We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and imagination, but we can’t do it without you. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
It is the corpse of what used to be a door. The effort of keeping the frame in my mind has fatigued the wood. The skeleton remains. I am holding on tight.
Kochuappan is getting close on forty and he isn’t dead yet. Every year when I return to my hometown in the south of India, his condition has neither improved nor deteriorated.
We called him little, kochu, because he was so big, appan, because he would never be a father. His legs and arms are plaited with muscle and he carries his testes in a specially made sling like two melons for sale. A waterborne parasite, entering his twenty-year-old body, lingering now, multiplying in his pride and joy.
The temple priests say that his illness is caused by the goddess Durga, who took up residence inside him. A goddess having a temper tantrum.
I sit on the low sidewall adjacent to the thatched entrance and stir my chai with one of the keys latched onto my chain belt. Floating on the surface of the tea are clumps of fat from the morning’s milking. I try to pick them up with the key. They slide off. When I’ve got them all, I go back to watching for something to happen inside the morning.
A couple of dark-skinned children run up. They are led by a ringleader from a neighboring farm. Beautiful, they yell. Sexy … kanchi vellum–lousy foreigner! … Australia … kangaroo … me want marry you. My Marxist uncle throws water at them and they run away. "If you wear a sari, they will stop bothering you." His tone is apologetic. He doesn’t treat me as family anymore. This doesn’t bother me.
On the land sloping up from the compound are rows of stunted cassava plants. On the horizon of the soil there is a lone ripe pineapple, the fruit and serrated crown, nothing else. That’s how they grow.
I hop down from the wall and go for a run, for the exercise, for my heart muscle, to keep flexible.
It is the corpse of what used to be a door. The effort of keeping the frame in my mind has fatigued the wood. The skeleton remains. I am holding on tight.
This is what I make to replace it: an intricate door carved in a soft wood. I’ve found an off cut that is almost right. I want the pink flush of raw pistachio, and nut butter in the finish.
Once I have the door, I shall put in the handle, the shiny metal lock.
The Sunday before I flew out of Melbourne I found a key that I liked, at Camberwell market among some bric-a-brac. Paul polished it up and said it was solid silver. A steal at that price, he said.
"Your relatives get you so uptight," he also said. "Why don’t we spend our vacation in Europe? Maybe next year."
"You want me to break a habit?" But he was already on his knees trying to work out a different angle on one of my picture frames. I don’t want him to use any nails so he has to come up with original ways of joining. Sunlit squares moved sideways and spotlighted his freckled arm.
I went and put my winter-lightened, teak-textured arm next to his. "Look," I said.
He was still considering the wood. "You are looking at the wrong place," I said.
I am not sure why my parents left me behind for a couple of years. When I was older, I asked, and they murmured about keeping my cultural heritage alive. None of my sisters were left behind. I was the cultural heritage emissary for the Marthandens.
In a peasant village sits the ancestral home of the Marthandens. The houses are carved from wood, with low ceilings that require us to bend right over as we move inside. The doorways are doll house small.
Kochuappan was nineteen and he wore a thin gold chain around his neck with a crucifix as pendant. Twelve-year-old girls knew nothing, he said. He had contempt for me because I had parents in Australia. "They are Shylocks," he said, pointing his finger at my chest. "Coming and buying up our land and making like they are Brahmins." He had acorns then, taut and shiny…. I don’t know if I am making that up.
I have asked my parents about the people I stayed with who had two lions guarding their house and cobras allowed free rein. They laughed and said there were no such people. But I remember the house and the slither of the snakes. I would turn a corner to find an arrowed head and flickering tongue almost at face level.
Kochuappan took me to this house. He said it was our ancestral home. It was dark inside except where the light came in through small apertures. The doors, a meter and a half high, were intricately carved and so were the roofs. My room was like a coffin and I came to like this. When I have trouble sleeping, I put on my tightest clothes. Inside a small space, it is possible to turn over and over and never be able to roll away.
I have finished my chai. My mouth wants more of strong, spicy, and sweet, but breakfast will be ready soon. Besides, I will miss out on Kochuappan’s early morning appearance. Isn’t it a nice day, Kochuappan? I will call out. Kochuappan never looks me in the face.
Every morning I make a point of singing this greeting out to him in my loudest voice. He grunts.
