Simran Uppal

Untitled

 

In the mornings I comb my hair with almond oil,
turn clumps of frizz to rolls of curls,
and force the oil to my scalp with fingerpads.
The bathroom window looks across the courtyard
to the entrance of the house.
Three hijra dancers were dancing round my cousin:
one slipped a tambourine out her shalwar kameez
as they skipped past him into the courtyard –
they got closer and I saw that
their lips were as red as bimba-fruit,
red-glimmering vermillion on their foreheads.
They kicked up dust around the fake gems on their pumps
and kept dancing, and singing,
‘Badhai, blessings, badhai!
Blessings on the wedding, badhai!’
I kept rubbing oil into the back of my scalp,
heard the blessings become shouts become chanting,
become demands, barters, for cash, or
their blessings would turn into curses, you know.

********

After Sita returned safe from the prison Island of Ravana
she was banished again:
the people of Ayodhya didn’t think she was pure enough.
It was her who told the story of all that happened,
the whole Sita-Rama story, to the sage Valmiki,
and him who wrote it down and named it Ramayana.

On her way to his hermit’s cottage she lived
with us for a few years, rested on the edges of cities,
found sisters twice exiled like her. We taught her
how to dance again, and swapped our stories for hers.

She told me:
when they left the city
they wrapped themselves in cotton travelling shawls and
walked out to the woodlands at the edge of town.

She told me:
she kept murmuring to herself and to Rama,
‘Inshallah it will be well, Rama,
inshallah it will all be well.
She told me there were
little children running up to them as they left,
pulling at the corners of her shawl and
shalwar kameez, reaching up
to take her hand and
skip around her without letting go.

The quieter kids trailed behind,
the girls holding each others hands and the boys
hiding behind them, parents just behind,
with picnic chairs and little bags for snacks,
teenagers with rucksacks and laundry powder
slipped in the side by wiser parents.

And alongside these families
the families of hijras came too,
each house led by a guru-mother.
On their ankles were anklets covered with bells,
on their wrists were bangles coated with gold.
They sang in time to the cackles of their ankle bells,
stamped heel after heel into the earth and soil.
Jewelled pumps coated over with dust,
they followed Sita and Rama.
They’d tied their hair back with jasmine garlands,
and each thread of hair was like
a strand of silk dropped in liquid gold,
liquid gold in a world where gold is chestnut black:
arm hair over skin like glossy chestnuts thick with colour,
like thick wet terracotta clay squeezing out between fingers.
Kohl wrapped their eyes like a mother’s pressing hug,
glistening black pigment paint-stroked out from eyelash-lines,
little gem bindi between thick black eyebrows.
Their lips were as red as bimba-fruit,
and the vermilion on their foreheads was glimmering.

At sunset Sita and Rama were climbing to a temple at the top of a peak,
working their way up old steps cut into the hill.
The temple was old and clambered over with monkeys,
and banana snack offerings were left on the floor
and in the bedraggled old gardens round it.

They turned around to look at safer woods behind them
and saw the trail of people
gathering up into bundles around campfires.
They were tipping cumin into saucepans,
roasting spices in hot oil, sizzle for a few minutes,
sliced onions, tip a can of baked beans on top.

This isn’t what exile is supposed to look like –
banishment from your home for 14 years shouldn’t
involve a friendly company of uncles and aunties
currying baked beans and unfolding
little foil packets of parathas. Any minute now
someone’s grandma was going to climb up to Sita the exile,
squeeze the perfectly average skin on her hips
and tell her she was too skinny not to be eating
at least one paratha, beta, you know a little
ghee is so good for you.

They went to eat – there wasn’t an alternative.
But after they ate Rama stood up and an old uncle helpfully
cleared his throat a few million times and banged some
tea glasses together.
Rama paused – unsure – thanked him.
‘Men and women of Ayodhya!
Go home. Go back to your homes.’
And they left,
the women and the men, Sita and Rama,
twice boiled black tea still on their tongues,
boiled milk sweetness and cardamom, ginger lingering
round the air at the tops of their mouths.

