A Christmas Story

When there are too many women in your family – not in number, but it seems that way, doesn’t it? – you learn to become a little like each of them. One day, you are waiting for the airport bus with your boyfriend, and he tells you that you are stubborn. You protest, because over the years you have come to think of ‘stubborn’ as a synonym for ‘my mother’, and you tell your boyfriend how she is inherently incapable of apology; how even when you both know that she is in the wrong, you are always the first one to attempt reconciliation. You watch as a ridiculous smile dances across his face, because you are also the first to make peace when the two of you fight. When you want to kiss his shameless grin away, hold back. You are at a bus stop. Spend the bus journey holding three fingers of your left hand in your right. This is the number of times your mother has apologised. Frown to yourself when you realise that if you had to pick, those wouldn’t have been the three times you’d have used them.

You are around words a lot these days. In class the other day, you suddenly discovered that you have always associated certain words with particular moments. You can’t remember which word inspired this discovery, but the image is still fresh in your mind – a young girl has walked into a roomful of people that she has never met, who know each other. This is one word. You still can’t remember what it was. ‘Apology’ is your mother’s palm on the handle of your bedroom door, her feet venturing in slowly. She never leans in, although her kurti does. Her hand doesn’t leave the handle through the apology. You know that she has sighed outside the door, because she is biting her lower lip in a tired fashion. She is very tall when she apologises. The kurti is always the red one. In the plane, think about how you will tell her about the weird man who looked at you pointedly when his hat fell near your feet. You picked it up. You hate him. You hate him.

It is Christmas time. You have gone back home for the holidays, promising everyone that you will bring back the Christmas cake that gave your classroom a wonderfully festive feel last year, when you opened the box and the whiskey shot its way up everyone’s noses. You are sitting at the dining table in your grandfather’s house now. Your grandmother died three and a half years ago, and you’re beginning to remember even the not so nice things. Like the time you and your brother had a fight with her, and loudly wondered whether all her aches and pains were not sometimes a little put on. You’re a horrible person. When you realised that she had been coming down the stairs and overheard you, you were not even sorry. She used to say that she loved you the most in the world, and sometimes you think that you felt the same way about her. You were in the tenth standard the year she died, and the last conversation she had with you was about how much you were studying. When you got upset, she asked you to play the piano for her, and you refused. The next night, you play Ave Maria on the electric piano in your room, and cry, and cry, and cry. For weeks, you play it till your fingers become numb and forget the notes.

There have been many storytellers in your life. Your mother made you a book when you were five or six-years-old. She painted a butterfly on the cover, and tied the pages together with ribbon. What was the story called? Something and the Butterfly? You don’t know. She reads you Narnia, your brother and yourself curled towards her on one of her shoulders each, your small hands holding the big book open on her stomach. When she is reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, she makes you guess what the soft, cold, white thing in the wardrobe is. You guess ‘bird’ twice, and you’re completely in awe of her when she finally tells you that it is snow. This is the safest you have ever felt in your life. This is the safest you will ever feel. The yellow curtains in the room tickle the headboard of the bed. When you move houses, you take the curtains with you, and they go into your mother’s room. And when you came home yesterday, you saw that she had changed all the curtains in the house. She asked whether you weren’t glad that she’d gotten rid of the old ones that were always collecting dust. You are not glad. You must ask her where she kept the yellow ones, but you’re already afraid that they’ve already changed.

You’re back from lunch now. They’re sitting around you, making nankhatais. You asked your mother what she did with the yellow curtains and she said that she gave them to the girl who works in your house, who wakes you up on Sunday mornings, cleaning your room with an aggressive enthusiasm. Your brother heard the exchange, and told you, “Mama’s joking”, and you turned to her hopefully. You watch as she looks from one of you to the other, and says, more aware now, “But the seams were coming out, and they’re so old, and”. Her voice becomes light when she realises something too late. You are upset. You say, “But we’ve had them for years”. She never asks. Your grandmother was the same way. Your grandfather used to buy fancy linen on his trips to Europe. When he’d ask your grandmother about it years later, he would learn that she had gifted it to someone on their wedding day. They went for all those weddings together.

Something has changed. You used to be terrified of traditions dying out. You got very emotional about setting up the tree, and making all the Christmas sweets, in the pork-smelling house. You wanted everyone to sit at the table together, and listen to Christmas carols. Today, you unplugged the music system, and plugged in your laptop. You didn’t wonder why your aunt is shut up in a bedroom, and didn’t protest when your grandfather went up to take his afternoon nap. When he asks later, you won’t promise to go for midnight mass.

You think about when you’re older, and when you’ll have a family of your own. You’ll have the most beautiful children, who want to sit around the dining table and make Christmas sweets, while you cut pork in the kitchen – that reminds you: you must talk to your mother about how she makes it. You must at least glimpse the recipe. You must make sure that things can be the same one day.

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The Husband Stitch – Responding to Machado

It is difficult not to channel Carmen Maria Machado after reading her.

For a while I have not written. Before the Diwali break I decided not to write for the twenty days, and not to feel guilty about it. I do not regret this decision, but getting back into the habit of writing is difficult. I let myself read and watch Game of Thrones, and sleep too late and wake up too late, and loved every bit of it. But then college started and I missed this thing I love to do, and Carmen Maria Machado held my hand understandingly and said, “Here, write like this”, and I channelled her calmly and wrote.

You must read The Husband Stitch quietly, in your head, mumbling half the words to yourself, and then you must read it out loud, to a roommate or an entire class, or a beautiful imagined person who sits cross-legged and alternates his glance between your mouth and his wrist. And now you have two stories, not one.

Maybe it is because I am woman (and how scary that word is, because I should be taller and my back straighter and my bust larger, and my hair, darker than black), but I did get what she was saying. And maybe there is a male equivalent to ribbons, but no one has written of whatever that would be, and so we shan’t talk about it yet.

I get it.

I understand her when she says, “It is not a secret; it is just mine”. I cannot explain this, and it needn’t be explained.

But one tries to explain it, the first time. After it ended, I remember just holding my phone to my face, feeling like I had read something that reminded me of nothing, and yet it was so familiar, so ordinary – it is like a smell that you remember as a child, that will suddenly accost you, years later, mid-sentence, when you find yourself surrounded by it.

And then we talked about the piece in class, and I said something without really thinking about what I was trying to say, and it suddenly all made sense. This material of mystery that the story (or stories) seem to be so intricately woven from, are unwound gently when you open your mouth to talk about it.

In the time I spent happily channelling Machado, I was also aware of what I was writing about, not just how I was writing. When you read The Husband Stitch, you acknowledge the fact that the stories are in the past, but you also can’t help feeling like it wouldn’t have made a difference if she had been telling them in the present. The style, the rhythms, the comfort with which she writes, allow for certain types of stories – the kind that one often wants to write about, but is scared that the story is too every-day, and yet you know, somewhere, that you want to write about it nevertheless, for some reason. Maybe everything is just about telling stories.

We sat in class, debating, and raising our voices about what the end meant, and what could have happened, and maybe she re-attached her head after she closes the story, and maybe she knew, or maybe she didn’t, but it doesn’t matter. The way I see it, the story is about telling stories, about how storytelling and the lives we live within our stories are the only real ones.

And when the ribbon is untied and her head falls off, it seemed to me the most eloquent bow that was ever taken after a performance.

Read the piece here — http://www.granta.com/New-Writing/The-Husband-Stitch