You are groomed from the day you are born.
Your first memory: standing by the well, coated in gluey gram-flour paste. The smell: wet sloppy gruel mixed with raw earth, making you want to gag. Your brother and his friends dance around you, pointing, laughing at your nakedness. Your brother with his pasty skin, his eyes like sunken marbles, his watermelon belly balancing on stick legs. The breeze caresses the branches of the tamarind tree, making leaves flutter. It tickles your legs. Butterflies dance, tantalising. Crows cackle tunelessly. A frog croaks nearby. The neighbours’ cat slinks past, smelling of fish, whining from the thrashing your ma bestowed for stealing. The gram-flour paste dries slowly, cracking when you so much as open your mouth to sigh. You try balancing your weight on each foot. You rest your bottom against the granite washing stone and watch as the streaky blue surface is stained turmeric. You are an astronomer, encased in a space suit- Shit coloured?-on a mission to save Earth from alien invaders. You smile at the thought. The paste splinters around your mouth. A tiny bit pushes past your lips onto your tongue. You taste mud. Your ma comes, examines you, nods and draws water from the well. You brace yourself. The first bucketful is a freezing waterfall. You keep your lips sealed. If you open your mouth you’ll taste soggy earth. Your hair envelopes you - a curtain - dripping water and gooey yellow bits. Afterwards, your ma gently brushes hair from your face. Look at you, she says, Fair already.
You endure countless gram-flour face masks. And as you get older, there is sandalwood paste: ‘proven to lighten dusky complexions’; ‘Fair and Lovely’ Cream; ‘Clearasil’ for the miracle cure of pimples. Your brother’s pockmarked face is spared the daily ministrations. He’s a boy, your ma says, eyes lighting up at his mere mention.
You don’t dare chop your long hair – your one good feature, your ma says often, sighing. You are required to massage it twice daily with warm coconut oil – ‘to maintain the shine.’
You are put on a diet. Only chapathis at night, Aunt Winnie advises. Ragimudde in the morning, Aunt Jilly says. Pedru Ab’s daughter lost ten kilos. She was this big before, Aunt Jilly spreads both hands wide, she married a rich fellow from the Gulf. Your brother saunters in, rubbing his Buddha belly, Ma, I’m hungry. Aunt Winnie and Aunt Jilly smile fondly: Healthy growing boy.
You are married at eighteen. Your husband is thirty five, potbellied, bald. He burps before and after he has eaten. He passes wind stridently. He has BO. Good family, your ma says, proud. Wealthy. Only son. No dowry. She will join the ranks of Aunt Winnie and Aunt Jilly, going to the houses of unmarried girls in the village, imparting advice: Gram-flour baths, no rice at night. Only vegetarian food.
Work faster, your mother-in-law says. These dishes are not washed properly. This rice needs to cook longer. Your husband burps and scratches his lungi-clad crotch. Any good news? your mother asks when she calls. Pray for a boy, she says when you finally give her the good news she wants.
You hold your daughter in your arms, marvel at her scrunched-up face, her wispy hair, her tiny fists, her curled-up feet. A girl, your mother-in-law snorts. Dark. Takes after you.Gram-flour paste... your mother begins.
Your daughter’s almond eyes flutter open and for one fiercely intimate moment she looks right at you. You glare at your ma; include your mother-in-law in your gaze. No, you say. Your daughter mewls, nuzzles into you, She’s perfect.
About the author:
Renita's stories have been published in ‘The View from Here’, ‘Bartleby Snopes’, ‘this’ zine and ‘Platinum Page’ among others and have been nominated for the Pushcart prize and the 'Best of the net' anthology. Her first novel, ‘Monsoon Memories’ was selected as ‘Notable for potential in the UK Authors Opening Pages competition 2010. She is in the process of finding a home for said novel. She can be reached at email@example.com.