Sixteen women disassemble themselves almost every night. It goes like this:
Lips: upper and then lower.
Breasts: right and then left.
Buttocks: the firmer first.
Hips: together, as a set.
Nails of the toes.
Nails of the fingers.
Sex (unhook with caution, only once a month).
And so on.
When they are done, they look as though they have been skinned alive. Each part they remove is returned to a designated place on the shelves, which are in between the statues of the gods, in the temple of women. They return each item to its niche meticulously. Each tooth and fingernail has an individual case lined with silk. Feet are placed on shoe racks. Arms and shoulders dangle off golden hangers. Eyes stare blankly from clear cases that in some other place might have been used for spectacles. Bared, the women walk with the sinuous looseness of snakes. They are unencumbered by the essentials they retain; the gorgeous organs of their transparent bodies quiver with life.
At the end of a river with no name, women built a temple to which only women are admitted. The stone palace on top of the small hill fills up the sky. God crowds this place in many forms; those of women – Saraswati, Lakshmi, Parvati – take the highest places. Around them, the important male gods, as well as the innumerable minutiae of a thousand minor village and household gods, line the altars and carved interiors. The ones everyone knows: KrishnaShivaVishnuGaneshaHanumanMuruganBrahmaRama.The ones no one knows. The women swathe the statues of the nava graha, the nine planets, in silk and gold, anoint them, and leave room for the customary orbits of worship. The festival chariots bend under the weight of too much god. The statues shine immaculate and dustless. Noise remains below a certain level – the almost inaudible echo of bare feet padding on stone beats the most consistent rhythm. The women observe three periods of worship – one at dawn for Saraswati, one at noon for Lakshmi, and one at moonrise for Parvati.
They believe in these rituals and traditions of their own making. For seven generations, they have worshipped untroubled by pilgrims looking for god. The changeable faiths of the outside world long ago abandoned this river as a sacred place. The women perform their own rites, bodies bound in saris that are gold and red and white, and not the saris of brides. They study and practice their worship with saffron threads tied around their wrists. They look young, always: unmothered and unmothering. Because they share sixteen bodies between them, it is impossible to describe them entirely or absolutely. No one knows their ages, except in relation to each other. They have learned to measure untraditional markers to know each other: height, manner of walking, voice, laughter and scent. They are each disposable. A woman leaves the temple only when her time, her menstrual blood, is up – when she is too old.
They measure time in blood, these sixteen, in quiet protest against a world outside the temple of women, where those who bleed as women do are not allowed to pray or even to enter a shrine. Why? they asked. Blood is dirty, they were taught outside. Tradition. Here, tradition does not suffice as an explanation: women’s blood is beautiful, worshipped. They only age in this one way. When one leaves, she selects another from the world outside to return in her place. A very young girl arrives, just beginning to sprout at all ends, particularly in the parts the temple will divest from her.
It is to this temple that the girl Kimatra comes.
One woman’s blood runs out. She returns to the world outside, and Kimatra arrives to take her place. The remaining fifteen anticipate her arrival with a curiosity they normally lack; the new girl is the first to arrive in a decade, from a world that must have changed, a world they have not fully entered as themselves in years. They find themselves hungry for what they can learn from her, but they leave their questions unspoken: I wonder if the men are the same? Who is the king of my country? What wars are being fought? I wonder if she will miss what she has left behind?
Arasi, the queen of the women, sees her first. Kimatra floats down the river in a boat sized for one. Arasi sees no current; she feels no wind against her face; the girl in the boat sits still. But the boat and the girl come down the river with the steady pace of an inevitable elephant; when the boat reaches the water’s end, Arasi throws a rope from the dock. It lands with a solid sound against the wooden side of the boat, and the girl stands up so gracefully that Arasi wonders whether the new arrival has feet to share with them.
Kimatra looks like only one person: herself. The rest of the women are fascinated anew, remembering their own past faces. For a long time they have waited in the temple of women for a new member, one who would come to them fully formed, at home in a body that fits seamlessly together. Their ravenous eyes disassemble her in the same way that the eyes of men in the outside world would undress their patchwork selves. The bodies they wear now, quilt-like, they know too well; they look at Kimatra and covet her difference, her possession of an all-over sameness.
