A Song Is A Song

Image of a swing
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Beedi Jalaile Jigar Se Piya, Daddy sang softly under his breath to the tune of a popular lullaby. Meera was falling asleep in the crook of Daddy’s arm, worn down by the punishing summer heat; unaware of the nuances of Daddy’s tunes. There Daddy stood, against the door frame staring into the night, dressed in his creased office wear, rocking lightly on the balls of his feet like a nervous novice.

Ammamma sat at the dining table, chopping vegetables for salad, watching with a smile, the happy picture that Daddy painted. 

“You caught a good one, Mummy!” Ammamma mumbled in Malayalam, aware that her daughter could barely hear her in the kitchen and that Daddy could not follow. 

What was that?, Mummy’s head popped out of the kitchen. 

Isn’t Daddy amazing, I was saying… Ammamma paused. He’s such a hands-on parent, helping you put Meera to sleep.

Mummy was yet to put the laundry out to dry and find Meera’s white uniform from the washed pile. The evening was getting away from her and Mummy was in no mood to pander.

“You do know that she’s his child too, don’t you?” she shot back. “He’s not doing me a favour”. 

Ammamma wasn’t one to back down. “You know what your problem is? You don’t know how to take a compliment. Forget I said anything.”   

“That’s better”, Mummy shouted over the whistling pressure cooker.

Mummy was jumping through hoops to pull an acceptable dinner out of the hat. Acceptable was a relative term in this household. The same Ammamma whose brain could conceive nothing ill of Daddy, often saved her best jabs for Mummy. Ammamma’s scale measured behaviours between Amazing and Atrocious. And then there was the ambivalent Acceptable in the middle.

“Get through dinner. One day at a time. You can do this. Let it slide.” Mummy muttered, expending her anger with a brisk washing of rice.

Thumbi Vaa Thumba Kudathin… Mummy hummed as she tried to calm herself down, washing the rice till the water ran clear. It was an old film song from the 80s that Ammamma used to sing to her as a child. It was picturised around a happy family before tragedy struck. Sometimes Mummy imagined that her entire aesthetic as an architect came from this one song. The grey tones with bursts of colour. The fantastical whimsy, lingering nostalgia and spots of sadness.  The lines called on a dragonfly to get on the swing and swing to the sky and back. It spoke of playing with magical horses, listening to celestial music and climbing candy mountains to get amla that wasn’t bitter. ‘Lines from old songs, sweet as honey on your lips…’ Oftentimes, Mummy called upon this particular line from the song to make her feel better. And for a fleeting second she stopped to consider the song that would comfort her child as an adult. 

Long Before There Were Names

1997 was not a particularly memorable year of what was my awkward childhood. However, a single memory stands out in all its pre-teen awkwardness. It was November, my birthday month. Being 11 still felt new against my skin.

It was a Children’s Day like none other. That year, 14 November fell on a Friday. And our Principal had had an English-medium brainwave!  What does one bunk school and do best on a Friday? Watch a movie, of course. And it was decided that the entire school would watch, not just any movie, but Star Wars Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back, which had just been rereleased. In our small town, as an upper primary kid, no one asked me for my opinion or interest. Things were decided, we were told and obeying came naturally to us.

That’s how the entire school landed up at Jos Theatre that Friday morning at 9:00 am. We were sorted into batches and filed into the huge standalone theatre, which little me thought seated well over a ‘thou—uuu—sand’ people because that was a huge number back then.

Days leading to this momentous event buzzed with excitement. S-E-X! That was the word my classroom was channeling. An English movie—most of us hadn’t watched one. The ones who had were all sniggering, chuckling, whispering or acting important. Of course you were a lost cause if you didn’t know English movies were all about sex. Thank god I knew that much! The collective intelligence of 11 year olds wondered what had gotten into the adults to take us to an English movie!

I wasn’t entirely sure what everyone was excited about. Of course it was uncool to admit that. Back then, I didn’t know what sex was. There, I said it! I believed that when men and women reached a certain age, they got married and babies were born as a result of them sleeping beside each other on the same bed. Years later, when I was told the unique fitting required to make a baby (why else would you have sex? We are Indians!), I was sure I was being misinformed. Goes without saying that it took me a lot more years to QED why sex is awesome.

Anyway, when Children’s Day finally dawned and I wore my brown box skirt, I had no idea this movie was going to change my life. Once we fell in line, began a long wait—of standing, shuffling, staring and inching to get all ‘1000’ of us, some too young to understand anything useful in English, seated. Two hours later, we were finally in the cool darkness of wilful suspension.

By then I was bored to tears. And then the movie began. I wasn’t sure I understood anything. I strained to catch all the accented English floating around, but to no avail. The most disturbing question for me was—what is sex in this? I was sure I understood all the actions the actors were performing. I was equally sure that I hadn’t missed anything. If I understood all the actions, it automatically meant that none of that was sex. So if all English movies were about sex, I had understood all actions and hadn’t missed anything then…things weren’t quite matching up. Asking my classmates for confirmation was out of the question. I didn’t want to be ‘that’ kid. I was beginning to get anxious.

The movie was over 2 hours of concentration, frustration, disappointment and confusion. Then it was over as abruptly as it started, and we were waiting for our journey back into the real world to begin. When we escaped that air-conditioned cocoon, I was supposed to become a butterfly, colourful in my knowledge of what sex was. But my mind was still racing to find the answer.

And I did. In the 25 steps of madness from the theatre to its gate, where our school uniforms ran into the ocean of movie-goers, I became a woman; in the most practical sense of the word.

A hand broke the cover of my skirt and reached firmly into me. That unfaltering finger knew where it was going and what it was doing, though I didn’t. It was crowded. Anyway, why would anyone want to touch where I pee?

I turned around to look behind me. I expected someone to be smiling or waving or looking embarrassed — basically acknowledging the act. Well, that’s how young I was. When nobody owned up, I went back to wading through the humanity.

There it was – the hand … in and out and … again.

This time I was sure someone I knew was playing with me. So I didn’t react immediately. I waited for it to happen again. There …  and … just missed. I couldn’t place the prankster.

I tried that stunt twice more. There … again.

By now we were in the middle of this quicksand of people. I was a child who happened to be a girl and not a girl who happened to be a child. And that’s when innocence left me. I didn’t know what ‘this’ was called but I knew ‘this’ was intentional.

Should I call out to Amma to check what ‘this’ is? In that rush … can’t it wait? I can see that she is trying her best to get me out of here. Shouldn’t I behave and tell her once we are back home? There it was again.

In those 7 minutes it took us to get to the front gate, everything changed. I, who knew nothing about sex a couple of minutes back — even after watching an “English” movie — suddenly knew what violation felt like, long before that word joined my vocabulary. Long before there were names, I knew who and what to protect my sex-less body from, but not why. I knew I didn’t want anyone making me feel as confused as I felt that day.

Those minutes slowed into hours over the years, as I began processing that event. All the way into my late 20s, I continued to ask myself — what should I have done that day? Deep in my consciousness, I know the answer; no 11 year old should have to know.