I Rise in Flames

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Up and down, in a gentle rhythm, goes the chest as she whistles through her tiny nostrils like the sound of our pressure cooker that doesn’t work properly. The sweet fragrance of the pink lily talcum powder unified with her baby scent fills up my heart and my ripe breasts. I love watching her sleep. She is so soft, as if she isn’t real, a cuddly stuffed doll, not like the one I made for her after she was born. That thing is rough–both on the outside and inside. For the doll’s body, I recycled cotton wool from the abandoned mattress by the corner of our street, and made clothes out of the mother-in-law’s old green Bandhani saree, which she gave me with reluctance. 

“Why waste anything on her?” She’d said, followed by what had become a constant complaint. “I knew you wouldn’t give us a son. Your mother had three daughters and so would you. Told him not to marry you, but who listens to me, Hain?”

Everything about her is like me. They call her my shadow. 

Her smile, hair, and the colour of her skin–dark as night.  

Slightly squinted eyes, her chubbiness.

Just as ugly as me.

I didn’t understand the folktale about the first born until the day she was born–it was so the father accepted the child was his and would provide for them. 

My shadow was far from the Xerox copy of my husband, her father. She looked nothing like him. Even the new family ignored my Dhingli and refused to take us home from my parents’ place. It’s a ritual to have the firstborn at the mother’s childhood home, back to the roots. My in-laws said, “She is unlucky just like her mother.” My husband sat there; as always, half-drunk, said nothing. 

My BaBapu begged them to take us back. They laid on the floor, chest down, lying prostrate before gods, the last act of submission, holding onto my in-laws’ dry, cracked up feet, they pleaded. Ba held on to the mother-in-law’s feet and Bapu seesawed between husband’s and father-in-law’s. 

Our worth negotiated, they settled on an amount that my parents borrowed from a local moneylender to pay my new family. 

We’re three sisters–unwelcomed births, a sweet curse, and I am the eldest one. They roll Agarbatti, just as I did, blessing our Kutcha house in scents of sandalwood and jasmine; my childhood memories rolled in this sacredness, a fruitful distraction. Like me, the girls wanted to study at the school where Bapu teaches, but our society disapproves. “Girls are homemakers, Ne. So, what is the point of studying?” The elders and Ba would say. “Help Bapu to make some money, so we can marry you in respectable families.” The sole purpose of our lives.

In the distance, I can hear street dogs’ bark. The angry ones never stop and seem to multiply in numbers. Not sure who they bark at, there’s no one out past midnight. It is as quiet as a crematorium. They chase me when I go to the well to fetch water, the only time I leave my husband’s Pukka house, but they never used to. I think it’s the red and black marks on my face that scares them. Tried to cover them with my Pallu, but there’s always a new one to follow. We’ve made peace with one another–my reminders of how unlucky I am for the new family. Soon after we got married, my husband lost his job. After that, my father-in-law got malaria, and then my sister-in-law’s fiancé broke off the engagement. 

My neighbour’s daughter-in-law and my only friend told me it’s not my fault. “That husband of yours is useless. They got rid of him as he used to drink at work. It’s the malaria season, Ne. And your Nanand’s fiancée caught her with the fisher’s son. You are not unlucky. Trust me.” 

If not unlucky, why are my new and old families unhappy with me? It hurts me to see them suffer and I don’t know how to release them from this pain.

She is moving her lips, always hungry, and my breasts are ready to be relieved, too. “Come here, my Dhingli. Let’s go to the Aanganu, where the full moon will bless you with its brightness.” 

Here we sit under the moon and the stars, and the glowing sky, two unlucky souls. “Beti, watch the stars twinkle and dance, listen to the sounds of the universe, for they’ll guide you, and shine the path to your dreams.”

“Do you smell the sweetness of the Raat Rani? Remember me as these night fairies.” 

My tears flow as smoothly as my breast milk. They come easily to me.

Her eyes are still shut; she looks so peaceful. 

Is she dreaming? 

What is she dreaming?

Close to my chest, our hearts beat together, we become ONE, again, inseparable. Her chubby cheeks, forehead, palms, and belly are as sweet as Sheera–my Dhingli.

Just as we’re about to leave the starry sky for the dark passages, she opens up her eyes. 

“Remember me, as a star in the sky.” 

I swing the cradle as she doses off. “My beautiful Dhingli, I love you and always will.”

She is fast asleep. I too will sleep like that soon. Married and procreated, I have fulfilled my destiny. That is what Ba used to tell us. “A girl’s role is to marry, take care of the husband and make children.” 

It is chilly tonight, even the kitchen floor is cold to touch. Last night’s dinner smell still floats in the air. I place the kerosene and matchsticks by the window. 

One last look.

She sleeps peacefully, just like her father, my husband. The only thing they have in common. Nothing troubles their sleep.

I’ll slip away from the room, fade in the night’s blackness before I rise high in the angry orange flames, releasing them from the sweet curse.

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Heena Cornwell

Heena is a travel enthusiast, an accidental writer and passionate about breaking cultural boundaries. She was born and raised in India, moved to London to do Masters when she was 21 (a lucky escape from marriage proposals) and after spending nearly two decades there, packed her life and memories in a backpack and went travelling for a year with her husband. Since then, Heena has quit the rat race, an urban jungle relentless cycle, and is living a digital nomad life with her husband. She has worked with vulnerable groups of people, designed and managed advocacy and social enterprise projects, with a strong desire and aim to address inequality and injustice. Heena and her husband own a travel blog and use social media platforms to inspire fellow travellers to travel responsibly and be mindful of the impact they leave behind. Her most recent project has been writing a novel, highlighting subtle acts of discrimination that people from the Dalit community face in India. This short story is inspired by her cousin’s journey, which, to a degree, is a reality for many women living in rural India.


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