What can they take from her? Having retrieved the rope, Kimatra ties the boat to the dock, and another woman, Elisai, watches Kimatra’s hands: fingers that seem too long and too thin from work, knuckles protruding like knobby roots. Crescent moons of dirt stain the undersides of her nails; rough calluses mar her palms and rise from the base of each finger. It looks like she worked outside – she gleams thinly golden and gently brown-freckled in the sunlight. Another, Isai, assesses her hair: bushy black ropes, with streaking threads of brown tacky with old salt. Arasi focuses on her wide-eyed face. First: the nose. From its length, she decides that Ganesh interfered with the girl’s birth. Next: her cheeks slope upward sharply, contradicting the gently curved belly. A scar scores her pointy chin; her whole face is pointed, in fact – nose, chin, thin lips, eyebrows and, most of all, the dark and steady gaze beneath them. A small and pointed tongue licks small and pointed teeth. Kimatra smells of the sea at the other end of the river. She glances towards Arasi. Nobody has looked at Arasi this directly in years.
The others see her variously, but none look at her in her entirety twice. The gods have composed her of parts the women can acquire, collectively: soft shell-shaped ears, pinker than the rest of her; a neck with a strange amount of extra skin; elbows without spare flesh; knees slightly turned in; shoulders that in the not-too-distant past encountered a whip. Kimatra’s body remembers a history, and each part recognises itself in the others. She looks up at them and steps onto the dock, smiling a sharp smile of not too many years. The women, in not-their-bodies, stir and murmur for a moment, recalling a time when they did not have to think hard about who actually liked clove cigarettes, almonds, rock sugar, milk rice, lentils. When noses recognised smells of home (mother, father, brother, sister, lover) and not just everyday smells (tea, incense, rice, ash, jasmine, teateatea). When hands knew their own size, and how to hold the mortar and pestle so it did not shake.
“Vanakkam,” Arasi says. The word floats out through her borrowed lips. “Kimatra?”
“Yes,” Kimatra says. Her voice resonates as deeply as Arasi’s, and the women start a bit in surprise. Come, come,” Arasi says hospitably, putting a hand under one lean elbow, and ushers Kimatra past the rushes and reeds, up the paved path, up the tiny hill, and into the temple of stone and women. She brought bags. Did you see what she brought? the women whisper to each other. Looking at their new member’s belongings, Arasi begins to wonder whether Nalini has explained anything at all. Kimatra cannot keep the outside world with her here. She watches, expressionless, as Elisai and Isai rifle through the bags, discarding some items and folding others. “We’ll use them to dress the gods,” Arasi says. “We have clothes for you.” She hands Kimatra a wad of silk, red and gold and white.
But before dressing, unselfing, and before unselfing, a bath. The other women draw it for her, in an enormous, white, claw-footed tub in the living quarters at the back of the temple. Kimatra lifts a pointed eyebrow before she sheds her tunic; the bath swirls with milk and honey, the same mixture used to bathe the gods. The women around the tub watch her as a vulture watches its prey. She takes a careful, ungainly step into the milky depths and sinks down. They note the bob of her tiny, pointy bosom, crested with bubbles. Surprisingly, she giggles and splashes, leans over and slurps; the others sniff and turn away. She will not tell them anything; she’s barely said a word. Her laughter and awkward body offends them; their own craving for it offends them.
After she pats herself dry, they lay her bare with unusual energy. She remains still with unusual grace. She issues none of the typical sounds, the vaguely sexual syllables they themselves remember making the first time. Hold up your arm. She holds up her arm, and they slide off her fingers, one by one. Her eyes move, curious and distant, over her own body. Her arm, bony, to the elbow; the elbow itself, spare and elegant. The pale swell of each bicep, each switch-bitten shoulder. She looks skinned, but a stitched web of veins tethers her together. She blinks, de-lashed, and Arasi envies the virginity of her experience. Arasi remembers the gladness with which she relinquished her own damaged body; the freedom she suddenly felt, unhinged from the parts of her physical self that the world had always seen, and the rush of adrenalin at assembling a body she chose herself. But what’s this? They come here to divest themselves of the burden of personal bodies. Kimatra, unsmiling, does not seem glad to see her body go. Elisai and Isai glitter and gloat over each new part, numbered, catalogued, shelved, theirs, ours.
