There will come a day
Colliding against vastly different worlds and moments of personal history, a writer tries to make sense of her home and identity.
Seed | beginning
i want to go home. where is it.
No, the old man shakes his head. He tries to sympathize: It is hard for you. You grew up everywhere. It sounds like an accusation.
Telugu Talli. Mother Telugu. The personification of the Telugu people, language, and culture. Her figures are everywhere in Andhra Pradesh, India, from small dolls on car dashboards to statues in every park and shrines on every road. Her tall crown and abundance of jewelry is reminiscent of what our legendary queen Rudrama Devi used to wear. Her sari is pleated and draped in the traditional Telugu style. Passersby leave strands of jasmine and garlands of marigold around her neck to show respect and love. Some lay mangoes and guavas at her feet as gifts and laugh as nearby monkeys sweep them up. She holds a kalasam in one hand, filled with nine types of grains and milk, topped with a coconut and beautifully arranged betel leaves to symbolize peace and prosperity. She holds the harvest in her other hand, long stalks of grain and rice firmly grasped in her closed fingers.
(We come from farmers, my grandfather says. Our people have given birth to some of the greatest kings and poets in history, but even they were farmers first.
The land rewards those who trust it, my father says. Mother Earth gives unconditionally to us and all she asks for in return is respect.
Our people. A lullaby.
Us. A promise.)
The Telugu Talli standing in front of me is different. She is large, her black granite body much taller than me. Her appearance is the same as every other depiction but her essence has been worn by passing time (mine or hers?). She looks less like a mother and more like a stranger. On her face is not the usual tender smile but a mocking smirk.
I greet her.
The words fumble out in English before I can stop them.
Her smirk widens.
Have you forgotten your mother(land)?
Root | sinking
how many times can a heart break.
I am hurting.
I need help.
I need love.
I am not okay.
I have been violated.
I am hurting.
I am confused.
I feel paralyzed.
I do not know what to do.
I do not know who to trust.
My friends make me happy.
My father does not love me.
I need to help my mother heal.
I need help.
I am lost.
Can I be found?
Ram is dead.
Lily Pad | floating
an ocean is terrifying at night. it begs you, in a way a man never will, to drown yourself in it.
I am in a professor’s office. He bursts into laughter when I mention colonialism. That was so long ago! he exclaims, It’s long gone now.
Where had it gone? And why had no one told me that colonialism had ended so I do not have to be angry anymore?
Where is liberated India?
I want to ask him what is it that caused my nightmares, now that colonialism no longer exists. Why the Telugu people are at the threat of extinction, why Indian communities thrive on self-hatred and the hatred of others, why India is still trying to destroy itself.
What is it then? What is it that chokes my mother, twists her words, perverting her I love you’s and You are fine’s to You are so ugly when you are this dark’s and I can hardly look at you’s?
Where had colonialism gone? Because colonialism still appears before me everyday, in the mirror, waving back and assuring me that my blood is still unworthy and my soul is still subhuman.
Nations and women cannot be unraped, I say with my heart. He does not understand.
I ask my mother for the first time what it was like to be a teacher. She lights up. I ask her why she stopped. She looks away, When a woman is a certain age …
My father is thick in the air, like the cigarette smoke he and my mother argue so much about.
My mother stands up, walks over, and hands me her broken heart.
It is too heavy.
I do not say anything.
I am at a yard sale. I reach for a vase. A man’s fingers accidentally brush mine. I pull back, startled. He apologizes profusely. I smile back.
It’s fine, I tell him. I’m fine.
I wait until I reach the bathroom to vomit, thinking of the last time a man touched me without my permission. Would I ever be purged of all my demons?
One of my rapists is in a class with me, one of the painfully few Telugu men on campus, flanked by attractive white blonde women. Another rapist said hi to me on the street the other day. I said hi back, half in shock and half still begging for mercy.
Women and nations cannot be unraped.
Where are you from? they ask.
I chatter on and on about something stupid. Ram listens patiently as we speed down the stairs. Suddenly, he grabs my arm. We halt. I am breathless. You take care of so many people. Who takes care of you? he asks.
I cry for the first time in years. Is this what liberation feels like?
I grew up watching my mother gather jasmines into garlands, flicking them together and binding them with thin, sharp thread, the entire garden’s bounty becoming my crown in a mere minute.
I grew up watching my mother draw rangolis on the road in front of our gate, with her sari pulled up so she could squat comfortably as she poured rice flour on the ground and shaped it to make beautiful patterns. I ask her why she drew the dots first, before connecting them to make lines and patterns. The stars. Our ancestors brought the stars to the earth and connected them to make our homes beautiful so our guests would be pleased.
I marvel at the miracle that is my mother and my people.
The glory of teaching women to weave jasmines and stars.
