Thursday, November 29, 2007

DOAEN 11: Putha from Jammu

I'm Putha from a refugee camp in Jammu, which is in the southern part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. My family was part of a mass exodus from Kashmir in 1990 after violence aimed at Hindis. Whenever I looked out at night, I saw the pointed tops of canvas tents and the smell of cooking rice.

My father was an alcoholic. His job was to ensure that bodies were fully cremated. If children of the deceased weren't available, he pierced skulls with a sharp stick in a sacred Hindu rite. My mother married him at 14 and was never educated. But she didn't want me to have the same kind of life.

I can remember when I was seven and watching her carefully mix a half-cup of lentils in a pot of boiling water. She said, "You will grow up and get away from this place."

"Why would I want to go so far away from you, maataa?"

"You are such a stupid child." She added more water to the pot and stirred slowly. "Who wouldn't want to leave this hell hole? There is nothing here but sorrow."

My father usually came home at night drunk and as red as a chili. I did want to go somewhere else. But I didn't know how I could go.

I spent several more years growing up in our tent, collecting government-issued rice bags whenever they became available. I dragged them home because they were too heavy to carry. When I got a little older I'd walk around the edge of the camp until it became dark, and the lanterns from inside the canvas tents glowed with antique warmth.

On the weekend when my mother was busy cooking her few lentils, I'd walk to the central office where they stored our papers. But they also had a television set that was as big as a table. If I promised to be quiet, the manager, Sunil, let me have a lollypop and watch the programs. I always promised to be quiet. I was 12 years old.

I watched women on television dressed in long silk saris, lime green, purple, and saffron, with their hair brushed to the brilliance of a cascading waterfall. Their fingernails were long and red and they wore silver rings fashioned with the faces of gods and goddesses, walking in a trance inside a cave where they were waiting to find out by a tree trunk that grew inside the center of the universe what service the Lord Shiva wanted them to perform.

I'd sit in front of the television on a metal folding chair sucking my lollypop and sigh at how beautiful they were. Sunil would laugh. "A speck of dust longing after split logs."

"Look Sunil how beautiful they are. I want to look like that." Sunil was a grandfather with grey hair who was good to the kids living inside the camp.

"You are that beautiful now, my little raven," which is what he always called me. But the television programs filled me with longing.

One night when my mother had to go to the hospital to pick up my father, who had hit and cut his forehead on sharp glass, I remained inside the tent. I was bored. My eyes fell upon one of my father's empty bottles near his bed mat. It was a brown beer bottle. I picked it up and smelled its sourness and clasped it to my chest, feeling the hard glass against my breasts, which were beginning to bloom into pink hyacinths. It was a warm evening and the coolness of the bottle against my chest soothed me until I lay down and closed my eyes.

I hoped that my parents would return soon, but at the same time, I didn't want them to return. For I knew there would be a fight that would last throughout the evening. I kept rolling the bottle over my body, feeling the cool glass until it became warm like me. I placed it at my warmest place, my center, what my mother called my river stump. I felt a jolt inside my body that sent shivers down my arms.

Carefully, I nudged the lip of the bottle through the hole of my river stump and eased down over it. I knew now what the Lord Shiva wanted, and slowly began to stir the bottle with my hips the way my mother stirred lentils with a spoon, slowly and carefully, feeling the smoothness of the glass inside my own smoothness, adding my moans to the breath of the camp at night. For the first time, I felt a glow inside myself, a light from my own tent.

Yes, I could see that my mother was right. I needed to go far away from this place.


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