The Girl Who Ate Her Horoscope

[Fiction :)]

Twist time’s arm behind its back and see me as I was by moonlight. Roof warm (and forbidden) beneath me, the night air still. I am listening to the wheels of the bullock cart trundling down the road as I chew on my horoscope chart. Planets and constellations slip down my throat. Taste of faded ink on aged yellow paper. I am twenty-three years old and swallowing my destiny in an ingenious attempt to avoid it. They will not be able to match my horoscope with any man’s now.

In the morning my mother, who is given to much hand wringing and disaster prediction, has a merry fit. “What kind of girl eats her horoscope?” she asks me, her eyes wide with horror and fascination.  My mother married my father two weeks after their horoscopes were matched. They had spoken to each other only once and in the presence of both sets of parents. My seated father had cleared his throat and addressed the border of my standing mother’s sari where it touched the floor. “Do you like music?” he had ventured to ask. And she had tilted her chin towards her hidden toes and whispered, “Yes.” And on the basis of that slender, innocuous interaction they were married the very next auspicious day on the priest’s calendar, even though my father is about as musical as a coffee grinder.  “What shall I tell the people who are coming to see you?” my mother asks sorrowfully.

There are always people coming to see me.  I am asked to braid my hair, put on a sari, gold necklace, bangles, and a humble expression. I try staring at the perfect red dot between my brows. “Tell them your daughter is cross-eyed,” I say, “and that she has a marvelous talent for street dancing.” My mother fills her eyes with tears and sharpens her voice to broken-hearted viciousness, “The trouble with you –”. The trouble with me, she is going say, is that I don’t understand reality. This may be somewhat true.

The last time reality was introduced to me it came in the form of a photograph. Of a 6 foot 2” anesthesiologist from a small town 250 kilometers away. A town best known for putting its women and children to work in firework factories where every once in awhile there are unfortunate explosions. Such a decent boy, they told me, no bad habits and from a good family. The only thing he is looking for is a tall girl. The questionable nobility of that particularity leaves me underwhelmed. I am a tall girl. But I am also just waking up to the wild beauty and adventure of life that lies just beyond the purple horizon and I intend to hitch my wagon to a star, etc. Not the mild-eyed young man in the photograph with his uninspiring mustache and his professional talent for putting people to sleep.

When they told me he was to come with his parents to see me once our charts had been matched, I put on a demure expression. Not something I consciously cultivate, it seems to have grown on me of it’s own accord. It is a convenient thing to have in these parts. But that was the night, out on the roof, the white-hot moon as my witness, that I ate my chart.

My mother summons my father from the depths of his newspaper. He is a perpetually preoccupied man and a Physics professor. He works very hard, speaks very little and looks to my mother to define his paternal responsibilities. “ You talk to your daughter,” she tells him. So my father clears his throat, wipes his brow with a folded white handkerchief, stares at the ceiling for a brief moment and then tells me, that this is no laughing matter and it is high time I settled down.

Settle Down. The phrase sets a stallion pounding along the shore of my heart every time. A stallion that shies impressively, with tossed mane, powerfully flailing forelegs and a whinnying cry of rebellion. None of my friends seem to have such stallions within them. They drop into marriage like flies one by one. Settling down as if life were some sort of sediment belonging at the bottom of someone else’s glass. Settling down as if life were a bargain and you at the raw end of someone else’s deal. That night my mother announces with chilly formality that they are proceeding with the prospective bridegroom’s family. Chart or no chart. There will be a “bride-viewing” day after tomorrow she says, in a voice tender as a slammed door.

I am an unmarried girl of marriageable age and as such I am answerable not just to my parents, but to society at large. An elderly woman on the bus the other day wearing a large nose ring and a solicitous expression poked me in the ribs, “Not married?” she rapped out the question sharply and I involuntarily straightened in my seat, assumed an appropriately guilty expression. “No Auntie.” Well you are not getting any younger she informs me. And then, “You know this is the age to have issues.” She is referring of course to the sort that enter the world through the womb.

