The summer after I graduated high school, my mother and I took a trip to India. She wanted to show me all the sights I’d been lacking since I was a child: the Devaraja Market where she would buy garlands for prayer decorations, the palace, glowing at night; the small house with red walls where she grew up. We spent most of our two weeks in Mysore in her childhood home. I spent my days drinking the lukewarm coffee my thatha prepared and sitting beside my ajji, watching her knit baskets and shawls and listening to her spinning tales about my mother’s childhood. The tales coalesced and diverged, winding around me.
One morning, early in our trip, Ajji awoke believing that a ghost had possessed her. She insisted we go to the Sri Gayathri Devi temple, where the priests could perform a ritual to encourage the ghost’s departure. It was bodily, my ajji’s possession, shaking the core of her being. At night, when the ghost squirmed around inside her, she squirmed too, like an insect was swimming around in her depths. She began to sweat, and I went and sat beside her on the cot where she slept.
After a few days, Thatha and Mom gave up on trying to appease her; they left her alone to her wild, frightened dreams. I stayed with her during the nights. I asked if she wanted tea, water. “Nothing,” she said. “I want to be left alone,” she said, but then she grabbed my hand so hard she dug her fingernails into my skin.
“It’s my sister,” she told me in Kannada. “My sister moving in around me.” Ajji was one of eight sisters, and now she was the only one alive. The last sister who had died, Geetha, had lived in the same apartment building as Ajji, on the second floor. Geetha was the only sister Ajji was close to. Up until her death, they’d drink Bournvita and play card games together, chattering late enough into the night that the neighbors had more than once told them to be quieter.
“She just has diarrhea,” my mom said to Thatha. “Let’s get her to the doctor, they’ll give her medicine.” But I knew it was something more. I stared at the gray circles underneath her eyes. She had given up eating most things and only ate balls of rice with ghee and salt. She said her stomach felt weak. She placed a hand on the round of it and guided my hand there. “She moves around,” Ajji said. I wondered if Ajji thought she was somehow giving birth to her sister. I tried to understand the logic of this. Ajji had felt like she was the caretaker of all her sisters once her mother died, and her father, a geologist, was often away on work assignments.
“Do you see her still?” I asked, and she nodded. She gripped onto her nightgown, a faded red with yellow flowers. It smelled like dust and turmeric.
She told me she saw her in another form. She held onto her stomach and said, “She’s splattered all over a canvas. Very blue.” Ajji’s Kannada was fast, words strung together. She started shaking and turned onto her side on the cot. The cot creaked. I placed my hand on her forehead and panicked. I thought that maybe I wasn’t equipped to deal with Ajji’s condition alone. I asked her if she was hungry, and she said to bring balls of rice with ghee.
I went into the kitchen, rummaged through the pots and pans, and found the mostly empty ghee container, which had some sort of black ink on the lid. I found the rice Thatha had cooked earlier and stuck it in the microwave. I hoped the sound would wake him or Mom. I put a few of the deconstructed balls onto a plate and brought them to Ajji. She ate from my hand, and it felt strange to feel a human tongue on my fingers.
“Better?” I asked. She stopped shaking when she was eating but then resumed her shaking after. I was still jet lagged and couldn’t sleep, so I decided to spend the night asking her about her sister.
I lay next to her on the bed. When the tremors left momentarily, she spoke. She covered my eyes with her hand, and it smelled of turmeric and cardamom. I knew she chewed cardamom throughout the day. She whispered and I imagined we were actors on the Kannada serial Ajji watched. In this episode, I thought, the granddaughter would magically exorcise her grandmother’s ghost with the tool of love.