After three nights in the temple, a woman generally no longer needs a list in order to disassemble herself. She memorises the order of her unselfing; and, indeed, it is no longer an unselfing but a reshelving. The way some women return clothes to sisters from whom they have borrowed them: thanks for the loan, yes, it used to be yours I think, I was surprised at how well it fit, how good it felt. Kimatra will get used to it, as every woman has, Arasi decides.
The morning after her unselfing, Kimatra breaks and tastes a hundred varieties of herself in the options around her. She spins and spins in each incarnation, silent in her new self and dizzy-drunk with physical possibility. Arasi’s eyes, used to such transformations, recognise the patterns of familiar motion in each unfamiliar body. Kimatra travels with the same set of habits, the same nervous tics with which she came. But these eyebrows do not lift as easily. This mouth, looser, smiles with less effort, making her more cheerful, perhaps, than she naturally is. These ears gently bury away fuzzy and far-away words, less canny or nosy; she says What? at least twice as often now. Her hips sway more widely than the set she used last. The last person to wear those hands left a ring on them, and she squirrels it away gleefully. The other women cannot help but laugh, ready to welcome her into the easy and exclusive circle of their unspecific affection and attraction.
Her new blood is welcome. Other than the occasional introduction of a new member, their only experiences with the outside world come from the nights when they do not take their bodies off. They venture down the river in their boats to sleep with men. Because no man should know about the temple of women, no man sees the same woman twice. The reverse, of course, is not necessarily true. On other nights at the temple, they sleep with each other. They practice occasional celibacy: sleep simple and sensual. Their affections are neither particular nor impersonal, but curious, like children’s. In these moments they wear bodies and trade them freely and politely – not just the markers of women, but everything: those eyelashes look longer, those fingernails tidier, hips broader, May I try, may I taste, consider? Acquisition is the greatest form of flattery, but they explore rather than discriminate. A new kind of sex: I’ll give you mine if you give me yours. They remain silent and studious even in motion, their exchangeable bodies slicking and slippering over each other in a darkness made less dark by the distant burn of oil lamps near the statues. These women re-render themselves and create communal bodies. They exchange other parts: elbows dimpled and slender, the vulnerable backs of knees. They forget who owns what. No one owns anything. The next night everyone puts everything back.
That night, Kimatra goes with some of the other younger women, back down the river, into the outside world. She comes back the next morning with an unmistakable look of rumpled, sexed-up satiation.
Arasi watches, satisfied.
The next night, Arasi and Kimatra sleep beside each other. Arasi places herself there out of instinct and curiosity, waiting for revealing dreams or sleep-talk to tumble over a pillow and betray something of the life from which she escaped. Kimatra mumbles once, snores, rubs her shapeless nose, and scratches what used to be her ass, distinct and unique. Arasi rolls her eyes and rolls over, so that their backs face each other. They sleep on mats made of woven reeds, and the motion of rolling over makes a crackling noise louder than what Arasi expects. She shivers, worrying that Kimatra will wake up, but – nothing. She dozes off into a nightmare in which her former body, reassembled minus the head, chases her out of the temple and into the river, in which she cannot breathe. She wakes up cold, suddenly, to see Isai at the foot of her bed, eyes blazing, faceless and furious.
“What?” Arasi croaks.
“She’s being so loud,” Isai says, fists clutching a blanket around her shoulders. “She’s with – I don’t know who, I don’t care – and she’s making noise.”
Arasi rubs her eyes and pushes herself up onto her elbows. Indeed, the mat beside her is empty. Arasi cocks her head. Isai is right; she has not heard a woman make this particular sound in years and years. And perhaps never before this loudly. They have an unwritten rule of quiet. “Go back to sleep,” she commands Isai, and lies back down herself. For the rest of the night she hears those muffled shrieks of pain and pleasure, even when she pulls a pillow over her earless head.