Sometimes he sleeps in and this morning it looks like he is trying to outwait me. Why does he avoid the inevitable?
"Roseamma?" I swing my legs onto the ground. "Roseamma, eh Roseamma, is there any chai left?"
She is grinding some coconut and chili on a granite slab. She wipes her forehead with the edge of her sarong. "More chai, la?"
"A cup for Kochuappan."
I will prance into the room he shares with my Uncle Richard (still snoring from yesterday evening’s revolutionary tumblers of toddy). "Your tea, Kochuappan," I will announce, and he will take it with eyes lowered.
Then I will crouch next to his mat, as if to take his finished cup, but my cleavage is next to his face. Kochuappan does not move his eyes from the moment I come into the room so it is difficult to say what he is looking at exactly. But I know. I know that he is not looking at my cleavage even though I’ve stuck it right in front of his eyes.
My grandmother is coming down the path through the cassava plants as I am about to enter his room. I change my mind and go back to sitting on the sidewall.
Paul said to me, "Are you sure you want such a heavy frame for this painting?"
"Mmm?" I was packing to leave as I do every year.
How to fold a one-armed blouse in violent pink? Roll it up.
So long as I respect convention on my frequent bus trips around the city, my grandparents will forgive my clothes.
My grandfather’s house is not the one with the two lions and the slithering snakes. Kochuappan says there is no such house. My relatives shake their heads and say there is no such house.
Roseamma has finished sweeping around the back. With sketchbook and color palette in hand, I maneuver onto the hammock strung up under the tamarind tree. The tamarind tree neighbors the room where Kochuappan sleeps. I adjust the pillow behind my head and rest my paintbrush on the paper. Looking toward the window on my left, I begin to hum a love song from a popular movie.
My great uncle was a famous movie star. My mother’s sister went mad during the time she was married but recovered after her husband died. My other grandfather was the head of police. Roseamma, my aunty, was sent back home when she got asthma. We are an interesting family with lots of violent men and beautiful women. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if we had beautiful men and violent women?
A flower seller comes around the back with wreaths of jasmine and rose. They have already been paid for but I hand her an extra couple of annas. She blesses me and slinks off.
People come and go. Apachi, my grandfather, saunters home with a new milking goat and some sweets and he gets grief for spending too much. I get myself a tray of chai and bean cakes and offer to make up the difference.
Out of the corner of my eye I see Kochuappan laboring up the hill with his wheelbarrow. I put my drawings in the tray and tumble out of the hammock, run up onto the embankment, scrabbling to keep my footing, bending down to grab at tussocks of grass.
"Did the tea have too much milk, Kochuappan?" He keeps his face averted and grunts.
"I am so sorry about that. When you come back, I’ll make you a better one." He grunts and keeps on going. Plod, plod, plod. At what point will I decide that he has had enough of my taunting? It might be soon, it might be never.
Kochuappan’s nutmeg-brown back disappears around a red curve of earth. I turn and jump down off the path. Each year, the grass and creeping branches are trampled back until there is almost another track. Then it is time for me to go home. I let him alone for another year, and then I will have accumulated enough money from sales of my paintings and my part-time waitressing job to come back.
At the very edge of the property are my parents’ graves. I place my wreaths carefully on each of the ornate headstones. Both my parents used to say that they wished to die in their home country. During one of our regular trips back here, they died in a car accident. The pale stone of the cross gleams from recent polishing, lilac water lilies float in hollows of water at the base, old flower wreaths have been removed, and incense sticks have been lit. I like giving Kochuappan the money to do this. I like feeling like his employer. I rustle the crisp bills. When the money finally makes contact with his palms, I let my hand weigh down, resting it there and daring him to move away. He never moves because he doesn’t know if I will keep holding on to the money.
My mind is like a room. I lie in there, on my mat, fully clothed, so that I don’t have to get dressed in the morning. The furniture never changes. A small table with a jug of water. A broom. A casket with nothing in it. There is a wooden stand with hangers but no clothes. Everything is in shadow. The shadows are far more interesting than the plain furniture. As daylight approaches, the room gets brighter. There is no door, no shutters for the window. This is all wrong.
Why did my parents give me away at the age of eleven? They didn’t consult me. I was the second daughter and they seemed tired of girls by then. The third child was also a girl but she was an entertainer, precocious, and they grew fond of her. I was pretty but with so many beautiful women born into our family this is nothing special.
