On Lighting Up – by Ranjani Murali
That day, we watched Patchaikili Muthucharam, studying the contours of Sarathkumar’s triceps, while he exclaimed all the while semma body I’m telling you it’s aatukaal soup with extra blood. I had no frame of reference; the only blood I sought was sparse every month and irrevocably stained the satin underwear I bought at the export store in Pondicherry. When I had gone to buy them, the saleswomen giggled uncontrollably and adjusted their dupattas when I told them to let him into the trial room. After we left, they came to the entrance and followed us with smiling eyes, not knowing how the underwear was going to make it worse—the condoms were giving me yeast infections and making me sore and itchy in public places. But now he nudged me with the popcorn, and I then started thinking back again, this time about all the hotels we’d been to, where our different surnames were obvious enough to indicate we weren’t married and had let them xerox our licenses. And then the time an old drunk man in a striped shirt that reminded me of Ramarajan as the karakataakaran, cycled right into our bumper on the way to Pondy. Someone with a salt-and-pepper beard told us to drive and not stop, else the crowd would drink our blood. Perhaps I sensed him panic then, since his eyes were glassy and unsquinting (unlike usually). Now as he memorized the plot of the film, he seemed exactly the opposite—vibrant, squinting, even lifelike.
He was always wary of me when I spoke of pulsing, or redness. It was not a feeling he could rehearse, unlike the way he flicked his cigarette ash on any street. Despite all his talk of aatukaal soup, he’d been vegetarian since he’d taken a tour of a slaughterhouse at thirteen and seen the workers slice a newborn calf’s throat. Meanwhile, I went to the bhai kadai every day, and secretly prayed for a woman-butcher one day. She would know how to remove the stains, I thought—the crimson that haunted the street-corners and the reused plastic bags that people brought to carry their mutton.
Later, when we went to his place, and I sneaked in with a dupatta on my head, he wanted me to act as if I was Jyotika and he was Milind Soman, and even though I knew it was only a make-believe rape scene, I was still unsure if this qualified as BDSM or if this was part of his reaction to all the Buzzfeed articles I shared with him on consent and rape culture. He was exceptionally gentle, almost as if to reinforce that the fantasy was purely cerebral, and as usual, he finished up in his sterile bathroom, where the glass of the shower stall was covered with a thick shower curtain, almost as if it were a containment room with no looking in, or out. He told me he had an old lady come every day to scrub it clean with Comet bleach which he only bought at the American duty free shop, and I was convinced that Valliammai, (or Madhavi as I liked to think of her) was merely another lover he was concealing from me (despite our agreement). Perhaps she had long coarse sowri hair like Jyotika, unlike my short rod-straight hair, I thought.
When he came out, he looked at me quizzically, and picked up my phone. The app says you’re late. I asked myself why he was bothering to time my cycles, but then I was used to his meticulousness by then. I bit into the half-cut guava he had covered up in a Ziploc bag and left on the counter, labeled with the previous day’s date (another purchase, courtesy the Americans). Are you tracking your period, he continued. I clearly wasn’t. I should have been worried, but the only lasting impulse I had at that moment was to scratch my arm vigorously. I felt like the saleswomen in the store after he’d disappeared into my trial room. No, but I do have a discount on Whisper at Big Bazaar that I haven’t used yet, I responded. He may have been livid, but he shrugged and mumbled that it didn’t look good.
For weeks after that, I roamed around the Marina, taking in the Kannagi statue, and occasionally checking out translations of poems about her at the public library, researching all the possible ways in which she wasn’t able to utter betrayal or burning or baby. I thought of the devoted wife in the movie, played by Andrea Jeremiah, who wore chiffon sarees and stroked her diabetic kid’s forehead with her tapered fingertips, and waved the same saree pallus in her husband’s face when he came back, office id-card lanyard and all, from his train journey where he had flirted with the other woman.
When Mr. meticulous called, I avoided him, and deleted my tracking app after it began to send me annoying push notifications saying maybe it’s time for those booties, followed by a wink emoticon. Before I met him, the arrangedand-semi-bald husband and I had tried very hard to make a child, but had given up largely after his smoking got the better of him. The husband also used sex as a way to get the patch off, since he claimed the patch was harmful for those hoping to get pregnant. But I left soon after I began to develop blisters on the inside of the ankles where I gripped his back.
Later one day, I walked to Sangeetha, where I knew meticulous would be tallying up his bills from the week after eating his usual sambar saadam and butterscotch icecream. He looked at me and gaped for a second. What the hell is wrong with you, he asked, taking me by the arm, and propping me against the booth he was occupying. I nodded, as if in reciprocation, but really, it did not strike me as odd that my belly was touching the edge of the table. It was a beautiful feeling to be bloated like that, to feel the otherwise concave self swell with a gushing, a humming. We’re going to have to see Dr. Sarada.
