There are small, fleeting moments of beauty to be savoured when one is still and your mind is racing… Fugacious pleasures that are indulged between cups of coffee and the moments just before chocolate melts on your tongue. The ribbons of steam rising out of a shower while the only sound you hear mimic the storms of your childhood. The dance of raindrops on the window of a train that you almost missed because you stopped to inhale the perfume that escaped the bakery door. The caress of soft cotton against your toes when you realise you are going to be late for your train. It is a moment of brief seduction that begs you to stay where you are. She did not savour them on the particular morning when she almost missed her train. She did not relish the butter melting on a warm brioche and was oblivious to the smile of an infant who passed her in the crowd. She was late and robbed of all the wonders that had been gifted to her that morning.
You see, when you are late, your mind is occupied with To-Dos. Schedules. Cold intangible seconds that pass you by, they toll …
Overhead they toll, like gloomy bells high in steepled churches. In your haste, you will knock over a barely consumed cup of coffee, that had erroneously been left on the floor, and for years to come, you will wonder how that dark stain came to be on the underside of your couch.
She had forgotten her umbrella and regretted it briefly when she felt the damp creep up the nape of her neck. She tried to read a book to pass the time and in that way, the chance to appreciate the dancing raindrops that moved across the window was lost too. She needed distraction from the anxiety that began to line her lungs with lead and paint her soles with cement.
It was always like this when she went home.
“Where are you from?”
They always asked as they surveyed her bronzed cheekbones and heard her voice that did not have sharpened concrete edges like theirs, instead that bubbled forth from roaring tides and rolling fields of green. She always felt naked when they asked this, as if some indiscretion had been committed to reveal her origins. It was very difficult to explain it to them. How could they understand her home when they had been fed on a televised diet of savannas and crouching men observing gazelles being stalked by a lioness? How could they fathom the endless riches of the hills that birthed her, when the jewels of that same soil glittered on the crowns of distant monarchs and they only saw the ashen faces of the poor gazing from the screen? They could not look at her and imagine the land she came from. They viewed her mind and brilliance as something separate from her origins. It is easier to try to run her through this sieve of perception, it is easier than trying to understand her.
She was constantly torn between resentment and longing for home. It is impossible to reconcile her two worlds and arduous to blend into the changing environments she found herself shuffled between. Her idea of home changed. In one state of mind, home was where you went when you needed to stop wallowing in your thoughts and where you were more than just a face in a queue to buy your favourite brioches before you caught the train. Home was where you saw familiar faces and no one ever narrowed their eyes, as if they could see you did not belong. You always belonged. Home meant laying down your bags and regrets instead of holding them close to your side as people bump against you on a crowded escalator as you tried to find the correct train.
But the heaviness of her soul when she returned home, when she clutched a suitcase while she boarded trains and a plane back to the technicolor world of her childhood, when she pushed a trolley at the terminals, laden with duty free chocolates and a heavy heart – it wore away at her comforting ideal of home. She would feel ill at ease, as if her body had grown out of the habits her mother taught her. Was her hair wrong? The clothes too outlandish? Could they see the caress of a lover who waited behind each time? Could they smell his cigarettes and the coffee that he sipped ebony and sweet? She stared at her hands, imagining that they would be able to see his fingers laced between hers. Her cheeks did not become tinged with scarlet because people mentioned the marriageable young men they knew, but because she felt as if they knew all about her stolen kisses in bleak winters and thawing spring. They pressed the issue, of young men with degrees and fathers who owned companies.
She felt transparent.
It sickened her that no one asked how her studies were going. Instead she sat, listening to verbose explanations of the hierarchy at the local hardware shop that her cousin worked at (he was due for a promotion, less than a month at the job, imagine?) and how a feud arose between the neighbours because of some creeping roses or a leaning tree. She often felt yawns creeping up but stifled them promptly. News came in an endless torrent when she sat beside a giggling circle of relatives and stories she had heard thousands of times became embellished and theatrical. Anecdotes that were dusted off for new ears and tall tales that stretched for children. It was home and it was the only one she knew.
This city and its trees blurred in the rain until it was a homogeneous colourless mass that slipped past the train. The pewter skies would stretch out here, the damp creeping quietly to her toes if she wasn’t careful on rain soaked pavements. She wore hats and scarves and crinkled her nose at snowflakes that brushed her cheeks, they all were unfamiliar.