The next morning Kimatra grins giddy like a schoolgirl, and does not seem to notice that everyone else, red-eyed, glares at her lashlessly. She looks rested, taut, like a coiled spring. She has taken off whichever parts she had worn and returned them to the shelves, but she still carries the faint scent Arasi recognises as hers. And then, on top of that, there is a second, unknown scent – something vaguely masculine. Arasi inhales once experimentally and then again, suspiciously. She sighs and lets it go, reminding herself that Kimatra has yet to learn how everything works.
Everything seems normal enough until the midpoint of the month, when as usual, everyone leaves their respective duties early and returns to the temple quarters. Kimatra comes along with everyone else, the face she is wearing that day curious. The temple sisters unwind their saris. She unwinds hers too, leaving a heap of silken sari on the floor. The women count out, unhook, unhook, unhook, lift, and fifteen tiny, bloody waterfalls hang on the wall.
For one week each month, the women consider the removal of the sex in particular a relief, even a pleasure: like a choir their bodies roil and bleed in unison between their thighs of various sizes. Each month, without conspiracy or choreography, they come home early from their various duties and unwind their saris in unison. They roll off their hips and count out: unhook, unhook, unhook, lift. They hang each ownerless sex on the wall in a row, below which they place 16 opened hourglasses. For seven days, blood slides slowly out of them and into the timers of their lives here. They sleep skeletally, undisturbed by cramps or the cavernous echoes of dripdripdrip.
Now Arasi looks at Kimatra, waiting, and Kimatra takes a deep breath, her hands moving to her naked, jutting pelvis. She opens her mouth, and the enormous machine of the collective, slow to notice any one person, grinds to a halt.
“I think I would like to keep my blood,” Kimatra says.
Unsurprisable Arasi gapes at her.
“This is not how we do things,” she says, hearing her own petulance.
Kimatra does not hear or does not care. Elisai and Isai look at Arasi, two pairs of palms facing blankly up, thrown by the unexpected resistance. “Pick it up,” Arasi says, pointing to the sari. “Take it off, and put your sari back on.”
Kimatra looks at the silken heap on the floor, but does not retrieve her sari. Instead she stands there for a moment, naked and feral in her own sex. As if it rings inside her own head, Arasi hears the first dripdripdrip of blood into the hourglasses and onto the stone. Irreverent and sanguine, Kimatra steps into her own blood. The dumbstruck audience of women watches her turn her back on them, marking her path with a trail the consistency of milk.
No one has ever chosen to keep her blood. But in the days that follow, the pleasure Kimatra takes in breaking tradition ricochets out of her walk and her eyes, apparent to everyone. She glories in it. After the first day, she puts the sari back on, but it is too late – none of them can keep their eyes off of her, imagining, beneath the silk, the slow, heavy ache and cramp. How long has it been since they felt that? Pain, yes, female pain at the hands of a female body, but also a luxuriant fullness reminiscent of a connected body bleeding in unison. Their own jealousy surprises them when they watch her go down to the river to wash the rags they remember from another time. She bleeds so much that her washing stains the river with worms of scarlet, crimson and burgundy. Arasi does not speak to her for three days.
And one morning, Arasi stands by the row of hooks, washing her feet before going back to the shrine, and something catches her eye; or rather, does not catch her eye, because whatever it is – is missing. She lifts her head and counts: fourteen on the wall. She flames with sudden rage at this breach of their silent contract. She hears a sound behind her and turns to see Elisai, who looks taken aback to see her.
“Isai took hers,” Elisai says, and then, slower: “I was just coming for mine.”
Arasi stops cold and glances down at Elisai from her luminous height.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Elisai says, eyes glossy and guilty. “We’re just trying it.”
“This isn’t something you can just try,” Arasi says.
But new, not-timid Elisai shakes her head. She walks over to the hooks, stands first on her one set of toes and then the other, reaches up, and pulls her dish of blood from its place on the wall.
