I wasn’t born a woman. I really wasn’t.
Unlike most parents in India then, my parents had wished, and perhaps prayed (my father was an atheist then, so, I really cannot be very sure!) that their first-born be a girl child. So my grandfather who was later to dream of the Lord Shiva, not the god himself but of the symbol which Hindus like my old grandfather worship, the dark phallus, the night before my brother would be born, had no dream of me, not of any goddess, not even of the local whore who often appeared in his dreams, or rather his nightmares, with a big jhata or broom in her hands, beating him all over, smashing his spectacles for not responding to her overtures. So, you could say that, in many ways, I was born without a dream. Soon after I was born, my brother followed me obediently into the world. This left my mother, very young, very inexperienced and always with very little time, confused; I can imagine her now, thirty years later, with a milk-bottle in her hands, feeding two quarrelling infants lying next to each other from the same bottle. My brother and I thus grew up sharing not only a surname and a milk-bottle, but many other things as well, tiny t-shirts and half pants, dolls and cricket bats, toy pistols and make-believe pressure cookers and gas ovens, and sometimes shared dreams as well, of being India’s first brother-sister combination of cricket commentators and football goalkeepers.
Looking back to a time before one was born is difficult; yet quite often we feel that we have been there, carried into that imaginary terrain in sonnets and sonatas, in conversations and photographs. I find myself like Polonius, hiding between the curtains, eavesdropping on my parents and grandparents. I wonder how difficult it must have been for my father to convince his father—that old East-Bengali patriarch in his small village, sitting amidst huge tumblers and iron woks, selling them always for a bargain to poor Bangladeshi refugees—to agree to his marriage with this fair, quiet girl, born to an English mother and a Bengali Brahmin father who had crossed the mythical seven seas and thirteen rivers to make a long journey to England to come back with an FRCS degree. Yet, when I look back to my early childhood, it is less a mist to me and more like living in someone else’s dream. I can see my father, then with a dark bushy moustache, and my mother, thin, fair, quiet, her hair screaming from her head up to her hips, exchanging white rajanigandha garlands and walking around the sacred fire seven times to solemnize their marriage. And like all children who ask their parents where babies come from, I still, even at thirty, feel shy, like all grown-up children do, to imagine how I happened to come into being.
How my mother’s stomach, always smooth to the touch, almost a tabula rasa to the imagination, could hold within its small space an abnormally big child like me, continued to amaze me long after I had read the biology books. My father, however, always a rightwing conservative, gave us different lessons: he would take us to the papaya trees in the backyard, show us the papayas, young and ripe, hanging from the mother papaya tree. He would then tell us how we too, my brother and I, fell off our mother’s body, once we had become as ripe as the yellow-orange papayas. In spite of the conservative background from which he came, used as he was to seeing women being treated no better than cattle in the back-shed, overhearing his mother wailing in the dark silence of the night after being beaten up by his father, seeing his eldest sister weighed in gold at the age of ten or twelve and married off to a man much older than her in some village in Bihar, the name of which made it sound like some hybrid Bengali sweet dish (Pakur), hearing about women disappearing from homes on the other side of the border only to see them reappear in a different form, in a different country, with red ribbons and cheap fake gold jewellery and red and purple shining saris on street corners, calling out to him when he was an adolescent. He had got married to a woman whose docility and shyness had attracted him to her; she, in spite of her education, had arrived into his life without any opinion. And yet such is the contradictory nature of life that he wanted his daughter to be like him, a strong and independent-spirited person, unlike all the women he had ever met in his life.
Now, sitting at my desk, as I look outside the window to the playfield where I spent all the childhood that I can remember, I can see why he arrived from office early, with a referee’s whistle at his lips gathering young boys on the way and pulled my brother and me out into the playground, teaching me the same tricks with the football as he taught my brother and the other boys. Often my mother would protest saying that no man would marry a girl with such sun burnt skin and no feminine grace but my father would not listen. Rather, he would scold my brother who as captain of the team would put me in the defense, fearing that I would be overpowered by boys of the other team. My father would shout from the sidelines, Ma ke midfield a dao (Put ma in the midfield ; he always called me ma, mother, as many Bengali parents do, as an address of affection).
I never felt like a girl. I did not know that I was any different from my brother; only on Sundays, when my father would lock my brother and me up in the bathroom, scrub our bodies of dirt and in doing so inevitably put soap into our eyes so that we came to dread these Sunday baths, did I realize that beneath the shorts and shirts both of us wore, only something between our legs made us different. Grammar books with the he-she-it classification and difference in school uniforms tried to legitimize and glorify this difference. But this did not really matter much to me: for a long time my father took us to the same barber where he made my brother and me sit on adjacent chairs. While the barber gave my father a haircut, my brother and I sat looking at ourselves and each other in the mirror, taking our tongues out for under the huge cloth that covered our bodies all that we could do was with our faces, like mime artists, but only failing to parody gender. And those reflected images in the mirror, with our bodies covered almost by that shroud-like cloth, and only our heads visible with identical haircuts did not make me or my brother feel any different from each other.
Yet things were changing inside us. My classmates who usually spent their time eating from their tiffin boxes instead of running around in the playground during lunch break started wearing small lumps beneath their school tunics. Gradually these lumps started getting bigger, much like our mothers. I was intimidated by these growths and terribly scared of them. In the prayer that my mother had taught us, I interpolated a line, God, please don t let my breasts grow To you I bend my head low. I had always been a very thin and religious child and God listened to my prayers. So long I had had my share of suspicion about the existence of God but now my faith in Him was reaffirmed. I had to spread word about this testimony of his existence. Stung by this missionary zeal, I wanted to tell my brother but desisted from doing so; I thought he wouldn’t understand. So I turned to the girl who came second in class, a blossoming beauty or so (the lingo I had started to use following the boys I played with!). After I had made a clean breast of my religious experience, she looked at me with an open mouth and her right hand on her breasts. She remained silent for some time. Then she spoke in an idiom which I could not follow. The only words I remember now, almost fifteen years later, were this: Stupid, if you really had to pray to God about your breasts, you should have said, God, please let my breasts grow, So that milk may soon flow . (This woman is a mother of two beautiful girls today and is in her third pregnancy now.)
But though God heard all the prayers that emanated from my breast, other things were happening in other regions. Hair started sprouting from under my arms; at first I was scared. I scrubbed soap on it with all my might but they were adamant. Then later that night, in the misty light of the night lamp, I investigated my brother’s underarms. And those few signs of some hairy weeds reassured me. But alas! Hair was growing in another region too. For no reason my father had stopped the ritual of the Sunday bath as well. So, I had no opportunity to reassure myself that mine wasn’t an isolated case. Yet, engrossed as I was with books, bats and balls, I had no time for reflecting on these issues.
Moreover, God was showing the first signs of betrayal of faith: two painful beetle-bite-like lumps appeared on my breasts and started affecting the way I slept. I was petrified. I would sleep on my face in spite of all the pain, hopeful that being pressed hard against the bed, the breasts would be unable to grow any further. The reason behind this was simple: none of the boys on the playfield had any visible growths on their chests below their jerseys. I knew, by instinct if not by logic, that I would not be allowed to play with them if my body became different from theirs. Yet I kept on trying in vain, beating these bumps with flat cakes of soap during my bath, the flat ends of toothbrushes, often even with plastic pencil-boxes.
At the same time, other routes and passages were being furrowed inside my body, always without my knowledge. (And perhaps it is these journeys which were to define the character of my life.)
I come from a religious family: my father, once an atheist, turned to God with a vengeance. He constructed a puja ghar ( a room for worship ) and, almost overnight, assembled an entourage of almost all the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon in that room. (Quite ironically, that temple of a kind, due to lack of any space, was built next to the bathroom. So, quite conveniently, my father emerges freshly bathed out of the bathroom and enters straight into god’s room!) . My mother, ostracized by a large group in my father’s family for having half-Christian British blood flowing through her vessels, turned to worship to legitimize her claims of being a Hindu. So, when my brother and I were growing up, we had almost no sense of suspicion about the existence of God. It was, of course, difficult for us to imagine those stone and bell metal figures of the gods eating the prasad of nokuldana and batasha, those white sugar condensed concoctions which seem to have been manufactured in factories in Bengal only for the gods. They might not stay in our puja-ghar, my brother and I argued at night, but that’s because they have so many houses to visit. And we remained convinced.
Hindu rituals and custom declare a woman in her menstrual cycle impure. She is not allowed to enter god’s room for worship during those days. In more conservative families, she is not even allowed to enter the kitchen. She remains banished from prayer, from food that she would usually cook for her family and herself, and even from companionship for her husband is not supposed to share the bed with her during that time. Reflecting on those days of my ignorance, I can see how often I was asked by my mother to perform the day’s prayer; when I showed my displeasure in doing so, she would scold me or bribe me and inevitably invoke some readymade excuse. Due to my upbringing, however, I remained totally ignorant of these customs which punished a woman for her biological womanliness. And so it came to me by surprise, that frightening incident in the toilet.
On that Saturday in September, almost fifteen autumns back, I got up from the commode to find a few drops of blood on its edge. I wondered what these red drops might be for I could remember no injury on the playfield. I investigated my body but there were no bleeding spots anywhere. Suddenly fear got into me; I had been on an overdose of horror movies and suddenly imagined someone’s presence in the toilet. As soon as the thought entered my head, I screamed like I had never done. Ma came running; I knew it was her, from the sound of her footsteps, her right step always heavier than her left, the sound of motherly concern in her quick strides. Yet when she banged on the door, I was too scared to open the door.
Ma, there’s someone here someone I can’t see but someone who I know is here… I screamed. Ma, always gentle, always subtle yet dominating, even in her quarrels with my father, went on coaxing me, as she still does now, on mornings when I refuse to get up from bed, refuse to believe in daylight, in open windows and the smell of wet dust hanging outside my door, a little way away from my father’s garden. I opened the door, pulled Ma by the hand to witness that great spectacle of three drops of red on a beautiful blue commode. Pulled, my mother came, at first like an alibi, then a witness (for I could see the crease between her arched eyebrows), and then, suddenly she became the judge, putting her hands on the blue basin, almost calling for order , and then like those old-wigged judges in these old movies, but only without their hammer, she raised her hand, and before I could react, the sentence was on me. I stood there, near the commode, trapped in the accused’s box. The blood was mine, Ma said, over and over again, and each time I denied that, looking for another’s presence in that small room.
When I stopped crying, not because I was convinced but simply because there were no tears in me anymore, Ma said, Yes shona (as she has always called me; shona is gold in Bengali and is often used by Bengali parents to address their children, perhaps as a metaphor of how precious the children are), there is someone else here. It is someone you don’t know. This blood is yours they are proof of the girl who has died inside you. You are no longer a girl shona; you are now a woman , and so she went on saying, taking me by my hand, nursing me on how I should handle this blood from now on, for the rest of my life as a woman.
I was asked to bathe again. I had my bath and as always entered the adjacent room to offer my prayers, more out of an acquired habit and less out of devotion. My mother, who had gone to get me a fresh pair of clothes to wear, screamed, as if in horror. I, who had been talking to my chosen goddess, the goddess of learning, the beautiful Saraswati with a veena in her hand, about this new event in my life with my eyes closed, as I had been taught to speak to god, opened my eyes to see a horrified look on my mother’s face. I ran to hold her. What’s wrong, ma? I asked. After long moments of speechlessness, she told me, with tears in her eyes and a choking voice, how I had sinned in entering god’s room during my menstrual cycle. Then she went on mumbling incomprehensible prayers to various gods, asking them to forgive her daughter who had sinned in ignorance. She pulled out her precious bottle which contained the waters of the river Ganges, that all purifying solvent of all Hindu sins, and started sprinkling drops all over the room. I, who had been pulled out of the room, stood looking, ignorant of the sin I had committed, quizzical about whom my mother was trying to purify, the gods or her child.
Later that night, as my mother was putting on the mosquito net, her daily ritual of affection for her children whom she will not allow to grow up, I asked my mother whether my favorite goddess was a woman. Of course, the goddess Saraswati is a woman she said. Then doesn’t she have to go through the pain of the menstrual cycle as well, ma? I asked. So many years later I can imagine how disturbed my mother must have been with that question. Ma told me then of the Hindu ritual of the amaguchi, that annual event when goddesses menstruate, the only time in the year when temples are closed and red water or blood, whatever belief makes one believe, is seen to flow out of drains emerging out of the temples. Then why should the goddesses be allowed to stay in the temple when ordinary girls like you and me should be banished for no fault of ours? Why should our bodies be blamed when it is the gods who have made our bodies and whose bodies are like ours as well? I remember my mother vaguely, stroking my hair, trying to put me to sleep.
And so it was that I, a girl who had emerged through the blood of another woman into this world, had another baptism by blood. When I look back to almost half of a life lived, the last thirty years, this seems to me the defining moment of my womanhood, the birth of my feminism, my first negotiation with difference, my earliest fist-raising claim to humanhood, and the first sign of identification with an imposed profaned goddesshood of women.
About the Author
Sumana Roy teaches English at Darjeeling Government College, India. She is presently on research leave in Poland and Germany. Her short story ‘Award-winning Writer’ appears in 21 Under 40 (Zubaan, 2007), an anthology of young South Asian women writers. She is working on a collection of poems based on the themes of food and eating (a few of which are slated to be published in Biblio this summer) and her first novel.