a life creative
Breaking the Ganges
Burrowed in the arms of wet tree roots, Kamla was found by two brothers who had never seen the curves of a woman’s body. They picked up sticks and poked her; in the neck, soles and rounded stomach. When she stirred they ran up the bank to the streets where women didn’t sleep with the earth. She yelled after them and sat up from the stones finding homes in her spine.
The evening before she had walked beside the bank of the river barefoot in an orange-yellow sari her mother, Maalia, had sent her for Diwali. Children were leaving the river shallows and wrapping their glistening bodies in rags and cut up towels and seeing her skin was as dark as theirs they surrounded her with questions in excited sparrow voices. She gave them each a nilofar blossom, picked from downriver, and slipped free of their hands near the boat docks. Rafts had been taken in for the evening and were standing drunken in harnesses or piled by the office, oars wedged between rubber and steel. Kamla rounded the boat shed and headed toward the waterside.
Maalia was waiting for her in a tin-sided dinghy.
The sari had been delivered to her door, wrapped in tissue paper and an India Post packing box. Australian customs had checked the contents and underneath the lid slipped a note stamped with the words ‘Security Checked’. Kamla would never know how roughly those men had handled her gift, or of the letter from Maalia that, bent into the corner of the pack, fell free and underfoot during their inspection.
She had folded the sari into thirds and held it at arm’s length; against the white walls of her father’s Darling Harbour apartment it looked to Kamla like a setting sun behind the wet morning smell of Rishikesh’s waterways and rough cumin, fennel and turmeric spice stalls. In its folds she felt Maalia’s horse-thick hair, rubbed smooth with coconut oil and braided in one long twist over her shoulder. That hair had once cushioned her childhood tears and lain pillow-like under her on the straw pallet they shared.
When she put on the sari the slice of uncovered skin at her belly looked like a wound. She wore it to dinner with her father and he looked at her as though she were a ghost from years almost forgotten. Raheem pressed it between his fingers and said Maalia had worn a similar colour at their wedding.
There were no photos of this event in his apartment but Kamla had a shot of Maalia while she was pregnant: kneeling in the grass beside a kangaroo, holding a bhajia in one hand and straining stomach in the other. She was young, newly married and living on family money. Though they left Australia before her birth, as a child Kamla often dreamt of yellowed landscapes with a red sun and gnarled black trees. In her dreams she lay cradled in sharp branches where magpies picked at her hair and cicadas screamed like kettles.
Maalia kissed Kamla’s forehead and led her from the damp bank into the boat. It rocked below their feet and once they were both settled and balanced Maalia put a hand to each oar and levered them away from the stratum into deeper water. Light remained on the horizon like tears in a paper lamp. Kamla bunched her sari under her thighs and crossed one long knee over the other.
’It looks beautiful on you,’ Maalia said.
’You knew it would.’
’How is Raheem?’
’Upset I came.’
’Vaha eka murkha hai,’ Maalia spat. ‘He is controlling.’
’He made me promise I’d come back.’
Maalia rowed three trembling strokes, then rested her wrists loose on the handles. ‘He should have come. Brought his new wife.’
’They’re not married. I don’t think he wants to risk another divorce.’
’So dishonourable. Divorce. My mother? Not spoken to me since you left.’
Kamla frowned. ‘For ten years?’
’I am disgraced.’
’I thought you lived with her?’
’Still she won’t speak.’
’I’m sorry.’ Kamla shifted uncomfortably on the bench. ‘Dad said you chose not to come with us.’
’Raheem deals in half truths. If I had gone he still would leave. I had been alone in a country not my own.’
’Do you need money?’
’To move somewhere away from Dadi.’
’That is your money.’
’Not mine exactly.’
Maalia looked out over the water and shook her head. ‘I don’t want anything from that harami.’
’He never wanted things to be this way.’
’He has always wanted to keep you away.’
’It’s not that black and white. He was miserable when we first moved.’
’Sydney changed him. A man becomes like those whose society he loves.’
’Don’t preach at me.’ Kamla dipped her fingers in the river and pinched its oily residue. A drop landed on her thigh and darkened the sari like ink. Under lowered brows she watched Maalia row in a deep gait that slowed as each oar surfaced and quickened when she leant into the movement. There was a line of sweat down her cheek in the shape of a hook.
’How long do you stay?’
’I don’t know yet. Dad wants me to come back in time for university placements.’
’You could do school here.’
Kamla didn’t answer and they tilted forward together in the same C-shaped curve. Maalia reached out to touch Kamla’s hair; she pulled away.
’Don’t do that.’
’I just want to feel. It looks like mine.’
Kamla pulled her braid forward across her chest. ‘Black and long.’
’Mine has grey now. All these years showing on my body.’ She touched her temples and Kamla shifted to look.
’I remember it being so dark. Do you still use coconut?’
’The reason I am not bald.’
Another boat came rumbling around a shallow bend in the river and a man stood and waved. He steered in their direction, pulled up close and leant over the taller side of his boat to pull the tinny close with a lined brown hand.
’Vaham eka tuphana age hai,’ he said rapidly to Maalia. ‘Carom ora mora.’
’Kisi na kisi taraha pani?’
He nodded his head to Kamla and pushed them free. His engine left a splatter of oily gas in the air.
