Women’s History Month Author Highlights: The Water Cracker

Amadeus was the score to my first kiss. The music of Mozart blared from our small TV so my dida couldn’t hear what was happening. Instead, she lay sedentary on her narrow bed as the keen strings of violins filled her ears. 

Amar and I were on the floor of the living room, a long phallic side-pillow protecting our heads from the chilly ground. As my head rested on its velvety surface, I remembered the day I rubbed myself up and down my red pillow, when my mother woke to find me, the moment she revealed herself, the most intimate part of her body. I felt the urge to stop what I was doing—but I didn’t.

Amar’s tongue was wet. Each kiss was sloppy, his excess saliva trailing across my cheeks. I ignored the slobber as we made out rabidly. My body was taut and alert. I could feel his penis, how it was hard against my leg. I squirmed around and wished I could put my hands down his pants and grab it, touch the organ I wanted so badly to understand, feel the contours of its arousal. Tacitly, I knew I could not.

My hands moved around his pink polo shirt. I wondered what all of his bare skin would feel like if we were naked, if the feel of his chest would heighten the exchange and tip me over into something still unknown and so far from my lived experience. But we remained in the cocoon of our clothes until it was time for Amar to leave.

One day, he decided to bring me to his spacious house. His floors were spotless, wealth articulated by clean and seamless furniture, no dust or dirt permanently packed into corners. Flamboyant artwork decorated his walls. His mother came home dressed in a gaudy salwar kameez, the body patterned with four-petal flowers.

“Amar, why is there an Anglo-Indian in my home?” she asked.

I was startled. I didn’t yet know what she meant. I didn’t realize that at that moment, I was just the make-up of my blood and race, a simple representation of a racial mixing that was unacceptable to a full-blooded South Asian. But I could see a shadow of contrition cross Amar’s face; he was embarrassed that he had brought me into his home, that he had alerted his mother he was involved with someone whose racial particularity she might despise.

I had always felt shame about my identity, especially when I was in India. People stared at me on the street. I did not look like an Indian, yet when I spoke to vendors at food stands or in the open markets of New Market and Gariahat, amid the colorful spread of glass bangles in lime green and magenta, the smell of fresh leather wafting from the chappals that hung from strings, I spoke to them in Bengali. The vendors and other customers were always stunned that someone who looked nothing like them could speak their mother tongue. I said the same thing each time: Amar ma Bangali.;my mother is Bengali. I was, in fact, one of them.

Even though I didn’t fully comprehend Amar’s mother’s interpellation of me as an Anglo-Indian, it brought on a familiar posture. My head hung down and my back hunched forward like my dida’s. I felt an inability to speak. When I had first arrived in Kolkata, I hadn’t known what Anglo-Indians were, but I learned that they were people born of Indian and British descent, or people of British descent born and raised on the Indian subcontinent. Remnants of the empire. They weren’t accepted by either the Indians or the British. Neither here nor there. They lived in interstitial space of the past and future, like coins that hide in the nooks and crannies of a sofa, forgotten objects once worth something, only found when pillows were moved and you saw their rusted and faded lives and they no longer registered as money, only clutter. Being half white, I collapsed into this category. It didn’t matter that my father had no English roots, that his family were immigrants from Bohemia, Czechoslovakia. Instead of creating a new category for my identity, they put my half whiteness into a familiar box. My mixed race must have been a reminder of a colonial legacy, a time when the people of Kolkata were seen as inferior, when British rule meant domination by a white race that defined Indians as irrational and uncivilized. The traces of this legacy seeped over the entire patchwork of Bengali culture, where fairness was preferred over darkness. Even though I was fair in skin color, I did not embody a fairness that was Indian, like my mother’s. I tanned easily into a reddish golden-brown, and as I grew older in the United States, when my skin tanned into those shades of bronze, I was presumed to be everything but what I was—Native American, Mediterranean, Latinx, Middle Eastern, or just what are you? Mine was also not the whiteness of Princess Diana, the woman my dida adored, with her opaline skin and sunshine-yellow hair. My skin did not shine as bright as pearls. I became brown too easily. My mixed race was clear for all to see. My half-whiteness, half-Indianness: the sight of me must have hurt.

***

I knew that any sexual behavior was profoundly prohibited. I was supposed to be a Bhadramahila in training, a respectable middle-class Bengali girl who studied hard and waited to have sex until after marriage. There was a hard line between the chhotolok, theuncivilized masses, and the bhadralok, the elite, upper-caste and educated, and my family seemed to hover on the hazy border between. Most of my dida’s daughters were not educated or refined, so we lived precariously, easily falling onto the side of the abhadra, the indecent,by the weight of a mistake that could be made by me.

