Caged

Note: An excerpt/chapter from my book-length memoir/narrative nonfiction, ‘Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey’. This chapter is my humble tribute to Jamaica Kinkaid and her edgy personal essay ‘Girl’.

“The caged bird sings with fearful trill

Of the things unknown, but longed for still

And his tune is heard on the distant hill

For the caged bird sings of freedom.

…But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams

His shadow shouts on a nightmare scream

His wings are clipped and his feet are tied

So he opens his throat to sing….”

 

(Maya Angelou: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings)

 

Whose are those eyes that pry on me as I hover at the doorway? Whose are those faces that measure my gait, as I grab a seat in crowded vehicles? Whose are those feet that crisscross mine as I walk along the dingy lanes, following the flashlights? I should have felt the warning rattle at the door. I should have heard the noisy presence of heavy feet stomping the old cement floors. I should have braced myself for invaders taking direction, seeping through the damp, concrete walls.  Being born a girl, my mind was quiescent and tame, but I had sunrise, I had hope. I was simmering in my pretty looking prison. I was simmering in arrogance and expectation.

In a sleepy little town that stretches all the way to far-flung railway stations, I sit hunched in a chair that creaks, facing the window, from which I look at the thin sheet of rainwater floating up the grease and mud of the road. I glare at the passers-by, never waiting for them to notice me, as I know since my girlhood that they will, inevitably. “How did it cross your mind to step out in the dark of the Amaavasya (no moon) night, with this wild, unruly hair of yours? And how can you forget you must not run, hop or jump in this condition? It is the 2nd day of your female periods, girl; and mind it, we call it “shoreer kharap”, a special, inexplicable sickness, not without a reason.”

I feign a half-smile, then cringe silently, unsolicited voices whizzing by, guarding me from the edges of their eyes as I partake in a vain unraveling. My naked self is greasy with sweat, messy with heat and the blood that my egg has just released. Ah, yes, I must honor the gift of sanctity between my legs. My footprints are that of a ghost, they must die within a deep pool of silence. I must remember sundown, remember to crawl inside the fence, shutting off the slapping wind. There, my own heartbeats lull me back to your world, through the traffic lights of your commands.

I should have adored the pretty pink frills of my frock and the cup of hot, frothy milk of my childhood when I remained among the stack of fairy tales and pelting rain.   Beneath those locked doors and wordless wallowing, as my lungs held the solid air as a snug encasement, I thought I had embraced  my sanctuary. In this breeding ground of maiden virtues of virginity and sanctity, I never knew I was entwined in rage and loneliness.

“Hey girl, you have a lovely voice. Can you sing more songs for me?”

“Hey, I kept looking at your chiseled face in the photo studio today. A bit more slant to the right, relax your fingers against your chin, make a bigger pout, there you go. Ek chhobi-tei biye (just one photograph, and marriage is fixed)!”

What else can you do? Sew, knit, cook, make hand-embroidered tapestry? Can you show us samples?”

When did I learn how to turn on and turn off the music and let it pour from the damp speakers? When did I learn to explode in the presence of curious, sneaking men, stomping around, grimacing, with my thick braids swishing against their pockmarked faces? Did you all rejoice then, knowing that I was stripping myself into nakedness, bit by bit, my soft, maiden songs sitting tight at the knife-edge of my teeth?

In the pretty-looking prison of my  blossoming womanhood, I saw with wide, gaping eyes the dawn melt into the day. I had opened the window panes, waved at the world offering the vestibules of change. I had walked by the narrow alleys,  as the sun fell over me in a smudge of embrace. Ah yes, the sunlight has over-indulged my tomfoolery, there, it sits tight, over my skin, my face, my arms, preventing me from being the coy woman, the ‘forsha’ (fair) maid.

I should have braced myself for darkness and gloom in all those bright hours when I had soaked myself with rapture and expectation. Were the crisp airs of vanity my own? Was the bluebird chirping in my throat unwomanly, psychotic?

By now, I should have learnt to focus on my own life as an outcast, to thrive in my madness and be pleased to walk alone amid the crowded city streets with impetuous fools. You were probably right when you thought how gloom had plagued me, crawling all the way up to my toes, ankles, knees, thighs, waist and my rib cage, tasting the delicious orchards of my womanliness.

My femaleness each month pushes through the blood and clots and cramping, the clockwork of my body, the awareness of my sexuality. You have taught me right to hide it away, to feel shameful of it when needed, and also, when needed, proclaim boastfully how my body is a temple, a heaven to be worshipped. You have rightly taught me my skillfully carved out path, to be a sexy woman and a shy child, punctuating my whispering, my gasping, my moaning and my sighing. You have taught me right, breast to hip, moist bits that promise a riot, an uproar, a tempest, weathered well.

“Let woman be a plaything, pure and fine, like a gem, irradiated by the virtues of a world that has not yet arrived.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

I know now what I have between my legs. All the way from my first uterine cramp to the ultimate trophy of giving birth, I am pinned into your geometric cages, your mountainous pile of definitions and instructions. I do not care to sift through your lessons of how to obtain my femininity. I have known all of my fresh, fertile curves and pumpkin vines. I know it’s not worth dying for, you know, preparing to be peppered and injected, since menstruation to menopause, covering my body in polished jewelry and opals. Being born a girl, I should have known how to place myself in neat, transparent jars—compact, polished, cloaked in my femininity.

Would you again iterate and reiterate our prescribed purpose and potential in this dark, ramshackle attic? I return to the disheveled rubble of my long forgotten childhood. As I stand here today, I have danced all my dances, sprung up like weeds rooted in the old nursery of my existence. I hurl my powder puff and concealer, my body mist, my flirty winks and my bathroom mirror at this awful world of vows, and intrusion.

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