My mother named me Samanmali, a name with too obvious connotations. I prefer to believe that she chose it because jasmine is what jasmine is, and try to leave it there, without further probing. Nevertheless, a slight discomfiture with the name, in some ways tantamount to the constant irritation with myself at a deeper level, leads me to endless speculations. And since our names grant us an invisible dowry of things without asking, perhaps they really do link us to a certain history and geography.
The name is slightly outdated for my generation, I confess. (Did my maternal grandmother have any influence?) I wonder if mother ever implied a connection to my character. Did she secretly seal me with some ideal or whim she wanted me to fulfil? Was it a nostalgic yearning for a more rural flavour – a sort of a premature disillusion with the urban realities that were to define our lives since my birth? Or was she simply inspired by what she saw each morning? She opened her window to a liana of star studded jasmine I vaguely remember from my childhood garden before it was sold off in blocks to the Premium Real Estates & Co.
Aaargh! I cannot even describe jasmine without sounding mundane!
My father wanted me named after an obscure Hindu goddess allegedly noted for her virtuosity. Though had he gotten his way, I would now be wondering what he implied!
Naming a child must be a delicate affair. You are always in danger of connoting your own inklings into it. And there’s the risk of irony. A song I heard as a child mocks a beggar in the street, though his name ought to have put him on a throne, were names to have any influence on one’s destiny: Uncle Lucky who turned unlucky. Miss Fortune who spelt misfortune.
Besides, there comes a moment in a person’s life when he ponders why he is named what he is, and what it has to do with what he really is. Knowing that, why did my mother name me Samanmali?
Not only was it out of date, it was out of context, out of mode. It made me feel like Tikiriliya we sang about in the nursery; the clownish village lass bitten by a water snake. It is a rhyme you act as you sing, walking with an exaggerated sway of hips, one arm cupping the invisible water pot, the other adding the supposedly feminine lilt to the stride, on your way to the water hole. Once bitten, you jump up and down, clutching a foot and everyone end up laughing, except me. I stand convinced they are chuckling at me, embarrassed to be my feminine self. My childish ego, the smashed pot, fortunately invisible.
No wonder I grudged my name as a child. Amongst friends who were called Achini, Dinithi, Shihara, Natasha, my name sounded ridiculously plain.
“Shihara! Oh, what does it mean” one would ask. I never got that chance to explain my name; to add that personal detail that would spark a stranger. A name is your first chance to impress.
Oh, but what’s in a name – the age old question. What if I was named Rose? (A Rose by Any Other Name...) But there’s no way I could be named Rose. The age of Roses was gone. Besides it is not a local flower. Not quite. And a rose is not always white. The colonizers were gone, and their names, with them, but their obsessions, perhaps, did not pack their bags so soon, like a flock of late tourists out of season, whose presence was a lurid insult to one’s privacy.
My great grandmother was, indeed, Rose Isabella. I know her by the sepia photograph that survived the silverfish of tropical history. She looks exactly like what ancestors are supposed to look: rigidly dressed and veiled and married, a dark woman, her discomfited smile lost in the white frills. I have no way of knowing the details of her life. If Tikiri mortified me, Rose frightened me.
As I shot like a lean aricunut tree into youth I tried to disentangle Samanmali from coquettish Tikiriliya and florid Rose. I cut my hair. Walked with a swagger. Shunned flowery cheetta dresses. Boycotted wearing white even to the temple. The white school uniform I permitted, since it was shared by all girls and boys of my age. When I bathed I rubbed myself raw as if to remove the scent of jasmine from my body. And kept away from talcum and perfumes. My father came home in the evenings and pretended not to notice, burying himself under newspapers and books. Clearly, I was too plain to be his exotic goddess. My mother tried to conform me to the propriety of girlhood, but I refused to be her flower. Fortunately, our country believes, among other things, that teenagers are best left to themselves. So I was spared, to lead a lone existence.
At school, my friends blossomed into youth. The ‘big girls’ sat separately, a sudden decorum marking the ritual elevation from the lesser state of childhood to femininity. The others waited eagerly to share the secret of sisterhood. The big girls invented small ways to exclude others. I noticed how they would adjust the pleats of the uniform before sitting. Or walk and talk modestly. Or subtly hint during a conversation that the other was still a child. It was strange to see a girl come to school after a long period of absence – some disappeared for months – completely transformed into a demure creature. I wondered what happened to her during that time to produce such a change. I wished I would never attain age.
I was lucky with that one, for a while. Perhaps my will had such an impact on biology that it actually postponed its natural growth. At sixteen I was still a child. The only one in my class, in fact. I was the last man standing.
Mother said it is bad luck to be late.
That was what I hated about her. That was what I hated about women. I despised what women deemed themselves to be. I despised the fact that mother wanted me to be a Samanmali.
Perhaps, it is difficult to know at that age that it is better to be named than to be nameless. It demands that you leave those who named you, to stop fighting with their dreams.
