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My Grandmother's Bones MAG
I dreamt of my bones every night. I pictured their smooth and slender white surfaces, cloaked in layers of skin and muscle, like chains of slumbering reptiles, linked by the inevitability of their common fate. I waited patiently for one of them to rouse and stretch, hoping the glorious cascade would shake the others out of their stupor. Many nights I lay in the dark listening intently for the slightest creak of their awakening, willing them to reach across and lock heads and tails.
I’m not quite sure of the precise moment when I went from being delightfully petite to just plain short. Perhaps the summer after which everyone returned to school, their generous bones bestowing upon them the inches I so deeply coveted. Mine had hibernated all summer. I tried to ignore the whispered taunts floating in the air wherever I went. Even the orange tree in our backyard, laden with luscious spheres of sunshine, seemed to mock me. My father had planted the sapling when I was a toddler. My parents continued the practice of their homeland, believing that as the tree grew, so would their child. My mother watered it faithfully every day, praying to the Tree Gods to hold my hands and raise me up tall and strong just like them. They simply ignored her. My bones just couldn’t keep up with the orange tree.
My mother’s days were consumed with percentiles and growth charts. “Late bloomer, perhaps,” people quipped. My father worked into our conversations names of accomplished people while feigning surprise at their incidental shortness. “Bones have no business being late,” I complained to no one in particular.
That summer, we went to see Paatti. It was the summer I learned why the Tree Gods had failed me and why it didn’t matter anymore.
“We’re going to see Grandma,” announced my father, his voice muffled with longing. My heart ached for him. I couldn’t imagine not seeing my mother every day, not cuddling up to her bosom for five more minutes of sleep, not spilling my adolescent woes into the crook of her neck, soothed by her scent of ginger, garlic, and sandalwood soap. I hadn’t seen my grandmother since I was a toddler, my forgotten memories of her sometimes surfacing like fireflies out of cinder.
We reached Paatti’s house early in the morning. The heady petrichor of early monsoon showers caressed my nostrils as I stepped out of the car. I watched in awe as the neighborhood women started their day casually creating complex geometric patterns of rice flour loops and circles outside every doorstep to entice the Gods of Prosperity. Far away, the intermittent scratch of grass brooms sweeping across concrete sidewalks woke reluctant residents.
I almost didn’t see her open the door. My eyes, searching for lost sleep took a while to find Paatti. But when they did, the air froze in my lungs.
Hungrily, she gathered me into her arms. My head towered above her disheveled sea of gray. I looked closely as she released me to hug her son, barely clearing his waist. Sparkling, serpentine, gold chains were lost in the folds of her stunted neck. Paatti’s bones, like mine, had changed their mind halfway to adulthood. I couldn’t distill the rainbow of myriad emotions that swept through me. Even as I felt somewhat relieved that my lack of height wasn’t entirely my failing, I tasted the acrimony of rage and disappointment at the back of my throat. There was my grandmother – the unmistakable reminder and cause of my Lilliputian fate. I felt an urgent need to let the whisperers know. It wasn’t my fault.
I woke to the sound of Paatti’s voice – honey flowing over smooth stones. She was teaching my mother the secret to making poli – my father’s favorite breakfast. Perfect circles of flaky pastries sat in a sticky syrup of sugar and loneliness. Skinny rivers of hot clarified butter crisscrossed the polis. Paatti insisted on feeding me, her slender fingers deftly pulling the layers of poli apart. I took a bite and the poli melted in my mouth, tasting of the fear of another farewell.
Later that afternoon, Paatti took me to the temple. She wore a bright-red silk saree, spires of golden thread woven into an intricate filigree of temple towers and elephants. Her diamond nose ring caught the light and spewed fire as she turned her head, the middle of her forehead sporting the flawless vermilion circle. Paatti looked resplendent and … short. The lump in my throat was back.
“For you,” she said, handing me a matching skirt set. Made of the same bright-red silk fabric of her saree, twin golden elephants. She had sewn them herself. I tried on the skirt, and before I could speak, she squealed, “See how it fits perfectly. You have my bones!” My eyes brimmed with regret threatening to spill over. Heads turned as we walked to the temple – matching visions in red silk and jasmine strings. “My granddaughter,” Paatti introduced me as pride lit up every tired wrinkle on her face.