Masticating one’s planetary charts is a decidedly dramatic gesture. I must hasten now to tell you, that under normal circumstances, I am not a girl given to dramatic gestures.  Not because I object to them, but largely because I am too lazy to be bothered. I admire the passion and intensity other people seem to be able to summon up at will, but have never aspired to that kind of fervor. Curled up with a book I have generally been content to let the world wag on as it chooses. Until now.

The next day I consider my options. Jumping off the roof might do the trick. I can, without difficulty envision myself stepping gracefully off the ledge.  Poised, courageous, ready to prove my point. But then I see my parents stricken faces. No. I will not do that to them. And besides, I like being able to use my legs, and I do not do well at the sight of blood. Perhaps I could ring up the prospective bridegroom. With a false and cliched confession. Tell him I am madly in love with the boy-next-door, and plead with heartbreaking eloquence for him to call off the visit. But what if he tells his parents (he looks the sort), and they tell the town? Things would get rapidly and tiresomely complicated. I am not clever with webs of deception. What else then?

I could always disappear tomorrow. Pack a few bananas and steal away before dawn. I could catch a bus to one of the obscure villages a few hours away, and spend the day posing as a cultural ethnographer. I could interview men and women for a fictional thesis on, say, the differences in their child-rearing philosophies. I entertain this possibility for awhile, fleshing out the details. The warm welcome and too-sweet cups of coffee the women will give me as we sit cross-legged together on mud floors. The reserved suspicion of the men, before my well-practiced air of deference and well-mannered charm dissolves them into loquaciousness. I will love listening to all of them, and I will be loved for listening.

It is then that my mother walks into the room. Her shoulders are squared, but not for combat. I have seen women with shoulders set like that when they are carrying heavy loads on their heads. Their matter-of-fact elegance always moves me. They are not over-thinking their burdens, but just doing what needs to be done with Zen-like simplicity. Chopping wood, carrying water, tending home fires and one very wayward daughter.

“We called it off,” she says quietly, reaching out with both hands to tuck my hair behind my ears. “We told them not to come.” Wonder breaks over me like a wave. It is pulling me into an ocean. One that I have lived alongside all my life and am yet somehow surprised by. The curious feeling of sands shifting beneath my feet, a vast tug that I am powerless to stop. I am flooded by a sense of how small I am in my smugness. And how little I know of love’s deep waters. A strange enthrallment settles over me like a spell.

“What did you tell them?” I ask, and my voice is as hollow as someone speaking in a trance. “I told them my daughter is cross-eyed,” says my mother, “and that she has a marvelous talent for street dancing.”


Mockingbird

Mockingbird, how well did the scientists name you!  Mimus polyglottos. You marvelous many-tongued mimic. You clever, feathered virtuoso. Who was it who informed you that you were here to sing more than one song? Who encouraged your reckless plagiarism, and gave you permission to ransack the repertoire of the bluejay and the blackbird, the cricket, the creaky gate, and the car alarm, then advised you to stitch them together in a crazy patchwork quilt of sound? You oddly arranged chorus of one. You auditory sampler, you relentless composer. You impudent thief, you conspicuous performer, you bewildering talent! How can I make you understand how you held us in thrall? Perched high on a telephone wire, singing for love and invisible gods. Animated by an intensity and vigor that seemed not entirely of this earth. No, divinely inspired. How you delighted in your own music! As if it were a thing aside from you. How you fluttered up into the air, and then down again, as if lifted by the sheer, unfettered genius of your song. How striking and unmistakable you were in flight! With those broad white stripes on the pleated fan of your dark gray wingtips. How you did not stop singing to fly. How a river of sound streamed uninterrupted from between your beak. As if you could not help yourself. As if songs swell and pour out of you of their own accord. Heedless of your better judgement. Careless of your will. What is the secret of your enthusiasm, that your songs burst forth so cheerily, even in the black velvet depths of night? What powers your nocturnal serenades (up to a thousand songs in the span of an hour!) when most of us, worn ragged by the cares of day, are fast asleep and dreaming? Is it your specialized diet of barberries, beetles, hawthorn, and grapes, grasshoppers, and rose hips, pokeweed, and sassafras, blackberries and true bugs? [And excuse me, but how do you know, really, whether a bug is true or fraudulent? Is it the shifty eyes that give them away, or the nervous clearing of a slender throat, a tendency to fidget?] But I digress. The real question before us is this: who is it, or what, within you, that improvises with such verve and daring? You perched pandemonium. You bird-shaped tower of babel. You hue and cry, you miniature hubbub, interspersed with arias and anthems, and chants and lays and lullabies. Were all the wheezy and the raspy notes of the world, all the molten trills, and high, clear whistles, the indignant squawks, the chitter and chatter, the murmurs and babbles, and operatic asides lying patiently in wait for one such as you, to come along and recognize their deep kinship to one another? Waiting for one with courage and class enough, to say, ‘This too belongs. This too is part of my song. This too I will sing, and surprise you. With my gravity and wit, my playful juxtapositions, my sly brilliance, my magnanimity and keen ear, my drollery, and lack of disdain.’ You discerning birdling. You singing sleekness. You wandering minstrel. We who are wingless and earthbound, we who are sometimes proud and often petulant and regrettably stuck in the one same song, look up at you and listen. And listening hear, just how much more we have to sing about. Had we but courage enough and class. To admit it all.