At 13 and 14, I knew I was different, and not only because of my race or how my teachers treated me and talked about my appearance. I was different because of the way some of the durwans, the doormen, at my school looked at me. I was always hungry, and the school had a kitchen where the durwans brewed tea and ate biscuits. One day, I sneaked my way into the kitchen to steal some crackers. I fashioned myself as a baby-blue Krishna stealing butter from the Gopis—Krishna’s thievery was a form of flirtation, a little boy’s erotic interest in the cow-herding women of his town, before he was older, enlightened, and a true god, although the day I sneaked into the school kitchen, I didn’t quite comprehend that aspect of his burglary.

When one of the durwans found me, my legs teetering of the edge of a scant wooden stool, my arms stretched up towards a glass jar filled with square water-crackers, a stainless-steel kettle of boiling water in front of my legs, I somehow knew this man believed that my transgression meant he could transgress proper boundaries as well. There was a price for keeping my robbery a secret. He put his hands on my bottom and slowly stroked it, gently at first, but then with a forceful rub. With each rough stroke, his hands crept towards the crack between my bottom, towards my crotch. He murmured something about how I looked. My mind reeled while my body remained stiff, precarious, still teetering. He began to tug at my pants as if he were trying to take them off, expose my skin, feel my skin, take advantage of my skin. I felt my heart thump with ferocity, pushing in and out to create an outline of its shape against my chest, like a figure in a cartoon, swooning from love. But this was not love. And I was not swooning.

My heartbeat became a steady rhythm in my ears, a hard bang against my eardrums that vibrated through me as I felt his hand on my ass. My heart wanted to jump out and breathe air; my skin festered from the burden of the durwan’s touch.  Just as my pants were pulled down to reveal my naked skin, his fingers forcing their way onto and into my privates, I heard the shuffle of two feet on the dusty concrete floor, the sound clearer and clearer as they neared the entrance to the kitchen. The durwan stepped away and removed his hand from my body, hastily pulling my pants up to hide my bare skin. He reached for the jar of water crackers and quickly opened the red lid to remove one perfect square biscuit. He placed it firmly in my hands. It felt as heavy as a Sisyphean boulder.

Ye lo,” he said as he ushered me out of the kitchen.

I held that square cracker for so long it became damp from my perspiration, crumbling from my sweat and grip. I couldn’t feel my body as I slowly walked to the bathroom. I avoided the mirror in front of me but looked down at the small bucket that was a trash can. I threw the soggy bits of cracker in and rubbed my palms and thought of Lady Macbeth, how Mrs. Chaturvedi made us read that scene over and over in preparation for our O-levels: Out, damn spot! I furiously rubbed my palms together. Bits of skin curled off of them like pieces of lint. I heard myself let out a small whimper before I turned on the faucet and picked up the flat bar of brown sandalwood soap on the ridge of the sink. I furiously washed my palms to remove the debris of dead skin. I looked on at myself as I journeyed up the wide mahogany staircase, gripping the handrail, its surface hard against my parched palms. I traveled to my desk and picked up Macbeth to read and interpret that scene, which I had tried to do so many times. I finally registered its significance, that Lady Macbeth wanted to remove the blood on her hands, the evidence of her evil.

I would never be able to look that durwan in the face again; my head would always droop forward in his presence, the weight of that square cracker in my hands manifesting itself in somatic memory. I didn’t want to remember what he looked like. But I do.

The encounter with the durwan was a lesson. His touch taught me something about my identity: I was someone who attracted that sort of behavior, and therefore I was free to explore my skin and sexuality, someone who could elicit Amar’s kisses, his excess of saliva, even more than I had before, this time on our school trip to see Mount Everest. We were making out and someone must have told on us. Late at night on a train to Darjeeling. Mrs. Bhaskar, our geography teacher, discovered us in Amar’s sleeping cabin, our legs tangled up in the warmth of our fumbling teenage desires.

Mrs. Bhaskar always wore her black and grey hair in a single braid, a thin strand at the end like a mouse’s tail.  She had a thick South Indian accent that the nonresident Indian students made fun of, myself included. I was often unkind; a mean-girl streak lingered within me, fueled by rampant insecurity. I wanted to be popular, to stand out. But I never got the cruelty quite right.

“Get up and go from here, Rani,” she ordered when she found us, our mouths attached to each other’s.

I jumped out of Amar’s bed and ran to my compartment, where a few of my friends were slumbering, and crawled onto the slim, uncomfortable pallet. I fell asleep thinking about how Amar’s hard penis was pressed against my vagina. In my dream, I felt something acute rise up through my clitoris. It reached for a height that was nearly impossible to reach, found a peak and lingered there for just a moment, sharp and exhausting. The dream of Amar’s body, my rubbing myself, up and down and around, in heat, made me orgasm. I woke up.

In the back of my mind I must have understood the profundity of my actions, but I pushed that knowledge away. Instead, I wandered about Darjeeling holding Amar’s hand. We were high in the mountains, and I had never felt such cold, an icy edge that moves inside you, past your flesh, and gathers in your bones. Our class traveled to Tiger Hill, the highest point in Darjeeling. We took in the panoramic view of Mount Everest at dawn as we shivered from the raw air around us. The sun sneaked its way around the teal and white tips of the mountain. Rays of light slowly lit up the edges and shaded the crests in soft pink and orange; a faded blue sky hung above as if we were witnessing the revelation of the heavens. I did not comprehend the beauty of it all. Amar consumed my consciousness, the touch of his skin on my fingertips and the force of his groin against mine.

