The summer I had chicken pox, I was ten. Large, juicy blisters formed an intricate pattern throughout my body. My back and thighs had them penny sized. The warm fluid they were filled with pricked like needles, making me feverish, and in frustration, I scratched them and they popped open and leaked, making everything sticky. But the itch didn’t go away. I was told not to touch the blisters because in time the fluid would dry by itself and form scabs, and those too would drop off, with time, with patience.
The afternoons were fierce, and the sun sent down so white, dazzling a light that we had to go about shielding our eyes with our elbows. The earth lay in waste; there was no rain. Chicken pox was rampant. Four had already died of it, and the populace was very alarmed. A mood of submissiveness prevailed in the whole village. There was a custom that if anyone unwittingly came across some virus-stricken person they would stand at a safe distance and fold their hands and utter under their breath: “Please Shitala Mata, spare us the visit.” Shitala Mata was a folk deity. The myth had it that she would cool the inner inflammation and heal.
Father worked in the chicken farmhouse outside the village, and usually I would take his meals there and upon returning, it would be time for siesta. There was a white, two-story house I had to pass, and a gap-toothed man slept in the rooms above. He looked out of the windows onto the path. Seeing me return, he would clatter down the stairs with swift speed and run after me. Something big and obscene lived up the man’s hairy legs, and I was scared of it. I ran fast, so fast, and could feel his garlic-laden breath on my nape. Then as I felt helpless and almost in the man’s grip, the footsteps would cease.
For a fortnight my brother had been taking the meals to my father instead of me. I was confined in a room stripped bare of furniture, the dirt floor sprinkled with camphor mixed with water and then strewn with neem leaves. The door and windows were closed. It was dark and cool and not unpleasant in the long afternoons. I lay on the cold, wet floor. Mother had placed a jug of water inside the room and brought me yogurt, melons, and cucumbers at intervals and hurried away. She repeated to me not to come out, as the rash was crusting now, and someone had told her it was more likely to spread infection at this stage.
And it was just before the rash would scab that it was most itchy. I was restless and frustrated and no one spoke to me. I found it hard to hold back my hands from scratching. Though I did not usually crave much for company, I felt humiliated and in disfavor. Oddly I constantly thought of mulberry fruit and silkworms and made a resolution to visit each mulberry tree in the neighborhood when and if I recovered.
I had been forbidden to look at my back, because it was a superstition among the village folk that blisters would sprout double if peeped over by the person suffering from the disease. But I had a perverse curiosity to see the bumps my fingers were feeling and sizing up all the time. I would go up secretly to the mirror on the wall of mother’s bedroom and stand with my back to it and take off the shirt stained with fluid and neem leaves and look over my shoulder at the leaky blisters spread throughout my back.
My brother, standing behind the curtains, would see me looking at them. He was as morbidly fascinated with the blisters as I was and seemed always to be watching out on the sly for my approach to the mirror. I was sure he would not tell mother. But mother knew anyway. She took wet clay and smeared it all over the mirror. And the next time I went up to the bedroom, it was murky and cloudy.
One day I suddenly decided to come out of the house. Gusts of sandy winds shook me and made me hold my clothes tightly. I closed my eyes against the sunlight and the windstorm and could feel the wind carry scabbed crusty areas off my body. I knew they would in turn land on people. I could almost see that the epidemic spread.
There was a big girl whose mother had died early that year, and she remained alone and free in her house all day long. Her father worked outside the village and only came back in the evenings. Her house was a favorite haunt of girls. Dead woman’s house, it was called. Girls gathered there to learn to craft, to sew, to gossip, and to play dolls. There were always games going on in the house.
I knocked at the door, harsh sunrays piercing my back, and waited. Behind me, perched on the wall of the opposite house, a black raven cawed—the dark prophet from the old stories expecting me to throw pebbles at it. I heard footsteps shuffling towards the door. The rebellious spirit that made me escape from my room had subsided, and in its place a strange unease filled the empty spaces inside me. The big girl opened the door and, seeing it was me, opened her mouth, then folded her hands.
“Go away,” she said.
The blisters pricked like hell, and I felt like grovelling.
“Let me play the bridegroom,” I said.
She hesitated. A short, fat girl peered around her back.
“You should be in seclusion.” She spoke through the web of her fingers placed on her mouth.
“She says she wants play the bridegroom,” the big girl informed the fat girl formally.
“Does she?” The fat girl arched one brow.
They eyed my clothes. I was wearing my father’s loose cotton shirt and my brother’s trousers. I had recently gotten a boyish haircut. I could see them wanting me to play the part and despising me for it. The fat girl lifted herself on her toes, sought the big girl’s ear in the middle of her tangled and messy hair and whispered. The big girl frowned, then nodded. They made way for me. They were suckers for form and appearance, all right. They could not resist having a pretend bridegroom with my short hair.
Fourteen pairs of eyes fixed hostile gazes on me in the dim, small room. They did not even fold their hands. “She will play the bridegroom,” the fat girl announced. She was bossy and hated to explain things to others. There was one girl, fair-complexioned and silky-haired, who gave an angry jerk of her neck.
