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By Aditi Rao
Dear Mr. Yadav, I too am an Indian Woman
“Referring to the recent ‘Slut Walk’ held in the Capital, Mr. Lalu Prasad Yadav said we had naked women walking down the streets with tattoos on their cheeks, whereas Indian women did not even look up while walking.”
– Report on the Parliament Zero Hour in the Hindu, August 12, 2011.
I am not always sure what you are, Lalu ji, but I know you are not an Indian woman. I am an Indian woman. And I look up while walking. I sit ghoda taang on motorcycles. I ride airplanes as comfortably as rickety buses. Some nights, I come home from work at 3 AM. I am still an Indian woman. I run barefoot through sand. I cook aloo-gobi and chicken tikka. I mix concrete more easily than I make chapati. I am still an Indian woman. My mother raised me on puzzles, books, clouds. She does not want me to write this poem. She too is an Indian woman. My grandmother walked out of a bad marriage, learned to drive, got a job, knit my childhood sweaters. She too is an Indian woman. I balance marbles on pebbles, use matchbooks as playing cards, race tyres through smog. I can wrap six yards of silk into a sensuous sari. I wear a dupatta to the mosque and the gurudwara. I am more often seen in jeans and orange slippers. I am still an Indian woman. I have a sister with four tattoos and a Facebook photo showing her braless bare back (she is not an Indian woman, but not because of the tattoos or bare back). I hold young women through their tears and young men through their tears, and I ask friends for hugs when I need to be held (sometimes, these friends are men. I do not then sleep with them. But if ever we both want to, I may). I am still an Indian woman. I avoid a road because of a man who stood there fourteen years ago. I am anxious in tight crowds that carry memories of touch and helplessness. I am learning to shimmy out of colors I did not choose. I remain an Indian woman. On Diwali, I stain my eyelids with kajal and my fingers with the smell of marigold. I am not less beautiful when I turn compost and smell of sweat. I make excellent chai with adrak and dalcheeni. I drink my coffee black. I love without apology. I am still an Indian woman. I have a friend who called the cops when her father hit her mother. I have gay friends. I have friends who were raped. I tell them they are more important than family honor. They are Indian women, and so am I. I tell little girls they belong on the football field and in the library no less than the brothers they do not have. They will be Indian women. I have won awards for science and for poetry. I have lived on three continents and chosen this as home. I am an Indian woman. I dream in three languages and make tea for my mother. I find oceans in deserts, weave spiderwebs from fresh clay. I am twenty-six and unmarried and not worried. I am still an Indian woman.
Not being a man, I bleed like this
I remember only the wet earth, after a flood or a pipe-burst, grey soil
growing red, its greedy drinking. I remember the stickiness of my soles.
Yesterday, a man boarded the subway, smelling of mountains and chalk-dust.
Five centuries ago, he did not understand his neighbors; they seemed to
want to give. Five centuries later, he thinks I want room in his bed.
Don’t you see the spiders crawling up my bones?
. Mejor sola.
Cotton whirring into thread, clunking
into cloth – this is how I’ve spun for centuries. This
is how we drove the Brits out. Thread by thread, look.
. I watch the tourist who wants to pity me, silver smiles
. barely hiding his fear of a fingerless palm. I know
. the power of dismemberment.
This back has carried wood, water, children, stories,
the shock of orange against pink, sounds
of roosters and broken bus-horns. In years
of wandering, it has never seen beige.
Why are you hiding from color?
I am not afraid of disfigured children
that are not mine. Therefore,
I may never give birth.
. (I forgot an arm in a village, a lip across the border,
. dropped an ear in an ocean. Forgot. Remembered.)
. I will begin as I always have – again.
I remember a pebbled earth.
I delivered my first child with my socks on, so they wouldn’t see
my wounds. It was a hospital for healthy people.
Her voice grew loud inside her
stomach, exploded one day, shattered
the wall, took root with the banyan.
We have all tried rolling it back
into her throat. It has steadily refused.
. How will I live now? In her memory.
. One foot in the air, another in the soil
. where the graves are. Dancing
. with the world between my legs.
. My songs tied into bundles, set adrift
. on rivers, like children nobody wants.
On the highway, sitting ghoda-taang on the motorcycle
behind the man I love – no one to notice. Closer
to the village, side-saddle. A woman you can trust
to educate your daughters. I will live in between.
It was only a pause, a kind of photo
taking. A moment to remember
before I knew how easily he’d give up
our daughters, how little he understood
of their creased throats, shrinking
shoulders, trembling eyelids. I knew
there was no returning to a city
where my husband had not proposed
the rape of our daughters. But don’t
we all look back, sometimes? Besides,
I was always made of salt.
Disinfect, melt, preserve
(it is the opposite
of dying). I chose
The Little Mermaid Was Indian
That is the part they got wrong ― the blue
eyes were only the sea turned inward. The darkest
skin will pucker into white underwater. It does not
make me less of who I am. I grew up worshipping
a woman proved pure by burning. Can you blame
my grandmother, then, for her counsel about pride
and pain? Everyone, from married aunts to rapist
cops and shaadi.com, warns me of the danger
of my voice, promises men will love me
for my hips and eyes. The tongue was not a sacrifice.
It was a price for immortality. As for the prince,
I know a man who does not notice bleeding feet
is never worth them. It was never about him.
But don’t we all tire, sometimes, of the colors
we grow up with? Even as a girl, I loved being
something else. Travel is the greatest disguise.
Murder did not scare me, but I knew
an Indian woman who leaves for love
of adventure, or man, or horseback lessons, never
returns. The father grieves from a distance, won’t
swim to her shore. The grandma is always losing
hair. It is a constant choice between love
and family. That is the ultimate sacrifice,
the absence of guarantees.
The title, “Not Being a Man, I Bleed Like This,” is a line from Bhanu Kapil Rider’s book “The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers.” This poem was written in response to the questions Rider put to women of Indian descent for that book.
Aditi Rao has worked extensively in the youth development and social change arenas, particularly in examining the role of the arts in social change. Aditi’s poetry has appeared in Four Quarters magazine, Muse India, Cha: An Asian Literary journal, and other publications, and her essays have been featured in People Building Peace 2.0 (published by the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict), Moments that Speak: Images and Stories of Connection (published by the Earth Charter Initiative) and InfochangeIndia. Her first full-length collection of poetry, The Fingers Remember, will be released later this year. Winner of the 2011 Srinivas Rayaprol Prize for Poetry and the 2013 Toto Funds the Arts Creative Writing in English Award, Aditi currently lives in New Delhi. For more, visit: http://aditirao.net