“You realize these are the things that lead to being pregnant!” Mrs. Bhaskar screamed at me later in the day. “This is not how we behave in this country. It may happen in America but not here.” Amar was not present. He was not in trouble, he would be fine, a male from a wealthy family; he would suffer no real consequences. He was one of the school’s darlings.

I wanted to tell Mrs. Bhaskar that sexual behavior among teenagers wasn’t accepted in America either. Political factions fought about outlawing abortion—the debate was always about how to control women’s bodies, no matter the geography. All she had to do was sit down and watch the Oprah Winfrey show to find that out, to hear my mother obsessively quote Oprah’s statistics about teenage pregnancy. I wanted to tell her this fear was part of why my mother left me in India. Instead, I stared at the ground.

In an unconscious effort to get back at Mrs. Bhaskar, I ate some Darjeeling street food on our ride down on the bus from Tiger Hill. My body knew Kolkata rastar kabar; it had adapted to our local parasites. But food from the hillsides of Darjeeling carried foreign bacteria. I devoured momos with my classmates. Nausea took hold of me. I felt vomit rising, the curdled liquid teasing my throat. Instead of reaching over Amar, who was sitting beside me, his body up against the window, I walked down the aisle towards the front of the bus. I’ll ask the driver to stop. I’ll throw up outside. I don’t want to throw up on Amar. If I can just get to the door.

 Mrs. Bhaskar was sitting in the front row near the aisle, her hair in her signature grey and black braid, with its neatly stacked links. The end looked like the long stroke of an exclamation point. I tried to get to the door, but I couldn’t hold onto that bile. It rose up and out of my mouth, my body’s involuntary action, beyond my mind’s control, beyond my ability to push it down by clenching my throat. As soon as I reached where she was sitting, I vomited all over her head. Understandably, she turned toward me with a look of shock and disgust, the remnants of doughy dumplings dripped down her forehead. However, her antipathy towards me wasn’t just because I had covered her in my bodily fluids; she was repulsed by who I was—a bad girl—and my place in the school was now precarious.

When we returned from Darjeeling, Mrs. Chatterjee called me into her office. She looked at me with her caustic face, shreds of black-grey hair stuck to her cheeks. “We will be calling your mother.”

I feared what the threat meant. I would be removed from school, and my mother would come and take me away, back to the United States. Or, perhaps, she would find another school for me to go to in India. A nunnery, a Catholic missionary school, where they whipped and beat students into submission. Or I would hear her say: None of them want you, a sullied girl, marked by the saliva of a boy. I was not privy to the call between Mrs. Chatterjee and my mother. I only knew that my mother would be arriving soon and I would be punished; what exactly the punishment was, I only imagined: a beating, another form of abandonment, or a boarding school that reformed young girls and kept them virgins until marriage. I had to wait for my mother to arrive for me to know what exactly my future held.

After the trip to Darjeeling, I began to develop cystic acne. My hands searched my face each night, traveling over the bumps that hurt so badly. Dime-sized lumps of pain forced me to realize how much I existed in the world, the corporeal reality that evoked such a venomous response from family, friends, strangers, teachers, men. Some demon in my dermis was trying to crawl out of my miniscule pores; that demon made present, inescapable, a face that wasn’t nearly as pretty as my mother’s.

When I walked around my dida’s neighborhood, my Shanta mashi and I would often run into someone who had known my mother and aunts when they were young and fresh, when bitterness and madness didn’t follow them like the dirty train of a gown that had been worn to too many galas. But the knowledge that my mother’s half-white daughter had been forced to live in Kolkata because she was disobedient ran through the gossipy whispers that slinked and slithered through our neighborhood. 

Eta ke? Shukla’r Meye?” they asked.

“Yes, this is Rani,” my Shanta mashi said.

“Pity,” the person replied. “She is not nearly as beautiful as her mother.”

I felt my cysts bubble and grow in response to these comments. My fingers squeezed, rubbed, scratched, picked, and punctured as I tried to gain some sort of release. I created marks and crusty scabs all over my face, punctures to my skin that later formed shallow craters.

After that trip to Darjeeling, Amar broke up with me. He didn’t want to be with a girl who was no longer attractive, who was becoming sullied, even if that sullying might have been, in part, because of him.


Rani Neutill has taught ethnic American and postcolonial literature at Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins University and other institutions. She currently teaches classes in memoir at GrubStreet in Boston and creative writing and literature at Emerson College. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, ELLE.com, Al Jazeera English, Refinery29, Catapult, Longreads, The Rumpus amongst other publications. She has been nominated for two Pushcarts for her work in Redivider and Longreads.

Comments
  1. Ananda Lowe on

    Beautiful, gorgeous, an incredible pleasure to read!

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