So I take the beaten path to the other side; to the so called centre of the world, as those before me have done in search of themselves. As an impoverished student in a small European town, I find myself for the first time in the main square, just disembarking the train, a strange sense of coming home; a place of my own, free from the burden of my name and history. Brown and anonymous, I sit among the geranium and tulip, the willow leaning like a wise old man in the summer tide, casually welcoming.
In this small university town, I trade innocence for experience; loneliness for solitude. Stepping out into the mass of the nameless, mixing in to the flow of steps over the cobblestone, I search for a job, in a town in which the biggest business is the university, with twenty thousand students searching for work to keep themselves alive.
At McDonalds I worked in minutes (one minute to wrap the burger and two minutes for the French fries) and was paid by the hour. The saturation point came swiftly and surely like an income tax sheet to a middle class professional. A queue of foreign students was waiting to step into my shoes the moment I stepped out.
I worked in various places after that. Bars, clothing shops, dry cleaners and even flower stalls (despite my anathema for flowers). I met people of all sorts too, friends, lovers, useful social contacts. But none of them added to existence or memory. Perhaps it is something about the age in to which I was born – not much about the world and its people could impress me. As if the constant dissatisfaction with myself was projected onto the world outside me, and I wore it like a second skin with a mirror effect, rather pale and sad under a temperate sun.
Until one day, in a lean period out of work with winter approaching, I came a across an advertisement for a nude model for the School of Art and Architecture; three hundred crowns and hour.
Out of all the jobs, I found it the easiest and the hardest, and the most meditative. I found a certain comfort in standing naked in front of a class of twelve, knowing that they see you – see you for who you are – and yet not see you. When you stand, counting to ten and changing poses, you know they see you from every angle. They see every bit of you. I know they notice all the different shades of my brownness, and yet are so casual about it. If I look hard enough I can see myself in the green, grey, blue eyes of those who are placed closest to me. As I stand I see them as men and women, I also see them as white, intensely aware about my brownness. When they look at me I try to sense what they are trying to see in me. Then, I also see them as artists: the way they measure my body to the proportion of their pencils; the keenness, appreciation and dispassion in their eyes; the way they step back and look at their work after two hours of concentration and fall in love with it, yet not with me. There was a sort of madness in them that healed me.
In the breaks, wrapped in a towel or a robe I walk around, curious to see what they have drawn. The sketches would be distinctly me, yet each alarmingly different to the other. I was grateful to the fact that they could draw me, and not name me.
‘I love your shoulder, this angle of your neck’ someone would say to me, looking at his canvas.
After each session, they would take me out for a pizza. We would sit sipping beer, talking frivolously. Someone would pass me a book he promised to bring me, urging me to read. Another would ask me about home and family. They came to see me when I fell sick, bringing me flowers. Yet, they never asked me to their parties. Or to their homes. With their brush strokes they defined the contours of my existence in their canvas, what I could be and could not be, where I belonged and did not belong. And it was there, like a statement from a president, for you to live with if you accept it, or struggle with if you reject.
With this group of twelve artists, I finally felt engaged. There was space for the sort of dialogue one would consider insane in other circumstances. There was a give and take of small things. They acknowledged that I am brown, that I don’t have perfect limbs; that I am a bit on the chubby side, but their favourite model. Moreover, I think I came to accept that I am who I am, a woman. A subject. An object.
At times, as I pose for a detailed painting, long sessions that test human patience, I think about home. I remember how utterly relieved my mother was when I attained age; the first blood came in sweet sixteen, a late flowering. I was to remain inside my room for eighteen days, till the auspicious time came for the ritual bath of purification. All I recall is the darkness of that room, its doors and windows closed; the sour metal smell of the menstrual flow slowly forming the invisible shackles I would walk in from now on; I had lain there like a bit of decaying flesh, struggling with the paradox of purity and impurity. My failure to remain non-woman, sort of doomed me to a second class existence in the world from then on. My mother’s sparing sermon on womanhood and propriety only provided questions to my questions.
The water was filled to a big tub with jasmine floating, when the time came. It was an early morning, somewhat chilly for the season, if I remember right.
Every time something I fear sends a shiver down my spine I recall that first pot of water over my head.
I was asked to break the new water pot, after the ritual bathing. I crashed it on a jasmine strewn floor, and thought about Tikiriliya and her water snake.
Somehow, I cannot agree that I became a woman then; or even when I first made love to a man. The awkwardness of our bodies remained with the awkwardness of the act. The moment came much later I think, in one of those sessions posing for the art students, the sudden acceptance of breasts, limbs, thighs, hip, the hair grown long due to not being able to afford a haircut, as parts of me. And the brown.
I am unable to decide yet, whether this acceptance makes life easier or harder for me as I go about my daily chores. At times this little enlightenment seems like a passing sensation. I am still Samanmali. And I still wear it like an ill-fitting dress.
Only now, there seems to be something in me that I want to share; a little space for give-and-take, for anyone who does not fear being outside the parameters of normalcy.
This is why I halt in the middle of the road for a moment, at lurid catcalls we often receive every now and then, wondering if there is that space.
But what I find in their eyes always makes me walk away.