Things Run Out

Yamuna has run out of milk, she has run out of milk. It is 7:57 in the morning. Her bus rounds the corner in four minutes and she has run out of milk. Her coffee will be black today and so will her mood because things run out, things run out. That is the nature of things — they run out and Yamuna has never learned to accept this. She resents running out and seldom runs because she resents running out of breath – resents being reduced to a stitch in her side and a shortness straining after something as essential as air which has no business running out no business running out, but things run out and just the other day when the delivery man came to her door with a package (two extra copies of her favorite book: ) and asked her to sign on a delicate dotted line his ball point pen, that slender plastic wand sputtered a bleak blue stroke and slid into stubborn silence on the doorstep of the second syllable. Ya read her signature – a jeering incompleteness that rendered her speechless and raging inside. How dare things runout! Deep inside she knows. That it is the nature of pens to run out. Pens that give every last drop of their blood to writing grocery lists, notes in history class, bad sonnets, and special instructions to Mrs. Pinto’s domestic help, reminding her to please remember to water the orchid in the living room. Because it may have run out. Yes. Things run out when you least expect them to. Patience, options, the toothpaste in the tube. Time. She remembers running out of time with five questions left unanswered on her physics exam (her arch nemesis Pratap got a perfect score). She remembers running out of words in common with a rickshaw driver on a frenzied Mumbai morning, and running out of sugar for her guests used to five heaping teaspoons in each cup of tea. She reflects briefly on the curiosity of running out of love — like the couple on the third floor who ran out of love for each other in the middle of last week, the same day that seven-year-old Parvathi ran out of money spending the last of her birthday fortune on three sticks of green ice for herself and her two best friends Janu and Gopi. So many things are finite in this world, so many things are not enough to go all the way around, so many things stop without warning and perhaps pick up some other where like lives that enter death like a door into a different body – if you believe in that sort of thing. Cars run out of petrol in the middle of the road, as blatantly indifferent as buffalos, to train departures and interview times. A rice cooker runs out of water because a girl dreaded the word domestic and never learnt that the ratio of uncooked rice to water is 1:2 and so the aluminum bottom of the pot is black from her stubborn ignorance. She will hide it at the back of the shelf when her mother comes to visit and refuse to let her cook at home saying she wants her to try the new Chinese restaurant down the street. There are people who run out of reasons for why they are doing what they are doing. So they quit their jobs and find happiness making fine teas or running orphanages in faraway towns with unpronounceable names. There was a writer who once ran out of ideas for her story. Her heroine lived in a cottage by the beach and stared out a vine-covered window at the crashing waves for days that stretched into months and then a year without anything – not the least thing—happening to her. No flies landed on her nose, no telegrams arrived at her door, no passersby approached her to ask about the delicate scar that ran the length of her left cheek. She did not stub her toe on the edge of the bed, or grow delirious or cynical or nostalgic. Her writer had run clear out of ideas on what could possibly happen next. So nothing did. Why? rages Yamuna as she steps furiously into her slippers and fast walks to the bus stop. Why must things run out? Why couldn’t the world be infinite, bottomless, reliable, obliging? A cornucopia, an Akshayapatra, an Amudhasurabhi of matter, experiences and emotions. Why did the legends always run short of reality? Yamuna reaches the bus stop a split second before her bus arrives. She floats up its stairs on the fierce wings of her questioning and sinks into a rare empty seat behind the driver. A throb of joy takes her. She smiles defiantly, triumphantly out the window at a vanishing, exhaustible world. Life flows like a river and also like sand through an hourglass. Moments heaped one atop the other. And some of them glow in our pockets like lucky stones, like secret charms, like constellation prizes. So yes. Things run out. What of it? On this auspicious morning Yamuna has a seat all to herself on the bus. For now that is enough.