Her childhood was a mosaic of her grandmother’s turmeric stained fingertips that reached to smooth stray hairs, her mother’s anxieties ached for her child to rise above and her father’s books that scattered her thoughts and dreams to far lands and impossible dreams.
She longed for them when she smelled onions and tomatoes frying in hot oil with exploding mustard seeds and she felt torn apart in secondhand bookstores and her tears welled up when the she stared at the glowing screen that lit up with smiling faces and news of a cousin who got engaged or a nephew who was born. There are threads that extend from our souls to join with the doorposts of our childhood. And she felt them tug at her often.
Home tugged when the drunken slurs thrown at her were geographically incorrect. “I’m not from Pakistan or India. I can’t go back to somewhere I haven’t bloody been.” She would shout back, knowing that it was useless to try reasoning with the cruel and damned. How could she try to lay claim to the land that even her grandparents didn’t know, a land alien to all living branches of her family tree? They tilled this land, their cracked heels darkened with soil from Africa, a rich red that healed into their skin like a tattoo. They would scrub at their feet in nightly attempts to scour out the marks of their labour. They built houses and had children and thus a community grew from the scattered men and women who could not find solace in the land that nursed them. Their children would not taste her milk and eventually they would not be able to trace the rivulets that ran from their origins. She could not even trace the village her forefathers had lived in. She had tried.
It was a communal existence that prior generations had lived in, a melee of sisters reprimanding each other’s children and doting on their brothers who visited with their young brides and children who raced barefoot. They built temples and breathed tradition into each child, hoping that their words echoed years after their deaths. They muttered thanks to their gods for good fortune and they wept together when the tides of fate did not work in their favour. Her family repeated complaints, many yearned for days past when long visits were common and far-flung family who remained close despite the fading bloodlines of connection. People were adopted by love and remembered in kindness, always. Children raised by a spinster aunt in the summer holidays, who would leave their own children with her later on. They built lives in this place with cerulean oceans and thorny trees.
They were all once foreign in Africa too.
She reminded herself of this when home tugged and loneliness ebbed at the cavernous depths of her soul. Some hundred and fifty years ago, they had been alien and alone. On a journey to an unknown land, no precedent set. She muttered thanks to them, to their old gods and her new one that lay adorned on the end of her rosary. She muttered this because they had dusty brows and sun scorched bodies so that one day, a century or so later, a descendant could ascend into the halls of scholarship and so another could ascend in the rankings of the hardware business and so, possibly later – someone could ascend higher than that. To work hard was to honour the dust that was tattooed into cracked heels. To persevere was to bow down to respect the tireless women who stitched fabric in stifled factories so their children could afford textbooks. So that those textbooks paved a path for her to fly far from her home.
Your life is not your own, it remains the result of sacrifice and tireless ambition.
As she boarded the plane, ticket in hand and passport ready, she breathed deeply. She realised the quiet life she led here would fade into memory in the weeks she stayed with her family. It was a beautiful cacophony that enveloped her. It wasn’t immediate but was a crescendo that rose as the festivities drew near. And, there were always festivities to draw in a crowd that was intent on helping to cook and prepare the house for celebration. They all were tugged closer by the same bonds, the same blood.
Women were remarkably powerful in her family. They were able to endure immense suffering but could lay their souls bare, over a pile of peas that needed to be shelled and between the simmering pots of dhal and the ghee-scented toasting of rotis. Their voices rang in discordant tones that swept up any passersby and they silently assigned tasks to all present – to cut up peppers, make some tea or clear the papery onion skins that threatened to blow away with any unexpected breeze. They would curse and praise in the same way others would breathe. It becomes difficult to remain isolated among the women in her family, they engulfed you and extracted any sorrows embedded in your brows. Someone would vanquish your anxiety, no doubt with an anecdote about her husband or a wicked mother in law. They all had to be wicked, you see, it was a rule that remained as fast as their tightly clipped buns and coiffed curls that were darkened by dyes and lengthened by potions procured from a medicine man who hailed from Chennai, who allegedly cured someone of diabetes. Everyone was “Aunty”, regardless of any actual relation.
