I only know one story, which makes me very poor in our village. We have weekly sing-songs around a fire, a large feast to celebrate the best catch where everyone tells a story. Everyone who has a story to tell. I hear about gods coming to earth to grant boons, I hear about magical animals – usually fish – that give you wishes if you catch them. I hear about travels to far-off cities and countries. Everyone has a story to tell and most people have two or five, but I haven’t been anywhere or done anything, so I only know one story.
One that I can tell, anyway. I have my secret stories, but if I tell those, they’ll vanish and the world will explode and fire will rain down on our heads. My secret story is about how I suddenly grew up overnight and became beautiful. People explain it away as my age – “the overnight transformation of girls becoming women” – but it’s not that. If it was, every girl the same age as I would be radiant, breathtaking. It’s all because of the secrets I hold close to my heart.
My other secret story is about what I can do. I can do a lot more than clean fish and row people across the river. I can call birds to me with a single, low whistle. I can tell you which herbs will make you hungry, not hungry, less tired, will rock your child to sleep, will give you sweet dreams. Not small skills, these are things people would call magic, maybe they are magic after all, after all, I did learn them in a magical place. But I can’t tell that story either.
The story I can tell is the one about how I was born.
I’m not my parents’ daughter. That much is not a secret at all – you could see it even if you didn’t know us. They are short people, close to the earth, I tower over them like my body is trying to reach the sky. My mother has thick, curly hair that stands out around her face, mine hangs straight, past my shoulders, down to my knees. My parents have small, darting eyes, like minnows; my eyes are like carp, wide set and still. Even more telling – my parents are golden coloured, the colour of new wheat and unhusked rice; I am the colour of mud.
Oh, you’re thinking, what does any of that have to do with anything? You too have probably seen children who don’t resemble their parents, but who were born to them nevertheless. So have I. But my father is the king of the fisher people, not just our village, but all the fisher peoples on the great river Yamuna, as far east as it stretches. My mother was born to be his bride, because her aunt was my father’s mother.
Both my parents were bred to look the way they do – do you see what I’m saying? So all their relatives look a certain way as well. If one out of the pack was tall or dusky-skinned or big-eyed would be like seeing a thoroughbred horse with the ears of a mule – there’s something not right with that picture. In this case, that something is me.
Another reason I know I’m not my parents’ daughter is – well, because they told me.
I don’t remember a time I didn’t know I was adopted. One of my first memories, in fact, is of my mother raising her hand to slap me, the iron bracelets on her wrist slipping down till they caught in the fat of her forearm, her eyes narrowed, her mouth open wide and shouting at me. I’m cowering; I don’t know what I’ve done but I know it must be something bad because I can smell my fear and guilt, a particularly urine-like smell rising up around me. Probably also real urine. I used to lose my bladder when I was afraid. She’s yelling, “As if I didn’t have enough problems, he goes and adds a borrowed girl to my list!” A borrowed girl.
Girls don’t belong to their parents anyway, even the ones who are born to them, because they get married and leave the house. I belonged even less. Another thing she yells. Useless! Useless! Useless! I have no use. I am of no value. I am like a dried leaf on the ground, offering nothing except tinder to a flame.
When I was younger, it used to make me deeply unhappy to know I was set apart, borrowed, not a part of my family. My mother used every opportunity to let me know I was not wanted; my father was seldom home long enough to bother with me – his job ended after he brought me to my mother and laid me at her feet. I used to try to love her. I reached up my baby arms for her, hoping to be picked up, hoping she’d rest her cheek against mine and murmur to me the way other mothers murmured to their children. I loved her blindly, absolutely, because I had no one else to love.
Whereas she was a thwarted woman. The gods had not seen fit to bless her and my father with a living child. Each baby she gave birth to didn’t so much as wave a feeble fist. One stayed alive for the whole night, a quiet baby whom she held close to her, feeling both their heartbeats synchronise, and when in the morning it was discovered the baby had died as quietly as it had lived, they had to rip his body from her arms – she was broken, bereft, bereaved – all the b-words that mean loss.
Obviously, I was not enough. They called me That Poor Child when I learned to walk away from my house to neighbours’ homes. I wasn’t begging for food; we had plenty to eat, but if I stayed around a neighbour long enough, she might smile at me, caress my head and give me something sweet. The sweet seemed tied up with human touch and connection. I used to suck on the large lumps of jaggery, lying on my side, twirling my sari in my fingers, trying to recreate the feeling of being – just for a moment – not completely alone.
Three rains went by since I had been living with my parents, and just as the sun emerged again, watery and pale light dappling the drying puddles, my mother gave birth once more.
And this time there was no quiet, still child waiting for death. My little brother Chitravasu, he who bears treasures, was a lusty, rowdy baby who wailed for three days and three nights after he was born, protesting his journey from warm safety to the unpredictable outside world. My mother changed from the unhappy, often cruel woman I knew to someone who didn’t have time to be cruel. Her hatred of me simmered down to mere indifference. She didn’t care whether I lived or died any more; her eyes, her heart, her liver, her lungs were all about Chiro. He was a little god, and like a little god, he demanded absolute devotion. Even from me, the borrowed girl.
“The gods have blessed you for taking in a motherless child,” the elders told my parents at Chiro’s naming ceremony, and the women who filed past for a look at the little prince also looked at me kindly. “She has been lucky for you,” they said, waving their hands around my head and pressing their knuckles to their temples. I’m not sure if any of this influenced my mother but she stopped treating me like I was garbage she couldn’t wait to discard and started to show me a little reluctant forbearance.
