I’m already scared to leave.
I kissed myself along the shoulder
and down to my fingertips this morning
because you were too far away to reach -
and I’m not even gone yet.
I am so much older than I used to be,
and I think it is a good thing
except now I am scared to die
because I am probably closer to it.
I am more scared that you will go first.
‘Go’. Go first.
Like a gentle sailboat tied to the shore,
and you are just practising
and I am watching and smiling and waving from dry land.
You are just practising, and I am pressing down,
covering the wide smile you love so much with white knuckles.
I’m not gone yet. You aren’t gone yet.
You are just practising. I am not scared.
Except I am scared, and you are tearing down a mountain
and I am with you every crashing step of the way
until I’m not anymore
and when I’m not it’s only because I’m gone.
I am not scared.
Don’t let people pronounce your name wrong -
don’t let them see you walking home.
Don’t let them see your mother in the playground,
smelling of spices.
Bite your lip when you see a white woman in the street
wearing a shalwar kameez.
‘I’m on the way to a wedding,’ she drawls.
‘A friend got me this s-…this thing. Isn’t it pretty?’
I don’t know, lady. Tell me,
how much do you care about the merchants
who jumped to their feet and dove
through reams of fabric
to find the right one? Are you
trying to tell me that I shouldn’t be angry that
you’re wearing a garment I can’t wear
without eye rolls and insults and, ‘fucking
back to India,
go back to where you came from.’
I was born here, and I’ve earned my place here.
More so than you. I’ve had to work for it.
I’ve had to know my shit countless times,
be able to list off members of the government
on both hands,
talk this way, eat this way -
my parents stopped sending me to school with rice so early
because the other kids couldn’t fathom
lunches that weren’t sandwiches.
Can you even pronounce ‘shalwar kameez’?
Let me hear it, I’m not convinced.
I don’t know, my teacher had to ask me
how to say my name
three times this morning -
and each time I said it she would repeat it
slowly, squinting, as though it were made
from a different alphabet.
So I guess you could say I’m a sceptic.
Wait. Is that a bindi on your forehead?
Where’s your temple?
More importantly, where were you yesterday
when my Religious Education teacher was telling me
how the whites helped educate the poor little Indians
and that 1947 was a bad year for ‘us’?
My country’s independence was the Empire’s downfall,
and the Empire gave us nothing but pain.
My grandparents were driven off the border of Pakistan
and forced into poverty, and here was a person
trying to tell me that the colonies that terrorised my family away,
away from their homes and their cities and their loves,
did a good thing.
Where were you then?
I see the henna on your hands,
and I am here to say that my culture is not
a trend for you to love this season
and throw away -
is not your excuse to be ‘exotic’.
You are not welcome to pick and choose
the attractive parts of being me.
Take my mother’s bindi spot, take the unwanted
advances of old white men that come along with it -
they think we should be honoured to be hit upon by
a white man.
Take the henna off my hands, and take the sweat and blood
of Indian workers trying to make an honest day’s work
charging fifty rupees in the street to ice patterns on flesh.
Take my sari, take my shalwar, take my lengha
and take the low self esteem that growing up
in a white society has given me.
take it all.
Wake up angry, rub the wrinkles around your eyes. They don’t go away. You’re angry. You’ve been waking up angry for years now. It shows.
There are scratches on your skin where you can’t stand yourself. You brandish them to the world. ‘This is what you have made me.’ This is what the world made you - strong and wild-eyed and built on insecure foundations. This is what the world made you - angry and determined.
You glare at men irately in the street and take up both armrests on public transport. People side-eye you as though you’re unreasonable. A woman sits next to you. She looks tired. You let her have her fair share of the armrest.
Someone opens the door for you on the way to work. You say thank you. They slap your ass as you pass by. You have never wished so vehemently that you could take your words and wrap them around someone’s throat and twist and see their eyes bulge in fright. In your head, they echo what you’re sure you’ve heard leave the mouth of half the female protagonists you’ve ever seen on screen. ‘What are you going to do to me?’
So, you admit it. ‘Do to me.’ I am going to do something to you. You aren’t going to want it. I’m laughing at you, not with you. This is to you, not with you, and certainly not for you. Remember that.
You stop choking them; they fall to the floor. You aren’t sure whether they’re trying to catch their breath because you used force against them or because you stood up for yourself and it actually scared them. Blink: in reality, there was a split second where you decided whether to turn around and say something or to keep walking. You were unsure which would give them power and which would set them straight. They are still staring at your ass as you walk away. You are sure that both of your options would have empowered them, so you may as well have given them a bruise. But you are already gone.
You’ve been waking up angry since you were ten and you saw someone on the news mention women’s rights. What was ‘feminism’, and why did his lip curl when he said it? you wondered, and you searched, and you found red.
You found rape statistics, classroom statistics, boys-are-more-confident-than-girls statistics, why all men want their girlfriends to do anal, why you should please him, mothers taking their daughters to self defence classes, MRA speeches, pro-life opinions, the condescending and harmful thoughts of men before you in chalk on a Google search and the sudden knowledge that it would never hurt a single one of them.
That stranger who commented on Beyoncé’s picture saying exactly what he’d like to do to her will get hired straight out of college. Slack-jawed teachers will jokingly berate their students, preaching ‘boys will be boys’, before frowning pointedly at bare shoulders and skirts above the knee and ‘shouldn’t have risen to the bait’.
When you were ten, you found red, and you’ve never given up red since. Red in your mouth, red in your veins, red in your underwear. Red. Red on your fingernails, red on your lips. You put away nurturing pink and calm blue for another day. Today you wear red.
I didn’t think that I would grow so much before I started to end up where I am, but here I am and there you are (and you are so far away).
I didn’t think I would be so tired.
Here is exhausting, and it’s not my fault. It’s no one’s fault.
It’s tiring not to know the streets I’m walking, and I’m terrified whenever someone confuses me with somebody who knows where they are and asks for directions.
I never thought I’d grow into a place and now I’m scared to be away from home. I didn’t ask to be damp around the edges, the worn dishcloth you throw into the back of the cupboard to dry.
I am warm and I am soft and I am going to fray to the core if I don’t inch my way back to the spot on the shelf where I belong.
Your feelings are so valid,
even though you are so much bigger than they are.
A wasp has a tiny sting,
but you still recoil when you see one on your windowsill.
I am going to fly nowhere, I have nowhere to go,
I complained to you this morning as I thought about coming back -
back to my parents’ house, where I sleep in a room full of belongings
I haven’t deigned to organise because I’ll only move them out again;
back to a hotel room where I live out of a suitcase and sleep
under clean sheets every night. I can see them turn
over the mattress in my mind.
The element of permanence - a place to unload my junk
where I don’t think it’ll disappear,
maybe even settle down and eat cereal with my left hand
and paint with my right -
wavers beneath my fingertips
and I am tired, and I am tired, and I am tired.
I am tired of being a guest -
tired of waking up with my clothes strewn across the room because the wardrobes are filled with someone else’s.
Tired of going to sleep knowing I’ll have to wake up and leave and not come back.
Tired of breaking things that aren’t mine, and tired of deferring to someone’s mother with my tail between my legs.
Somewhere to call my own is a place I must search for:
endlessly asking questions. All I want is a bed and a functional shower,
I tell myself.
All I want is this. All I want is a wardrobe and a place to put my paint.
All I want is this.
And then you remind me, because I have so clearly forgotten:
‘You have me to go to.’
All I want is this.