She knew this could happen. It was, after all, the way things were. The promise of Rekha’s warmth buried it.
Some extraordinary feeling traveled between Usha’s legs, a pulse, a need, a want. More of Rekha’s rosebud lips, more of the feeling of electricity from her soft cheek, more of Rekha’s being.
“Rekha, amake bhalobasho?” She asked, peering into Rekha’s light eyes, eyes she wished to swim in, to see what she saw, to know just how Rekha was experiencing her. Her touch, her presence, her kiss.
Rekha giggled, “Of course, so much!”
As Usha remembers that night, that moment of Rekha’s hair and lips and the sturdy mattress, she picks up her kite, its yellow as bright as the sun.
“Help me,” she nudges Dev, his silence heavy around her. She feels the weight of it.
“Theek acho?” she asks.
“Ha, ha,” Dev responds, but even at twelve, she knows that something is wrong. She turns her attention back to the bright yellow kite, her fingers gripping its bamboo frame and hands Dev the string.
“Make it soar,” she begs.
She watches Dev hold the kite up by its bridle. A slight breeze passes through the air to brush her face, small pin sized bumps clutter the surface of her arms. She imagines the wind around her in bright white swirls like the lines in an illustrated children’s book. The kite begins to fly away from Dev as he pulls the line. She watches it ascend, a bright yellow dot into a clear blue sky. The gentle touch of Rekha’s lips, her saliva as it layered her mouth, again, it finds her mind.
She doesn’t recognize the people that have entered her home. A man in his early twenties, and two others that appear to be his parents. The man views her with a sense of fascination; she glimpses at him with a feeling of indifference. Her body is slowly transforming, layers of flesh appearing on her chest, her hips expanding in tiny increments, new rituals that involve blood and sanitary belts; men don’t hold a special place in what she imagines her future might be. Her future is the bright yellow kite, the miles of sky above her. Her future is Rekha.
Her future is the bright yellow kite, the miles of sky above her. Her future is Rekha.
Her chiffon sari is stitched with a zari border, gold thread crisscrossing the edges. Her family’s wealth is displayed by the home she lives in, the amount of servants that serve its inhabitants. One servant carries a round silver platter, freshly polished, covered with cups of cha and porcelain plates that hold savory and sweet delights. Usha watches as they gently place the platter onto the table that is firm border between guests and hosts. She greedily grabs a piece of gurer shondesh. It is winter, the time for this delectable sweet. The warm tones lace tongues with the subtle flavors borne from the honey of fresh dates. She closes her eyes and an image of Rekha resides there, in the dark canvas of her eyelids.
She wants to run to Rekha’s home and ask her to join in her play, to look up with her at the blue canopy of sky where she imagines the inquisitive monkey God Hanuman leaping to cross the oceans, traveling through the white wisps of clouds, the expanse of her imagination. She wants to take Rekha’s hand and leap with him, to begin a journey and leave just a trace—a swift brush of their beings into the universe.
Instead, this man in his early twenties obscures her view. Her father is sitting beside her. Her father loves her, she is his favorite child. She knows this because she can feel that thin, palpable grace of resentment each time she enters her mother’s line of vision. She knows this because her sister tells her.
“Baba loves you more than he loves me.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do.”
She indulges her father’s love. The affection he gives in warm kisses on her silken cheek, the hand he puts to her hair as he strokes the curly locks that fall across her face. She is not dark, she is not fair, she is something in between. Her hair is jet black, her deep-set eyes are a shade of dark brown. Her nose is sharp and pointed. Her face is symmetrical but not striking. Tiny dark dots decorate the space under her eyes, the impact of the sun and her time and play outdoors. She won’t ever know that it is her willful spirit that makes her father love her more than his other children, his four sons, his other daughter. She won’t know it is her playful voice, her ability to waltz through nature and behold the deep blue sky, her imagination traveling through it like the bright yellow kite, this is what makes her father admire her. He knows she is intelligent. More intelligent than his other children. But that doesn’t prevent him from listening to his wife when she tells him it is time for his favorite child to be married. Her mother wants her out of the house. He doesn’t resist.
“She is pleasant enough to look at, her skin isn’t too dark,” the man’s mother states.
“And Usha is intelligent as well. I think she will make a perfect wife. She will be diligent and give good, smart, children.” Her mother replies.
She listens to the unfolding conversationand slowly comprehends the happenings around her. It is as if, without her knowing, she had been foraging for something. Suddenly, through excavation, it appears. This turn towards the digging is a move away from the bright blue sky, from the white wisps of clouds that envelope her imagination, from Hanuman’s long leap across the blue oceans to save Sita from the demon king Ravana. From Rekha. She watches her father as he catalogs her existence and conjures the union between her and this young man. She sees the uncertainty that gathers in the corners of her father’s eyes to form tears that hover, but do not fall.
She knew this could happen. It was, after all, the way things were. But Rekha obscured this knowledge. The promise of Rekha’s warmth buried it. She had not expected the pull of Rekha’s being but felt no shame in her desires. The simple brightness of that sun yellow kite made her future seem prosperous with the possibility of fulfilling her adventurous desires, not the practices that dictated the criterion for living.
Usha does not know that there are rumblings in the nation, changes that will take place in the country that is her home, but she does know that she won’t be living with her father who loves her, she won’t swing from the sturdy branch of the mango tree or playfully nudge Dev to pull the string that lets her bright yellow kite unleash into the air. She won’t run to Rekha each day, to her bed, and ask that she join in her play, in her touch. She registers this much from the conversation that unravels around her and wonders how she can defy it.
“Theek acho?” she asks her father. His sorrow is as palpable as Dev’s.
“Ha, sona. All is okay. All will be okay.”
She is too smart to believe him.
Usha’s mother and father walk the man in his early twenties and his parents out of their home. She sees their vehicle meander through their courtyard and out to the road, watching its movements until the car is far beyond her sight. She runs to Rekha’s home.
“Rekha! Rekha! Where are you?” She calls out, searching the open hallways of the concrete courtyard, the arches that follow one after the other into a palatial home that mirrors her own, past the crystal and bronze chandeliers, the Adamasque furniture.
Her voice nears hysteria as she calls out Rekha’s name again.
“Ha, Usha, ami bhetorer ghore achi!”
Usha skips to Rekha’s bedroom, little beads of sweat from panic flourish upon her forehead.
They start to trickle down her curly strands of hair, drops accumulating onto the floor, a pattern of paisley.
As she crosses the threshold into Rekha’s bedroom, a radiant heat envelopes her when she looks at Rekha. It is unbearable, as if it could bring her knees to the floor, her face crashing into cold tiles, her cheekbones shattering into translucent fragments of glass.
“I think something is happening at home,” Usha says.
“What do you mean?”
“There was a man there and his family. They were speaking about me, saying things about how I might live with him and be his wife.”
There is a stillness that comes about from these words. A period in a sentence, the white space that comes after a chapter has completed its portion of a tale. Usha sees Rekha’s eyes fall to her feet as Rekha notes the intricate silver jewelry that encompasses Usha’s ankles, her toes. She imagines Rekha wondering if she will ever hear the music of her body again. She recalls Dev’s silence.
“We can run away,” Usha states, propelling time forward with more words, with the hopes that she can begin a new chapter. That she will be the one who writes their story.
“Yes, lets!” Rekha exclaims.
She imagines Rekha wondering if she will ever hear the music of her body again.
Usha plots their trip. She tells Rekha to travel light, to gather whatever jewelry her parents and relatives have given her, she will do the same. She knows the path that leads to Calcutta where they can sell the jewelry and live, it is only 207 kilometers away. She traces the lines on a map with her finger and feels the soft paper. It leaves a smudge of dust on its tip. The granules remind her of the ground beneath her feet, the roads that carry people to and from, wheels and legs that pass through the zig zagging lineaments designed by cartographers. They are lines to their future, like lines on palms that read like fate.
“Midnight,” Usha says.
They meet near the mango tree. The yellow kite lays upright against the thick trunk. Green leaves cascade around them, weeping, dangling mangoes, still ripening. They are each dressed in saris that disguise their wealth. They are simple, not lavish, no gold thread frames the body, no elaborate designs. No metal decorates their necks, ears, hands or feet. Black kajol accentuates their large eyes.
The lights in Usha’s home have been hushed into darkness.
“Teke ache, let’s go. I have a map,” Usha states, the leader of their journey.
Usha grabs hold of Rekha’s hand.
“We will go slow. There is no rush. We have each other.”
As they pass through the slumbering city of Barisal, particles of cow dung and smoke cling to the inside of their nostrils. Rekha’s body tenses. Usha squeezes her hand with reassurance, she is there to protect her. She fashions herself as the hero in their pilgrimage. The city leans towards them and takes long smooth breaths, pushing them forward, nudging them with its sighs. They feel this delicate push and march forward.
When Dev finds them, they are only three kilometers from home. He carries a stick, its end wrapped in flames that search for Usha and Rekha’s young bodies, illuminating the space around him. He catches their tender feet shuffling through raw earth. The quiet and stillness that has spun around him throughout the day reaches its peak when he declares, “Usha, it’s time to go home.”
He knows that it is no longer her home. That he will no longer hold the bridle of the bright yellow kite and tug its line to indulge Usha’s childhood spirit. He sees her young life fall into the flames of his torch, now ash, as dusty as the ground beneath him. The city pauses its breath, it leans back and away from them to stand upright, the buildings sharp, alarmed, alert. The thick wall of heat penetrates the visage of each one. Condensation forms and trickles down each of their surfaces, leaving streaks of sadness.
It is two days before the ceremony. Women young and old rub turmeric paste into Usha’s skin to make it shine on the day of her wedding. The juice gives her a distinctive yellow hue—exuberant and gleaming yet not as bright as the yellow of her kite. The turmeric weighs her down, she cannot fly.
Rekha is there dressed in a glittering yellow sari. Usha sees her look away as women streak Usha’s skin with the juicy innards of turmeric mixed with sandalwood and rosewater, soft and lumpy against her surface. She sees her look away as the man that is to be her husband walks in and sits beside her. His skin is also bright from the holud paste. He is fair, much fairer than Usha. He is taller than her too, his height and broad stature mark the difference between them in age. The light from above hits his sharp cheekbones to give them an incandescent glow, alerting the audience to his entrance into Usha’s life.
Usha recognizes that he is attractive, more attractive than she is, his eyes a nut-brown, kind, not malicious. But he does not have that sheet of hair that smells like coconut oil and jasmine, sweet puckered lips, saliva as sweet as gurer shondesh.
Dev is there too, still and speechless. A grey-blue shadow is cast around his eyes, his eyelids heavy. Dev’s role is the darwan, the one who opens doors to visitors, who closes them to keep people out; he does not want to be the one that unseals Usha’s predestination.
Each ceremonial step in the present illustrates Usha’s movements towards the future and Dev resents his part in it.
His silence is impermeable. Usha inherits it.
Usha takes in Rekha’s presence, studying the arch of her eyebrows, the shimmery brown of her skin, the contours of her body. She knows she will never see her again.
She knows she will not forget.
Two days later, Usha has wed the man in his early twenties. They travel to Calcutta through the same meandering lines that were supposed to provide Usha and Rekha with an escape, a going, not a coming back. This is not a hero’s journey like the ones Usha has read in her children’s books, it is not Hanuman’s leap to save Sita. It is a voyage tinged with defeat.
That first night in their new home, which was a gift from Usha’s father, her husband reaches out his hand to touch her hair. It lands on a strand that has recklessly gathered on her cheek. His smell is musty, not honeyed. His touch is gentle, not intrusive, and yet her skin recoils ever so slightly. The shift is barely discernible but her husband notices. He moves his arm back towards himself. Usha feels her body transfer back to its normal shape.
“Theek acho?” he asks his new wife.
Usha’s eyes feel heavy, unable to move and greet his gaze. Instead, she looks at the metal safe that stands against the wall opposite their newlywed bed. Flowers are draped like a moshari around them, petals litter the surface, red petals that light the white of their bedspread. On the safe’s surface is Durga, her ten arms splayed around her, her large eyes, wide and perceptive, marked with the same stillness that lingered around Dev the day she met this man, her husband.
“Ha,” she responds.
Her husband does not insist on much. He follows Usha’s young footsteps around their new home. She wears no anklets; her body moves inaudibly. He leaves a few weeks later to travel to London for law school, a long journey on a boat that crosses the oceans, away from his new wife. She feels no sadness when he whisks away. What she does feel are the pangs of desire, desire for travel and adventure, for bright yellow kites, the desire for Rekha, the rewriting of a journey, this time one with two young girls, heady from each other’s touch.
Usha has witnessed the birth of an independent India. She watched from her rooftop as bodies were mutilated and homes burned, blood spilt, modern lines drawn on maps. She listened to the radio, news of her childhood home, how it belonged to a new nation, one that is no longer her own. She has seen time churn into the 21st century from her bedroom. She is ninety-three years old. She lies on a tiny metal-framed bed with a thin weak mattress. Decaying marigolds draped over Goddesses line the walls of her small, square, bedroom. Invisible primroses of bitterness grow from her rubbery brown skin. Her body emits unpleasant odors from indigestion, old age, and indifference. Her children are gone, some to foreign lands, others to various places around the Indian subcontinent. Her husband passed away peacefully at the early age of sixty-five, trading his life with Usha for a life of serenity in a monastery. Her father died young, only 40 years old. When he did, his sons quarreled over money and property until little was left. Usha adapted to a life without servants, without those who indulged her demands.
When her husband returned from London during the earliest of days of their marriage, he did not remove his hand when Usha recoiled from his touch. He pressed on and Usha, still, frozen, took the weight of his body, the pierce of his anatomy, and birthed each of their children in hopes that the prospect of motherhood might quell that young desire for a life with Rekha. This sanguine expectation did not yield the results she hoped for, the blossoming primrose of bitterness was too pungent.
She carries her hunchback frame to the bathroom. Her body hangs down, a perfect curve. Her breasts have grown into long flat mounds from eight suckling babies, her midsection boasts a rotund belly filled with gas. She does not wear a bra under her white nighty. White is what she has worn since the day of her husband’s death. Her breasts fling about as she slowly moves towards the toilet. When she reaches it, she looks out the small window to her left. Metal bars run down its opening. She gazes up at the sky. It is not the clear blue of the expanse of her childhood fantasies. Instead, smoke and dust hover. Shades of brown and grey obscure cerulean. She looks up to see a bright yellow kite. The owner has lost its thread. As it flies up and away, it remains a tiny dot of yellow fading away from perceptibility.
She has not thought of Rekha for years. Life has obscured memories of the sweet saliva that slathered her lips, the sharp smell of delicious perspiration. The warmth Rekha’s body conveyed begins to creep up and around her. Usha’s knees crash into the concrete floor, her cheek lands on its cold surface, her eyes close, and on the dark canvas of the interior of her eyelids, she draws a scene of that day with the bright yellow kite, the feel of Rekha’s hand. They are young, their skin smooth and uninterrupted by the coarseness of age. Dev is there, his gaze comforting and spirited.
“Make it soar,” Usha begs.
Dev tugs the bridle and the kite ascends, his smiling face lit by sunshine. He sees a future that is resplendent. The contrast of yellow against azure blue is almost too much to bear. Usha squeezes Rekha’s hand and looks at her. Their eyes glisten from the force of their touch. The willowy mango tree frames their image, the mangoes now red and ripe. They look up to watch the bright yellow kite soar into a glorious blue sky and see themselves leaping through it, their very own odyssey.
Rani Neutill is a former professor of Ethnic American and Postcolonial Literature. Her work has appeared in Salon, The New York Times Book Review, Hobart, Redivider, amongst other places. She is working on a transnational memoir about fractured identity and her relationship with her mentally ill Bengali immigrant mother.