Outside the temple sat rows of people – young, old, children, newborns, some missing limbs, missing voices. In front of each one of them lay steel bowls into which the temple-goers flung money from afar. Disease had maimed their bodies and tarnished their souls. People avoided looking at them, afraid their misery was contagious, but Paatti sat down among them. I worried that the elephants would lose their gold. She fed the little ones the poli she had packed in fresh banana leaves and chatted with the ease. I watched, mesmerized, as the children started to play around her – some lying on her lap, another one playing peek-a-boo with her billowing saree, all of them soaking in her radiance. After a little while, she rose to go inside the temple, and the children, like mutilated and blind mice, followed their enchanted piper to the doorstep. We went into the temple to pray and I hoped she wouldn’t ask what I had prayed for.
I wore a new skirt every day – six lustrous yards of blue, pink, and yellow silk sprayed with gold and silver spires, the elephants always golden. We walked to the temple with our clothes and bones perfectly matched. When we returned home, the elephants on Paatti’s saree were always speckled with the dusty remnants of the arenose temple street where the children played.
On most days, after lunch, my parents left to catch up with friends and relatives. Paatti and I were alone. She made me sit on the back porch, facing the jasmine tree. In her hand was a bowl of coconut oil – “the elixir for my tresses,” she insisted. Could it make my bones grow? I wondered. Her long, bony fingers delicately parted my hair as she carefully coated each dark strand. My thirsty scalp gorged on the rich oil. The intoxicating scent of jasmine in the air and Paatti’s fingers rhythmically massaging my scalp in slow circles was about to lull me to sleep.
That’s when the stories started. One step at a time, Paatti held my hand as we started to descend to the depths of her heart. At every step, a different, younger Paatti met me and took me further. The child, orphaned at eight, raised by aunts and uncles, no golden elephants or silver spires. The teenager, forced to end her education abruptly and marry a man she hadn’t met before. The hint of a blush disappeared in the ridges of her chestnut wrinkles. Then her eyes darkened to the color of grief-stricken clouds. Her words faltered and her voice began to crack, unable to bear the weight of the story that followed – of losing her firstborn, and second, and third. I wondered if her heart bled with every beat, squeezing out the excess sorrow it couldn’t hold.
Sirens screamed in my head to drown the question threatening to escape. “This is not the time,” my mind chided.
“Did it bother you … I mean, were you ever unhappy … because you are sh–short?” There! I said it. The words slipped out of my mouth slick as the oil on Paatti’s fingers, before I had the chance or sense to chew them down. Her laughter sounded like my mother’s brass pots tumbling over – the ding-dong of temple bells. “Short?” Surprise coated the chestnut ridges on her face.
“Do you think I am short?” I didn’t answer, but I was sure she could see the trail of pain starting to form on my face.
“I was one of the taller girls in my village. And beautiful, too!” She cradled my face with her hands. “And you have my bones. But the problem is,” she swatted an imaginary fly with oily hands, “your bones don’t know yet that they have left home.”
Her words pierced my heart and plunged to my soul. No one had said that to me before. The jasmine branches swaying and nodding in the evening breeze agreed with Paatti. Her words, bounced around in my mind, knocking down the cobwebs I had been collecting for years. In the new vastness of my mind, I realized slowly that there was nothing wrong with my bones; I had merely forgotten where they had come from. How tall I grew was as much a part of my heritage as the big copper pot of turmeric-colored curry my mother cooked every Sunday. I had unfairly pitted my bones against counterparts of a different league. I had assimilated so completely and was entrenched so deeply in the world I was born into that I had neglected to hold on to the world I had come from. If I had learned to embrace this fact earlier, perhaps I could have saved myself from years of heartache. Like my kohl-lined dark eyes, like the tendrils of my jet-black silky hair, like my skin the color of melted caramel, my bones were fulfilling their destiny.
I had inherited my grandmother’s bones. I hoped I had inherited the tenderness flowing from her heart. I wished for her indomitable spirit.
I never dreamt of bones again.