Unfreedom

by Shlagha Borah

“Where do old birds go to die?”-The Ministry of utmost happiness

…………………………………………………………………………..

“Pari, you’re like a colour, so go paint your skies however you want to. Pink, yellow, or you could stick to the more common blue, that is, if you like blue. You can paint your sun green, and make your trees emit light instead of the stars, colour your donkeys purple, because they secretly might be unicorns, and dress up however you want to. Fear, fear is just a misplaced synonym of submission, remember.”

I remember Soraya maasi in broken pieces, in black and white photographs stacked neatly in the album Ma received as a wedding gift, in a shawl none of us use anymore because it’s too warm even for winter, in a secret recipe of mutton rogan josh that Shambhu kaka hasn’t been able to master, even after all these years, but mostly, mostly in the empty chair at the dinner table on Fridays.

Soraya maasi, I think she was named something else, but she liked to believe rebellion was the only way to get things done, so when she read about Alaska looking at an atlas and choosing her own name, she skipped dinner for three days, didn’t respond to anyone who called her by her original name, and came out of the room only to get a haircut and a septum piercing. She didn’t believe in asking for things, or having a discussion, she used to think that revolting was the only reasonable option, and you couldn’t convince her to consider otherwise.

She was my mother’s oldest friend, her sister, a member of absolute importance in our family, even though we weren’t related by blood. My earliest memory of her is us eating walnuts together, while Ma would casually browse through art films they’d watch, while the aroma of shahi paneer filled the room. I was around four and my mother was pregnant with my sister at that time, but Soraya maasi hadn’t married yet. She told Ma about how she didn’t believe in the institution of marriage, and that secretly, she might be gay. Both of them laughed it off like it was an old joke, but I wish I was grown up enough to understand that maybe, it wasn’t meant as a joke, after all.

Until a few years ago, even after my sister was born, we had a ritual. Every Friday, she would come over, cook mutton roganjosh and pulao for us, her arrival a signal for Shambhu kaka to retire for the night. I was still quite young to understand the intricacies of their conversation, but I remember she used to look at Ma with so much love, it almost teared up her eyes. She used to tease her about how Baba, working in defence, was rarely home, and how Ma should’ve married maasi instead. “Bacche kahan se hote? (How would we have had kids?)”, Ma used to ask, I remember, laughing. She didn’t reply, but every time before she left for home, she would hold my face in her hands for a minute longer than usual, like I was the last tangible piece of a jigsaw puzzle that somehow never fit together, like my existence was proof to a love lost over time.

And one day, she was gone, without warning, without the slightest hint of anticipation on our part. But I’d like to believe she was always that way, her eyes so distant, you could look at her, and see the depth of the ocean in them. She left Ma a letter, a hasty note of apology, about how she was leaving home to seek a greater perhaps, how she couldn’t inform that to Ma in person. That’s it, two lines, no detailed explanation, and absolutely no hint of regret. A picture of herself stapled to the note, in suspenders and a dupatta, and a big, red bindi on her forehead. The photograph still lies in the third drawer of Ma’s bedside table, and even though I convince myself that it isn’t, it is my last memory of her. One day she was here, joking to Baba about how it’s been two decades since she’d last seen him, and the other day, she’s gone, just like that, in an instant. For a while, we kept waiting for her to return, placing mats and napkins on her seat every Friday evening, Shambhu kaka trying to recreate a recipe that was probably never about the right proportion of spices.

And just like that, we stopped waiting. Ma made new friends, wives of Baba’s colleagues, but none of them brought me walnuts or talked about pink skies. They came over for lunch on Sundays, and no one mentioned anything about the flaws in the institution of marriage. Ma doesn’t watch art films anymore, she’s always glued to the news, in a faint hope that maybe she’d spot Soraya maasi talking about gender fluidity or freedom of choice, but when after years of waiting, the same politicians and their scandals kept on coming up in the news, I saw it dismantle, one television channel at a time.

Last Sunday, we got a letter in our mailbox. It took Ma less than two seconds to recognise the handwriting. “I think I have started putting my faith in the institution of marriage”, it read, along with, another photograph that I found in the trash yesterday, Soraya maasi in a sari, worn the traditional Bengali way, next to a girl who, for some strange reason, reminded me of Sweet Home Alabama. They looked happy. I think the burden of realisation that Ma felt after all these years, to finally accept that Maasi had always been gay, always been in love with the one precious woman in her life, to think that it was right there, and none of us could see it, not even for once.

But I think Ma had always known. She made excuses to maasi on most Fridays when Baba was home, something about having to go to a wedding, or one of the children not being well. She keeps the shawl next to her pillow now, and even though it’s June, I think she holds it tightly until she falls asleep. You know, maasi, I think she loved you differently, too; her ways were soft, subtle, almost unnoticeable, but the time was never right.

You believed in rebellion like it’s the only way in the world, and Ma, she was always the fearful kind. But I think, in a way, you liberated her. On days when she doesn’t leave her bed complaining about rheumatic pain, I think I remind her of you in a lot of ways, and I think I now know why she named me Pari, she struggled so much to hold pieces of you in parts of me, she gave me a name that came closest to mean the same as yours. And maybe, someday, she’d stop looking at me with so much emptiness in her eyes, like I’m the last tangible piece of a jigsaw puzzle that somehow never fit together, like my existence was proof to a love lost over time.

Shlagha Borah (she/her) is pursuing her undergraduate degree from Lady Shri Ram College for women, India. Her work has been accepted and published in various online literary platforms like Ayaskala, Angst zine, Marias at Sampaguitas, Chambers, GroundXero, etc and has been nominated for Best of the Net 2020. She has been a Select Writer for Terribly Tiny Tales since 2017 and is also the co-founder of the student-led collective called Pink Freud that works around destigmatizing mental health issues.

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