The auto-ride was bumpy, but he continued to count his ten-rupee notes. When we arrived outside Happy Women’s Clinic, he told me to cover my head with a dupatta, presumably to shield my face, or to keep the sun out. I followed him into the fungus-ridden, patchy slaked lime-basted building. We climbed three flights of stairs before we came to the door with the usual aluminium trim and uv light-blocking sticker pasted edge-to-edge. I waited for a minute, thinking about the beauty parlors I’d visited with the same kind of external decor. I always associated the setup with plucking, tweezing, and the study of controlled pain. When we entered, a woman in a gauzy saree spoke to him quietly, and directed us to sit. I looked at the latest Malar magazine with a cover story on Jyotika being the perfect daughter-in-law, and thought of Kannagi. Meanwhile, in real life, Sarathkumar’s wife was a gritty woman, but I made it a point to record my own observation that I could not foresee any tabloids associating her with Kannagi because sMrs. Sarathkumar was decidedly feminist, and had a daughter she raised herself.
When my turn came, he took me into the largely lime green room, which was full of pictures of cross-sections of women’s bodies, infant-handling tips, and even swollen feet. I was expecting a bare setup. The doctor, who I assumed was known to him, took him behind the screen leading to the exam area, and came back, expressionless but scratching her forearm vigorously. She took me by the hand and led me back there. It’ll work in three-four hours, she said, with no forewarning, and pulled out her needle. I stared at her hands for a long time—the way she put the cotton swab on the narrow mouth of the rubbing alcohol bottle, tipped the bottle upside down, and wet the swab in one go; the way her elbow and wrist followed the tune of that practiced motion; the hum of the diesel generator outside as the liquid in the syringe trickled as she prompted it. I was riveted by her thumb gripping the swab, and the trembling that began in my own ribs as the sharp metal slid into my skin. I pulled my arm back almost equally as slowly, and as her nostrils flared, I took the syringe from her and jabbed her neck. The blood poured out, slow, thick, tortuously winding down her pallu, and as she grabbed onto and tore in half the picture of the breech baby exiting the birth canal, unscreaming, I slid off the table and went outside. He did not notice me leaving; he was on the phone with someone I can only presume was Valiammai, since he was talking to her about buying bleach and Whisper maxi wings.
On my way out, I grabbed the Malar issue, and I went straight to Ellis road where the butchers were furiously hacking away at the meat as well as the swelling afternoon crowd. Women in electric blue ridas were examining the goat and talking about paaya. One of them, an older lady, glanced over her shoulder, at another, who was heavily pregnant. I looked down to see her swollen feet. She retched into the drain a few times, quietly. The butcher noticed it too, and he said, slowing his pace, bibi, sit down. The older woman scoffed and grabbing her bag, said, nothing some emptying out won’t relieve. The young woman, who seemed to have caught her breath, hoisted herself off the spout of the drain where her hand had rested, and used a white handkerchief to wipe her stained hands. And then, as she waded in the shallow pool of effluents that had escaped the gutters, I saw her clutch her fist tight as her flimsy chappals slid around dangerously. I saw anklets peek from under her burka, and I imagined Kannagi’s anklets turning red from the embers pouring of Madurai. A blaze of bodies/ she made herself/ leaving.
By the time I reached the Marina, the sun seemed undecided on its course, dimming but flaring occasionally. The sundalkaaran pestered me to buy an extra helping. When I went to the mallipu lady, she offered me a chembaruti instead. Look at how beautiful, she said, using the word sigappu, and then pointed to my belly saying, it’ll be the same way. I thought about the connotations of the word— red and fair or white, both disparate, yet conjoined, and imagined Kannagi being called fair in a poem I read. Razing Madurai/ to the ground,/ she emerged, burning. Or would it be, she emerged, pale? And then I remembered how the bleach turned the hems of his pants white, and how, when he talked of Valiammai, his face blanched, and how, I assumed, she was marble-skinned and sallow-faced too, her Whispers untouched, wingless. She’s an old lady for god’s sake he’d said once, and I smiled when I thought of the cessation of bloodletting, of effluence exiting the body, and imagined her love for him, pristine, bleach-coated, fragrant like a mallipu strand. Meanwhile, I remember taking the chembaruti and walking away, perfunctory in my response to the seller: yes she’ll burn all right. But what I don’t remember now, is the ease with which I walked into the water, skirting the larger waves, throwing each of the hibiscus petals into the water, my not-perfectly tapered fingertips stroking my belly with the stem that remained, steadfastly alive, yet shorn of ornamentation.