She told me about her sister. Geetha had only studied until secondary school, though she wanted to become a geologist like their father. As kids, she and Ajji would find red rocks in their yard. Geetha used the rocks to draw pictures on paper. Sometimes she rubbed them on her cheeks to make her cheeks look like they were blushing. Though Geetha was younger than Ajji, Ajji said she had a power over her like an older sister. When Geetha rubbed the rocks on Ajji’s cheeks, her skin ruptured and bled. Geetha became obsessed with makeup. She stole into their mother’s room and took her darkest red lipstick, smearing it all over her lips. She made herself look cartoonish. To be a cartoon, Geetha thought, was to be beautiful.
“Bring me that lipstick, there,” Ajji commanded in the middle of her story. I went to her dresser and touched her various items: the perfume that smelled like sandalwood, the gold-embroidered scarf, the thick red bangle. I found a single tube of lipstick, worn down. “Put it on me.” The last time I saw Ajji, not possessed, she was nearly silent, listening to Thatha tell stories about his time in the Army or eyes glued to her television shows. But with Geetha’s spirit inside of her, words had been unleashed.
I followed her instructions. I’d never put makeup on anyone before, including myself. Maybe once. My hand was unsteady. I colored outside the lines of her lips. She told me to let it smear onto the edges of her mouth. When I finished, she was still as a painting. She smiled briefly, then lay back down. She closed her eyes, pursed her lips, and slept.
In the morning, Ajji threw up in the sink. Thatha yelled a bit, then cleaned it. Mom brought her ginger tea. Then Thatha got upset. He stood above her and asked her what had possessed her and told her that her sister had been gone now for four months. He told her she had to get on with her life, that this possession had stalled everyone else’s lives. He used my name: “Surya’s here for the first time in how many years? And she’s here taking care of you.”
He began a ceremony that he said would clear the ghost from her body. Mom and I watched, but I didn’t want to. The look in my ajji’s eyes—one of glassy acceptance—pained me.
She leaned forward in her chair so Thatha could pound on her back. He hit her with his fists, and she leaned into the bucket beneath her. “Everything will fall out this way,” he said.
The next night, Ajji wanted me to put lipstick on her again. I did it because she said I was her favorite grandchild. “Like this,” she directed me, wanting me to smear it all over her mouth. She described how often Geetha looked at herself in the mirror when she was a teenager.
I closed my eyes and imagined Geetha. The only time I met her as a child, she gave me Bournvita, and I drank it, the salty-sweet lumps of chocolate powder staying on my tongue.
“Stop looking at yourself,” Ajji used to tell her sister. “It’s not modest.” But Geetha said it was powerful to stare at yourself, to take in all your beauty. “I want to see myself before others see me,” Geetha said, applying another layer of lipstick to her thick lips. On special days, she put a layer of blue eyeshadow on her lids.
Many men saw her like that, covered in makeup, in what Geetha called her most perfect performance. Her full lips and long eyelashes made man after man from school, from the neighborhood, from the streets, come to her doorstep and offer her sweets and gifts for her affection. In secret, when their parents had gone out to the temple, she brought some of the men over and kissed them, let them fondle her breasts. Ajji could sometimes hear the sounds through the walls, and as she tried to study the voices screamed louder until all that was in her head was the deafening sound of her sister’s beauty.
She married one of these men, eventually, after leaving school. She had wanted to teach art, but he was a doctor and didn’t think she needed to. He left her one day, when he found a younger girl with rounder eyes. Geetha said she wasn’t worried. She applied more eyeshadow, more eyeliner. There were more suitors at her door. She married someone else, but she couldn’t have kids, so he left her. She told Ajji she would stay beautiful for herself. Still, the men will look at me, and they will want me, she said, her lips red and waiting. Ajji said she died when no one wanted her anymore.
Ajji slipped out of her maxi dress and kept talking, as though she didn’t see me. I asked her if I should leave the room.
“It’s nothing you’re seeing,” she said. “I’m mostly a ghost too.” She looked through me. “Tell me, do you see anything?” She held her breasts in her hands, and I gasped. I didn’t know what to do. They were brown and shriveled, resembling the dates priests would give us as offerings at the temple.