In the end, fifteen walk around the temple of women, bleeding happily and painfully and quietly. Arasi cannot bring herself to do it, and so one remains on the wall, bleeding into a small glass, the echo of a single drop smaller than the chorus.
“You’re going to cut short your time here,” Arasi says to Isai, who is green-eyed today.
“I know,” Isai says, and Arasi does not hear regret.
They make love amongst themselves that night with furious energy and, half-dreaming, Arasi notes that there is no longer only one voice crying out its pleasure in the darkness. The women chatter like crickets, rubbing arms together, discovering scars they had forgotten, reviving bits of scattered, painful, prideful ownership.
A crooked finger I broke when I was six. Well, my brother actually broke it.
I wore glasses, which they mocked.
See how the heavy earring pulled the piercing bigger?
I forgot that a thumb fits into that bellybutton.
I remember that mole!
A dog bit that. A lover bit that.
I cut that leg along with the wood.
Look how strong those shoulders are!
That knee knows how to get a man.
– That’s not very nice!
Laughter. She hears Elisai’s voice among them, and then later, Isai’s. They avoid saying my mine myself, but Arasi can hear the covetousness through the pleasantries. They begin to desire particulars. She begins, in fact, to feel it herself. In line for milk rice in the next morning, she holds out her bowl and knows that the fingers gripping the ladle belonged to her. Her bones recognise the long nails, the scar on the ring finger from the removal of the betrothal ring. When she watches sixteen pairs of feet on the stone floor, her knees tremble at the one set with silver rings on the second toes. I remember letting a man slide those on. I was eleven. I remember. I never wanted to be back in that body.
But now, night after night, when Arasi makes love she catches herself casting glances at parts that belonged to her. She makes love to her own body on other people, and begins wanting parts that remember her, things she has done and felt, things that have been done to her. She kisses and remembers the taste of licking her own lips, having to knot up long hair, painting her nails, henna on her hands. She seduces herself as though from a distance, watching fingers slip between legs, again the conductor of a personal orchestra she has not heard for a long time. A hand beckons, laughter escapes: I could touch my tongue to that nose. I could dance, and well.
And without conspiracy, parts begin to exchange hands; hands begin to exchange parts. She is not the only one. Kimatra proudly bears her own permanently stiff shoulders. Elisai walks once more in the legs in which they met her; and Isai, weaving her way across the temple grounds, raises a basket of fruit aloft with the tiny hands she took out of the womb. Arasi, wearing her own belly, feels it cry out for the frame of her hips, and switches, silently, with the woman who has them. The parts settle into each other and she sighs, God. People begin to look like themselves again, and she tries to prepare herself for how it feels: the physical homecoming, like a shiny new key sliding home into a rusty lock. Her arms pimple with cold. The hair on the back of her neck moves like grass in the wind. Her joints ring with happiness as she enters the body. Her parts settling into themselves do not remind her of someone else settling onto them, and she silently thanks the gods for this small mercy.
Returned mouths swallow rice, tea, curry, milk, honey, as though they have tasted only famine. No one walks down to the dock now – they always run, feet that know the knees above them clambering after one another, saris hiked up around thighs – they do not mind, after all. Isai wipes her mouth, her own mouth, carefully after breakfast. Kimatra flaunts the ring she had hidden away. Elisai dances on the riverbank, her pleasure plain in the energy of limbs that match each other.
One night, Kimatra and some of the others go up the river in themselves for the first time. Arasi guesses the danger in the bodies that others can recognise, but cannot bring herself to stop them. When they come to ask her permission, or really to tell her, she sniffs and waves them off with her own thin, imperious hand, a wave that says, Do you care about this place? What do I care about you?
“Go, go,” she says. “Just come back.”