Springtime

And now there is a blue lilt to the air, a gauzy greenness an unmistakable shimmer that runs through the days. (I have lived the taste of this before in another time and place — but when and where?) Just around the bend in the road lies that fairytale ball, Spring. Every blade, every branch, every blossom in the kingdom is invited. Who can resist such excitement? See how the world readies itself for festivities with ribbons and jewels. Young oak leaves unfurling from tight casings hypnotic green, camellias tossing ruffled candy pink skirts, queenly irises yawning purple and gold, tremulous tulips breaking like dawn, jonquils and daffodils nodding dainty heads, straight-backed lavender spearing the air, starry faced jasmine bursting out of sharp-tipped buds, brilliant poppies catching sunlight like a lucky penny, wisteria with its tumbling grape-like clusters scenting the world with wisterious allure. I stumble amidst the incandescent beauty of this neighborhood in the hills. These domestic paths so familiar and full of wild surprise. I am taken by the paradox of this spontaneous orchestration. And its grand scale! The thrill of rising sap, the delicate aura of ripening, the extravagance of an indomitable force animating the particular and the universal, propelling the one and many in an ancient cycle. And why does this feel both searingly new and hauntingly accustomed? One night I wake from a dream and the darkness is a riptide of memories that pulls me back to the wide staircase of a convent college on Cathedral Road in a seaside city in Southern India. If you do not know it it does not matter. If you do, then you know how we streamed up those stairs like an improbable river of flowers, a river of stars. With our books and our timetables, our handwritten notes, our unruled foreheads. How we sat on the wooden benches of higher education as the world rained down upon us. How our minds broke casually into blossom. How we thrived on canteen samosas, coffee and conversation. The sky a brilliant blue tent of possibility. The future a languorous cat. This life an all-absorbing romance. How we floated through that time and space like dust motes, like winged seeds, like dragonflies, in a ray of sunlight. Gleaming with energies that arced far beyond our single selves, charged with prolific dreams, and inchoate ideas, untethered potential. How we lived that springtime of our lives unbeknownst to ourselves with such dazzling perfection. And now we are where we are, scattered across the world wrapped in cherished roles, older yes, wiser perhaps, another bend in the road before us. Another springtime beckoning. And who can resist such excitement? Only those who overthink it. The flower is always the bud’s undoing. Let go then. Step into the river lean into the wind let the strength of the earth rise through you. Watch your fingertips burst into bloom.


