes. He pins her plait with fresh flowers and inhales her neck as if he is making a memory.
When life swells in her belly she dreams of Yashoda. She envisions peacock-blue babies born with the power to suckle the breasts of demons. She dreams of a son born to strangle snakes made of men, of a daughter born to stamp the earth open and accept a woman whole into its womb. The midwife comes and she spreads her legs and pushes pain into personhood.
Her son is born black, not blue, and when he wails he is handed to her, bloody sac streaming and white cord uncut. She holds her boy in her elbow and studies the wholeness of him. Two arms, two legs, black hair, one mother. She runs her finger against his gums and sees the whole world sitting in the center of his mouth. There it all sits: blue sea and sky, green earth and soil, fabled myth and man, swirled into a globe at the base of his throat. How vast it was, the whole wide world around them: hung idly between teeth and tongue, caught or carefully kept in the crevices of a toddler’s gums.
Here is the history she cannot ignore: her first tooth fell when Vasu began to hit her.
First on the back of her neck, so that no one would see, and then, next, when the sights and sounds of her battered body could no longer bother him, her face, and the cigarettes, whose burns trailed the length of her arms like a lover’s lost kisses. Papa, he called her, Baby, like everyone else, but she found herself hunching tightly over their children as they suckled her breasts, as if she were a wall. Not soft or pink or sweet, like the gums his fists had left behind, but a solid steel tooth in her own right. Twenty-three years young, toothless, fearless Papa.
He himself is not fearless, and when the walls within her rise she watches his hurricane melt. He runs his thumbs across her cheekbones. He begs to hold her child.
She studies her sons for signs of the bull within them. When they are still small, her mother tells her, they will crawl and hit and hurt each other. This is the male nature, to hurt, but you are their Amma and you will soften them with your woman ways.
But they are bubbly balloons, colorful fat candies stuffed with laughter and sweetness and good-smelling hair. She cuddles them close and covers her bruises. She runs her finger across their tiny teeth at night, covering them with fluoride and sweet dreams. Vasu buys them gold chains and used books and bright colored balls. When their eyes grow wide with fear, he hides his fists, sets them into his pockets until she is in the bath or the bedroom, until they are alone and the children are sleeping. He pounds her face into dry cement. She does not scream. Her eyes search the drawer of her dowry.
She begins to count the cash she came with.
“Her name is Madhavi,” Vasu says.
Madhavi stands behind her husband in the doorjamb. She is small and black-haired and red-eyed, and when Papa speaks she looks at her feet.
“Yes, that’s all fine,” she says. “Who is she?”
Vasu holds Madhavi’s hand in his and brings her to his left side and says, “She is my wife. She is to be my wife.”
“And who am I?” Papa asks him.
“You are my first wife,” he says, reaching his right hand toward her. “You are a good woman and my first wife and you will learn to love Madhavi as I have learned to love you.”
“And who am I?” she asks him again. “Who do you think I am?”
Departure loses its question mark. Satchel bags quickly stuffed with coins and cash, babies clinging to her neck, she flies into the warm night, the sounds of Vasu’s snores trailing behind her.
After they leave him they find a yellowed straw hut. They are lucky to have it, yes, because while the hut itself is barely a hut, thatched roof and tarp doorway, they are still together: Baby and her babies, cooking chicken on an open flame and waiting in paranoid peace for him to come and collect.
Her eldest watches her while she sleeps. She feels his eyes boring into the bony shoulder under her sari. He is a young man, nearly six years old, and soon she will have to buy clothes for him. His penis protrudes when he walks, strutting around the house like a rooster claiming his peck. “If he comes here,” her son tells her, “if he comes here, let me handle things.” His brother is too young for him to hold, but he is still the man of the hut and the least she can do is to let him think it.
She wonders what work can be done with her body. The women in the huts adjacent see her scars and slip her cash; when she refuses, they call their boss. “We can’t sell sex without teeth,” he declares, “but her legs are firm and we need laborers.” In the mornings, the lady laborers tie cotton cloths round the width of their heads to better balance beams and bricks against their skulls. The beams are heavy stone and Papa cannot lift them with her arms alone, but she holds them high against her towel, slipping slightly in the wobble of her chin and the shake of her shin against her babies’ pulling palms. She is paid twelve rupees a day for her service, or so she is told—she does not count the cash.
Men wander from hut to hut during the dusty break hour, searching for food and conversation and company. She is grateful for the screaming children, for the bright toothless smile she must offer them. “Amma,” the men call her, an unfamiliar ring of respect denting their hoarse voices, “Mother, thanks for the meal.” They bring her rice, squirreled or stolen from somewhere, and bright pull toys for the children. They address her eldest as a man. They leave her clothes untouched.
In the evenings, she squats in circles with the beam balancers and the hut dwellers, slapping wet turmeric into each other’s skin to stop the darkening. There is a cool feeling against her dry joints and a warm feeling in her chest. The younger girls have a secret hope of lightening their complexion, and she tells them again and again and again that it will work, that there will be a handsome hero at the end of the film, that bright skin and a sweet smile will somehow send them soaring.
The house that she is building has eight bedrooms and a veranda. She studies the blueprints with the wary, wishing eyes of a woman whose hopes have never been granted.
“I will have a house like this one day,” she says to the other women, as if it is a joke.
“You and what husband, Papa?” they ask her. “Who will buy this house for you?”