Like a storm, she expands
When they return the next morning, Kimatra has a scrap of paper with something scrawled on it. Seven digits. She wears a wide-brimmed lavender velvet hat with a wide ribbon and flowers, and it dips, ridiculous and gaudy, over her forehead. She doffs her hat and shouts a salute to Arasi, who does not notice that her ears have become accustomed again to noise. She puts up a palm and does not say What’s with the hat? Instead, when Kimatra ties the boat at the dock and offers the hat to her, she tries it on, staring at the river’s reflection, adjusting the bow, tipping it slightly to one side and then the other. She likes the hat. She likes the way her bones fit together, that her sari sits not on her shoulders, but very slightly above them, like a collared shirt on a skinny man. Her face, back again, reflects an oval, a high brow, wild curls tied back again. Her ears droop with gold, sticking out too far from her head for conventional beauty. Her lips thin, her eyes narrow. She smiles to see her perfect teeth. Her mother had always said teeth were very important. She turns, realising that Kimatra has been watching her.
They still remove their wombs when they bleed once a month, all except Kimatra. Kimatra stops bleeding. She no longer even considers taking her sex off, but they all know it, can feel it in the pulse of bodies with a new set of memories and connections. The loss of blood, a slower pulse, and then something else, something reminiscent of that long-ago unidentified second smell – which, Arasi realises with a growing and shameful horror, must have been the smell of something that had never before been allowed inside.
Kimatra starts to show quickly, a blossoming body eager to know a new version of itself. Arasi watches in a combination of terror and eagerness. This has never happened, this has never happened, she mutters. At the temple of women, blood stops only with age, never with child. A child is a result – a consequence, a reward – of a particular body; they have never had particular bodies before, not here. They came to this place to escape the particulars of their bodies. Elisai’s jealous eyes watch Kimatra’s middle thicken, her skin glow, her breasts round and droop. She smiles more, and Arasi notices that the small and pointed teeth make her look feral again, as she did when she stood naked and raw, that first time in her own blood. She wraps the pallu of her sari around her belly like a hammock. Outside the bathroom with the claw-footed bathtub, Arasi, walking to the shrine to change the decorations on the statues, can hear her singing and splashing. Sometimes in the morning they hear her retching. None of them dare to say anything, except for Arasi. When Kimatra comes to bed that first night, when they all know, Arasi lies beside her in the darkness made less dark by the distant lamps, and her voice comes out of the black in a reprimand.
“There are walls here,” Arasi says. “We made these walls for a reason.” Her words stay within the lines of we, avoiding I.
Kimatra says nothing, and Arasi, furious, leans over to slap her into listening. But Kimatra’s hand, sweeping up, blocks hers sweeping down, and they meet and hold, Arasi’s arm shaking with the effort of fighting the pressure. She lets go first, shaking off Kimatra’s particular hand with its particular power.
“Avoiding a body doesn’t mean avoiding destruction,” Kimatra says, her face serene. She turns over and goes to sleep.
Arasi dreams of flight, then falling.
Kimatra blooms at an alarming rate and Arasi worries, not out of kindness but out of a sense of responsibility and fear. By the calculations of her old life, this should take nine months. But Kimatra grows faster and farther, her body reaching out to grab the eyes of those who pass her with its sheer bulk. Arasi cannot remember seeing a larger or more pregnant body, or a body that seemed so absolutely certain of what it was doing. Like a storm, she expands. No one says anything to her about it, but they start to give her extra food, extra sheets and pillows. They catch her eating sweet rice at midnight. (Where did she get that? Arasi wonders. Isai and Elisai look away.)
When Kimatra’s feet swell she shows them off, the word pregnant oozing out of every pore. She ostentatiously supports her own back; when she drops a piece of rock sugar in front of the altar, she raises an eyebrow at Arasi, who despises herself a bit for rushing over to pick it up. She wonders if Kimatra will give birth or simply combust like a firecracker. Sometimes, when they perform the moonrise rites, she thinks an extra voice chants with them, resonating from the depths of Kimatra’s enormous belly. Every night, Arasi places her mat beside Kimatra’s, to watch over her, to see what happens next, from which part a new fistful of flesh will emerge.
Arasi dreams feverish and cold. Her dream goes like this: disassembly again for Kimatra, as part by pregnant part she eases out of herself, leaving only her skinless core. She still has her head and her monstrous bellyful of child. Kimatra leans down and squeezes, and Arasi wants to cry out No! but this dream is silent, and she watches as the pregnant region of Kimatra surges upward in a huge upward thrust of flesh, like an hourglass in reverse, up through her chest, her throat, horribly, into her skull, which cracks with a sound like thunder as something full- and shadow-sized slips out.