My instincts are precise. When Kochuappan approaches the well on his way back from whatever errand he has been sent on, I am bathing there. When he stops down the track to avoid coming upon me, his thoughts rest in the air like those of a nervous animal. I think of his mind as a pet rodent that I would like to entice into my room.
Unlike the other women, I bathe with my clothes off. Roseamma, for example, slaps soap under her skirts till her skin lathers. Then she splashes water around the necessary parts. She can turn out an immaculate body without unwrapping it.
My breasts could easily belong to one of the goddesses carved on temples. My legs are shapely. I take my time rubbing the bar over my skin. Sometimes I practice a new song from another popular movie. I run the soap in the crack between my legs and then I am singing another song.
No one else has disturbed me at the well. Those instincts of mine again. I don’t parade myself every day. I know my moments.
My friends say that I’m lucky to have Paul. He fits their idea of the perfect husband and, should I have wanted children, he would have been a perfect father. They laugh at the way he does everything for me and how he spends so much time on the frames of my paintings. He rolls his eyes and complains that he is my slave. When pressed to do something about it, he says, "I am happy."
I don’t know clearly about those three years, I’ve told him. I only know something happened in the house of the two lions and the slithering snakes. Paul sees the positive in everything. He thinks all experiences are fuel for great things. My paintings, for example.
I make comparisons in my relationships with men.
Paul laughs. "Maybe you shouldn’t keep going back … except that you come back inspired."
Being able to say anything to Paul, being any way I like, is not helpful. Without boundaries, I am sliding around as if covered in grease.
In the evenings, I entertain my grandparents with stories from Australia. Today I tell them about the current drought and how Victorian farmers are shooting their cattle. They love the idea of some farms being big enough to support a helicopter. They make me recite the size over and over again and repeat it among themselves.
"These people must have no idea about the value of livestock," Apachi says in careful English.
"Not at all." I explain relative costs of living but they aren’t listening. They prefer to be astounded.
Suddenly, Kochuappan is looking at me. I move around to stare in his direction. He is sitting in the darkness away from the lamps. In the unclear light, I can see him. Then I don’t.
It is time.
At midnight, when everyone is very much asleep, I get up from my mat, go out to the porch, and stand there. Marxist Richard has not come back home. On my right is my grandparents’ room. Behind me, in the central area, is where Kochuappan sleeps, usually with Richard. On my left is the kitchen and beyond that, the storeroom where Roseamma lies asleep.
Finally, I go in. I can see his eyes in the blackness. They hang in space as if manipulated by puppet strings. I slip down towards the bed.
On my hands and knees, I wait. Kochuappan is lying on his back. In front of me, however, the crazy eyes are stationed.
I look down and the eyes become part of my peripheral vision. I lift the edge of his sheet and fold it back. My fingers hover above his enormous testes. They look like the pocked surface of two moons. I touch them. They are warm. Draggy. I hear animal sounds in the shadow of my room. By altering the pressure of my fingers, I get different sensations. I lower my face to the surface, touching my tongue to my fingerprints. Slowly I become a space explorer. I find there is no life here. There is nothing to raid.
The shadows are still. I lie fully dressed on my mat, waiting for sleep. The clothes itch and become too warm. First I take off my skirt. Then I unbutton my blouse. I lie down naked but that is not enough. I have to unbind my hair and remove my earrings. Instead of turning to my right to fall asleep, I have to try my left.
"What are you doing?" Roseamma is leaning in the doorway, broom in hand.
"Bit early, la."
"Next year then."
"No. Maybe you can come out. I will send money."
"He won’t let me."
"I don’t think so."
"He has no one to look after him."
"You are his sister, not his servant. I will make sure he is looked after."
She doesn’t believe me.
The taxi cannot come all the way to the house so I have to walk down to the road with my suitcases. When I get to the pineapple, I turn around to look at Kochuappan standing in the middle of the field with his barrow. For the first time, he looks ill. Roseamma is standing next to him. He has hold of her wrist. That’s how it is.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
A recording of our virtual literary event with three generations of Black women writers.
Remembering poets Lynda Hull and Michael S. Harper, with original portraits
Netflix’s Maid and three recent best-sellers depict the agonies and rage of being a low-wage housekeeper or nanny. But all fail to identify capitalism itself as the culprit.