It helped that I was the high priestess at Chiro’s temple. He stopped crying as soon as I picked him up, would only eat if I was near him, to amuse him with funny faces. His eyes searched for me as soon as he woke up, and after he was rocked to sleep at my mother’s – his mother’s – bosom, she would place him next to me on my bed of rushes and palm fronds, so he could curl his little body into mine and sleep with the end of my sari clutched in his fist. Even his first word was my name – “Mut Mut” for Matsyagandhi, what my mother named me when she first laid eyes on me.
Chee, she smells like a fish, call her that, call her fish-smell girl. By everyone else, the name was said with a curl of the lip, a slight sneer – I was Fish Smell Girl from a mile away – but Chiro called out “Mut Mut!” with love, like a victory cry. His Mut Mut was his fiercest guardian, his strongest ally, his best friend. My world cracked open under his tender little fists, and I could finally see my way out.
As I grew older though, it occurred to me that not being born to this family, my family, might mean that there were people out there who belonged to me.
I could be anyone, I could be a princess or a trader, a travelling Bedouin or a courtesan’s daughter. Every week I tried on new identities for myself, like clothes. I ran down to the river, to a spot where no one went, and I tried on different families. As a trader, I kept my walk brisk. I arranged shells in rows and pretended to sell them. I lifted my sari up so it wouldn’t drag in the mud, and I wrinkled my nose at bad bargains. As a traveller, I pretended to be in a camel cart crossing the desert. I wrapped a cloth around my head and my mouth, and looked across into the distance. I pretended the banks of the river were a vast, undulating mass of golden sand and I looked up at the sky just as the stars were coming out, to see which way I should be headed.
Not that I knew anything about the stars the first few months I tilted up my head, but as the play grew and the weeks went by, I began to recognise them as friends. There was one low bright one that always stayed directly overhead, some clusters that moved from one side of the sky to the other, long patterns that I traced with my finger till I knew them as well as I knew the lines on my palms. I gave them names – the three stars in a row fitting together two squares were a kith-kith game which little girls in my village played, hopping on their little legs, the other set looked like a crescent moon, one looked like a stork ready to catch a fish.
As winter set, I turned into a courtesan, because of course, a courtesan’s daughter would be bound for the same profession as her mother. I recalled all I had heard from sing-songs and stories, and whirled around on the riverbank as though I was dancing. I walked with smaller steps, and practised smiling into a shallow pool, demure smiles very unlike my normal toothy grins, so that dimples danced at the edges of my mouth. It was hardest to make-believe I was a courtesan because that would mean I was beautiful and not what I was in real life – Fish Smell Girl.
I took to oiling my hair the way I had seen the women of the village do, so it went from coarse and dry to shiny and smooth. I rubbed coconut husks on my legs and feet as I bathed, to slough off the old skin, and my limbs emerged. Still deep, dark brown, alas, but they were soft to my touch, and glowed. I did all this alone at night after I left Chiro sleeping in my bed, because all day I was at his beck and call, or helping my mother with her chores. I did not sleep very much, and that made dark shadows under my eyes, making me look other-worldly and haunted.
Sometimes, when my mother was casually cruel to me during the day, I took to going back into my head, pretending I was someone else, kidnapped by this evil woman.
My real parents were anxiously waiting for me somewhere. I did this so often that people began talking about the faraway look in my eyes, ‘as though she is somewhere else’, and since I wasn’t eating very much, my eyes grew larger and larger in my face. Finally, someone spoke to my father about it – I’m not sure what they said, probably something along the lines of ‘Is that girl of yours well?’ – and he actually looked at me for the first time in years. He must have seen something in my face that startled him because he asked me to go for a row with him one evening.
We had our own boat, made by my father using a fallen palm tree. He had worked on it with his little axe for weeks, chopping off the ends and hewing it down, and then, with his wickedly sharp little knife, stripping off the bark and revealing the warm brown underneath – light at first but after another few weeks of being worked over with oil and unguents, turning into the shiny brown of my skin.
The boat was almost a living thing; her name was Vayupriya, the wind god’s love, and although it was common to name a boat after one of our deities, this one actually seemed blessed by Lord Vayu himself. She always moved easily, even on the stillest day, with a rudder so light that I learned to steer her when I was quite young since my father used to take me outside and keep my mother’s wrath away from us both.
Now I was allowed to take her out by myself, ferrying people across the river for coins or goods. A fisherman is only as good as his boat, and my father appeared to have picked a magic palm tree for no other boat in our village was as delicate as Vayupriya, as easy to move, and better yet, as lucky. She cast no shadow on the riverbed below and my father could just reach down his net and scoop up the fish, swimming all around him, unafraid.
That evening though, he looked preoccupied, as he pushed with his oar to the shallows on the other side of the bank where we would be undisturbed. Then he turned to me and asked, “Which fish do we never eat at home, Matsya?” I shook my hair back as I thought about the answer. We ate everything in our home – sardines fried crisp as a snack, mackerel hung and dried in strips to be used as a condiment during the rainy season, river shrimp that added a little extra zing to any curry. We did eat everything – except, except…
“The seer!” I said, pleased. Not once in my many years with my parents had we eaten the seer. My father had caught several but he gave those to our merchants to sell. The seer was prepared at feasts – large fish with their silver bellies turned redly brown on the fire, split open and stuffed with spiced rice – but I had always been steered away from them, given other fish to eat, and now that I thought about it, I realised I had never tasted seer at all.
“That’s because it was a seer who was your mother,” he said.
Excerpted with permission from The One Who Swam With The Fishes, Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, HarperCollins India.