By Shobha Rao
If I were to tell Leela what I’d done, I know what she’d say. She’d say, “No mother would do that. No mother could do that.” But then I look down at my arm, at the scar left by the cigarette burn, and think, “What do you know?” Because what I know, what I won’t tell her, but what I will tell you now, is that I was long dead before I ever killed you.
Yet it’s all true: I took you, your moist eyelashes wide with curiosity, the tiny yellow ribbon in your fine hair bowed and alert, watchful, as if it were standing guard, and I wrapped my hands around your neck. You blinked. Then you smiled your toothless smile. It was a hot, bright morning in September. The sun shoved through the cracks in the door, past the edges of the curtains. Everyone said it was a long and strange summer. The days too warm, the clouds too thin. The monsoons were so late that year that well into September the entire Punjab and the Northwest Frontier broiled, simmered indecently, the dust a mad dervish, crawling into even your earlobes in the long breathless nights.
I’d bathed you that morning using more water than usual. I sprinkled your tender skin with a thick coating of talcum powder to protect you from the heat. I dressed you in a freshly laundered bright pink frock. I’d spread it carefully under a thick bundle of clothes the night before to press it, to make sure the pleats were crisp. I’d picked the yellow ribbon because it was the closest color to white. But none of it mattered. Thousands upon thousands were dying that summer. Entire villages were being laid waste in the crossings between India and Pakistan. What did it matter if the ribbon was yellow or white?I tightened my grip, I willed myself to close my eyes, to keep pressing. I felt the gentle curve of your windpipe, your brave and rumpled pulse, and I told myself, if you don’t kill her, he will.
The only question I ask myself now, after all these years, is why I closed my eyes. Why? I missed the last tiny breaths of the only life I’ve ever loved. There are so many answers, or maybe there are none. But I was afraid; I was afraid you’d recognize the act. Know what I was doing. And in some small corner of your silvery, still-beating, six-month-old heart, you’d scoff at me. You’d say, “What makes you think I couldn’t have withstood the world?” And I would’ve laughed and said, “It’s not the world we have to withstand, my Noora, it is ourselves.”
But all of that is ridiculous, of course. You hadn’t spoken a word. How could you? Only the tiny yellow ribbon seemed capable still of speech, still upright, oblivious, delighted by the fineness of your hair, by the life it would never lead. Besides, I know what you would’ve said if you could’ve formed the words. You would’ve said exactly the same thing he said the first time he raped me. You would’ve said, “Open your eyes.”