“She will get us all afflicted,” she said.
“She will play the bridegroom,” repeated the big girl whose house it was.
“If she plays, I shall leave.” The girl would not even look at my face now.
The big girl shrugged, and the girl went out, slamming the door. I felt miserably vindicated. You want to save your milky skin, you whore, I said in my mind.
It was deemed very unfeminine to play the bridegroom. No girl ever willingly accepted the role. You were expected to behave mannishly. Girls would tease you and provoke you like a real bridegroom and laugh at your expense. There would be an indecent undercurrent to all their comments that the one acting the bridegroom would find humiliating and demeaning and hard to bear. And it affected one strangely.
They put a turban on my head and garlands around my neck, careful not to touch me. One pimpled, sad girl put a paan in my mouth, brushing her fingers on the underside of my lips. I looked at her eyes filled with sorrow and compassion. This gave an edge to the dormant wrath within me, and I harshly snatched at her hand. I don’t want your pity, or someone else’s, I thought viciously.
They made me sit on the makeshift stage. I played up to them, gave mock curtsies and sly winks. They giggled nervously. There was an unease underlying our exchange. I could feel it in their furtive glances, the way their hands trembled and withdrew and covered their mouths. A collective fear reflected my ugliness more than anything else.
They brought out a make-believe fruit basket and exhorted me to eat invisible apples and cherries. They gloated over how juicy and fresh the oranges looked and how yellow the ripe mangoes were. My throat felt parched and thorny. I gulped and moved out my tongue to moisten my lips. They laughed and said that I was watering at the mouth.
I felt like a big, puffed-up boil—taut, on the bursting point. I did not shift or change my position. I wanted to look at a mirror, to see my ugly, messy face and feel hatred instead of the self-pity I was swamped in. The banter did not last long, though. They were tired of the fake play and pretending to be hilarious. They led me behind the curtains to the dollhouse. They giggled again on leaving me alone with the doll. A hot rage was brewing inside me, and I was afraid of it.
The doll was big, fair, with a golden fringe set precariously across her forehead. It had been dressed beautifully in a red, silver-threaded outfit. I lifted the doll’s veil, and its inanimate gaze met mine, strangely shy and timid, or so it seemed to me. Sweat was breaking out all over my body and zigzagging down around the lumpy blisters.
I had been jealous of the doll for a long time and disliked it intensely. I took it between my knees and started to peel off all its clothes—lehanga, bodice, chunri. Its rubbery breasts and curvy thighs were weirdly provocative. Then I sat down, shocked and ashamed, as a hot burning shot up all through my body. My legs pressed tightly together, I caressed its naked figure.
I glimpsed the bride’s mirror, placed on the small side table. I leaned distractedly towards it and caught my reflection. I drew back. My face was a mask of ugliness and horror. Bloodless, runny with fluid, deep depressions hollowed out by my nicking and scraping, now scabbed and brownish. The self-loathing made me furious. I could have clawed my face. I took the mirror down with great force on the doll’s figure. The sharp-edged glass cut the rubbery upper part of the doll. Then I dismantled it, limb by limb.
I took in the miniature porcelain, furniture, and stuffed things. Something wicked controlled me, and I broke the cookery, knifed the small bed and sofas and unstuffed them. I destroyed everything—all the things the girls had collected and were proud of. Then I stood surveying my handiwork, the toys and the doll a ruined heap, the rage still unspent in my small, repressed, tormented body.
I came out from behind the curtains. The girls’ guffaws could be heard in the room opposite. Wait till you see it, I thought. Someone had seen me and called, “Hey, where are you going?” I was terrified they would discover what I had done before I had the time to escape. I ran to the door. The latch would not budge as my hands were moist and slippery. I heard them running to the dollhouse. They thought I had stolen something. Someone screamed. The latch came off at the last moment. I sprinted down the scorching road. The raven was still there, cawing.
I ran and ran, panting and without knowing where I was going. Fear was on my heel, chasing me, till I stopped for a moment to hold my breath and found myself on the street where the gap-toothed man lived. And sooner than I realized it I saw the man coming out in a flurry, wearing only vest and shorts. He caught me by the armpits, blisters popping open and leaking through the sparse clothing, and dragged me upstairs. I saw he was smiling ear to ear and showed the gap in his front teeth.
He swung me around and set his eyes on me. His jaw dropped with a click. He stared wildly and abruptly let me go and ran out and down the stairs. I stood shaking, then ran after him, my hands held like talons in front of me. I pursued him, determined. The loneliness of the gap-toothed man wafted up on the breeze and wrapped me up like a shroud.
Sobia Ali has an MA in English literature. Her work has appeared in Atticus Review, The Indian Quarterly, The Bosphorus Review of Books, Gone Lawn, The Punch Magazine, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, trampset, Lunate, Kitaab, The Cabinet of Heed, ActiveMuse, Ombak Magazine, Literary Yard, The Short Humour Site, and is forthcoming in Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature, Close To The Bone, Squawk Back, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on her novel.