I peer over the edge of the Cliffs of Moher, the staple of every Irish childhood. Terrified of heights, I lay on my belly and stick my head out of the cliff so that I could not trip and fall. The tour guide describes to us how the nobility of the castle decided to jump over the cliffs and fall to their deaths rather than accept the impending defeat at the hands of the invading Scottish army.
My father murmurs appreciatively about how the Irish are almost as brave as the Indians.
I stare at the rocky abyss, scouting for any hints of blood and gore, ferocity and valiance. I find only seagulls pecking at one another and tourists posing for photos.
Abbu sips his tea. He tells me the story of his grandmother and a watering well she used to go to. She could no longer go after the Lebanese borders were drawn, he says. The well was on the other side. There’s a checkpoint, he chuckles, there’s a fucking checkpoint and she can’t go across. They would sometimes go to Haifa on a bus for a picnic or something. But now there’s a fucking checkpoint and military everywhere.
We are both drunk off the rose petals in our tea, their fragrance forming dreams of liberation behind our eyelids. No borders, he says. We both sit and let the sweetness of our roses and our dreams swish around in our mouths.
I hold back tears.
You are home to me, I look at him. He understands.
The cruelty of forcing women to weave dying flowers and fading light.
I run as fast as I can, my sickly lungs giving out fairly quickly. I collapse onto the desert ground, confused. I hear the riad owner running after me, shouting in French and Arabic. I lay in the sand and stare at the stars. The sky is spilled India ink, the stars jasmines in my night-hair. I am in awe at how far away it seems.
The man catches up to me and sees me lying on the ground. Fatima! he calls me, his title for all the women staying at his riad. What happened? Why did you run so fast? The food is bad?
I almost laugh in between sobs.
My best friend, I say. He is dead.
The riad owner takes my hand. My mother, my father, they all died when I was young. I am alone, Fatima. We are alone. This is life.
The world ends.
We sit on the desert floor, cloaked by the starry black sky of the Moroccan desert and the nothingness of the sand to keep us company in our grief.
My mother storms and rages. Sickly child! She slaps me across my face as I cough, the force causing my six-year-old body to thrash in bed. I told you not to cough!
I sit still, too afraid to move. She flings the plate of food onto the ground. I want to close my eyes to stop the tears but I am afraid my mother will sear them with a hot iron rod, like she so often says she would if I move in the slightest.
My grandmother rushes into the room. I told you to stop hitting the child when she is this sick. She is barely the size of your arm and she has not been able to hold anything down for days.
My mother does not take her eyes off of me, testing me to see how well I perform for her, how well I can please her by remaining perfectly still and silent, not a single short, hoarse breath to disturb her peace.
The stupid girl with her stupid lungs! she screams. Hot tears of frustration run down my face as I try with all my might to control my diseased lungs and to make my mother love me.
I cannot hold it for long and soon I dissolve into a fit of coughs. My mother loses it. My grandmother cannot stop her.
The world ends. I implode, folding into myself like the petals of a rose.
Six reasons I hate men:
My father. Though we are becoming friends now.
My first rapist. He was the friend of a friend and I woke up to it.
My second rapist. He locked me in the bathroom. I was kneeling on the floor screaming. He asked me why I didn’t like him.
The cop. I tried desperately explaining to him that our neighbor had been screaming, her boyfriend shouting at her to shut up, followed by loud thuds and shattered worlds. I grew up with this, I say. I know how this goes, I reveal myself in my last resort to pleading with him to help her. He shrugs. Ma’am, domestic disputes happen all the time. And we know how dramatic — he pauses, swallowing women. But it instead lands on my face, the spittle of white, institutionalized, militaristic patriarchy that did not give a damn.
My third rapist. ROTC. I am almost amused that he does not realize the grand irony of the american military colonizing brown earth, right in his bedroom. I float. And fade away.
Ram. For leaving before everything was okay. I scour astrophysics books to learn how planets survive the collapse of their star. I cannot find anything. Celestial bodies and I weep together.
I freeze when I first hear it. Faggot!
My breath and my soul leave my body. How did he know … ?
I rush out, panting.
I hear, They’re just so fucking brown. I would be into them otherwise. This one is referring to two Indian girls by him. They hear him but pretend not to. They look almost white, I am shocked he could tell they are not. I stare at my skin helplessly, a deep, deep midsummer brown of a woman who loved the sun.
I wonder how fast I can run without anyone noticing and how far I can go without stopping.
Friends come outside to find me. Where did you go? Are you okay?
I smile and nod.
Blossom | leaving the filth
my skin is earth. i blush copper and river.
The man’s Hebrew quickens as he tries to explain to the IDF officer that I do not have a Palestinian identity card because I am not Palestinian. She waves her gun around without even a pause in her livid shrieks. I recede into myself, fully trained in the art of invisibility, careful not to move or breathe, mercilessly aware that I was completely at her whim.
