PROLOGUE: ONE YEAR AGO
SUFFERING QUIETLY IN a room not my own. The door locked. The wooden shutters pulled closed and bolted. No breeze out there, nothing to rustle the leaves of the mango or coconut trees. Only stillness. Early morning on a hot May day, the middle of the summer season in Hyderabad. It must be 104 outside. In here, it feels much hotter.
One of the wooden shutters is splintered and warped along the edge, allowing a single beam of sunlight to enter the room. I am lying at the center of my aunt’s bed, the one she brought with her in dowry some twenty years earlier. For her wedding night, it had been draped with a pink mosquito net, ropes of jasmine and rose hanging from the four sides, filling the air with their scent. She saw my uncle’s face for the first time that evening when he made love to her—not on the soft red velvet that covered the mattress for this celebration, but carefully positioned on top of the two-by-two-foot white sheet that would give more validity to this union than her wedding necklace or their vows. The next morning, he hung the red-spotted cloth on the clothesline and it fluttered in the wind for all to see, a white flag of her surrender and his victory. Then she, having proven herself worthy of him, began the long process of forgetting her own family to become integrated with my own. Now, the bed stands naked and bare, exposing itself to be nothing more than it actually is: a wooden platform layered with a two-inch cotton mattress that doesn’t even provide comfort. I feel the wood press against the hard edges of my own body, the back of my head, my shoulder blades, my elbows, my heels. If a man were to lie on top of me now, I imagine I would break.
The narrow strip of sunlight falls across my lips, and as I feel them growing warmer, I think this is what red lipstick should feel like. Wedding red. Soon, though, I am uncomfortable, my neck and back sweaty, moistening the cotton sheet beneath me so I know that I am leaving an imprint.
But I don’t move. In fact, I don’t move for the rest of the day. As the sun crosses the closed-off sky, the band of light descends my body. It leaves my lips to slip across my throat, then slices my breasts, my stomach, my pelvis and thighs, and, finally, too weak, it retreats, crawling to the turquoise wall. With no other means, this is how I have clocked the passage of time. In the end, the dust particles in the air are no longer visible. Nor are the outlines of my own skin. Everything becomes blurry and enmeshed so that the curve of my arm might really be the folds of my shirt, and where I once clearly saw my big toe sticking straight up might now actually be the doorknob from across the room.
Everything is in shadows. Except this: my mother’s voice on the other side of the locked door.
She is whimpering as she thrusts her forehead against the bedroom door, then pulls away, only to thrust it forward again. Each time she smashes her head, I hear the dull thud of wood and the door vibrates, and I fear it might give way under pressure. But I keep my eyes closed, trying to ignore these motions of suffering. Still, I cannot stop this grinding of my teeth, nor the way my fingernails are tearing stretches of skin on my thighs until I can feel the sticky warmth of my own blood right through the thin, polyester shalwar. Somehow, there is relief in our joint anguish.
“Your mother’s heart is breaking. You are breaking your mother’s heart. Devil’s child, you will never be happy, you’ll see.” It is Amme’s voice, though it no longer holds any semblance to the one I know. There seems to be another woman speaking out from her, cursing me, when we both know no curse clings better than that of mother to daughter, flesh and loam. Who is the devil’s child, then, she or I?
On the other side of the shutters, leaves crunch and a twig breaks. My uncle is pacing, too apprehensive yet to intervene—not because he approves of my silent protest, but because he knows that it is for his sister and his wife, the women of this house, to convince me to assent to this suitor, the one they have all chosen for me to marry, then love. Yet I feel the burden of his presence and this, more than all the silly wailing, is enough to make me buckle.
My nanny and her daughter yank my mother away from the door. Their sandals shuffle and skid on the tiled floor. Amme begs that they leave her be. She says she knows what she is doing. This is ancient and stubborn poise.
“You are bleeding,” my nanny says. “Hai Allah, what type of daughter is this? What have you borne, you unlucky mother?” The two take Amme away, their voices fading as they leave the hallway and enter the living room.
“I don’t know what else to do,” Amme sobs. “Her father is not here. He’s never here. Is there no one who can help me? How can I do this alone?”
The room has shifted from shadows into darkness. My breathing grows shallow and I can smell my own sweat. Outside, more leaves crunch underfoot. This time, farther away. My uncle is retreating and I wonder where his wife is.
There are no sounds now, only the silence I know so well, and in the blackened room, I see floating images of Amme’s bloody forehead and my bloodstained thighs merging and separating, becoming grotesque, and just when I tell myself I will not give in, not this time, Amme suddenly breaks free of my nanny. A chair scrapes along the floor as my nanny’s old body falls against it. She screeches and Amme screeches and both tones pulsate and become one and the same before my nanny’s stops short and Amme’s continues. She is running back down the hall toward the bedroom, toward me, her ill-fated daughter, her voice growing louder and deeper as she comes closer.
“Whore!” she growls, pounding on the door. Fists and forehead. Fists and forehead. Bare feet. “Tell me who is your lover. Shameless whore! Just like your father. Who are you sleeping with that you can’t marry another?” Of course there is no one, and I am exactly how she has raised me to be, innocent. But she condemns me and my femaleness, hoping to take control in the only way anyone can: through my body.
“I’ll throw you out and you can prostitute yourself to stay alive.” She has taken on my father’s threats, something she has never done before. Then I hear my aunt’s voice over my left shoulder, on the other side of the shutters, as she urges her husband to intervene, and my uncle sighs and steps forward, dry leaves shattering under his chappals as his knuckles knock hesitantly on the wood, “Come out, Beta,” he says, meaning daughter, a loving title he uses only when provoked. “Your mother is right. You cannot build your happiness upon her ruins. All of this anger and filth is not good, not good for you, not good for anyone.”
He walks away, toward the front gate, and it creaks as he opens and shuts it behind him, and my aunt walks in the other direction, back toward the entrance to the house, and I know she is headed for my mother, to lend her arm, to wrap it around Amme’s trembling shoulders, to quiet the anger and filth because my nanny and her daughter are still crying in the living room, and the walls in this room are muttering, too softly for me to hear, yet I open my eyes and see the stillness of the overhead fan, its rounded blades disappearing into the darkened ceiling, but before I can think of the consequences of giving in, my mother smashes her head against the door, a final time, a bit too hard, and this last strike causes her to fall to the floor, a folding of her body then a thump, and the earth sighs, and I rise, finally, just another weed in this wretched soil.
MADRAS ON RAINY DAYS. Copyright © 2004 by Zainab Ali. All rights reserved. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.