Arasi wakes up, sits up quickly, and looks to her left, where Kimatra lies with a flat belly and a whole skull. Without child.
“No more blood,” Kimatra announces the next morning, rolling up her bed mat. “Time for me to leave. Someone will come for me at dusk.”
Formerly unsurprisable Arasi has moved beyond surprise to fear, and wonders, Where is the child? But the tongue she owns will not move to ask the question. When Elisai and Isai come in, Arasi darkly enjoys their jaws dropping at the Kimatra-sized Kimatra. They go into a closet and come out with bags – the same bags Kimatra arrived with, Arasi sees with disapproval. They open the bags and anger speeds down her neck: they never threw anything away at all. There it all is: the bright velocity of new colour, colour that is not red or gold or white. Kimatra selects a black-and-silver sari and unwinds herself from the uniform of the temple of women. They watch her, pruriently, voyeuristically, without shame. No stretch marks, no slash or scar across her torso. Where is the child? They do not ask. Kimatra, in black and silver, goes to circle the nine planets nine last times.
Someone does come for her at dusk, and Arasi’s hunter nose finds his scent as the boat approaches from the other end of the river. His scent. She recognizes it now, finally, that long-ago, unknown smell. She races to the dock to wait there first. She can see him, rowing with excessive and unnecessary motion, and Arasi wants to tell him to save his breath – the current-less river would have carried him, as it had Kimatra. But she does not want him here – a man, this uninvited man. But if he will take Kimatra away, she will not refuse him. As he gets closer, Arasi tries to make out his face. She will not collect his face, a man’s face, but it matters; curiosity runs savage in her. What does he look like? Kimatra coveted her own body – what other would she want?
As his boat draws near, she can finally see him, and disappointment stabs her: he is just an ordinary man, just a beautiful and ordinary man. He stands just taller than Kimatra – they can tell when he gets out of the boat – and he has a clean-shaven face. She wonders about the muscles under his unlined linen shirt, the saram that drapes around his bony knees. He hoists the substantial weight of his bags without noticeable effort. No one dares to ask why he has bags. Except –
“Are you staying awhile, then?” Arasi hears herself ask.
He looks at her, confused. “No, these are for you.”
She does not know what to say. “Thank you,” she says, her tone tilting embarrassingly upward at the end, like a question. He carries the bags up the hill and she follows him, their feet in the grass the only noise. When they enter the temple, he puts the bags down to rinse his feet. Then he hefts the bags over the threshold, and calls into the hollows where the gods wait.
“Kimatra!” he bellows. He sounds like her father, her brother, her husband, an ordinary man. A man.
“Coming!” she yells back from the back of the temple.
She hurries out the door and down to the dock without even glancing goodbye at Arasi. From the uncomfortable distance of the temple doorway, Arasi watches the boat travel back down the river, taking Kimatra with it. Elisai and Isai’s arms make a small and wistful wind of their farewell.
When Arasi goes into the main shrine that night, she sees that the others have left the bags for her to unpack. She grumbles and tugs a piece of silk out: the bags hold a rainbow of saris. Not red and gold, the colours of brides; not white, the colour of mourning and widows. But every shade. A gift to dress the statues of the gods? She pushes the saris against the wall, and pulls back the curtain in front of the three main deities for the night ceremony. But there is a fourth statue there, a person-sized statue beside Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Parvati, in their decorous silks.
A dark girl unfolds herself from the altar. Arasi finds her feet retreating, her eyes widening as the girl uncurls, unwraps, unfurls, a fruit ripe to bursting. Arasi sees the capacity of arms, too many to count, the lush river of bloody hair, the warrior strength uncoiling, muscle by muscle. She has a sharp smile of not too many years, small and pointed teeth, and a dark and pointed gaze – a new goddess, who moves in a body that destroys and belongs to itself.
~ V V Ganeshananthan is the author of Love Marriage (Random House, Hachette India, 2008)