She rolled herself into a gold silk sari from her closet. “It’s nighttime, Ajji,” I said. “Get back into your maxi dress and let’s go to sleep.”
“There’s milk in the kitchen,” she said. “Go and wake Thatha and he will make it warm for you.” She sat on the bed, half wrapped in her sari, the top half of her still naked. None of it seemed scary, like nakedness sometimes seemed to me in movies. In the Bollywood ones, there was hardly any nakedness; everyone was fully clothed but full of longing.
Ajji didn’t seem full of longing. Her eyes closed shut as though her nakedness made her sad.
I went to the living room where Thatha slept, his belly rising, a book of Hindu prayers on his stomach. He fell asleep with the prayers often, his fingers pressed together.
I tapped his belly, and he woke suddenly.
“Ajji’s seeing things,” I said. He groaned and went to the kitchen, prepared balls of rice and ghee. “Take these to her,” he directed me. I felt the buttery rice between my fingers, rubbed the oil onto my lips. Ajji ate greedily, finishing the six rice balls on her plate in a few minutes. I watched everything like it was a spectacle.
In the morning, we women—Ajji, Mom, and I—went to the temple where the priest performed a special ceremony for Ajji. My mom instructed me to bow down to the floor and pray. I didn’t know what to pray for; my mind was blank. After a few minutes, I still couldn’t think of anything for myself, but my mind wandered to Anish, the boy from Chennai who I had become friends with at school in Blossom Grove, Oregon. He kept texting me, asking me things I couldn’t answer, like if I was happy or sad. I knew he was bullied at school, and I wanted to be there for him, but I had graduated and felt unable to solve everything for him. I pushed him out of my head.
I watched the priest throw water into Ajji’s face. I imagined him spitting on her. The water became wads of spit flying onto her skin. He threw the water so harshly that I could hear it slapping her. When she came toward me, her face was covered in liquid, her kohl smudged over her cheeks. She wore a garland around her neck. She looked godly, like a flower queen. The white flowers hummed in the light.
She was quiet during the auto rickshaw ride back. She went to sleep shortly after we returned home. I watched her from between the curtains as she slept on her side peacefully, hands folded together to make a pillow under her head.
“She will be okay now,” Thatha said, warming up milk with honey and cloves and placing it on her bedside table. There was something about Ajji being in this state of tremor that opened a warmth in Thatha, made him take care of her in a way I hadn’t seen before. Whatever unleashed it, the tenderness sometimes slithered its way to my heart, and I found myself crying at night without even knowing why.
Mom and I hadn’t talked much since we’d been in India. I think she was focused on her mother and father, their ailments, their growing older. Still, she spoke to me silently in actions, placing a blanket over my feet when I fell asleep on the cot in the living room, bringing me another idli when my plate had emptied. She patted my head at night when she went to the bathroom and saw me asleep next to Ajji. I had wanted her to notice that something was hurting inside me, too, and tell me how to make it all not wrong.
Ajji looked renewed when she woke up from her nap. She stopped talking about her sister, and there was a spring to her step. She made her own food, preparing an eggplant palia. The oils and spices sizzled on the pan.
She brought me a plate of food, but I couldn’t eat. I sat stoically, watching a commercial for toothpaste on the TV. “Why aren’t you eating, jaanmari?” Ajji asked. Her revival irritated me. Her cheeks flushed red, the blood rushing back in. It felt like a bruise was forming on my forehead. When I pressed it, my stomach felt nauseous.
Mom told me to go and rest. They would go for a walk in the park. She asked if she should buy any earrings for me, and I nodded absently.
I tried to make myself the balls of rice and ghee, but I couldn’t figure out the rice cooker, so I took what rice was left at the bottom of it. The rice was sticky and hard, and globs of the ghee did not soften it. I ate it anyway and tried to fall asleep.