’What did he say?’ Kamla asked when he was out of range.
’You have forgotten so much?’
’I haven’t spoken Hindi since I was six.’
’What about school?’
’I learnt Japanese.’
’Indian girl speaking Japanese. Ridiculous.’
’What did he say?’
Maalia stowed the oars with a sigh. ‘There is a storm coming.’
’So row to the bank.’
’Not yet. I want to float.’
Kamla heard the approaching mumble of thunder and unwrapped the sari from around her armpits to throw across her head. ‘We’re going to be flooded.’
’Not here. Not now.’ She put out a hand and Kamla hesitated to touch it. ‘You and I came from same place. From same soil and water. You are fashioned after me. To look like me. Your skin,’ she rubbed Kamla’s fingers, ‘feels like mine. You can not speak but your voice-‘
’I didn’t come here to argue,’ Kamla interrupted, taking back her hand.
’I wanted to see you. I’ve been away but I still love you. And you may be my mother but I’m not like you any more. People ask where I’m from, I don’t say India.’
’But your birth?’
’It doesn’t matter. What do I know of my birth? You’re the only one who considers it important.’
’Kamla, mera pyara. You will always be of this earth.’
’I want to get out of the boat.’ Kamla could see the first flickers of lightning in the clouds ahead and a cool wind struck her cheeks from downriver. ‘He said there was a storm. I want to get out.’
’Take an oar. We will row together.’
They took only ten minutes to reach the bank and Kamla climbed out and away without helping Maalia pull the boat up the rocks toward the sand. Light rain began to fall and Kamla pointed up to the sky.
’You said it wouldn’t happen now.’
’And it didn’t. Now was then.’ Maalia jammed the oars below the boat’s bench and led Kamla toward a copse of mangroves where they crouched for cover. Maalia put an arm around Kamla’s shoulders and pulled her head to her breast.
’Why do you not come back for good? Why do you stay away from me?’
’Don’t do that. Let me up.’
’My child, mere bacce, why won’t you come to me?’ She held her tighter and started to cry into the back of her neck. ‘Mere bacce, I love you.’ She released Kamla’s head and took both her hands in hers. ‘I can care for you. There are schools. We will get money. You can stay.’
’I don’t want to live here.’
’But I want you.’
’Come back to Australia. It was your home once.’
Maalia pressed Kamla’s fingers to her mouth and kissed them over and over and Kamla bent to her mother’s hair and smelt the fleshy nut smell of her scalp. Under her fingers Maalia’s mouth felt as smooth and warm as her own.
Her legs were soaked from the rain and she twisted her sari around her waist to better squat in the long grass. A car rattled on the bridge overhead and she squinted to look up. The flutter of a flag whipped from a girder, orange and green flickering like bulbs. Kamla readjusted her skirts and started to climb up the bank toward the bridge opening.
The wooden walkway was slick beneath her bare feet and she held the handrail and walked out to the middle of the deck. The roads on either side of the river had cleared and the only movements were drops striking tunnels in the water. From her position she could see the mangroves where Maalia was waiting for her to return.
Kamla came to a stop above the flag and eased one leg over the steel boundary, resting her foot on a jutting ledge. When she brought over the other leg she hooked an elbow in the rails by her knee and leant over the river. Her hair loosened and spread over her left shoulder, bare and cold. She flexed her toes and rubbed them on the rusty metal framing.
The flag was wet and heavy but she caught it tightly in her fingers and slipped it from the securing hooks. Her knee shook and she pulled herself back, close to the railings, and twisted the flag around her chest. She exhaled and hugged her face to the steel.
’I am of this earth,’ she whispered. ‘I will always be of this earth.’ Rain had stirred the ground and the smell of faeces and meat rose in the air. Kamla felt it sink into her skin and she rubbed her right arm until the hair stood on end. A car drove by her back, trembling in her abdomen.
Maalia lifted her head at Kamla’s approach and frowned.
’What is that?’
’The flag from the bridge,’ Kamla panted. ‘I took it.’
Maalia looked over her head. ‘From so high? Why?’
’I’m taking it back with me.’ She sank to her knees and wrapped the material around her shoulders. ‘Are you cold?’
Maalia turned her head away.
’You try to take India with you.’
’A part of it.’
’You are a part.’
’Not as large as this.’ She shrugged her shoulders under the flag. ‘Should we leave?’
’To your house?’
’Dadi has said she won’t see you.’
’We can’t stay here all night. It’s dark and wet.’
’I sleep in worse.’ She stretched out on the knobs of the roots and wrapped her arms around her torso. Kamla shuffled to her side and Maalia lifted her head to place in Kamla’s lap.
’You slept like this years ago.’
’On the ground?’
’On my legs. Very heavy for a baby.’
’What was I like?’
’Such a long time ago.’
’You don’t remember?’
’I always remember. Ask your father. He has responsibility to tell you.’ She put a hand over her face, signalling the end of the conversation. Kamla leant back on her hands, elbows bent inward, and watched the river gorge and quicken. A bare-chested boy was pulling in ropes, one hand over the other, shoulder blades peaking under his skin like bergs. When the rope was coiled at his feet he looped it over a bicep and ran upriver toward a tin shed where a woman opened the door and held out a mug. He took it and, kissing her face, ushered her inside to protect her from the rain.