Magnolia Tree

There is something arresting and unearthly about a magnolia tree in flower. Something that dances between divinity and dementia. A whirling dervish of a tree. Bursting with grace and an utter lack of restraint. See how it holds up its leafless branches. A candelabra, extravagantly ablaze with lunatic blossoms and zero sense of rationing or self-preservation. See how these flowers, some the size of your clenched fist, some the size of your whole hand, yawn open, with such unrestrained ardor it nearly turns them inside out. See how they do not bloom so much as detonate, in a series of soft explosions. See how like the fleshy tongues of dragons they are. These enormous creamy petals streaked with sunset shades. How their thick scent drugs the air. Drowns all thought in sweetness. An ancient tree architected for prehistoric times. Magnolias have bloomed on earth for 100 million years. Yes. These flowers opened above the heads of dinosaurs, long before humankind was a twinkle in the eye of the universe. And because they predate even the bees, their propagation across time and space was left to outsized beetles, who stricken with wanderlust stumbled across these velvety inner chambers. Kicked up a dusty cloud of pollen and unleashed a long chain of events that unfurled across the last Ice Age, and into the Stone Age and alongside the rise and fall of nameless tribes and civilizations, and the creation of the printing press, the steam engine, frothy cappuccinos and the birth of the internet, leading improbably to this very tree. Here. The one directly in front of me. The one my husband strolls under at the exact moment that a little lick of wind decides to kick up its heels. A handful of petals drift gently over him like a benediction. An origami instant that folds itself into my palm. Dear and delicate as a paper crane. Later I will look up what magnolia flowers symbolize. Nobility, beauty, dignity….Dignity…I think about the word. How it stands tall and runs deep and how much it has to do with integrity and how little with being — normal. I think about this outlandish tree that traces back to Time’s cradle, and its flowers that open alarmingly wide as if to swallow the sun, the way it gives itself madly to the moment. With radical generosity and no reservation. And what wouldn’t be possible — if we could learn to live like that.


Bittersweet

If you were to ask me what it was like, I would pause for a moment. I would tilt my head to one side, as if listening to an invisible spirit. Then I would begin to speak. Slowly. And this is what I would say:  Before this time I believed loss was just loss. Light was just light. Now I see that loss is also beauty and longing. Light is also shadow. This cannot be explained in words. You who have felt this, know exactly what I mean. To the others I will say, please consider this: Words are like pebbles. Small and easily picked up. While this may make them lovely to hold, it does not mean they are exact.

Language is irresistible, and often unreliable. Me and you. Black and white. Endings and beginnings. The delineations we make are functional, not always accurate. This is why I like the word bittersweet. It does not pretend to extricate what is inextricable. You who have felt this, know exactly what I mean. To the others I will say, please do not misconstrue any of this to be sad.

A child draws a wavy line on paper and calls it water. This is a simplification. The depiction omits depth and flow. A picture’s truth relies implicitly on the dimensionality of the viewer’s experience. It is the same with words. Happy and sad are simplifications. What we are talking about is the alchemical dimensionality of experience. Please take a moment here. To fully appreciate how nonsensical and important, how like a dissertation topic that sounds.

Sometimes it happens like this: In the blue shimmer of evening you take a walk with your husband. Like a jack-o-lantern (only kinder and much better-looking) he is lit from within. A-glow with goodness. He is also unwell. An autumn rose blooms, vivid as an accusation, over a garden fence. For the first time, you will experience the perfect beauty of the rose and the strickenness of mortality as the same thing. As inevitably one as the wave that rolls onto the shore and the wave that’s drawn back to the ocean.

There is no unknowing this. Once you have seen it, you are a half-done Midas. Everything your gaze touches will gleam both dark and bright. A disorienting, truthful mingling will take hold of your life. One day you will wake to a sun pouring molten gold over the hills, and your hand will fly to your heart as if to staunch blood from a wound. At night a distant dog will bark at the moon, and in that lonely howl you will hear a world of love and courage. Aggrieved and robbed of absolutes you will stumble into new realms of richness. You will mourn the loss of a certain kind of innocence. And you will surprise yourself by the admission, that given the impossible choice, you would not choose to cross back.

Little by little, you will learn to hold the infinite complexity of what is, with a simple(r) heart. But this cannot be explained in words. You who have felt this, know exactly what I mean. To the others I say gently: Fold these words into a back pocket friend, and go on your way. Perhaps they will wait there. Like so many little pebbles. Dreaming side by side… Until it’s time.


Conquest

An upstart bluejay seized the morning, just as a squadron of clouds annexed the sky. Meanwhile an imperious garbage truck took possession of the streets, and a spendthrift wind acquired the trees. Every last one. I who rose late and have commandeered nothing, watch from the window. Had I more ambition I would be perturbed.  But the spirit of conquest has always seemed troublesome and presumptuous to me. Time is not interested in my philosophy. This is is not the moment for self-effacement chides the clock on the wall. Go now. Before I beat you to it. Go. Lay claim to your life.


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