I looked at the text messages between me and Anish, the boy from school. I lay on Ajji’s bed, smelled the scent of her on her scarf, the cloves and turmeric and lipstick. I rolled around in it.
Anish and I had taken a walk in April. My attempts to ignore him were unsuccessful because he kept pestering me in many small, annoying ways. He left notes in my locker. I didn’t even know when he got them in there—maybe when I turned the other way. In the hallways, he slipped by me like a ghost. That was the thing; to everyone else, he was already a ghost. They didn’t see him, and I couldn’t take being the only one who did.
We went to Eastlake Park. At the end of our walk, we sat down. I sat on a tire swing, while he sat on a bench. He resembled an older man in his proper stature, sitting upright. He asked me when I was leaving for Williams, and I told him—the end of August. He asked if my parents were sad I was going so far away to the other end of the country. I don’t know, I told him. They’re happy it’s a good school, I said. Where do you want to go? I asked. He said he didn’t know, and then he said somewhere near, because his parents were always worried about him, even when he went for a walk. Where do you go on walks, and what do you think about? I asked. He said he talked to himself, had conversations in his head. With whom? There were childhood friends. Adeep. Mayuri. People from school in Chennai. Where are they now? I don’t know, he said. In my head. He wanted to talk to them, to call them up, but every time he tried, his parents berated him, said he should focus on his life here, now. That’s why we left, they said. So you could have a new life. A new life. He repeated the words.
I wanted to text him, to tell him sorry. But anything I sent now would accrue significant expenses. I always wanted to tell him sorry, though I didn’t know exactly what for.
I felt sick. I rose from Ajji’s bed and went to the bathroom. I cupped my hands and waited for water from the leaky faucet to drip down. I threw some water on my face. I kept my eyes open and threw it onto my face again. I thought about Ajji in the temple, her eyes open, receiving the water from the priest. She looked like a fish, waiting for salvation.
Maybe I was just suffering from gas. Food poisoning. This is what some part of me believed, but another part thought I had inherited Ajji’s sickness.
I went back to her bed and closed my eyes but didn’t sleep. I heard rustling around when they returned from their walk. I wrapped myself in Ajji’s scarf, and the evening disappeared and became night. I slept, and when I woke, it was still night. I smelled the air from outside coming in through the window. It was musky and full of flies. I opened my mouth and one landed on my tongue. I spat it out and turned to find Ajji beside me.
Her arms were curled around her belly. Her eyes were closed peacefully, and from what I could see, in her sleeping face, there was no fear. She even looked like she might be smiling. I unlocked myself from her scarf and put part of it on her. This way, Ajji and I would be together, safe from our ghosts.
My other Ajji, Dad’s mom, flew back with us to Blossom Grove. The last time she came to our house, she spent most of her days on the couch watching TV. This time, she mostly spent them sleeping. All of us were on a strange sleeping schedule.
Since Mom and I came back from India, everyone seemed lost in their own undefinable stupor; even the wisteria on the balcony crept down listlessly, aching for rest.
Tonight, a Saturday, I felt restless. Since getting home, I’d been talking with Johnny, a boy who was in my senior AP U.S. History class. He started the communication by responding to an old email chain about a group project we’d done together. “I remember you made this project actually fun. I had a good time working with you. What if we hung out for real sometime? You in town?” He sent it when I was in India.
The email was surprising for several reasons—firstly, I didn’t think he’d ever want to hang out with me, as no boy had ever initiated a social interaction with me. Secondly, he was in a somewhat popular crowd at school, mostly spending his time with sporty white boys, and I was not a sporty white boy. He had his complexities, though. Though history class was his only AP, he often aced the exams (which we all knew because our teacher called everyone up individually after a test or a quiz and told us—in a hushed tone, but still audible to others—our grade).
The emailing began as a distraction. My mind was still spinning when I came home. I stared at my phone in the middle of the night. when are you back? Anish had texted me. I told him I was back and asked if he wanted to catch up, but he hadn’t replied for a week. I wondered if I should ask my parents to call his parents, but I never did. I just waited for him to reach out to me.
I’d been talking to Johnny all day. It was the first time I’d texted a boy other than Anish. The texting was boring content-wise, but I felt a thrill every time he said anything. Texting him was better than listening to Ajji snoring on the couch.
He said he was watching basketball and told me the teams that were playing. It would’ve made no difference to me if it were two entirely different teams. He told me he ate only Skittles and Starbursts for dinner, which made me wonder what his mouth tasted like. Then he texted me two words, or, really, one word and one half-word: ur pretty. No one besides my mother had called me pretty before. The words made me feel something warm.
I felt my face with my fingers, the bridge of my nose, the flaking parts of my skin. I felt my throat and put my hands around my neck. Hesitantly, I slipped my hand under my dress, into my underwear. I felt around in there and then tasted myself. Salty.
I texted back: ur cute too. The action felt stupid, and as soon as I sent the text, I wanted to unsend it, but almost immediately he responded: ;). Then, another green bubble: Want to meet at Whale Park? Yes, I responded quicker than I could interpret what I had said. He sent me the address, and it was a fifteen-minute drive from my house, farther than I’d ever driven alone. School was only five minutes away. But I’d committed, and I couldn’t say no now.
I checked that everyone was asleep and tiptoed down the stairs. I knew the slyest way to leave the house without making much noise was to go to the backyard and exit through the gate.
Johnny was waiting in the parking lot in a silver Lexus. I didn’t know much about cars, but I knew this was a nice one. I parked right next to him. There was no one else in the parking lot. Was this even a place where people walked? Johnny’s face was blurry behind the glass. I stepped out of my parents’ Jeep, and he motioned for me to come inside. I wondered where the park was, if we were going to take a walk. I asked him this when I sat in the passenger’s seat. He laughed. I could see the hairiness of his arm. I focused on the patterns of his hair, where it was thick and thinner. I hadn’t noticed in history class that he had so much hair on his arms.
He pressed his lips to my forehead. That he went for my forehead first seemed oddly tender, but then he bit my neck, greedily. I pushed him away. “Do you remember how Mr. Kerner would always say his weekend was moderately enjoyable? Why’d he always use that descriptor?” I asked.
He said nothing. “Should we get some ice cream?” I asked.
His green eyes glimmered. “Stop being silly,” he said. “I know what you want.” What did I want?
I reached into my pocket for my phone. He was kissing my neck, and my arm was crushed by his weight.
“You ever been touched before?” he asked with a smile.
“Yes,” I said. “A few times.” I closed my eyes and imagined my lips were painted red, my eyes shadowed with blue. I saw my ajji standing in front of her mirror in Mysore, lips smeared with dark red lipstick. This is what beauty was, she said. This is what beauty made you into. The way she said it made beauty feel sinister: people looked at you, but as an object, on display.
That was the night she peeled off her maxi and showed me her breasts matter-of-factly. I remembered them, the drying prunes. I wanted so badly to be seen, to not fade away like Anish, who spoke meekly and bowed down his head. It was not long ago that I was Anish, eating alone in the cafeteria, hiding my oily paratha under a brown paper bag.
I felt something sharp inside of me. It was his finger. He pulled it out and looked at my face, searching for a reaction. I smiled because that was what I was supposed to do. He called me his doll and cupped my cheeks. “Am I beautiful?” I asked, feeling the hollowness of my question.
“A beautiful doll,” he said. I felt like he was playing a part, and I was too. It was necessary as a woman to play a part, I understood. It was what Ajji had done when Thatha hit her back, pushing the ghost out of her. I saw in her eyes that she could fight back, but her passivity gave her protection. To be protected was to be cared for. It was what her sister had done to make men trace the contours of her lips, confessing their love to her.
I closed my eyes and saw my ajji, her helpless fish eyes in the temple. I saw us looking into a mirror, her face right behind mine, a version of mine.
I conversed with her in my mind. I told her I was sick and that a boy at school was sick and I didn’t know what to do. “We have to take care of ourselves,” she told me in Kannada, her hand on my shoulder. “You can’t let someone else swallow you up. Then you’ll disappear too.”
I blinked hard, then bit my lip. “Bite my lip,” I told Johnny, and he obeyed. I kissed his neck and smelled his cologne, intense and overpowering. I licked his skin and tasted whatever he sprayed all over himself. I felt his cold fingers prying me open.
It hurt, but I thought I would endure it, and then it would get better. But it didn’t, and his nails were sharp. I would endure it, because I was finally desired by someone, and I was not Anish; I was someone to be looked at.
He dug his fingers in deeper. They burned. I asked him if we could get ice cream. I tried pushing his arm away, but he was much stronger than me. My desire turned quickly into fear. I thought of Ajji’s eyes when Thatha pounded her back, trying to get the ghost out. I thought of Anish, wandering around the school parking lot, listening to the voices in his head. Any moment now, Thatha said, hitting her, the ghost would come out of her, and she would be free.
He had two fingers in me, then three. I winced and let out a yelp. Why wasn’t he stopping? “I want to get ice cream,” I told him.
“You don’t need ice cream,” he said, and squeezed the fat of my thighs before pushing three fingers back inside of me. I breathed in and out. I reached for my phone in my pocket, but I couldn’t see if there were any messages. I couldn’t do anything, and finally, I stopped squirming, and let his fingers burn me. He put another finger in, and then his whole fist, and I imagined myself breaking, decomposing into particles of light.
When he was done, he pulled his fist out of me and started speaking. I couldn’t hear him; it seemed he was just making motions with his mouth. Finally, he told me to leave his car and he left. Another car drove slowly into the parking lot. I wished it was one of my parents with Ajji in the back seat, coming to rescue me. I imagined the warmth of my mother’s hands on my hair, lathering coconut oil into it. I imagined warmth, but everything around me was cold. The car circled the parking lot, then drove away.
I decided to get ice cream on my own. I was the last customer in the Baskin Robbins at the plaza. I got the cotton candy, my favorite. The whole drive there, the car seat felt full of pins. The flesh of my thighs was tender, the insides of me scratched out.
With my ice cream, I sat in the Jeep and watched the lights inside the Baskin Robbins flicker on and off as the woman who had served me cleaned down the counters. She wiped them methodically. I concentrated on the motion as tears fell from my eyes.
Families and groups of friends passed by in front of me, talking and laughing. Their sounds moved into me, flowed out of me.
Ajji texted me on WhatsApp. She must have just woken up. you are feeling better now? I saw the missed calls and messages from my mom. where are u? You left the house and im worried. I told her I’d just gone out to practice driving and listen to music. I knew she’d be upset, but the lie was enough to tide her over until I got back. Everyone was asleep, I added to my text. I was bored. I could see her texting back, but I didn’t want to read her messages.
I put a finger inside myself and pulled it out, seeing my own blood. It looked strange, thick and pinkish. In India, Ajji looked afraid when the ghost of her sister thrashed around in her, but I didn’t see her cry. I didn’t see her bleed. But I knew how much she was hurting. I knew now that at the center of Geetha’s performance was pain. I imagined Geetha’s face, bare, growing older, the lines across her skin etchings of our shared history. I imagined her shutting the door on every suitor that came to her, cutting this disease from her life away. I heard her screams from the room next door, and she was saying a word: no, no, no. I listened.
The Baskin Robbins was all dark now, but the world around it was still bright. It was a beautiful summer day. I let go of the cone and the ice cream fell into my lap, onto my dress, its colorful mess splattering all over my thighs. It was beautiful, a mixture of blue and pink and yellow. A beautiful brightness, all over my skin.
Rumpus original art by Madeline Kreider Carlson