(tw: medicines, sickness)
I hate my mother.
Not the kind of flighty, tempestuous hate most teenage girls harbour for their mothers, but a different kind. Mostly, I hate her because I don’t know how to deserve a different kind of love.
Women have nimble fingers. This makes plucking two leaves and a bud from an Assam tea plantation the ideal occupation for them, our geography teacher tells us over Zoom, but we aren’t paying attention. My eyes are swollen from staring at the blue light of my laptop screen so I rub my temples gently, and exhale softly. It’s already noon. I don’t do any housework, but I lay the table, like the good daughter I was raised to be. My father thinks I’m a communist. He hasn’t been home in months, and I am glad for it. She comes in from the kitchen, her pace quickening on the tiles of our four-walled, dingy kitchen. There is a soft brown bandage wrapped around the middle finger of her right hand, but her face is unwavering, all-knowing. This is the face of a wound she has seen countless times before, when the blade of a knife spins too close to softened flesh. I wonder how nimble my mother’s fingers are. Or why she never cries while cutting onions anymore.
In Mumbai, the temperatures soar year-round. We live on the coast, and our large suitcase full of woolens are untouched for most of the year. Like most households with children that grow up too soon, nothing ever stays the same for too long. Seasons shift. The skateboard we bought last July turns green overnight, some sick specimen of decay in a closet. My father bought us two pairs of roller-skates when I was ten, and we were all giddily ready to learn how to roller-skate. The only memory I have of roller-skating is a damp courtyard that led from a small alleyway near our old house. A dozen children, most of them 8 years old, with milk-toothed gums and wide eyes. Remembrance comes to me now in slip-and-slide moments, falling and getting back up. My knees, stained with blood and skinned till the flesh beneath became numb. My knees are the most susceptible to injury, and I still don’t know why- I’ve never broken a bone, or gone through an emergency surgical procedure the day before an exam. But these little wounds came and wept, never ceasing. One Sunday we stopped going to the courtyard. My father gave up on his children ever becoming dignified, graceful dancers, despite my name, which means grace. We boarded up the skates and tied them together, the colour fading from string, seeping into denseness. Eventually, we gave them away to a house that knew how to love them better.
I liked the quiet sanctity of mornings, a branch snapping and a shoal of birds flying through the soft air. I like how surreal the world can be in the depth of beginning. The day before we leave for my grandmother’s house, I do something I haven’t done in years- take an afternoon nap. I always go to my parents’ room because it’s always been like that, and I don’t believe that things this arbitrary could ever benefit from the burden of change. I have a splitting headache, the kind that forces me to rock back and forth relentlessly, the kind that a Crocin and a you’ve been on your phone for too long just can’t cure. So I wait. I run my hands along my mother’s whenever she lays next to me, every groove of her palm and every stretch mark that I want to hold on to. Every five years, I take a vaccine. This year it was polio, and it took place the way it always did- the “how has school been,” the scent of rubbing alcohol, me gripping the hand of a baby koala stuffed animal, and an antbite. When I was younger, that’s what my mother would tell me they felt like. An antbite. An incision to crunch the bullet. The vaccines my mother took growing up were different, or at least, they looked different. Mine left miniscule spots over my forearms, that only bore the white-hot remnants of memory if I pressed on them too hard. Hers seemed like welts, skin arched up and crinkling, the flesh beneath reddened. I wonder if they felt like antbites.
The first winter holiday we take in years, we go to Agra, where my father grew up. The car ride is pleasant enough, with the old Bollywood songs and the rough-edged driver who doesn’t finish his lunch and the distinct, suburban oddities that occupy Northern India But I hated it there. I hated the house, how damp and dark and suffocating it seemed. The walls have my aunt’s red henna on them from the housewarming party four years ago. The handprints have faded over time, but their green, tumbling veins are still apparent. Whenever I look at them, I think of blood, dripping down from the ceiling, organs tumbling from the walls, a skull on the staircase, devoid of warmth. Dead bumblebees on the porch, their corpses slamming against the sheer glass windowpane on impact. I brush their bodies aside, water the camellias and try to mask the stench of death.
Halfway through winter, I fall sick. It didn’t feel like much falling, it felt like getting your period in the girls’ bathroom on the second floor fifteen minutes before your chemistry final, like a thing that wasn’t meant to be there. We thought it was cramps at first, a dull ache in the lower abdomen, an organ contracting, my body aflame. They weren’t. Cramps don’t cause you to tumble to the floor in the middle of a department store with your aunt, clutching at your stomach and wanting it to end. We went to three doctors. Three rounds of medicines that turned my lungs inside out, that caused me to vomit out the samosas my father brings home before dinner.
The nights are the worst. In the day, there is food and love and laughter and light, even if it slips in underneath the creaky old door to the balcony and worms its way down the stairs and steals itself from the dust caked in our fly-swatter. But in the night, there is no love or laughter or light. When we visit my grandmother’s house, my mother and I sleep on the same bed, like we do whenever we’re away from home. I like the safeness that proximity brings. How easily my body shapes itself into the softness of fabric.
On the first night I wake up at 4:30 a.m. Dadi said the guard comes at 5, rings the bell, and passes the key to our old house. The house in which dead things did not thrive. My body is rebelling, my old nurse would say if she were here now. I imagine the fluids swimming to the surface, pills click click clicking their way through the massless waves. My body as a tidal wave, bursting at the shoreline.
There are two kinds of medicines, or rather, ways to cease sickness- allopathy and homeopathy. The former means drugs with opposing effects. Push and pull, abrasive reactions to changes in climate. Homeopathy, on the other hand, is softer, less deliberate. It shows itself in under the surface ways, like how a strange girl two years younger than me on a train to Delhi tells me that my mother is beautiful.
The next night is worse. My mother believes in homeopathy, that sugar pills and warm tea with ginger can calm the worst plague one can think of. I try to push down the rising swarm of guilt in my gut, but it fights to the surface, like most things that belong to me. Don’t stay awake just for me, I’ll be fine. But she stays awake, because for eleven years my mother has woken up at 5 am, nursed two children and dealt with psychology exams three years too late that she still finds time to study for. Tiger-balm is a constant remedy that cures every ailment my tongue knows the name of. My mother’s hands are tender as she rubs my chest gently, and all the while she unrolls broken syllables from her lips. She tells me I’m strong, how this will be okay. How it needs to be.
Dadi and I are alone in this house that has no light or warmth or love or laughter. I vomit out my breakfast, and sleep till 4 pm. I miss lunch, while my parents have theirs elsewhere- on a lavish retreat that belongs to my cousins, the ones that I call once a year on birthdays. But the ache has subsided for a while. Dadi comes in, brandishing the stick that always lies on the terrace, for the bare-faced monkeys that visit us every evening. She gestures for me to eat. Pretend like the illness isn’t there. So I do. The porridge is warm in my throat, and I imagine my body rebuilding itself, cells clumped on top of one other, arteries unravelling. We fly back home two weeks later, and everything ebbs. And in the backseat of a taxi in Mumbai’s humidity, I taste respite.
When I think of my mother, I think of allopathy, of brashness and honesty. I think of all the ways I want to be just like her- in the loud jokes, and the tenacity, and the way she raises her voice. And all the love and light and laughter she has inside.
Dadi: paternal grandmother
Anoushka Kumar (she/her) is a student and writer from India, with work forthcoming or published in the Eunoia Review, perhappened mag, the Trouvaille Review, and elsewhere. She likes wood-panelled flooring and Phoebe Bridgers. Find her at anoushkakumar.carrd.co.