It’s funny though, the things we suffer and the things we remember about that suffering. It’s almost as though our thoughts were pebbles skipping across a pond. Take, for instance, that first time. I was fourteen. Now, when I think of that night, think of him pushing up my langa, smothering my face with his free hand, stuffing his fingers into my mouth to muffle my screams, I think of your grandmother’s paneer. It’s just a flash, really, but the softness of the cheese, the taste of the wood smoke and the twilight in which they were prepared, the thin gold filigree of the cube of paneer breaking like skin, they all rush through me in this moment as if I were that pebble, flying through the air. Then I hit the water again, and something is pushing into me. Thin and hard and knife-edged, it pushed, pushed, until I cried out. Then I think of something else, something quite ordinary, like how cold my feet are in the winter. Or maybe how I should bring in the clothesline; it looks like rain. That’s how memory works, skips like a happy pebble, even if the memory is so very far from happy.
Imagine if we remembered things exactly as they happened. If the pebble just glided along the surface, then we’d remember every detail. One after another after another. So imagine: after that first time, a slight sucking sound and then he turned over and went to sleep. I lay next to him, too afraid to move. There was something warm trickling between my legs and when I reached down my hand came up bloody. But what made me wince was the awful tenderness. That whole part of my body, below my waist, seemed quite apart from me. A scared and collapsed and quivering animal, curled into a ball, knowing only one thing: that nothing remained. Nothing. Nothing would come after. Nothing had come before. He began to snore, lightly, and the room felt close and thick and seething; the smell of his pungent underclothes hung in the air. I rose quietly, my legs nearly buckling under my new and awful weight. The door was padlocked from the inside but the small window was thrown open. That was when I saw the stars.
They were horrible: those stars.
I thought then of a ribbon I’d worn as a child. It was white with a beautiful tendril of red and gold threaded along both edges. I adored that ribbon. It seemed to me the height of loveliness. I wore it to school sparingly, only on Saturdays. I washed and dried it myself, then ironed it delicately with a brass tumbler full of hot water. Then I rolled it up neatly, with extraordinary care, and placed it under my pillow until the next Saturday. And it was during one of those Saturdays, after our half-day of school, that a girl in my class – she was the prettiest of all of us -snapped up the ribbon when it’d untwined from my braid. She waved it in front of me teasingly and laughed. I tried to grab it but she ran off down the street. I chased after her. Already, tears stung my eyes so I could hardly see. I saw only her blurred figure, weaving in and out of the narrow alleys. Our town was not very big; its great moment had come when Pandit Nehru had traveled through on a Delhi-bound train. My father had taken me to the station, raised me onto his shoulders, and as the train had sped past he’d pointed to one of the windows and in the midst of the roar of the gathered crowd he’d yelled, “See him? There! There! He is our father.” I wanted to say, “But I thought you were my father,” but even from above I saw his beaming face and decided against it.
But on that night, at that window, looking at those horrible stars, I knew I’d lost both.
So you see? It’s no good. The pebble must skip. Otherwise we’d die a thousand deaths before we got through a single day.