“I will buy two,” she says.
The palm who pays her grabs her wrist. It is the forceful grab of a startled man who has only just been bothered, or the desperate grab of a man who has only just begun wanting.
She clangs her coins against his jaw, silver clashing against his small white teeth. She pushes his face away with her open palm. Her stomach is clenching. She tells him to let go, or perhaps she does not—she cannot hear herself over the thick cloud of her fear.
The scars on her arm bore holes into his eyes. His face carries the freshly stung sadness of disappointment, and she sees that he is staring at the burns on her arm, at the scars on her shoulder, at the pinkness of her smile.
“I am sorry,” he says, eyeing the children clinging to her sari.
“I am not,” she tells him.
He opens his wallet. “Take something.”
She shakes her head. “Work, yes. Not money. Not money only.”
He narrows his eyes as he thinks. “Housework?” he asks. “My wife needs help at home.”
She asks how many bricks she will have to carry.
“No bricks,” he promises, “only babies, Papamma.”
And then she is Baby and Mother together, past and present welded to one.
The payroll officer lives in Adyar, one hour from the hut by public transit bus, so she straps the children to her back and to her front. They climb aboard, bodies packed tight in stinking heat and sweat, unwashed men gazing at the small curve of her breasts. Their dark faces flicker into Vasu’s—the bright gold of his ring sinking out of their nostrils—but when she smiles at them, toothless and leering, she sees their faces flinching and feels freedom flying in her belly.
The children she cares for are sullen and stubborn, ignoring her sons and her endless offers to prepare sweets. “Tell us a story,” they demand, and when she has run the reams of births and deaths dry, has told every trial of every God, she asks if they have yet heard the story of Devadasu and Parvati. “No?” she asks, etching incredulity into the curves of her mouth. “First,” she says, “think of a dark theater, and when the screen turns light, Savitri is sitting in the royal court…”
There are months. Papamma makes magic out of movies and feels tension building in her belly. She hears from a cousin of their old neighbor that Vasu is searching, that he is angry, that he wants his children. “Keep them close, Papamma” the women whisper. “He can find you with his eyes closed.” She sees him slipping through the doors of huts in the deep black of night, and balancing beams across his head with the women in the mornings. She sees him selling fruit and milking cows, teaching maths to her children, and stitching saris at the tailor. She sees him married to Madhavi and tied, too, to the hundreds of women in the huts who look like her.
“Rest easy,” her neighbors tell her, “if he comes here he will have to come through us.”
Her sons wrestle with sleep, bulls charging through their dreams, and in the dark dank of the hut she cannot soothe them. “He will come to the school,” she warns them when they wake. “He will try to give you money, he will try to take you away.” Do not leave me, she thinks, but she does not say it, because it cannot leave her lips and it does not need to be spoken.
When he comes for her, he is quiet and final.
He waits at the bus stop in Adyar. His shirt is full of soot and his hair is caked with dust.
“How did you find me?” she asks. “How did you come here?”
“What’s one neighborhood,” he says, “what’s two when there is love at the other end?” His voice is freshly churned butter hanging high on a pot. “Come home,” he asks her. The weight of the question is caught between them.
“Home is not your house.”
“Madhavi misses you,” he says, in the wheedling way of yearning for truth in his own lies. “I miss our sons, and she misses her sister.”
“Sister?” she says. “Leave me. Leave my children be. Leave me, leave me.”
“You will come,” he insists, and he reaches for her arm.
She feels the softness above the bones in his hard palm.
Then there is the bus and the door, and she is hiding in the thickets of men until the back of his sooty white shirt fades into the swarms of workers at the station. She clutches the window, catching her breath and feeling her pulse. The bus pulls forward.
Stacks of cash grow taller than her sons. She sews her savings into the hems of her petticoats, and when they weigh her down heavy, she buys thick gold belts that she fastens across her broad belly. At night her eyes close and grow green: she converts belts to houses, belts to bedrooms, belts to Western toilets and marble verandas. Belts become private schools and eggs at every meal. Belts become doctor visits and clean teeth. Belts trace the shape of her waist and the length of her life, and when she feels them move under her sari she feels a deep-set satisfaction.
She visits a newsstand and pays for a Filmi magazine to read at teatime. “I saw you here with your husband once,” the vendor says, and she shakes her head, belts clanging beneath her blouse. “You saw some other woman,” she says. The vendor studies the brightness of her blouse and nods. “You may be right,” he says. “Anyway—that man passed some months ago.”
When the goddess called Savitri followed Yama to the ends of the earth, chasing for a dead husband whose life was not yet finished, she charmed Death with her words and fooled him with her wisdom. Papamma thinks of Savitri Devi, that cunning mother goddess and her white-willed tongue, and then—sticky smiled—of the wide-eyed Savitri Ramasamy, whose Bollywood business was plastered to the front of every new magazine she had purchased. The actress’s husband was a liar and cheat, the rumors said; famous actor and all that, and still a man with two women.
There will be a pyre, she is told, and she is alight briefly with the thought of Vasu’s body burning, but she cannot bring herself to watch him melt to black ash. She shaves her head and burns her bright clothes. Her sons swaddle her shoulders in gray-brown cloth and she clutches them close to her dry red eyes. “For him?” they ask her. “Still, for him?”
“A marriage is a marriage,” she says.
Madhavi comes to the hut.
Her heart beats in threes. She does not answer the door.
Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick.