We Are What We Eat…I Must Have Eaten Glass
by Brinda Gulati
I don’t know how to begin most of my chapters when I sit down to write. Some come to me as punchlines around which I try to rebuild a memory. Others come from anger: of not being heard and so, I write about writing when I’m writing because I cannot bear to feel powerless one day more. Most of the chapters, however, are born from desperation. Not for validation or a pat on the back – I had stopped expecting those since I was nine.
I am always in a hide and seek game with my memory. With every sentence, I want to be rid of the memory I am trying to recover, and at the same time absorb it so very deeply that it never leaves me again. And when someone asks, ‘did you have a happy childhood?’ maybe I can find one perfect memory in our family’s database that most people will deem as enough trauma for a lifetime. I’m writing right now because I don’t know what I’ve forgotten, I don’t know how I spent most of my birthdays. There are some albums littered across state lines, some at my mother’s house, the others at the father’s, swollen with plastic wrappers and developed film. I think I was a happy child, well happy enough, until I was eight – my last memory of feeling that I could come home and be myself was when I told my mother from the back of the car that my class teacher adores me so much that she changed my Math grade from a B to an A for a perfect report card. I still remember that my teacher called to speak with her outside of the class and said to me, ‘I don’t want to ruin a beautiful card.’
I loved keeping this secret. Someone had seen me and believed in me enough to care about my reputation as her own. The only other person whom I would expect this of is my mother. This little secret held safe within the Holy Trinity of my teacher, my mother, and I, felt warm.
A secret perfectly toasted and golden with melting butter.
When I turned nine years old and got my period and my grandmother died, I had to pretend that I was devastated because of either of the two. In reality, from nine to ten years of age, my corporeal self-government was breached a total of four times, in four separate locations, on four different occasions.
The first time I saw a penis I was ten years old, and on my bicycle taking laps on the roads within my residential area. The bald man with a hard beer belly could not have been taller than 5’5. I think his ejaculate should have landed on my bare skin in his mind, but I pedaled hard, and it may have broken his concentration. There were three children dressed in ratty frocks watching the masturbation at four o’ clock in the evening, from a safe distance of about ten meters.
I lifted my pelvis and hovered over the seat to pedal even harder, away from the scene of the crime. Away from the witnesses. Away from my body that didn’t run sooner.
The children followed me and eventually made me brake. The taller girl must have been from a neighbouring village, several kilometers away from our residence, connected by a gigantic expanse of green land. She asked me if I knew the man. I said no.
She asked me again, ‘tumne kuch kiya kya?’
(Did you do something?)
I said no.
I said a firm no and circled the road back to my house. I believed myself when I said no to the girl. I believed it because it was the truth – I had never seen the man before, I had never initiated conversation with a stranger, I had never up until that day known that men could whip out their penises by simply unzipping their trousers.
I saw my mother and father reclining against our car in the open driveway chatting with the neighbours and watching my accident-prone sister.
I was out of breath when I told my father that there was a man in our colony that I had never seen before.
I told him he stood very close to me and it made me…uncomfortable?
‘Did he touch you?’
I said no, but worse – I saw his ‘thing’.
‘Was he peeing?’
I said no – there was some white stuff.
My father was (is?) infamous for his bull-like temper. His face turns red, he yells, his nostrils flare, and his feet take giant leaps.
I expected his frame to tense and have me lead him to the perpetrator. I expected that he would threaten the man, make him swear to never violate his daughter again. Instead, he crossed his arms pretending to measure his next movement.
My left foot was still on the pedal, hoisted and ready to catch a bad man.
Instead, my father flared his nostrils and scanned the road I had left behind.
‘Theek hai – udhar mat jaana ab.’
(OK, don’t go down the same road again)
I don’t remember if I continued cycling after this. I don’t even remember if my father spoke to me about the bad man later that evening.
I don’t think he did. I don’t think he did.
I didn’t question his calmness. I didn’t question his outright disloyalty for my body.
I started dieting soon after.
In my mind, if I were to become smaller and smaller then no man would be able to grab anything – not my bike, nor my body. This might not make sense, but all I’m trying to say is that punishing my body for spilling into the empty air pockets around me helped me starve.
If the alpha male at home, the protector of all things, the destroyer of evil, was not going to shield me, how else could I have secured my safety?
The terrible things that no one talked about seemed to have been distilled into the one year after I got my period and on the day before my birthday, when my grandmother died. My body had started to change; it wasn’t gait like my sister’s, but athletic and strong. I had wider hips than her and a little more breast to boast.
One day when I was sitting on the toilet with my trousers around my ankles trying to push, our housekeeper barged into the bathroom. The problem wasn’t that the housekeeper had interrupted potty time, the problem was that she was a he. The problem was that I screamed for him to shut the door and wait. The problem was that he said ‘this will only take a minute’ firmly while rummaging through one of the drawers in the bathroom cabinets for clippers on my father’s order.
He didn’t leave. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t immediately get up, because then he would see my exposed front. I couldn’t shift because my lower back had locked my body. And so, I waited. I waited with the trousers around my ankles, praying for him to find whatever is so important that it can’t wait another minute.
He left after a solid three minutes, and slammed the door shut behind him as if I had interfered with his mission by occupying a space that my father wanted immediate access to.
My bowels churned inside me, and I couldn’t push. I checked the lock on the door and stood up to button my trousers. I washed my hands and made the resolute decision to tell my father about what had just happened. Surely, now that the perpetrator is within sight, a suitable punishment can be carried out.
I don’t remember in which room my father was sitting, or in how many words I told him of the bad thing.
I only remember him saying, ‘hota hai.’
In that moment, I decided, as a ten-year-old child, that all the men who wandered our house could rape me. I remember thinking that non-one would scream or cry or yell even if I diligently narrated bad things done by bad men, and therefore, I must protect my own body.
I must protect myself, and I must watch over my mother from the peripheries of my parents’ arranged marriage. I must hug my mother and not talk about my foolish hallucinations of the dangers of bad men in front of my father.
A year later, the whole family travelled to Dubai. My parents, my sister, my grandfather, and I. This is the family that remained after my grandmother passed, save for my father’s elder brother, who remained more interested in bedding strange women, even fifteen years ago. Later I got to know that my father would’ve never have paid for my uncle to vacation with us, because they both didn’t like each other – they were just born in the same house to the same unfortunate parents. Our hotel, or rather inn, was outside the concentric circles of fashion and glamour in Dubai – it was arid, dry, and quite possibly a pit stop for white foreigners hunting for the local cuisine in expensive hotels.
I was changing into my shirt one morning in the hotel bathroom, and I lifted my hands to pull my camisole over my shoulders. I don’t remember if I was wearing a bra. At that very moment, a male cleaner barged in, unaware of my presence. He shut the door promptly and I looked at myself in the mirror – trying to tilt my head in the reflection and wondering from which angle he would’ve seen my body. I changed, washed my hands – I don’t know why; and exited the bathroom. He was winnowing the fitted sheets. I traipsed around him, pretending to search for something. Before I could form a sentence in my brain, I blurted ‘did you see anything?’
His eyes widened and he shook his head. He said of course not. I was like his little sister. I didn’t know how to walk away so I stood there in front of him, unblinking. He lowered his head and walked out of the room. My parents and my sister had left early in the morning, and I was to join them. My grandfather was running a high fever in the adjacent room. I wanted to tell someone, anyone, that I don’t like bathrooms anymore, but I remember thinking that this is not the conversation to be had with a seventy-year-old. A seventy-year-old man, that is. I waited for my mother. When she returned, she pinched my cheek with affection and I didn’t tell her then, not yet I thought – because my tall and angry father had just entered the room with their day’s loot.
And so, I didn’t tell anyone. I would wake up at night crying in my bed and the psychologists said that it was a good sign – that I was finally mourning my dead grandmother. To be honest, I wasn’t thinking of her at all. Sure, I missed her, but I missed myself more. The men had taken something from me, I’m not sure what it was. Maybe it was my voice.
Summer rolled around in the fifth grade; I was ten.
I became quieter.
There are so many sites for takeoff, that now when I write I can only hope to peacefully orbit around myself, without crashing, burning, exploding.
As with all dry Delhi summer vacations, my sister and I would go to camp for vocational classes. One summer we went to finishing school and the teacher said that the way I crossed my arms over my chest was hostile. In these classes however, I would speak. I would be the first to raise my hand, the first to know the answers – and even if someone knew them before I did, I would say them out loudly first. This summer camp was nestled away from civilization in a city of its own. There were different rooms for different classes – the theatre class had ottomans instead of couches and sometimes we would sit on thin mattresses on the floor practising lines, fingers tracing the raised ink on smooth paper.
I wasn’t a very pretty child; just a submissive one. I was submissive and intelligent and that was what carried me into the books of teachers and parents as the golden child. I didn’t have any requests of my own, nor did I demand to be bought toys or stationery or clothes at all. The one time that I did, I told my father that I wanted a Swan Lake Barbie pink backpack, the kind that has glitter on the Barbie’s wings. He was quick to say no – that I would grow out of it and then it would’ve been a waste of money. So instead, we went to Levi’s and purchased two denim backpacks, awfully industrial and boyish.
At the camp, it was easy for me to choose the classes, because I always did well in anything even remotely related to telling stories. I enjoyed painting, sketching, pottery, theatre, photography – just about anything with tangible proof that I was here. I considered my proclivities as geo-maps of talent. I made this. Brinda was here.
The photography teacher was a middle-aged man with rough skin and a bowling hat that I presume shielded his eyes from the sun and his youth from his receding hairline. I remember that I said very proudly that I was a prefect at my school. He smiled, and I spotted the slightest gap between his yellow teeth. He had a beer belly, with legs like bar stools and hands that had never been introduced to moisturizer. The first assignment he gave us was about framing objects in our shots. We went outside in the sun, and I could feel my left shoulder burn in the unforgiving warmth of the summer.
I remember that I wanted to photograph a tall potted plant. I lifted my arms and squinted in the view finder.
My shoulder felt something rough, like sandpaper rubbing my skin in circular motions. It was him. I don’t know his name. I didn’t need to, really.
His breath was warm and smelt like onions, and I could feel the hairs on my neck being electrocuted into attention. My forearms had visible goosebumps and I regretted wearing the sleeveless blouse I chose in the morning. I don’t remember how I got him to stop, because I don’t remember moving, I don’t remember moving an inch. But he did stop, and I let the digital camera hang from the strap on my neck. He moved onto to someone else, but his eyes followed my feet then flitted to my face. He smiled the yellow gap-toothed smile again.
The next day I told my mother that learning photography is a waste of time, that the teacher knows nothing, and that I would much rather paint anyway.
After the summer camp was over, I didn’t wear sleeveless blouses for quite some time. I just wanted to become a boy, with a penis dangling between my legs: mine to zip in or whip out.
At eleven years, I became convinced that there was something wrong. I felt something or someone had fucked up their divine administrative duties and either mistakenly made me a woman or assigned me the wrong house.
The song remained the same – Brinda was here.
About the Author
Brinda Gulati is a writer, storyteller, and activist interested in stories of origin, exploring homes and belonging, and excavating loss. Her blogs can be found on www.brindagulati.com.