She finally allows us to leave but does not stop screaming as we exit the Qalandia checkpoint and get into a van headed for Jerusalem. The Apartheid Wall looms behind us and no matter how far we go, its presence does not fade. The van is filled with Palestinians who were forced to leave their bus for racist inspections by armed Israeli officers.
The man speaks to me in English now. His name is Afif. Arabic for spring. He works in Jerusalem and his family lives in the West Bank. He visits once a month. I am in complete shock so he fills the silence. I am eternally grateful for his continued kindness. He reaches into his backpack and throws me a granola bar.
I wonder at his bravery and try to understand what compelled him to intervene on behalf of a complete stranger in the face of large guns and the Israeli apartheid. A god amongst men.
Not a god, he chuckles as he chomps his granola bar. A Palestinian.
The bridges of Zhujiajiao are so covered with greenery, sweeping, leafy tendrils that blow softly in the wind, that I can hardly see them as my boat passes underneath. The heavy rain drove out everyone from the small cobblestone streets of the water town but I like the way it kisses my skin, ardently and passionately.
I walk past a shop that reminds me of the cave where my aunt used to live in our village. I peer into the bucket on the steps of the shop. It is filled with water and there are two turtles playing inside. I grin. A man with a severe hunchback greets me in Mandarin. I do not know Chinese, I answer with a terrible American accent. He understands.
He invites me in. He hardly comes up to my hips, he cranes his neck up to see me. I point at a stick with a quizzical expression. He picks it up and acts out that it is a scale used to measure weight.
I continue pointing at objects for a few minutes. He acts them all out.
A woman runs in, drenched by the rain, shoves a few slices of watermelon in his hand. He tries to hand them back but she slaps his hand away playfully, shouts some Chinese I cannot understand, and runs back. He hands me a slice. I smile and tell him in broken Mandarin, I love this food. He does not understand. I take a huge bite and grin. He understands. We both sit in old creaky chairs and munch on our watermelon as we watch the turtles play. The rain dances around us.
It is the best day of my life.
I wade into the water, naked. My hair floats and plays. I stare into the darkness. I cannot make out the border between the ocean and the night sky. Relief.
I close my eyes. The ocean sings me lullabies. I smile and remind it that I cannot sleep. It grows silent. I turn around, it is hesitant to let me go. I will come back to visit, I laugh. It giggles back. We are friends now.
The large sheets of paper print slowly. The person behind me in line glares. I smile back sheepishly. The faces all appear, one by one and my heart beats faster. Female Indian revolutionaries. Sarojini Naidu, Pritilata Waddedar, Queen Lakshmibhai, Kittu Chennamma, Begum Hazrath Mahal. I run to my apartment and tape them above my bed, so they are looking down at me when I lay down.
I place my head on Hannah’s lap and explain to her what each of them mean to me and what they have done for my people. Her long, white fingers brush my hair softly. Sisterhood, they whisper.
That night is the same as all others, I wake up during a nightmare-induced panic attack. I bite my pillow to refrain from screaming.
That night is different from all others, I look to my queens for comfort and eventually fall back asleep in peace.
The riad owner takes me to his house the day after Ram died, to spend the time with his mother, sisters, and wife, and leaves for work.
I watch as his mother forcefully mashes the couscous and the stewed squash together before gently spooning them into my mouth, as if I were a child. I tell her with the few Arabic words I know that she should eat too but she only speaks Tamazight. I point to her mouth. She understands. She chuckles as she eats to appease me.
Her granddaughter draws henna on my hand and says words that delight me. Bollywood? Shahrukh Khan? Aishwarya Rai? I giggle. A cat and a lamb run into the hut as the women tie scarves into my hair.
I watch as my grandmother forcefully mashes mango, yogurt, and rice together before gently spooning them into my mouth with stories of the moon. I point at her mouth, too weak to speak, to tell her she should eat too. She bathes me and lets me cough freely as she combs my thick and wild hair. It is not your fault she is this way, she says. She cradles me against her large breasts and sings to me softly until I fall asleep.
Relief. Is this what liberation feels like?
Lotus | going home to the sun
i cannot begin from a place of believing human beings are a disease on this planet.
the mothers and motherlands that have birthed us
have been raped, beaten, taken, violated, murdered
by the white man and his guns
and we are all now sisters not by blood but by grief and heartbreak
and hip hop
are bigger than the american occupation
we will not get our sisters or our mothers back
but we will give birth to daughters
and new worlds after destroying this one
in those worlds our broken hearts and our broken lands
will be whole again
this world is not my home
my home lies in those coming worlds
I sit with a pile of fresh paper in front of me, completely blank, without even lines to mar the possibilities. I take a deep breath and start writing.
The world begins.
//Born in India and raised everywhere, Sumana Palle is an emotional brown girl finally realizing that life is meaningless and meaningful.