Home tugged at her when the sympathetic glance of a woman wrapped in a sari caught her as she tried to discern spices in their bland supermarket packages. When the buskers sang of a land far and bonny, even though they probably meant another rainy grey place, she felt the corners of her eyes moisten as if they knew about the melodies of the shorelines she tumbled on as a child. So when she was in this pale city of aged streets, adrift in cold supermarkets and buying food to remind her of home – she relished being able to say “Aunty” to the kindly woman on Aisle 5 who wrote down a spice shop that supplied freshly ground mixes and to the tired matriarch who ran the establishment that won Best Curry for two years in a row. They smiled because they knew her loneliness in this city. When you are alone, you cling fiercely to even the vaguely familiar. It feels close enough to home for an hour or so, as your fingers scoop up vermillion curries with naan that is smokey and buttery.
Her chest ached when she remembered that returning home meant she would notice how her grandparents had aged, spines bent a little more, arthritic joints that did not move as they used to. An ailment that nagged and a cough that refused to subside. A new pill to take and a heart that skipped when it should pace. Hands that did not do all they used to do. Bodies that did not want to reveal the growing measures of pain that had been piled upon it.
Her grandmother’s hands were translucent, the soft skin stretched over veins and knobby knuckles and smoothed by years of washing clothes in the crisp morning air. To hold her hand was to feel like life had rushed by all too quickly. Her small hands that sewed a life together, that darned every scratched knee and prepared the ingredients of memory. It was this that made her feel heavy when she went home again. It was a reminder of the moments that would become rare later on. She dreaded seeing each new creak and crinkle, because it bore a reminder of time and distance. She thought about this as the plane took off, it nagged her through the in-flight movie and woke her from a fitful nap. She could not shake the feeling that she had lost time with them all, time that she had spent abroad. To be the pride and joy of ones family came with consequence- it was a realisation that there were memories she would never have. It was feeling desolation as you tried to assimilate back into their way of life after you had carved out your own manner of existence. You feel hopeless holding a hand so small, so tired and so beautiful.
She craned her neck, peering out of the two layers of thick glass, looking down as the shadow of the aircraft traced the edges of her continent. The deserts that met the sea in the north and the ripples of gold rivers caught in the midday sun. The layered clouds that God spun himself that bore precious rains. The sprays of towns and cities that edged into focus when the skies were naked. And she flushed with jubilation when they flew over the sea as the sky became an endless blue, above and below. As the day eked on, as the hours and dreary trays of food appeared and her legs aching from the restricted movements, through all this banality, the sky remained beautiful- turning violet and rosy as the sun sunk over some unknown horizon. This same sun had never looked as beauteous in her grey city of rain and smog.
Of course Africa is her motherland. She owed everything to it. Honour was only due to this place that had given her and so many more, a home. It gave her grandfather stories to tell as he planted beans and carrots, while she had plucked the delicate blossoms of vegetables in her infancy. She wandered through tall mustard that painted the ground a buttery yellow and the juice of sun sweetened mangoes made her elbows sticky as they ran down her arms. His voice creaked and grumbled a world into being. From his mind she learned about his gods and she learned about the gods of Olympus and the god of Moses. He chuckled mischievous young archers into existence and fashioned bows from supple branches. The only soil that he had underneath his nails, the only trees he had ever planted, had been rooted in Africa. But now he could not laugh as loudly and his garden grew smaller each year. She tried to capture it each time, to burn it in her minds eye and keep those trees and rows of mint and thyme etched into her. She was beginning to forget, you see, and this terrified her. Time began to unravel the silken threads of her childhood. It was less vivid with each year that passed.
She was still now and her mind raced in the long hours to her destination, remembering the fragments of euphoria from the morning. She recounted each one, numbering them as if to distract from the knots of anxiety. She tried to remember them later when she emerged from the terminal to a cluster of somber faces. She couldn’t quite grasp those stolen moments anymore as she felt her knees give way to grief.
And by the time she returned to her cold flat and discovered the dried patch of coffee on the floor by her couch, she would carry the shadowed burden of loss and a box of memories she could not quite reach.
Suvania-Thrishnum Subroyen (@) constantly trying to make sense of the world by writing about it, often trying hard not to be too bitter or naive. Student of law by day and blogger of obscure delights and short stories by night. Victim of comma-splices and sentences that are far too long.
This story was published in collaboration with Writivism. Writivism is a Kampala-based initiative that supports and promotes African Literature, they are also the organisers of East Africa’s leading literary festival. You can follow their work on Twitter: @.
Related country: South Africa