Sita felt the stretch of land between her heels and
their house grow larger, larger, always further.
Mother Earth moved soil to cover all that remained
after the men and women had departed,
till all you could see was earth and dust and new shoots,
and home was just a thing they talked about at night.

The Ramayana is an ocean of stories,
encompassing everything like the Ocean
that wraps the edges of the world.
You can’t count how many currents of stories make up
the ocean because they constantly gather into each other,
stacked up rows of moving waves blending into each other,
peaks of new tales surging up and old ones
fading away into the swell
till slowly the Wind vibrates their patterns back
alive again. The waves trapped Sita
on the prison Island, Lanka, of Ravana,
hundreds of thousands of waves trapped her
with this ten-headed king of demons.

Sita was freed, eventually, and they roamed,
travelled without rest,
saw the forested wildlands of the rainforest hills,
climbed the spine of the country that runs up to piles
of Shiva’s matted hair, his mountains,
snow and rocks cut through by snow-melt rivers,
locks of hair cushioning Ganges’ fall from heaven.
But when they came back to the forests above Ayodhya
they found a message that called them back home.

They stopped to rest and pray on the edge of town,
where the woods are a little gentler.
Just by them were mounds on the side of the path,
breaking through the woodlands to make
tumulus-meadows bearded over with bushes
and blackberry hedges, thickets of red
bimba fruit, red like vermillion.
Sita went up one to try and grab and tear the green wood
out of the soil, to make an altar and cover it over with
the leafy thriving branches but as
she pulled the first bundle of twigs out of the soil
suddenly they roots in the earth began to twist like worms
wiggling the earth off of their backs,
shaking the ground under her feet like soil became quicksand.

Once I stood up in the temple after an hour of prayer
and my uncrossed legs were so dead I fell head-first
into the head of a stone pillar shaped like a lion.
The old ladies at the back of the prayer hall snickered to each other
but imagine standing up for the first time after 14 years,
14 years locked perfectly still in perfect loving prayer
on Sita and Rama, so still that Mother Earth
heaped dust and plants over you to keep you soil-cool
out of the Indian sun,
headed mounds over all of you that remained after
Rama ordered the men and the women of Ayodhya away.

Slowly we stood up, all of us, the hijras of Ayodhya,
not one of us a man, not one of us a woman.
As we stood up clods of mud fell out of our saris,
loops of roots and shoots untangled from
the gold hoops in our nose and
gold-coated bangles on our forearms.
One of the guru-mothers raised her hand,
loosened a shoulder, a hip, and then we began to dance:
dropped hips to the ground and pressed three fingers to the soil
then our foreheads, gave thanks to the Earth
and sought Her forgiveness for stepping on Her.
We rose, stamping, bell-wrapped ankles flicking,
bells cackling and jangling at every step
and as we swept around each other, whole bodies
turning at the hips and Sita and Rama spoke:
‘Your devotion will bless your families forever,’
gem pendants that hung out of our hairlines leaping over foreheads,
‘Even if they push you to the edges of their towns,’
gem bindis between our thick, black eyebrows,
‘Their families will always need your blessings,’
the ends of our saris trailed the air behind us,
‘Badhai! You’ll sing, badhai!
Blessings, blessings on your wedding.’

We danced forwards, ground the balls of our feet
through sparkling old pumps into the dry earth,
slipped a tambourine out of our shalwar kameez
and skipped past the young man in the courtyard.
Our lips were red as bimba-fruit,
and the vermilion on our foreheads was glimmering.
‘Badhai!’ we sang, ‘badhai!
Blessings on your wedding, badhai!’

 

Simran Uppal is an undergraduate Classics student at Oxford, current Barbican Young Poet and yoga teacher. They co-direct Coriander, a person-of-colour- and queer-centring theatre collective.